By Bikram Vohra
The absence of the Russians at Farnborough will take much of the glamour out of the flying display. Without the Sukhoi 33 Cobra manoeuvre, it is a bit of unfinished business. But those are the sanctions and if Mr Putin doesn’t seem to care perhaps we can refrain from displaying disappointment about no Russian presence and no chalet to talk about the Sukhoi 75 Checkmate, a single-engine, stealth fighter aircraft under development by Sukhoi for export and for induction into the Russian Aerospace Forces.
Talking about induction and export underscores why these sanctions are a bit of a bother and inclined to backfire. Far too many armed forces are equipped with Russian hardware and software and in no position to take umbrage over the invasion of Ukraine. India is one such sterling example of having to keep its balance on the tightrope. With 70 percent of front-line armament bought from Russia, India has been so beholden to the Russian military complex for purchase and spare parts that we cannot go beyond making clicking conciliatory sounds that come off tiny when compared to NATO’s strident reaction.
Even at this moment, we are knocking on Moscow’s door to expedite the sale of the S 400 missile systems. The delivery of the second regiment of the S 400 Triumph has been delayed because of the Ukraine war and all five systems will be activated by 2025 rather than the stipulated 2023 date in the 2018 contract for the $5.3 billion transaction. The Triumph is considered a superior and yet less expensive air defence system than the Patriot. Even the much-vaunted U.S.-made Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence system that costs five times more is not as wide in its scope.
After the host country, we are arguably the largest users of Russian armour with a major frontline of T-90, T-72 tanks, and BMP-series infantry combat vehicles. Talwar class frigates are being built in Russia and the aircraft carrier the INS Vikramaditya is a modified Kiev class vessel augmenting our naval strength.
As for the air force our reliance on Sukhois and MiGs has been there ever since the British hand me downs of Hawker Hunters, Vampires and Canberras became obsolete in the sixties. To quote: India began to import weapons from Russia in the 1950s. The Ilyushin Il-14 cargo transport aircrafts were the first ones to be inducted into the Indian inventory, followed by the MiG-21 fighter aircraft. From 1962 onwards, there has been a steady increase in India’s import dependence on Russia.
We have 16 types of aircraft including most of our fighters, choppers, and transporters. The latest MiGs and Sukhois have been inducted and the Tupolevs are our major transporters. It is not just the aircraft but also the armament. The BrahMos is a joint venture between India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation and NPO Mashinostroyenia of Russia. According to a report in Defense News, the Congressional Research Service found that, from 2016 to 2020, India accounted for 23% of Russia’s total arms exports, while Russia provided 49% of Indian imports. That speaks for itself.
All this dependence these past six decades cannot be written off nor can India wean itself away entirely from this long-standing relationship that may have held India at ransom but also gave her the firepower to subdue her hostile neighbours. However, the war in Ukraine and some new thinking in the corridors of power in New Delhi to
widen the shopping options have been further strengthened by opening the doors to the privatesector and endorsing the Make in India conce
These initiatives are already taking shape. The first ship Sandhayak is being built by GRSE and other three ships are being constructed by Larsen & Toubro. Drone technology is leaping forward at an impressive rate. The 1-ton SWiFT platform is powered by a Russian NPO Saturn 36MT turbofan engine. (India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation) has already undergone successful trials and is formed from the core of the Ghatak series of drones.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh called the flight a major achievement toward autonomous aircraft that will pave the way for Aatmanirbhar Bharat. This is an economic initiative with the intent of making India less dependent on foreign technology when it comes to manufacturing and upgrading fourth and fifth-generation critical military systems.
Similarly, this government has also realised that it is no longer smart or pragmatic to stick to Russia and a diversification is necessary. This quote underscores the Indian mindset; India depends on Russia for nearly 60% of its defence equipment, and the war in Ukraine has added todoubts about future supplies. Defence Ministry officials say India, with the world’s second-largest army, fourth-largest air force and seventh-largest navy, cannot sustain itself through imports.
The west, especially the USA is torn between anguish and desire. Peeved over India’s perceived recalcitrance in supporting NATO against Russia, Washington has been less than complimentary. The Biden administration is also annoyed over the S 400 deal and has threatened sanctions. Nevertheless, it needs India, not just as a fellow democracy but also to keep China’s adventurism in check.
At the same time, they make these clucking sounds. The need to maintain a close relationship is an imperative. Lockheed Martin for example, are pushing hard for a deal on the F35 stealth fighters. According to one report, the effort by Biden to keep its foot in the Indian door is a proposed package under discussion, which might include up to $500 million in foreign military finance.
France and Britain are also opening shops to India on easier terms. As of July after assessing that Russia could look for a role in the BRICS camp and identify with it now that any tie-up with NATO is a non-starter the West is certain to sweeten the pot even further.
Bikram Vohra is the Consulting Editor at Indian Aerospace & Defence