A Rocky Russia-India Defense Union
Image Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

A Rocky Russia-India Defense Union


With India replacing China as the world’s leading arms importer, Russian defense companies are increasingly counting on additional weapons sales to India to compensate for the precipitous decline in exports to China.

Until now, Soviet and Russian suppliers have provided about two-thirds of India’s military imports. Yet although Russia should remain India’s largest defense partner for at least the next several years given that the two countries have already signed billions of dollars’ worth of future arms deals, growing competition from Western companies and the increasing sophistication of India’s indigenous defense industry could lead New Delhi to buy fewer Russian weapons.

The Indian government has for years been seeking to increase the capacity of its defense firms to manufacture more sophisticated products on their own. As part of this process, Indian officials have successfully required Russian and other foreign firms to rely less on the sale of complete turn-key systems and instead consent to engage in the joint research, development, and manufacture of new defense technologies and systems. Indian negotiators often require that new contracts stipulate a significant transfer of defense technologies, and they also regularly insist that foreign governments agree to allow Indian firms to have a role in producing (under license), maintaining, and repairing the weapons.

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One of the most prominent Russian-era Indian defense deals occurred in 1998, when the two countries established the Russian-Indian joint venture BrahMos Aerospace to co-develop and produce supersonic tactical cruise missiles. The BrahMos missiles incorporate advanced Russian technologies, which Moscow hasn’t made available to China or any other country, but are built in India. In June 2007, Indian ground forces began deploying BrahMos-1 missiles on a Tatra truck chassis. BrahMos Aerospace, meanwhile, is currently testing a naval variant, the BrahMos-2. Air- and submarine-launched versions of the missile are also currently under development.

But the two governments have in recent years reached other important arms deals, and have established a joint venture to research and develop a medium-lift transport aircraft for both their air forces. HAL and Russia’s United Aircraft Cooperation (UAC), a state holding company for Russia’s military and civilian aircraft producers that includes the Sukhoi and MiG corporations, will both invest $300 million in the joint effort to create a plane that can carry 18.5 tons of cargo up to 2,500 kilometers. They aim to manufacture their first all-weather medium transport prototype by 2017. The Russian Air Force intends to buy as many as 100 of the new planes to replace its Il-214. The Indian Air Force, for its part, expects to purchase at least 35 of the new aircraft, which will replace India’s aging fleet of AN-32 planes, which Russia is upgrading under a separate contract worth almost $400 million.

Yet despite such co-operation, the Russian-Indian arms relationship has experienced recurring problems, especially Indian criticism regarding the inferior quality of some imported Russian weapons. The most notorious bilateral defense snafu involved the Russia-Indian deal to renovate the Soviet-era Admiral Gorshkov and transfer it to the Indian Navy. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this former Soviet aircraft carrier, built in 1978, was berthed at the Sevmash shipyard in northern Russia while Russian officials debated what to do with the ship. The impoverished Russian government didn’t have sufficient funds to repair and upgrade the vessel.

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