India’s ASEAN Defense Sales Effort

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India’s ASEAN Defense Sales Effort

India is stepping up its defense sales presence in Southeast Asia, an outgrowth of its Look East policy.

India’s ASEAN Defense Sales Effort

Indian naval dockyards

Credit: REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

In late October, India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and its domestic industrial partners exhibited a range of military wares abroad, with a dedicated pavilion for the first time at ADEX-2013 in Seoul. Taken together with reported sales of indigenously developed sonar systems to neighbouring Myanmar and talks with the Philippines about the prospect of supplying two naval frigates, it seems that India is now keen to move beyond mere maintenance and training support to a limited number of ASEAN members.

Naturally current and near future sales are likely to be focused on areas where individual ASEAN states seek specific capabilities that India’s domestic industry can supply. The China factor in the background may meanwhile lend something of a maritime edge to these transfers. India’s defence supply relationship with various ASEAN states will unfold on a realistic bilateral basis rather than through any overarching India-ASEAN framework. However, while sensors and munitions can be more readily supplied, major platforms that require sub-systems potentially sourced from other players will create the need for India to co-ordinate closely with the United States and Russia and build a case for its entry into various export control regimes.

While the venue for DRDO’s first serious show-and-tell abroad was chosen to signal emerging ties between India and South Korea (which incidentally is also pushing for military sales in Southeast Asia) it also marked an intent to upgrade the defence outreach component of India’s “Look East Policy.” As Avinash Chander, Scientific Advisor to India’s Defence Minister & Secretary Defence R&D, Ministry of Defence (MOD) put it on the sidelines of ADEX-2013: “Our presence at Seoul is an opportunity for building technology partnerships for R&D and manufacturing, and for creating export potential. Indian systems and defence manufacturing capability have matured. We want to project not just the DRDO, but all of India’s emerging defence capabilities.”

Now some of the more mature systems on display at Seoul are export variants of sensors already in use by the Indian military. An example would include a compact version of DRDO’s hull-mounted sonar (HUMSA) suitable for mounting on small frigates, corvettes and offshore patrol vessels (OPVs). Incidentally it has been reported that this is a variant of the HUMSA being exported to Myanmar’s Navy, which is recapitalizing its fleet with new OPVs and modest sized frigates. The sonars are also part of a larger pipeline of naval sensors being supplied to Myanmar, which has in the past included BEL-built RAWL-02 Mk III L-band 2D search radars and commercial grade navigation radars that are being sported by Myanmar’s new line of Aung Zeya Class frigates armed with a mix of Russian and Chinese weaponry. The primary strike armament of the Aung Zeya class is, however, the Russian Kh-35 Uran anti-ship missile.

The significance of the Indian sales emerges from the fact that Myanmar is now engaged in a competitive naval buildup with Bangladesh, particularly since the maritime standoff between their navies in 2008, which did not portray Myanmarese naval capabilities in a particularly good light. It brought home to the Myanmarese side the need to augment their surface fleet with larger ships equivalent to those the Bangladeshi navy fields. The 2008 standoff was ultimately defused through an intervention by China, which is still the chief supplier of naval equipment to both navies. But since then Myanmar has been keen to diversify foreign support for its naval buildup even as Bangladesh’s navy is actually increasing its dependence on China. Myanmar’s navy may be particularly concerned about Bangladeshi aims to source submarines from China as the former is known to be rather weak in anti-submarine warfare and sonar sales by India also assume significance in this light.

During his July visit to India, Myanmar Navy’s Commander-in-Chief Vice Admiral Thura Thet Swe made a direct request for Indian assistance in OPV’s, supply of naval sensors and other military equipment to build force levels that had been severely depleted by Cyclone Nargis. It is clear that Yangon wishes to have a naval fleet and sensor equipment somewhat different from the growing Chinese-origin Bangladeshi fleet. Importantly, Swe’s visit was preceded by the first ever India-Myanmar bilateral naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal. The exercise included, among other things, patrols near Myanmar’s Coco Islands, which for a long time was suspected by the Indian side to harbour a Chinese SIGINT facility.

At the other geographic end of ASEAN, the Philippines is another nation drawing closer to India in the military domain. In a visit that signaled an uptick in bilateral engagement, India’s foreign minister Salman Khurshid is reported to have discussed the possibility of supplying two frigates to the Philippines Navy with his counterpart during his late October visit to Manila. This issue will be discussed further during the second meeting of the Philippines-India Joint Defence Cooperation Committee (JDCC) in New Delhi, likely to take place in the near future.

