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With Russia Sanctioned, Has a Gateway Opened for India on Global Military Equipment Front?

In ongoing discussions with Malaysia, India is attempting to not only sell 18 indigenously designed Tejas aircraft but also a maintenance package for the country's Su-30MKM combat fleet.

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Chandigarh: India’s advanced negotiations with the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) to provide spares and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities for their 18 Sukhoi Su-30MKM ‘Flanker’ fighters offers New Delhi a potentially novel commercial template to exploit in numerous other countries that continue to employ Russian and Soviet-era materiel.

Defence officials in New Delhi said these ongoing discussions, focused on the possible sale of 18 indigenously designed Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) to the RMAF for around $42 million, included India delivering a comprehensive maintenance package to Kuala Lampur for its Russian Su-30MKM combat fleet.

The US-led sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine seven months ago had precipitated a shortage of spares and components for these fighters, which the RMAF had acquired between 2007 and 2011 for $900 million. At the time, the IAF had ‘marginally’ facilitated this deal by agreeing to instruct RMAF pilots in operating the Su-30MKMs, some 15 years after it had provided them similar training on MiG-29A ‘Fulcrum’ air-superiority fighters, of which Malaysia had acquired 18 in 1994.

In the latter instance, a senior Russian official had presciently remarked that India, itself heavily dependent on Moscow for armaments and platforms, had emerged as the ‘gateway’ for Russian military commerce in South-East Asia by providing critical training and MRO backup to Moscow’s materiel customers.

“A similar ‘gateway’ opportunity appears to be opening up once more for India in view of the sanctions enforced on Moscow and need not be limited just to Malaysia, but expanded to other countries deploying Russian defence equipment,” said analyst Air Marshal V.K. ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia (retired). It’s an opening that India should have exploited long ago, but the policies and regulations to do so were simply not in place earlier, he stated. They were now.

A cross-section of service officers and private and public sector industry officials too acquiesced. Many said that since India had ‘vast experience’ in indigenising Russian defence equipment – acquired over decades of licence building and maintainence – it now needed to ‘market’ this expertise to innumerable foreign militaries operating similar kit.

“The government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative, aimed at attaining self-sufficiency in military equipment, remains a lengthy and costly endeavour and its outcome uncertain, particularly with regard to exports – despite tall official claims,” said a senior industry official.

But exporting spares and MRO for Russian equipment, as well as upgrading it, was a relatively risk-free enterprise and one with financially lucrative prospects, he explained, declining to be identified for fear of official repercussions. Moreover, he added, this was an area without competition from established weapon system manufacturers, and decidedly viable.

India’s expertise unrivalled

Over 60% of India’s military equipment, in all its three services, is of Soviet and Russian origin. A significant proportion was initially imported and thereafter built locally over decades via a transfer of technology. Beginning in the mid-1960s, this included assorted fighters, main battle tanks (MBTs), armoured recovery vehicles (ARVs) infantry combat vehicles (ICVs) and varied warships, survey vessels and naval support platforms.

India’s expertise, for instance, in licence-building T72 MBTs at the Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi, near Chennai, since the mid-1980s, is possibly unrivalled outside of Russia. The Indian Army presently operates some 1,400 T72 variants, which were also in service with some 35 militaries around the world that included Algeria, Bulgaria, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Poland and Syria. Defence officials agreed that all these countries were likely to continue to field T72s for several more years, and hence would not only require MRO but also component replacements and possible upgrades – all of which Indian public and private sector vendors could collectively provide.

Indian T-72 with explosive reactive armour. Photo: Vivek Patankar derivative work, Marcus Qwertyus/Wikimedia Commons at CC BY 2.0

Besides, India’s defence industrial complex, particularly state-owned entities like Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), BEML and numerous shipyards, amongst other units, had mustered substantial experience in implementing mid-life upgrades (MLUs) for other Russian platforms like transport aircraft, submarines, helicopters, field guns and related ordnance. Expertise in all of these was potentially ‘exportable’.

