From Setback to Opportunity

Russia-Ukraine conflict has implications for Indian Army’s war preparedness

Mandeep Singh retdCol Mandeep Singh (retd)

In 1961, Edward Lorenz, a meteorology professor at MIT, was working on a computer programme simulating weather patterns when a minor change in one of the variables resulted in the entire pattern being altered drastically. The unexpected result led Lorenz to conclude that small changes in nature can have large consequences; the idea coming to be known as the ‘butterfly effect’ after Lorenz suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado.

It is not known if a tornado ever started because of the flapping of a butterfly’s wings but small events even in distant places do have serious long-term consequences in faraway places. This has been experienced often in the past and one such event, though not small by any standards, is the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War that has serious implications for India and the Indian Army.

A major reason for the ongoing war impacting Indian Army is the huge dependence on arms and equipment from Russia. The extent of the dependence can be assessed by the fact that between 2018 and 2021, Rostec, one of Russia’s largest state-owned defence conglomerates, had contracted military deals worth USD15 billion with India. Though these were primarily for S-400 Triumf and four frigates for the Navy, the deals included the licence-production of 601,427 Kalashnikov Ak-203 assault rifles, launchers and missiles for the 9K338 Igla-S (SA-24 ‘Grinch’) man-portable air-defence systems, 300mm rockets for Smerch multiple rocket launchers, and 125mm Mango armour-piercing, fin-stabilised, discarding-sabot ammunition for T-90S main battle tanks.

The dependence on Russian weapons dates back to early 1960’s and is likely to continue in the near and middle terms as it also comes with mutual benefits to the two sides. New Delhi asserts influence on Moscow as it remains its largest client for military hardware and Moscow’s influence in India comes through its willingness to provide weapons systems and technologies that no other country will export to India. But this symbiotic relationship comes with attendant challenges also as it gives an undue leverage to one side (Russia) as India remains so overly dependent on Russia that its army can literally stop in its tracks without an assured supply of spares and components. It is not surprising that a report by the United States Congressional Research Service (CRS) stated that without the Russian origin equipment Indian Army cannot operate effectively.

The dependence on Russian hardware has had its challenges in the past also as the supply of spares and components were disrupted, adversely affecting operational readiness of key military weapons systems and equipment. As recently as 2020, defence minister Rajnath Singh during his visit to Moscow had pressed his Russian counterpart for air transportation of the spares and related equipment needed to maintain the minimum readiness levels.

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict had further aggravated the situation as spares supply and after-sales support for key Russian-origin equipment and platforms have been impacted. Capital procurement, including Very Short-Range Air Defence (VSHORAD) systems and Ka-226T utility helicopters are also likely to be stalled for now. The other projects that may be affected are the manufacture of anti-tank ammunition under Project Mango and the long-term upgrade of the licence-built BMP-2 infantry combat vehicles and T-90 tanks.


The Ukraine Angle

Besides the dependence on Russia, a related issue that also impacts Indian Army’s preparedness is the growing partnership between India and Ukraine. During Aero India 2021, India and Ukraine had signed four agreements including sale of new weapons as well as maintenance and upgrades of existing ones in service with the Indian armed forces. Some of the critical equipment that get their spares from Ukraine include the 130mm medium guns, spares for T-72 tanks as well as the T-90 tanks, the OSA-AK surface-to-air missile system, and Tunguska anti-aircraft weapon system.

With Russia likely to exercise its control over Ukraine after the war, all these agreements will be stalled or scuttled. The upgrade programmes by Ukraine will be the worst hit and this will directly affect the operational readiness of a large number of equipment and weapon systems. Even in a scenario in which Russia withdraws, a ravaged Ukraine will find it difficult to honour the commitments thereby affecting the supply of spares.


The Dragon in the Play

According to a report in The Financial Times, Russia has asked China for military equipment and other assistance since the start of the invasion. This report came in as United States officials claimed that Russia was running out of some kinds of weaponry as the war in Ukraine extends into its third week. While no details were offered by the US officials about the type of weaponry requested, the report points to the increasing proximity between Russia and China. While it may be speculative for now, a possibility exists that in case of a China-India stand-off, China could ask Russia to stop the supply of weapons and spares to India.


The Impact

Putting it simply, the war will affect the supply of spares from Russia and upgrade programmes of the equipment held by Indian Army, the acquisition programmes are likely to be affected and the ongoing and planned defence deals with Ukraine are most likely  to be written off, no matter what the end state after the war.

