How sanctions on Russia will strain India’s defence

Mar 17, 2022 02:00 PM IST

The sanctions could pose a unique set of challenges for the India-Russia defence relationship and put India’s military preparedness to the test

New Delhi: The complications stemming from the wide-ranging sanctions slapped on Russia by the United States (US) and its allies on the back of the war in Ukraine could pose a unique set of challenges for the India-Russia defence relationship, put India’s military preparedness to the test, and assign new urgency to reduce dependence on imported military hardware to stay battle-ready, people monitoring the developments said.

Russia, India’s top supplier of arms, accounted for 46% of the country’s imports during the last five years even though India made fewer purchases from that country over the last decade. (AFP) PREMIUM
Russia, India’s top supplier of arms, accounted for 46% of the country’s imports during the last five years even though India made fewer purchases from that country over the last decade. (AFP)

The global backlash against Russia has raised questions about the fate of new projects, spares procurement for existing Russian-origin weapons, maintenance and servicing of legacy equipment, and creating an alternative payment system for defence trade with Russia amid the banking sanctions, said one of the officials cited above, asking not to be named.

“Business as usual with Russia has been turned on its head. No one was prepared for this. We are watching the developments closely,” he said.

A story of dependence

While India has diversified its military purchases and bought military hardware worth billions of dollars from the US, France and Israel over the last decade, at least 60% of the inventory of the three services continues to be of Russian origin.

This equipment forms the bedrock of India’s military capabilities and includes fighter jets, transport planes, helicopters, warships, submarines, tanks, infantry combat vehicles, multi-rocket systems, rifles and even shoulder-fired missiles.

Russia, India’s top supplier of arms, accounted for 46% of the country’s imports during the last five years even though India made fewer purchases from that country over the last decade. Russia’s weapons exports to India fell 47% between 2012-16 and 2017-21, said a report on International Arms Transfers released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) on March 14.

“Several key procurements are underway. Some of those could be delayed. We can’t wish the overdependence on Russian weapons and systems away,” said a senior official, who also asked not to be named.

Procurements and projects in the works include the S-400 air defence systems, more Sukhoi-30 and MiG-29 fighter jets, frigates, T-90 tanks, the joint production of AK-203 assault rifles and, above all, the lease of a nuclear-powered submarine.

Each of the three services – the Indian Air Force (IAF), navy and army – operate a wide range of Russian-origin weapons and platforms.

IAF is equipped with Sukhoi-30s, MiG-29s and MiG-21 fighter jets, Il-76 and An-32 transport planes, Il-78 mid-air refuellers, Mi-35 attack helicopters and Mi-17 utility choppers.

The navy’s sole aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, and the MiG-29K fighter jets it operates, are from Russia, and so are its Kilo-class submarines, Rajput-class destroyers and Talwar-class frigates.

The army isn’t far behind either. It operates T-90 and T-72 tanks, BMP-II infantry combat vehicles, Smerch and Grad multi-rocket systems and several surface-to-air missile systems.

The impact of sanctions

The tough US-led banking and financial sanctions against Russia to isolate it economically will require India to create a new payment mechanism for making financial transactions towards imports and maintenance support.

“I don’t think it will be impossible to do business with Russia although it will be difficult in the sanctions regime. We will have to opt for rupee-ruble trade involving Indian banks that have no exposure to the western banking system,” said Amit Cowshish, a former financial advisor (acquisition) in the defence ministry.

India is stepping closer to setting up an alternative payment system and has identified a potential bank to maintain its trade with Russia. A top inter-ministerial panel has been tasked with scrutinising the impact of the sanctions against Russia on India.

“An alternative payment system has worked in the past. But the big question here is not about the viability of transactions. The question is if India can withstand US and western pressure against dealing with Russia,” said Cowshish, who is also a former distinguished fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

He said the US and its allies could perhaps be somewhat accommodating in allowing India to source spares and maintenance support from Russia but the purchase of major systems would be a definite no-no.

“The bottom line is we will be seriously handicapped if we disengage with Russia and it could compromise our military capability,” he added.

Even if India manages to evade the sanctions against Russia and continues to do business with that country, the question is how would the US and its allies look at it, said military affairs expert and former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd).

“There’s a larger issue of strategic and geopolitical interests at play here as our arms trade with the US has grown exponentially in the last 10 to 12 years. Will the US put that relationship at risk to punish Russia? Will it risk its strategic partnership with India to counter China? Will the US want to see Indian military capability taking a hit? The ball is in Washington’s court,” said Hooda.

Russia’s constraints

Another question for India to consider is if Russia will now focus on bolstering its own military capabilities amid the new global developments and exporting weapons and systems may no longer be a priority.

“It’s going to be complicated as Russia’s own defence requirements may take precedence over what India needs. This could delay new acquisitions and ongoing programmes. We have to brace for impact,” said Hooda.

Russia will prioritise refurbishing its own armed forces, said Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), former additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies.

The sanctions are likely to directly hit the Russian defence industry and its ability to produce military hardware as Russia imports a variety of systems, sub-systems and raw material from European countries to produce advanced military hardware. “Russian production may get affected as they import components for many weapons and systems from western nations,” Bahadur said.

The road ahead for India

India’s dependence on imported military hardware, especially from Russia, doesn’t have a quick fix.

The government has taken a raft of measures to boost self-reliance in the defence sector but the results of these initiatives will show only in the long term. These include raising foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence manufacturing, creating a separate budget for buying locally-made military hardware and notifying two lists of weapons/equipment that cannot be imported.

India has already begun the process of identifying key Russian spares that can be indigenised, said a third official, who also asked not to be named. “A lot of work has already gone into it in recent weeks. We are aware that supply chains are likely to get disrupted. But there is no need to panic,” he said.

Experts highlighted the need to conserve Russian equipment against the backdrop of the current crisis. “We need to cut down unnecessary display flying and conserve flying hours. We can’t source this equipment from anywhere else. The lead time for replacement of key systems is very long. Indigenisation cannot happen overnight,” said Bahadur.

While it is still unclear how the new sanctions will play out and the problems they may create for the armed forces in the short and long term, the possible impact of the new developments on India’s military preparedness and the serviceability of weapons and equipment is being examined at the highest levels, officials said, adding that it was critical to ensure that equipment was fully serviceable at all times to deal with any eventuality.

As military planners figure out the likely consequences of the sanctions against Russia, India has kicked off the induction of S-400 air defence systems and is also set to begin joint production of more than 600,000 AK-203 assault rifles at a facility in Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi district.

The recent global developments have underlined the need for achieving self-reliance in defence, a point recently articulated by army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane. Last week, he said the biggest lesson from the Ukraine crisis was that India has to be ready to fight future wars with indigenous weapons.

There’s no denying that.

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