While India should remain engaged with US, it should forge deeper defence ties with Russia
It is testing time for India’s security establishment. The US has offered its Patriot anti-missile system, while enormous possibilities have opened up with the success of India-Russia joint venture, the BrahMos cruise missile. A close look at the two deals speaks volumes about relations that the two countries desire with India. The US’ defence relationship with India is driven by its strategic and political compulsions. On the other hand, Russia’s defence relationship with India is strategically and politically cemented and is guided by commercial interests and its global obligations as a responsible power. This explains the presence of US ambassador in India, David Mulford and former US ambassador Thomas Pickering at the recent Aero-India in Bangalore. The US diplomats were at pains to explain how relations between the two countries have improved, and that progress on the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) was indeed good. At the show devoted to trade and commercial deals, talking politics was a bit odd. At the same show, the Russians were doing what they were supposed to do. Led by top executives from osoboronexport, the Russian spoke about the Military-Technical cooperation till 2010 between the two countries. Not a single Russian diplomat was in sight.
The US team was recently in India to demonstrate Patriot-2 system’ technical capabilities, and not to sell it. The Patriot-2 is much inferior to Patriot-3 in terms of the missile seeker, speed and target acquisition capabilities, and the US has made clear that the top-of-line system is not even available for demonstration. The reason why the US felt obliged to show its Patriot-2 is that as part of the NSSP, the Defence Research and Development Organisation has been pressing that they be also involved in ballistic missile defence talks, which at present are confined to the ministry of external affairs. It is little surprise that the moment news of Patriot-2 system coming to India became public, Pakistani establishment and analysts went in an overdrive, and declared a US sell-out of Pakistani security to India. Pakistan warned that selling Patriots to India would trigger an arms race, much in the same way as India has been pressing the US not to sell F-16s to Islamabad as it would jeopardise India’s security.
Considering that the US needs both India and Pakistan for different reasons, its diplomats have been doing the balancing act on what are serious national security issues for the two countries. As the world’s dominant power, the US will have the last say on all matters; hence, it serves India well to understand two things in its relations with the US: One, it needs to have a comprehensive relationship with the US, including a strategic engagement as otherwise it would be difficult for India to expand its area of interest to include Afghanistan, Central Asian Republics, Iraq and the Middle East. Moreover, bilateral defence services relations with the US are needed to ensure that the military threat from China is kept in check. And two, as correctly pointed out by defence minister, Pranab Mukerjee, India should be careful about buying defence equipment from the US even if there is a provision for Transfer of Technology (ToT). It is an open secret that no country will part with its technology acquired after years of research and finances spent. ToT simply means fabrication of parts.
The answer for India is well-exemplified by the BrahMos experience, the product of a joint venture between India and Russia. This project has immense future possibilities that could lead to strategic weapon systems acquisition by India. The good thing about India-Russia defence relations is that they do not generate media hype or hysteria inside and outside India. For example, unlike Patriot-2, Rosoboronexport had offered its S-300VM ballistic missile defence system to neutralise threats from medium and intermediate range ballistic missile for sale to India two years ago. There has been little curiosity in the media on this offer. Similarly, talks have been going on for leasing of Russian TU-22 aircraft and Akula nuclear-powered submarines to India. Top Rosoboronexport officials told me at Aero-India that these may not come about. Russia does not have leasing companies that have the organisation, experience and finances to buy these weapon platforms from the Russian manufacturers and lease them to India. In any case, the Soviet Union experience of leasing the Charlie-I nuclear powered submarine to India in the Eighties was not encouraging. The Indian military, says Russians, do not have a maintenance culture, which results in shortened life of weapon systems. Russians are apprehensive that a leased expensive weapon platform may need to be junked once it is returned by India. Russia, therefore, is keen that India buys the TU-22 and Akulas rather than seek a leasing arrangement. It is obvious that trade is uppermost on Russia’s mind when selling military wares. Fortunately, the Russian establishment under President Putin has said that while selling their weapons they will keep India’s security interests in mind. What he has not said, but Russian diplomats are at pains to hint is that Russia does not want bitter relations with the US. But if push came to shove, Russia may consider possibilities of assisting India even with restrictive technologies. Whether such things will come to pass is not so important. What is important is that Russia desires a real strategic partnership with India. A partnership that does not depend upon Russia’s other foreign policy and security interests. For India, this should be the crux of its relations with Russia.