Defense cooperation between India and Russia, which had run into trouble in recent months following differences over cost escalation of armament systems, is back on track. The two countries have signed a multi-billion dollar agreement for the joint development of futuristic stealth fighter aircraft, following a high-level visit by an Indian delegation to Russia.
The agreement, which was signed at the seventh meeting of the Indo-Russian inter-governmental commission on military-technical
co-operation in Moscow, provides for joint development of the fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA), the Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA. The Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA is known for its super-maneuverability, supersonic cruising ability, long-range strike and high-endurance air defense capabilities. It is described as a rival to the US F-35 Lighting-II Joint Strike Fighter.
The deal on joint production comes almost five years after the Russians first proposed it.
India and Russia will have equal financial and technological stakes in the US$10 billion project. “We will share the funding, engineering and intellectual property in a 50-50 proportion,” Sukhoi director-general Mikhail Pogosyan said. The Indian version of the FGFA would be different from the Russian version because of specific Indian requirements, he said.
According to a report in Times of India, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is looking to the FGFA to fulfill its future requirements “across the entire spectrum of warfare from low-intensity conflicts and conventional wars to nuclear-weapon delivering capabilities”. The report quotes an IAF officer as saying that the IAF wants the FGFA to be capable of “a high degree of network centricity”. It should not only be able to share the tactical picture but also be GIMS (global information management system) enabled. In addition to possessing a high degree of firepower through precision-guided munitions, the FGFA should be equipped with multi-spectral optical, infrared, laser and radar sensors, the IAF officer said.
The deal on joint development of defense hardware is not the first time that India and Russia have entered such an agreement. The two countries are engaged, for instance, in joint production of the BrahMos (named after a combination of names of two rivers – India’s Brahmaputra and Russia’s Moskva) supersonic cruise missile. This cooperation has been fruitful and has resulted in BrahMos Aerospace – the joint venture between India’s Defense Research and Development Organization and Russia’s Federal State Unitary Enterprise NPO Mashinostroyenia that is developing the Brahmos missile – now looking to export its missiles as well.
The FGFA agreement will give India’s defense ties with Russia “a new quality”, India’s Defense Minister Arackaparambil Kurian Antony said following the signing of the deal.
Defense cooperation between India and Russia (and Soviet Union earlier) goes back several decades. Except for a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Delhi’s relations with Moscow cooled, India’s equation with Moscow has been close. India sees Moscow as a reliable friend. Indian officials often recall Russia’s support to India’s development priorities, and its willingness to engage in rupee-ruble trade with a foreign exchange strapped India and sell it weapons on “friendly terms”.
While trade and economic cooperation have been significant, it is the close defense engagement that has defined the relationship. It is to Moscow that India turned for its defense purchases during the Cold War years and it is Moscow that continues to be India’s number one supplier of military hardware to date, Delhi’s warming relations with the United States in recent years notwithstanding. About 70% of India’s military hardware is of Soviet or Russian make.
India’s fighter fleet has been dominated for decades by the Russian MiGs. That is now changing with the Indians turning to the Sukhoi aircraft in the mid-1990s. The first contract for Sukhois was signed in 1996. It provided for the purchase of eight Su-30K and 40 Su-30 MKI. The second contract was for purchase of 10 Su-30 K, the third for licensed production of 140 Su-30 MKI and the fourth in March this year for purchase of 40 Su-30 MKI. The FGFA joint production agreement is the most recent.
The FGFA agreement is being celebrated as yet another triumph and symbolic of the deep defense engagement between India and Russia. But even as this engagement is being celebrated, a perceptible chill has crept into the relationship.
Reflecting this chill is the fact that neither Defense Minister Antony nor Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee met Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during their visit to Moscow. It is customary for senior Indian ministers visiting Moscow to do so. Mukherjee had met Putin in Moscow in 2005 when he was defense minister, as did Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha, who were ministers in the BJP-led NDA government. And to add salt to the injury, Mukherjee was stopped and frisked at the Moscow airport.
