The Great Indian Dilemma

How the Russian operations in Ukraine are affecting the Indian military preparedness

Gp Capt A.K. Sachdev (retd)Gp Capt. A.K. Sachdev (retd)

India did a deft tightrope walk over the Ukraine imbroglio with three successive abstentions at the UN—in the Security Council, the General Assembly, and the Human Rights Council, although at the International Court of Justice, the Indian judge voted in favour of asking Russia to suspend military operations with immediate effect.

The government’s constant refrain since the beginning of the war has been a call for peace without criticizing, condemning or deploring Russia. This stance can be viewed as apt recompense for past Soviet vetoes (on six occasions) in defence of Indian stand on Kashmir at the UN, and Soviet moral and implied military support during the 1971 war with Pakistan.

However, there is a pragmatic rationale too behind the need to keep Russia in good humour—, our current and future reliance on weapons and defence equipment of Russian origin. This article looks at the potential effects of the Russian military action in Ukraine on Indian defence supplies, resupplies, replacements, spares and sustenance.


Sanctions Apply Pressure

According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India is one of the world’s largest arms importers, accounting for 11 per cent of the world’s total arms purchases. SIPRI places Russia’s exports to India at 46 per cent of India’s total arms imports although some other sources quote higher figures than that. This figure needs to be seen in the light of the estimated percentage of Russian equipment used by India’s armed forces to be 60 per cent to 85 per cent. Dr Sameer Lalwani et al, in an article in the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, place the breadth of Russian-origin platforms in the Indian military at 85 per cent, rather than the often-cited figure of 60 per cent.

Russian entities were expected to show off their wares at the DefExpo in Gandhinagar last month, but the event was called off on March 4 with six days to go for its start date. There is a belief amongst some industry and defence bodies that the sudden decision to call off the Expo was precipitated by pressure brought on Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, aka Quad) meeting on March 3. While the objective of preventing Russia from displaying its arms and equipment was achieved, there was a lot of collateral damage in terms of lost goodwill amongst the world’s leading Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) who plan for such events months in advance and who had invested in transporting their wares, setting up stalls, booking hotel accommodation, and other overheads.

The DefExpo cancellation was officially attributed to ‘logistics problems being experienced by participants’ according to a ministry of defence (MoD) statement still visible on the DefExpo official site, but some analysts see it as a cog in the US-led sanctions machinery that is being erected around Russia. The effect on Russian financial institutions and military-industrial complexes would bear upon Russian capability to honour its commitments to its customer nations. In addition to the stranglehold of the sanctions, the consumption of its produce for the war effort in Ukraine would also severely constrain Russia’s ability to supply arms to its buyers.

Perhaps, the apprehension of reduced arms supplies may have influenced the decision of the Indian Air Force (IAF) to indefinitely postpone its triennial Exercise Vayu Shakti at Pokhran slated for March 7 (after a full-dress rehearsal had been consummated on March 4). No reason was given officially for the postponement, but the fact that 148 aircraft were to participate, and a massive amount of ordnance was to be expended, are being linked by some to the impending shortfall of arms imports, especially from Russia.

Prime Minister Modi waiting for Russian President Putin at Hyderabad house, December 2021


The Russian Connection

So, what do we procure from Russia? Since 2000, two thirds of all India’s military imports have come from Russia. We have more than 250 Su-30 MKI fighters, seven Kilo class submarines, and more than 1200 T-72/T-90 tanks from Russia. Five units of the S-400 air defence missile system are in the pipeline (one has been delivered so far and the second, due in April this year is most certainly going to be delayed due to the war).

India has more than 450 fighters of Soviet/ Russian origin (Su-30MKIs, MiG-29s, MiG-21s). In July 2020, the government had approved the acquisition of 21 MiG-29s from Russia and upgradation of 59 MiG-29s already in service with IAF to MiG-29 UPGs; the upgrade is to take place at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) but the upgrade kits are to come from Russia. Both these programmes are stagnant and under the Ukraine war’s dark shadow. An approval granted by the government for the purchase of 12 Su-30 MKIs (to be built by HAL in India) is also under a cloud due to the war. The foregoing needs to be seen against the backdrop of India’s current fighter squadron strength of around 31 squadrons against a sanctioned strength of 42 (and a needed strength of much more than 42!).

