Russia and India are taking steps to address the perceived drift in their relations. High level visits are continuing. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov visited Delhi earlier this month for Russia-India-China trilateral meeting. Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin is visiting India on Saturday for a high level comprehensive review of Indo-Russian relations.
While both sides have taken steps to diversify bilateral relations, the most substantive part of the strategic partnership still remains the military-technical cooperation. The Indo-Russian Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation (IRGCMTC) is the apex institution for reviewing and guiding the military technical cooperation between the two countries in entirety. Jointly headed by the deputy prime minister on the Russian side and the defence minister on the Indian side, it is supported by two working groups and seven sub groups.
In the recent past, the two sides have concluded agreements on the supply of S-400 air defence system, construction of frigates and the manufacture of KA-226T helicopters. An Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) on the manufacturing of Russian KA-226T helicopters through the joint venture route under ‘Make in India’ programme has also been signed. As per the IGA, 60 helicopters will be manufactured in Russia and 140 in India.
Despite the diversification in India’s defence procurements, Russia remains and will remain a critical supplier of defence equipment to India for a long time. According to SIPRI, Russia accounted for 68% of India’s arms import during 2012-16 as compared to 14% from the US and 7.2% from Israel.
While these figure are based on estimates by SIPRI, they capture the trend reasonably well. The nature of bilateral defence cooperation between the two countries has undergone positive change in the recent years. There is now a greater emphasis on joint design, development and production of high-technology military equipment.
The production of Brahmos cruise missile by an Indo-Russian joint venture (JV) company Brahmos Pvt Ltd is an example of successful Indo-Russian joint R&D and production. The JV has an authorized capital of $250 million with Indian equity share of 50.5% and Russian share of 49.5%. The highly potent cruise missile can be fired from ships, submarines, aircraft and land. On November 22, the air version of Brahmos was tested from SU-30 MKI fighter aircraft.
The Indo-Russian defence cooperation is not without problems. The Russians are anxiously watching India’s diversification efforts. The 2007 Inter-Governmental Agreement on joint development and co-production of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) has made little progress. There appear to be some misgivings about the project on the Indian side. According to media reports, the Indo-Russian joint venture to manufacture a medium airlift military transport aircraft has not made progress. The delays in the procurement of spare parts from Russian manufactures and the high prices is a perennially sore issue for Indian consumers.
Yet, there is considerable untapped potential in Indo-Russian defence cooperation. New ideas should be tried out. Can, for instance, Russia help in the further improvement of India’s indigenously developed light combat aircraft, Tejas? Can the two sides cooperate on manufacturing submarines? Despite setbacks in some areas, fresh avenues for cooperation are worth exploring. Time is ripe to involve Indian private sector companies into Indo-Russian defence joint ventures.
The ‘Make in India’ programme can be leveraged to do so. Two major military-industrial conferences of Indian companies and Russian OEMs have been held in Delhi and Moscow in 2017. The conferences discussed life cycle support to Russian platforms and how the buyer-seller relationship can be transformed into a partnership for the joint production of advanced defence systems. The Russian side showed interest in forming joint ventures to localize manufacturing spare parts in India.
India and Russia are strategic partners of long standing. The defence relationship should not be limited to the narrow technical aspects only. Fortunately, the scope of Indo-Russian defence cooperation has been widened to include high level military exchanges and joint exercises between the armed forces of two countries. Joint naval exercise were held in Russia’s Far-East in 2016 and between the ground forces of the two countries in Rajasthan in 2015. For the first time, joint tri-service INDRA exercises were held in Vladivostok in October 2017. Though belated, these are welcome developments.
The Indian navy with Russian help can also gain some experience in operating in the Arctic Sea. Deeper defence and security cooperation with Russia is good for India as it enhances India’s strategic choices. The scepticism about Russia, prevalent in a section of Indian strategic circles, is unwarranted.
By Arvind Gupta, Economic Times
(The writer is Director, VIF and Former Deputy NSA)