In recent years, India had also nurtured a network of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) to provide spares and components to support this in-service Russian equipment, and hence could profitably fulfil this niche requirement for countries operating similar gear. These included Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Mozambique, Romania, Uganda and Vietnam, with all of whom India has good diplomatic and security ties.

But industry officials warned that Russia’s assistance would be necessary in all such ventures, as being the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), it would not pass on platform blueprints to its customers to effect these retrofits. However, they were confident that given the prevailing embargoes enacted upon Moscow, it would, most definitely, look to close ally India to ‘credibly mitigate and manage’ these restrictions, and hence would not be averse to letting Delhi take the lead in effecting such collaborative undertakings.

Former Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials who had dealt previously with Rosoboronexport – Russia’s defence export agency – maintained that unlike the US and other Western countries, its officials were ‘flexible’ and amenable to proposals of furthering their equipment and component sales. What’s more, India’s deft manoeuvrings on the world stage in recent months, centred on maintaining its strategic autonomy whilst continuing its close defence and strategic ties with Russia, would be a force multiplier in such enterprises.

Also Read: Decoding the Defence Ministry’s Cryptic Claims About Arms Exports

Showcasing ‘jugaad’

Furthermore, homegrown jugaad or innovation had rendered a range of these licence-built and upgraded Russian platforms not only highly serviceable and effective operationally but in some instances, even more lethal than their original models. HAL, for instance, had upgraded some 125 Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG 21 ‘Bison’ ground attack fighters in the 1990s, by creatively fitting them with French, Israeli and locally developed weapons, sensors and electronic warfare systems. Even the Su-30MkI multi-role fighters, which form the backbone of the IAF’s combat squadrons, had local and other-than-Russian competent systems on board to enhance their deadliness.

“India should showcase and export its jugaad capabilities, which remain unparalleled compared with that of any other military,” said defence analyst Rahul Bhonsle (retired) of the New Delhi-based Security Risks consultancy. This is the indigenous defence industry’s core strength, and given the expense incurred by countries in replacing their legacy weapon systems, jugaad remains an economical and practical alternative, he suggested.

Over years, jugaad had also rendered the fleet of some 290 IAF and Army Aviation Corps’ Chetaks and Cheetahs – principally Alouette IIIs and SA-315B Lamas dating back to the 1960s – capable of daily operating at heights of over 14000 feet in the Siachen glacier region, a feat which their French manufacturers could never ever have imagined possible. And, during the 1999 Kargil conflict, the IAF had hurriedly, but innovatively, armed its French Mirage 2000Hs with indigenous 1000lb precision-guided munitions and delivered them with devastating effect on the Pakistani Army hunkered down in Himalayan bunkers.

A Chetak helicopter. Photo: Nani1992/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Familiarity with Soviet-era military equipment had also assisted India in furthering its security and foreign policy objectives in its neighbourhood and beyond.

According to retired Air Marshal Phillip Raj Kumar, IAF pilots on two-year deputations had trained Iraqi cadets on MiG-21s at the flying academy in Tikrit and conducted operational fighter, transport and helicopter conversions at other bases in that country. In a fascinating account in mid-2017 of his time in Iraq on the Bharat Rakshak website, operated by military enthusiasts, the former three-star IAF fighter pilot stated that the IAF training teams in Iraq had included Pilot Attack Instructors, followed by Fighter Combat Leaders.

Many years later, through the 1990s, IAF technicians and others from the secretive Aviation Research Centre, then managed by the Research and Analysis Wing, provided the Northern Alliance MRO and spare support for its Soviet-origin Mi-17 ‘Hip’ utility and Mi-35 ‘Hind’ attack helicopters.

In conclusion, India has vast experience in building and sustaining Russian defence equipment which can prove efficacious if exploited commercially in the existing environment. But, as always, much depends on the normally short-sighted and unimaginative MOD and its propensity to act creatively.