India has six IL-78 tankers,17 IL-76 MD transport aircraft and more than 100 An-32s. It also has around 225 Russian helicopters and more were planned to be procured from Russia. The Ka-226T utility helicopter deal involving procurement of 200 helicopters of which 140 were to be license produced in India, already stumbling over price and transfer of technology impediments, is also now in limbo; Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine is causing delays in the decision to either go ahead with, or to scuttle, the project.

Coming to the Indian Navy, its aircraft carrier is of Soviet origin and operates the MiG-29, a Russian fighter. A Russian nuclear submarine is to be delivered to Indian Navy in 2025. In 2018 a deal for four Grigorovich class frigates was signed between Russia’s state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport and Goa Shipyard Ltd; two are to be built in Russia and the other two in Goa. The future of that is under a cloud at the moment. While aircraft, submarines and tanks can be replaced in the long run, a nuclear submarine and an S-400 equivalent system would be very difficult to procure, considering the Western world’s vociferous opposition to India acquiring them.

The army uses T-72 and T-90 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), T-55 tank (as pillboxes along the Line of Control, BMP-II amphibious Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), BM-30 Smerch heavy multiple rocket launcher, M-46 130 mm artillery field gun, BM-21 Grad truck mounted 122 mm multiple rocket launcher, 9M133 Kornet man portable Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) system, OSA-AK and Pechora Surface to Air Missile (SAM) systems, Strela Man Portable Air Defence System (MANPADS), ZSU-23-4 Schilka self-propelled radar guided anti-aircraft system, Tungushka self-propelled anti-aircraft gun/ missile system, Dragunov sniper rifle, the Kalashnikov automatic rifle, OSV-96 semi-automatic rifles and NSV machine guns. An agreement between India and Russia was signed in 2021 for production of 6.1 lakh AK-203 assault rifles in India by a joint venture—the Indo-Russian Rifles Private Limited. The first 70,000 rifles were to be produced with around 95 per cent components coming from Russia; the war has brought the programme almost to a halt. In 2018, Rosoboronexport was selected for supply of 1000 Very Short Range Air Defence System (VSHORAD) missile systems for the Indian Army (and air force); the project involves the replacement of the older IGLA M system with IGLA S. However, it is not moving at the moment.

BrahMos cruise missile family is dependent on Indo-Russian defence collaboration (as a joint venture called BrahMos Aerospace between India’s Defence and Research Development Organization (DRDO) and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia). Russia developed the missile’s engine and seeker, while India worked on the guidance control system, airframe, and on-board electronics. In recent years, India has more or less indigenised all systems albeit the indigenous seeker technology is yet to be proven. The propulsion technology, which is the most sophisticated part of the missile, is based on Russia’s Yakhont SS-N-26 anti-ship cruise missile. It has two stages: booster and sustainer (ram jet technology). While the booster stage has been indigenised successfully, we are still a long way from indigenising the sustainer stage and are totally dependent on Russia for that. Moving forward, the continued success of the programme depends on Russia’s capability to supply that technology (sustainer stage) continually.

Indian apprehensions about continued Russian support to its military machinery are on account of the sanctions imposed by US and its allies over arms OEMs; a total of 113 Russian entities and their design bureaus, subsidiaries, sub-contractors etc have been placed under sanctions so far. These include Rostec, the Moscow-based, state-owned defence conglomerate which comprises more than 700 enterprises organised into 14 holding companies of which 11 are in the defence industrial area producing a host of assorted equipment, munitions and ordnance. Also affected by sanctions are United Aircraft Corporation, responsible for developing and fabricating military aircraft and rotary wing platforms, and United Shipbuilding Corporation, Russia’s largest warship and submarine constructor along with many smaller companies. These sanctions impact Indian weaponry of Russian origin substantially and will adversely affect Russia’s ability to transfer platforms, equipment and critical spares/ components for India’s Russian origin combat and transport aircraft, helicopters, tanks, warships, submarines, missiles and ordnance.

The absence of a new payment mechanism with Russia (after it has been ejected from SWIFT) is another area of uncertainty as far as defence imports are concerned. There does not seem to be any easy solution to the problem whose gravity increases with each passing day at war.