Philippines’ need for naval modernization is perhaps more acute than that of Myanmar since the China factor creates a direct need for augmenting naval surface warfare capabilities in order to protect disputed island territories. Port calls and transit exercises by the Indian Navy over the years have given the Philippine Navy a good opportunity to take a look at Indian-built warships and this has contributed to the evinced interest.

Nevertheless, the request for information issued by the Philippines for these two frigates specifies its armament to include just 50 km ranged subsonic anti-ship cruise missiles and very short-range (around 6 km) surface to air missiles (SAM). At the moment, India’s domestic industry does not build either an indigenously developed subsonic anti-ship missile or an indigenously developed very short-range SAM. Therefore any prospective sale of frigates by India to Philippines will require it to cooperate with third-party players that already have an existing relationship with India, given that India is still out of U.S.-led export control regimes. Israel naturally comes to mind, given the nature of Manila’s requirements.

The Philippine tender for these frigates also specifies a build time of 1460 days, or 48 months, and only shipyards that have completed such projects in the past 10 years are eligible to bid. The latter requirement means that one of India’s public shipyards will have to bid for this tender. Although the non-armament specifications of the Philippine Navy requirement fall well within the capabilities of emerging Indian private shipyards, none of them have really completed a project such as this in the last 10 years. Indian success in this tender means that the Philippine Navy will have to be satisfied that its ships can indeed be delivered within the stipulated 48 months by one of India’s public shipyards, which are presently fully booked. Of course it must be said that some of them have recently completed expansion programmes and some have also tied up with private shipyards possessing spare capacity. In any event, the nature of the Indian bid for this contract will be interesting to see given that it will require not just domestic but third-party foreign collaboration.

Returning to the issue of ship-borne weapons, India could in the future offer the Brahmos cruise missile along with surface warships to ASEAN countries. However apart from the issue of getting the Russians onboard there will always be a question of cost. The Philippine Navy for instance, judging by its requirements, is looking for capability on the cheap and this is precisely the need that India is expected to fill in its defence engagement with countries in ASEAN wary of both China’s military might and its ability to arms countries in the vicinity.

Apart from absolute cost – which matters greatly for ASEAN states with modest budgets – India’s defence relationship with ASEAN members will also revolve around the terms of credit offered and the possibility of co-production and co-development. This will be especially important in the case of larger players in ASEAN such as Indonesia and Vietnam. Vietnam has already been offered a $100 million credit line for OPVs and is interested in the anti-ship variant of the Brahmos, as is reportedly Malaysia.

In the case of the Brahmos, it must be noted that India and Russia have failed to see eye to eye as far as its export potential is concerned. Russia’s reluctance on this front may also stem from the fact that it has been marketing overseas the Yakhont/Onyx missile, on whose airframe the Brahmos is based. Indeed, Russia in 2011 sold Bastion-P systems to Vietnam whose missile component is the Yakhont. On the other hand, prior reports of Prithvi surface to surface missile (SSM) sales to Vietnam have also come to nought, since India is not keen to supply non-MTCR compliant weapons abroad.

At ADEX-2013, however, DRDO’s pavilion prominently displayed the 60-170 km range Pragati “tactical” SSM derived from the Prahar SSM meant for the Indian Army’s artillery corps. This MTCR compliant missile and indigenous missile now on offer for export represents a major step up from simply orchestrating sales of OPVs and maritime sensors. It means that India is now looking to sell undeniably offensive systems that are not hamstrung by either foreign collaborative arrangements or export control regimes. In addition to the Pragati SSM, DRDO’s Astra air-to-air missile and the Akash medium-range SAM – in use with the Indian military – were also prominently featured at Seoul.

Recent developments show that India’s MOD, which has been accused of dragging its feet on the issue of adding a substantive military component to India’s Look East policy is now probably on board with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on this issue. The push factor obviously comes from the need to defray the cost of indigenous developments and to raise the profile of India’s growing military industrial complex. The MEA on its part sees these sales as a natural outgrowth of the Look East policy it has developed over the past two decades. Such sales also strengthen India’s case for membership of export control regimes such as the “Waasenaar Arrangement” which it has been seeking to enter for some time now. At the end of the day the future of India’s defence relationship with ASEAN states will depend more on how its manages to coordinate matters domestically and whether Indian industry is able to gets its act together on the timely delivery of weapons.

Saurav Jha is a commentator on energy and security.