While the immediate focus is the supply of weapons and spares, the impact will be  of more serious consequences, but of these issues a bit later. First, discussing the immediate impact of disruption in supply of spares that is an immediate impact of the war. One of the issues of concern is the imposition of sanctions against Russia.

The West has imposed a number of sanctions against Russia over a period of time. The sanctions include stopping transfer of technology and sale of weapon systems; and financial sanctions aimed at crippling Russia’s dealings with other nations. Western countries have frozen the assets of Russia’s central bank, to stop it using its USD630 billion of  reserves. Other measures against it include suspension from the Bank for International Settlements. Some Russian banks are being removed from the international financial messaging system Swift, which is used to transfer money across borders. This will delay payments Russia being paid for exports from Russia.

United States and its NATO allies have sanctioned some 113 Russian arms manufacturers, including their design bureaus. A majority of these companies  provide India with over 60 per cent of its military needs. Sanctions against these entities mean that the supply of not only the contracted for weapons systems and equipment gets stopped but even the supply of spares and components gets disrupted.

In case India is supplied with these systems and spares, United States can act against India under its ‘Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act’ (CAATSA). The question is, will it? United States has offered no clear answers except Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu reiterating that ‘India is a really important security partner of ours now and we value moving forward that partnership.’

CAATSA aside, it is the financial sanctions that are of immediate concern. For spares and parts from Russia, the annual outgo is reportedly in excess of USD500 million. With the sanctions coming into effect, Indian banks have been wary of processing even routine transactions for scheduled payments to Russian arms companies. According to a report in The Economic Times, some scheduled transactions to Russian defence entities were stalled after financial sanctions were announced.


The Options for India

To bypass these sanctions, the Russian ambassador-designate asserted that alternate mechanisms existed for bilateral defence trade but he conceded that much depended on the readiness of Indian partners to continue doing business as ‘some of them are overcautious as regards  their exposure to the US and European markets.’ Given the exposure it is not certain how far  India will be ready to use the alternate methods as counter-sanctions endeavours would not only be tough to implement but may prove counter-productive given widespread anti-Russia sentiment over Ukraine.

There are, however, precedents of using the alternate mechanisms. In 2018 India and Rosonboronexport, Russia’s defence export agency, had entered into an agreement by which Syndicate Bank Delhi—a public sector bank unexposed to US banking or financial institutions—agreed to directly transfer rupees/ roubles to Russia’s Sberbank, doing away with normally routine letters of credit. This option is however not available now as Sberbank has been sanctioned.

An option tried out earlier was using a Russian alternate to SWIFT. In 2014 Russia had started developing its own financial messaging system SPFS as an alternate to SWIFT and the first transaction using SPFS was made in 2017. As part of this arrangement, Russia’s VBT Bank and India had signed a currency deal with counterparts in India and China. If this arrangement is still in vogue, the same can be used for payments to Russia for the supply of spares and components.

A relic mechanism for trade between Soviet Union (now Russia) and India was to trade using the rupee-rouble route and through the barter system. It changed over to trading in US dollars after the breakup of USSR in 1991. Earlier India used to supply Soviet Union with food and daily use items including shoes and toothpaste in exchange of military hardware. It may be an unconventional option in these times but reverting to the rupee-rouble trade and barter system with deferred payments by India may well be a worthwhile way out for the two sides in the present circumstances.

As the options for getting the hardware are evaluated, one of the first steps that the army can do is use existing spares inventories, war wastage reserves and if need be, cannibalise equipment to maintain the minimum desired readiness levels. But without a concrete plan to ensure continued supply of spares and components, these actions do not provide any meaningful solution and there is a need to look at more viable options.


Alternate Sources

A number of countries around the world have taken up programmes to manufacture spare parts and components for the Russian military equipment held with them. These include Ukraine, Georgia and Poland. Some have even gone ahead and developed upgraded versions of these equipment. Poland is among the best-known countries for upgrading its fleet of T-72 tanks with its own upgrades package. Similarly, Georgia has also carried out upgrade of its Russian origin armoured vehicles. These countries, which have well established and tried out indigenous upgrade and maintenance programmes can be tapped for supply of spares.


Reducing dependence on Russian Systems

Realising the need to reduce the over dependence on Russia, there has been a consistent drop in import of equipment from Russia, but it still remains high. Since 2010 nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of all Indian arms imports were from Russia with India being the largest Russian arms importer, accounting for nearly one-third (32 per cent) of all Russian arms exports. This came down from 2016 onwards when Russia accounted for roughly half of Indian imports between 2016 and 2020. India’s share of Russian arms imports also came down from 32 to 23 per cent during the same period.