We also need to take into account the fact that many Russian OEMs sub-contract components/ parts to other nations, including NATO and EU ones as also East European ones. As the production and supply of products from these nations get affected by the war, political pressures to refrain from supplying Russia, and a slowdown in these economies, there would be a cascading effect on Russian production capacity. Another supplementary factor is Russia’s own war-paced consumption of some wares that may have otherwise been supplied to India, thus impinging on the Indian military. Reports of Russia having approached China for military equipment have further fuelled these apprehensions.


The Ukraine Slant

At the time of the Soviet dissolution in 1990, many of the defence manufacturing facilities which were located in Ukraine continued to function with the erstwhile Soviet commitments and deals being inherited by the Ukrainian regime. Some of these continue to be associated with the Indian military.

Perhaps, the most important is the 105 AN-32 medium lift transport aircraft inventory of the IAF which are in the process of being upgraded (45 in Ukraine, and the rest in India). The deal was signed in 2009 and was already running far behind schedule (because in 2014, after the Crimean crisis, Russia stopped giving crucial avionics for the upgrade to Ukraine which had to develop those on its own). Very worrying for India are the videos being aired on TV and social media showing the Antonov Aircraft Serial Production Plant at the Sviatoshyn Airfield in Kyiv being struck and damaged by Russia.

Videos also showed the Zorya-Mashproekt gas turbine complex in Mykolaiv under attack and in flames. Zorya-Mashproekt gas turbine engines powers around 30 of Indian Navy’s surface ships including Delhi class destroyers, Talwar class stealth frigates and corvettes. The two Admiral Grigorovich-class guided-missile stealth frigates under construction in Russia for the Indian Navy also use Zorya-Mashproekt gas turbines which have been procured and handed over to Russia (because, since 2014, Ukraine refuses to give the engines to Russia!). However, spares and repairs in the future could pose problems as the Ukraine plant appears to have undergone massive damage. Russia appears to be targeting defence industrial complexes selectively to inflict lasting damage. While there is no immediate problem for India due to these two factory complexes being damaged, the long run effects could be disastrous if these complexes cannot be rejuvenated; even at best, it would take years to bring them up to pre-war productivity.


The US Angle

Supplementing the effects of Russian and Ukrainian defence production on Indian military equipment is another incidental angle—the possibility of US sanctions under Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), a 2017 US legislation empowering the US administration to impose economic and financial penalties on nations for dealing with Russia, Iran, and North Korea. India’s S-400 deal with Russia has been a thorn in the US’s side but so far it has refrained from invoking the CAATSA against India as it needs India to counter China’s rise. It may be mentioned here that US had sanctioned Turkey (a NATO member) under CAATSA in 2020 for striking a deal with Russia for the S-400. Should Biden not provide a waiver to India’s case under CAATSA, Indian military could face some problems (starting with S-400) which are an indirect cause of the Russian war on Ukraine.


Concluding Remarks

At the time of writing this, the war in Ukraine rages in full fury and India holds its breath, as does the rest of the world, waiting for it to come to an end. The war’s effects on India’s military capability may not be felt in the short term but the long-term repercussions could be traumatic and depend on how long the war continues.

There is some cheer in the fact that over the last decade, India has reduced its imports from Russia and moved to Western and US OEMs. According to SIPRI, India’s imports from Russia dropped by 53 per cent during the period 2016-20; had that not been the case, the effect of this war on Indian military capability would have been even more telling. However, it is evident that moving away from Russia altogether and building dependence on military wares from US and the West may not be the way to go; indeed, US and the West’s reliability is doubtful, based on historic evidence. Thus, the obvious solution is to concentrate on building indigenous defence industrial manufacturing (not just assembling) capability.

Make In India and Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan since 2015 and 2020 respectively have been used as slogans by the Modi government to the accompaniment of impressive sounding statistics. However, as far as defence production is concerned, our capability remains abysmally mediocre. Most ‘Make in India’ wares have high foreign content and/ or are being produced under license. The Tejas is yet to be operationalised and the AMCA is beyond visual horizon, given our R&D machinery’s past history.

Our quest for an aeroengine for our own fighters appears to be nowhere near producing a worthwhile indigenous power plant. One could go on and on. There is a clear and present danger of the obsession with Aatmanirbhar dooming our defence services to be content with mediocre military ware because the government wants imports to be eschewed, while our indigenous defence industry is yet to be freed from the internal inefficiencies of the public sector.



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