India’s Diminishing Purchases of Russian Military Systems: An Analogy for the Overall Relationship
India recently announced that it was withdrawing from the joint development project with Russia of a fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra informed a Russian ministerial delegation meeting towards the end of February that India would withdraw its support from the project and make a decision at a later date as to whether it would re-join the project or purchase the developed aircraft outright once it had been made operational.
The decision to withdraw from the project is not surprising but it is emblematic of the overall relationship, which has been deteriorating for some time now.
The project to co-develop a modern fighter aircraft was made around a decade ago amid a good deal of fanfare. India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which currently manufactures the country’s frontline Sukhoi 30MKI aircraft under licence, was to partner with Russia’s Sukhoi to develop the fighter, first called the Perspektivny Aviatsionny Kompleks Frontovoy Aviatsii, (“Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation” or PAK-FA) and, later, the Sukhoi 57. India wanted Sukhoi to modify the proposed aircraft so as to make it more “stealthy” to radar, i.e. to reduce its radar signature, enable it to cruise at supersonic speed, carry a cutting-edge radar system on board, allow it to link electronically with other battlefield systems á la the Lockheed-Martin F-35 and to have more powerful engines than the ones currently used. HAL and Sukhoi entered into a US$8.6 billion agreement to incorporate around fifty modifications to Sukhoi’s initial design. A major part of this sum was earmarked, according to Indian defence officials, for the manufacture of 127 of the revised aircraft by HAL, for four prototypes for Indian test pilots to fly and for developing some of the aircraft’s avionics by Indian firms.
The venture encountered repeated delays and setbacks including a complaint by India that it did not have a fair proportion of the development of the aircraft, which endangered its need to develop its own design and manufacturing abilities, and that the aircraft in its prototypical form did not satisfy its criteria, let alone requirements. Its radar signature was less than optimal and the new engines faced seemingly insurmountable problems. The setbacks proved too difficult to handle and India made the decision to withdraw from the project.
The entire venture and its outcome is emblematic of the bilateral relationship. India’s relationship with the then Soviet Union was one that was born out of necessity. In the wake of its loss to China in the border war of 1962 and, fearing a future repeat of the perceived arm-twisting inherent in John F. Kennedy’s demand for New Delhi to cede at least a part of Kashmir to Pakistan in return for weapons to fight the Chinese, New Delhi turned to Moscow. The Soviet Union and its successor, Russia, have since then supplied the major part of India’s defence requirements.
India’s situation has changed since those days. It is now a rapidly-developing country with a matching economy and a military that desperately needs to be brought into the twenty-first century. The Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) was meant to enable India to showcase its economic and technical development as well as to enable the Indian Air Force to fight a modern battle with the most modern on-board tools, such as real-time networks. Russia’s inability to provide those tools and its inability to provide quality spare parts for India’s Sukhoi 30MKI aircraft on time, leading to an availability rate once measured at fifty per cent of its entire Sukhoi 30 fleet, led New Delhi to look elsewhere for its fighter aircraft. That did not sit well with Russia, which saw India as its largest customer. It was most visible when the Russian MiG aircraft that were offered as India’s medium-role fighters were eliminated in a bidding process, which itself failed eventually.
New Delhi, in the meantime, became increasingly aligned with the United States, a process that sped up under the current BJP government of Narendra Modi. Modi was treated deferentially by the Obama Administration and that relationship has continued under the current one, albeit that the sense of insecurity that this Administration engenders in friends and foes alike is also felt by New Delhi. India is courted by the United States, nevertheless, and is growing closer to Washington. Major U. defence contractors, such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, have agreed to transfer their entire production lines for specific aircraft to India, making any Russian offering pale in comparison. While India has not specifically requested to purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft, it was reported recently that India has sought a confidential briefing on the aircraft from the manufacturer.
One outcome of these developments has been Russia’s decision to sell aircraft and advanced missile defence systems to China and attack helicopters to Pakistan. That could pressure India towards returning to the Russian fold or, equally likely, force India to turn even further towards Washington.
India sees itself as a developing country and has ambitions of becoming a major power. To return to Russia under pressure would tacitly diminish its standing in the perception of its neighbours and the international community. Washington remains an untested partner, however, and, given the insecurity felt in New Delhi about the current administration there, would not necessarily be a trustworthy one in times of need. India requires a steadfast ally, such as Russia was, but one that can fulfil its technical requirements, like the US can. Prime Minister Modi will require all of his negotiating skills to amalgamate those requirements until such time as India feels it can withstand any assault by itself.
Source:- Future Directions