By Jehangir Unwalla & Nikhil Khanna
One can understand Russia’s bitterness with India on the recent US decision to supply India with advanced weaponry, including the Patriot anti-missile system, C-130 stretched medium lift transport aircraft, P-3C Orion maritime surveillance planes—and even F-16 fighters. After all, the former Soviet Union and in recent times, Russia has been a close strategic and military ally of India's for almost 50 years.
At the same time, one must understand that gone are the days of Russian technology being at the cutting edge of technology research. Russia has been inundated with many economic and social issues and this has led to limited funding to invest in newer high-tech research and weapons production. Mr. Putin has made every attempt possible to bring back Russia's indigenous leadership in defense capabilities and thereby inject much needed capital into the Russian economy thereby boosting the morale and pride of the Russian nation. This includes, but is not limited to missile defense systems, 5th generation multi-role combat aircrafts, space technology including GLONASS global navigation system and nuclear warheads.
The Indo-Russian relationship has also gone through its metamorphosis. Russia has evolved from a primary military partner to a strategic business partner, although the strong military ties still remain. Most of India's primary military arsenal today is of Russian origin and this has led to close ties with regards to obtaining technology support and spares. Further, there are factions of the UPA [the left] that continue to favor a stronger alignment with Russia than with the US. There is significant technology sharing between India and Russia, but given Russia’s inherent economic challenges, it has become increasingly costly for them to offer us any significant deals on the weapons systems we now get. Rather, it is now in Russia’s economic interest to get the best price and beyond for their weapons sales. This has led India to look to other strategic military partners such as Israel, Britain and in recent years, the US. Israel has been able to supply India with cutting-edge weaponry and further allows for future collaboration in technology transfer and after-sales support through JV agreements with the leading Indian defense technology firms. This has enabled a strong partnership between the two countries on counter-terrorism and national security.
Russia is also angered because it might potentially loose billions of dollars if India acquires the Patriot system from the US. Russia was keen to sell India the S-400 system. It is also unlikely that the US will let either the Arrow [Israel] or S-400 system be sold ahead of its own Patriot system. They both exceed the 300km odd range as mandated by MTRC, they both detect and destroy the warhead in sub orbital flight (potentially over enemy soil itself), whereas the Patriot intercepts warheads when the enemy’s missile is almost in its last stages. This poses an interesting challenge for Raytheon, IAI and Almaz Central Design Bureau. The Russians are also loosing ground to the C-130 and the P-3 Orions, areas where the Anatov and the Ilyushin reigned supreme.
US-India watchers can be delighted of the US offer to supply India with hi-tech weapons, but one has to be realistic and weigh in all of the factors. US high-tech weapons often come with stringent export control regulations. Furthermore, there are many hawks still in the Pentagon who look at India as a lower-grade South Asian partner compared to Pakistan and still hyphenate India based on its cold war ties to the former Soviet Union.
Significant strides have been made in the US-India high-tech arena and a major technology transfer deal was signed in October. India will be carefully considering all of the US proposals, and most of the major systems proposed are yet to go through extensive trials with the Indian defense forces. The high cost of US systems might pose a major hurdle. India must also consider the risks of an Indo-US relationship turning sour as this would not only put a curb on future upgrades but would also halt much needed spares for these systems. A complete stop on all technology transfers would render these expensive systems useless and thus, India must sign water-tight technology transfer agreements, complete with IPRs to appease the export-control regulators in the US. It is also important that India is assured of spares and upgrade components on any major system it purchases.
What India needs to do is strike a delicate, yet strategic balance between Russia, Israel and US. It needs to carefully consider the life expectancy of the weapon systems, their compatibility with existing systems, assuredness that spares and major upgrades will be available, and most of all weapon superiority. An interesting aspect will be the major factions within India’s own UPA – the left parties will favor a deal with the Russians, while the rest will move for stronger deals with Israel and the US. Either way, India’s decision makers must carefully consider its national security, defense needs and its growing role as a global defense power.