The Russians have been watching India’s growing proximity to the US with concern. Besides, the bilateral defense engagement has been under severe strain in recent months over the issue of cost escalation in armament systems.
Under the original deal to supply Sukhoi aircraft, Russia had agreed to a 2.55% cost escalation rate. And then in May, it suddenly demanded a hike in the cost escalation rate, citing the weakening of the US dollar and strengthening of the ruble, as well as double-digit inflation in Russia. Russia has already delivered 60 Su-30s. It said it was willing to supply another 40 at the original
cost escalation rate of 2.55%. However, for the remaining 138 Su-30s to be assembled in India, it demanded a 5-7% cost-escalation rate.
Another irritant was the delay in delivery of and cost overruns for the aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov. Under the original agreement, the cost of upgrading the Gorshkov, including 16 MiG 29Ks, was $1.5 billion. The carrier was due to be ready for induction into the Indian Navy by August 2008. But now the Russians are demanding an additional $113 million on the grounds that the length of cabling required for the Gorshkov’s upgrade was underestimated. And the carrier is unlikely to arrive before 2010.
Not surprisingly the cost escalations on Russian armament systems ruffled feathers in Delhi. Meanwhile, Russian supplies of fighters, warships and tanks were put on ice.
It was only on the eve of the Indian defense minister’s visit to Moscow that the stalemate on the cost escalation was broken. India agreed to an annual cost escalation rate of 5% on all arms contracts signed with Russia earlier. This will hold good not only for the purchase of Sukhoi aircraft but also for other major armament systems like T-90 tank kits and the Gorshkov aircraft carrier.
Indian military officials complain that delivery of Russian equipment is rarely on schedule. Supplies of the Sukhois, T-90S main battle tanks and Talwar-class stealth frigates have been running late by years. It is not just delivery delays. Repairs and overhauls of past acquisitions are also behind schedule. Indian officials are also concerned over the reliability of some Russian weapon systems, such as the Appassionata navigation systems.
Among the assurances that Indian officials sought from their Russian counterparts at the Moscow meeting were life-term product support, maintenance of delivery schedules and an uninterrupted supply of spare parts.
The signing of the FGFA agreement indicates that despite its misgivings, India continues to look to Moscow to meet its defense requirements.
Russia’s willingness to enter into joint production with India makes it an attractive partner for defense deals in Delhi’s eyes. Lawrence Prabhakar, associate professor at the Madras Christian College and visiting fellow at the Singapore-based S Rajaratnam School of International Studies pointed out that similar joint production deals with the Americans is not possible. The Americans opening an F-18 plant in India as the Russians have for co-production or licensed production of their equipment is simply inconceivable, he says.
There is also the question of reliability. Should India’s relationship with the Americans turn adversarial, the latter could cut off supply of aircraft spare parts. Under sanctions since its 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has been denied spare parts for its F-14 Tomcats purchased earlier from the US. Russian spare parts for equipment sold to India might be slow in coming but Moscow has never denied India these parts.
Another reason for India’s misgivings ix that the latter has sold the same military equipment to India and its adversaries. The Russians have been generally more aware of these Indian sensitivities but they have sold different variations of the same equipment to both India and Pakistan, Prabhakar pointed out. It has sold T-90 tanks to India and allowed Ukraine to sell a very similar Russian-designed T-80U tank to Pakistan. But overall, the Russian record on the matter is far better than the US.
Russia’s deference to Indian defense needs stems from the fact that the purchases are keeping Russia’s arms manufacturers thriving. Russia is also aware that India is looking for other weapons sources and it is wary of the growing profile of countries like Israel, for instance, as an arms supplier to India.
But a bigger test lies ahead. India is planning on buying 126 new medium multi-role combat aircraft, a deal that is worth $10.4 billion. The Russian MiG-35 is in the race for that mega-deal. But it will face fierce competition from the American F/A-18 Super Hornets and F-16 Falcons, the Swedish Gripen, the French Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon. Whether its long record as a reliable friend will propel it to clinch the deal remains to be seen.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.