By Staff Correspondent
Indian defence procurement strategy, a diversified approach attempting to shift away from a long-standing reliance on Russian arms, has seen a significant shift towards American weaponry, policy insiders and defence analysts have noted. However, despite this move, evidence suggests that India is far from being ready to wean itself off Russian arms, an occurrence that would represent a seismic shift in the global arms trade.
India, the world’s leading arms importer, has recently been flexing its procurement muscle. Its approach now involves attaching conditions of joint production and technology transfer to nearly all major arms deals, irrespective of the supplying nation. This move reflects India’s strategic shift towards strengthening its domestic defence industry.
Defence officials have disclosed that the protracted conflict in Ukraine involving Russia has inadvertently impacted the military supply chain to India. This event has, however, fed New Delhi’s long-term ambition to diversify its arms imports and shift focus towards domestically produced equipment.
India has invested an astounding $60 billion in arms acquisition in the last twenty years. A whopping 65% of this total expenditure, equating to $39 billion, has been allocated for Russian arms, according to data revealed by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Signifying a strategic shift towards strengthening its domestic arms sector, India’s Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, has unveiled a plan to engage domestic manufacturers for producing weaponry worth over $100 billion in the upcoming decade.
A high-ranking Indian defence official, who preferred to stay anonymous, confirmed the pressing need to reduce reliance on Russian military equipment. Still, they stressed that the immediate focus remains on slashing imports and stimulating domestic arms production.
During a recent trip to Washington by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India committed to hefty purchases of US defence hardware. This includes a billion-dollar deal for GE fighter jet engines and ongoing negotiations for a potentially $3 billion SeaGuardian drones deal.
In keeping with India’s aspiration for defence self-sufficiency and Modi’s “Make in India” campaign, the jet engine deal involves plans for future co-production. Furthermore, the assembly and maintenance operations for the SeaGuardian drones are expected to be set up in India.
US ambassador to India, Eric Garcetti, confirmed that the US is making concerted efforts to improve India’s access to military technologies. This signals a move beyond mere assurances to concrete actions, with the US sharing more with India than with some of its closest allies.
Despite these developments, the road to weaning India off Russian arms remains an uphill task. This is mainly due to strict US regulations on military technology sharing, which serve to limit future prospects.
The reality of technology transfer, according to an anonymous high-ranking official in India’s defence ministry, is that no nation offers unrestricted access. A metaphorical ‘screwdriver’s distance’ remains, underscoring the challenge of achieving complete access.
Arzan Tarapore, a research scholar at Stanford University focusing on Indian defence policy and military strategy, observed that the deals initiated during Modi’s visit do not denote a deviation from Russia. He noted that a substantial transition away from Russia if it were to happen, would likely be a protracted process spanning several decades.
India continues to rely heavily on Russian technology for its conventional arms, Tarapore pointed out. He suggested that the most promising opportunities for US-India collaboration could lie in developing systems outside India’s current arsenal.
India’s primary goal is to bridge the technology gap with its well-armed neighbour, China. The latter maintains a close alliance with Pakistan, India’s long-standing adversary.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has strained Russia’s ability to supply arms and equipment to India. Air Marshal Anil Chopra (r), the Director General of the Centre of Airpower Studies (CAPS), wrote in an earlier article for IADB in May 2022 that reports from India’s air force submitted to a parliamentary panel have revealed delays in delivering spare parts for its Sukhoi Su-30 MKI and MiG-29 jets.
The DG CAPS had highlighted at the time that the delivery of the remaining two out of five Russian S-400 air defence systems, which India purchased for almost $5.5 billion in 2018, has also been postponed. Moreover, defence officials have indicated potential delays in delivering two nuclear-powered attack submarines from Russia.
These obstacles reinforce India’s determination to reduce its dependence on Russian arms. However, there is growing consensus that India must refrain from over-reliance on any single nation for its armaments.
As India diversifies its arms purchases, acquiring French fighter jets, Israeli drones, American jet engines, and potentially German submarines, the share of Russian military technology in its arsenal is set to decrease over the next two decades, according to Indian officials.
Bill Greenwalt, a former Pentagon official for industrial policy, highlighted the impending decline of US and Russian dominance over global defence markets and technology. He also expressed concerns about India potentially becoming frustrated by the stringent US export control regime for arms, which could hamper technology sharing and system development.
Greenwalt anticipates that India may seek to collaborate with Western nations that offer technology transfers with minimal usage restrictions. However, he cautioned that India will have to contend with the stringent US International Trafficking in Arms (ITAR) regulations.
Even as India looks to diversify its defence procurement, its close ties with Russia complicate the picture. Derek Grossman, a noted defence analyst at the Rand Corporation, warned that the US would remain wary of the military hardware and technology it shares with India. Even as India gradually transitions away from Moscow, the US will continue to question how its systems might be used and whether they could inadvertently benefit the Russians due to the deep ties between India and Russia.
However, Grossman believes India will exploit this situation and accept US offers but is unlikely to sever its Russian ties completely.
Amid these dynamics, India’s membership in the QUAD alliance with the US, Japan, and Australia underscores its intent to solidify Western ties. Yet, it does not replace the need to maintain its historical relationship with Russia, a point Grossman emphasised.
Despite the complexities of this situation, India’s long-term strategy aims to achieve self-sufficiency in defence technology, allowing it to respond more effectively to regional security challenges and reduce its dependence on foreign suppliers. This shift towards domestic manufacturing could not only reshape India’s strategic relationships but also potentially redefine the global defence industry landscape.