The reduction in dependence notwithstanding, the Indian Army, especially the Armoured Corps and Army Air Defence, remain primarily equipped with Russian origin equipment. The Indian Army’s main battle tank force is composed predominantly of Russian T-72M1 (66 per cent) and T-90S (30 per cent). In 2014, India and Russia had signed a government-to-government agreement for induction of 200 Russian Ka-226T helicopters to replace the ageing fleet of Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. These were for use by the Army Aviation Corps, among others.

India had started to diversify and started procuring military equipment from other sources with, United States and Israel emerging as major trading partners, but it needs to be remembered that getting too close to any nation comes with its attendant drawbacks and makes a country vulnerable in challenging times.



The other option  is the self-reliance route. It would be a logical step for India to set up manufacturing facilities for spare parts and components. In 2019, Russia and India had agreed to set up joint ventures for the same, but these are yet to fructify. Similarly, Project Mango was launched for manufacturing 125mm fin stabilised armour piercing discarding sabot to be fired from T-72 and T-90 tanks. As a first step, these ventures need to be speeded up even if it means going alone but these are all medium-term projects and would take time. To tide over in the immediate future, alternate sources of spares, components and ammunition will have to be relied upon.

A word of caution here. Setting up projects to manufacture spares and components may not be financially viable for all equipment held by India, given their low population especially the air defence weapon systems and it would be better to tap alternate sources for such platforms. Also, it would be wise to have a serious look at the equipment profile to identify the type and numbers of weapons systems and platforms that should form part of the inventory.


The Other Factors

While this article has focussed on supply of military hardware and spares and their impact on army’s preparedness, there are some related issues that should not be neglected. It relates to drawing the right lessons from this conflict to transform our forces in the right mould. This is important because of the ongoing transformation of the Indian armed forces and focus on aatmanirbharta. Why it is important to discuss this aspect is because of the Russian experience.

The nature of warfare has changed. The modern wars are hybrid in nature, are complex and fought in multiple dimensions simultaneously. Information warfare is as important a part of the new warfare as the cyber warfare capabilities. Integrated and cohesive application of all power is essential to win the conflicts and to achieve this, an honest appraisal is needed of the present capabilities and doctrines to chart out the way ahead. In spite of having the second best armed forces in the world, Russia has failed in Ukraine till date as its offensive has stumbled along with a series of faux pas and failures. These have been both organisational and equipment failures with questions raised over Russian Army’s preparedness to conduct such operations. This is after Russia embarked on a major modernisation and transformation of its armed forces after the campaign in Georgia in 2008. As Major General Mick Ryan (retired) of United States Army states ‘Senior military leaders, who had not seen a major conflict in decades, conducted scripted exercises, absorbed by untested ideas, and were overly focussed on new technologies, may have overestimated the impact of their reform initiatives.’ Ryan further states ‘Like recent revelations about falsified intelligence on Ukraine, the President of Russia was probably kept in the dark about deficiencies in the Russian military.’

With our almost single-minded focus on terrorism being ‘the greatest threat’ and continuing counter-insurgency and counter terrorism operations, it is easy to lose the way as we transform our armed forces to prepare them for the wars in the future. There is thus a need to have a clear-eyed appraisal of our existing capabilities and preparedness for future wars so that the army can be equipped and transformed in the desired manner. Senior military leadership should put across their informed views in no ambiguous manner giving the factual state of own preparedness and the impact of the war; and not inform what the political leaders may want to hear.

This is important as even in these challenging times, there are some in the military hierarchy who insist that it will all work out for India and the war will have no serious impact on our combat readiness. Lest we be swayed by such sentiments, it would be wise to heed to Admiral Arun Prakash’s warning that ‘harsh sanctions on Russia could eventually result in the Indian military being virtually disarmed due to equipment and spares shortages.’



Whatever be the outcome of the ongoing conflict, the sanctions will not ease up soon and will have long term consequences for the Indian Army. It will be advisable for the wise men on the (Raisina) Hill to think through the possible options and put into motion a long-term plan to overcome the present challenge. The present crisis offers an opportunity for India to further its defence diversification and indigenisation. It will be a long-drawn process with speed breakers and many a bump on the way but with uncertainties ahead, this is the only real way ahead to ensure readiness to face all future challenges. How far India goes down the aatmanirbhar path, only time will tell but one can always remain hopeful for the best.

Development and procurement of equipment is only half the challenge. A study of Russian Army’s transformation over the last decade and half, and operations in the war reveal many a method of how not to fight a war. This presents Indian Army to carry out an honest study to identify its organisational and doctrinal shortcomings and set the required course correction in the ongoing transformation. Everything else is secondary.



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