The relationship between India and Russia has changed significantly since the end of the Cold War, but there’s one area in which ties have remained virtually unbroken – defence cooperation.
India, with a defence budget for the current year of Rs. 1.5 trillion ($32.5 billion), imports more than 70 percent of its arms, the vast majority of which come from Russia. It’s against this backdrop that Indian Navy Chief Adm. Nirmal Verma recently concluded a visit to Russia following an invitation from Adm. Vladimir Sergeivich Vysotskiy, commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy.
Verma’s visit was only the latest in a series of high-level meetings between top defence personnel and leaders from both countries, and followed a visit by Vysotskiy to India in January.
During his trip, Verma took in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, Kaliningrad and Severodvinsk, and engaged with numerous senior Russian officials including Deputy Defence Minister A. Antonov. Verma also visited design bureaus and shipyards engaged in constructing ships for the Indian Navy.
According to the Indian Navy, Verma ‘reviewed the progress of the Talwar Class follow-on warships, under construction at the Yantar shipyard, and was reassured that the first warship “Teg” would commence trials shortly and be delivered in six to eight months.’The new frigates in this class, namely ‘Teg,’ ‘Teer’ and ‘Trikand’ are follow-ons of the three Talwar Class warships built for India by Russia and brought into service in the early part of the last decade. With the new ships, the Russian-origin Klub missiles would be replaced by the indigenous BRAHMOS supersonic cruise missile system.
During his visit to the Sevmash Shipyard, where the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov is being retrofitted, Verma noted that ‘significant progress had been made on the Gorshkov project and the ship was shaping up well for the preliminary sea trials.’ A press release by the Indian Navy also noted that Verma ‘made a first-hand assessment of all projects,’ adding that ‘they were progressing satisfactorily and had reached critical stages of maturity.’ He also expressed satisfaction with the quality of construction and repairs, and told Russian media that the Russian Mig 29KUB fighter jet designed for the Gorshkov was sound, claiming that the recent accident involving the aircraft wouldn’t affect India’s arms orders with Russia.
But discussions went beyond just talk of hardware, reflecting the strategic importance that the two sides place on relations. For example, the two sides also discussed increasing cooperation in anti-piracy operations, and they agreed that the INDRA series of exercises still form an important aspect of the bilateral relationship and so should be continued and expanded.
This is an important assurance, coming as it did after the Russian Navy backed out of the exercise at the last minute. It has been speculated that the Russian withdrawal was its way of expressing displeasure at India ruling out the MiG-35 in the race for the multi-billion dollar medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) contract. But it’s important that Russia understand that India’s defence acquisition policy is guided by professional and not political considerations. This was firmly stated by Defence Minister A.K. Antony while addressing an international seminar on defence acquisition organized by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.
Speaking then, Antony argued India’s defence purchases aren’t propelled by political considerations, and assured the vendors that they will have a level playing field. He also said that up until the trial stage, the technical soundness of a product would determine whether a candidate would remain in the race, after which the issue of price would determine the ultimate selection.
With this in mind, it’s unfair to attribute political motives for the exclusion of the MiG-35 from the MMRCA deal, especially since India places such great value on its defence partnership with Russia. Moreover both countries place a high premium on the partnership, which they have developed through a sustained and committed effort over several decades. During the visit of President Dmitry Medvedev to India in December 2010, for example, it was decided to elevate the relationship to the level of a ‘Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership.’
It has been no mean feat for the two to continue with such close defence ties given the difficulties that India faced in obtaining spare parts and equipment in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Defence deals with Russia are built on the strong edifice of the Indian military’s familiarity with Russian equipment, the availability of cutting-edge technology, price competitiveness, and above all reliability of supply. This is the main reason for India financing the production of weapons in Russia at a time when the Russian arms industry had suffered severely as the Soviet Union crumbled.
However, despite the continued closeness, there are still some issues that risk undermining ties. For a start, there have been repeated delays in Russia implementing major weapons orders, including for the Gorshkov. Russia has also often raised costs mid-way through the execution of agreed upon commitments. In addition, roadblocks have emerged over the transfer of technology and the uninterrupted supply of defence spares.
But these issues are being tackled during the course of regular visits by officials of both countries, and Antony will also raise some of these points with his Russian counterpart when he visits Moscow in October for the 11th meeting of the India-Russia inter-governmental commission on military technical cooperation – the main institutional mechanism for defence cooperation.
With this in mind, and given the legacy of defence cooperation and ongoing projects, Russia will undoubtedly remain India’s major defence partner, for the foreseeable future at least. However, with increased competition for the Indian defence market, and with the increasing technological demands of India’s defence sector, joint development and production of new weapon systems is likely to become a crucial factor in sustaining Indo-Russian co-operation in the years to come.
Amit Kumar is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) in New Delhi. This is an edited and abridged version of an article that was originally published by the organization here.