The Ukraine-Russia War: An Uncertain Future for Indian Defense Modernization

Photo Credit:Agence France-Presse

            In the days following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February, India remained silent. In the United Nations Security Council, where India is currently a non-permanent member, and in the General Assembly, India has noticeably abstained on resolutions condemning Russia. This silence has prompted international criticism given Russian targeting of civilian areas, including hospitals and schools. While disappointing given the humanitarian crisis, India’s stance is unsurprising. During the Cold War, India and the USSR embraced reciprocity of silence, refusing to condemn one another’s actions publicly. During the brutal Soviet repression of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and 1968 Invasion of Czechoslovakia, India voted against UN General Assembly resolutions condemning the Soviet Union. This silence during periods of Soviet aggression helped New Delhi solidify its relationship with Moscow in the middle years of the Cold War with minimal diplomatic costs. However, this present conflict could gravely threaten India’s defense modernization efforts and India’s security vis-à-vis Pakistan and China.

            India, the world’s largest arms importer, is also Russia’s largest export customer. Data from the Stockholm Peace Research Institute suggests that, since 2010, Russia has accounted for 62% of all of India’s defense imports. Furthermore, according to a recent study, up to 85% of major Indian weapon systems are Russian or Soviet in origin. To service its Russian and Soviet legacy equipment, India imports roughly 10,000 types of spare parts worth $500 million dollars annually. The imposition of western sanctions, particularly those targeting Russian banks, threatens the ongoing servicing of existing Russian equipment and the future of Russian-made systems in Indian services, such as the SU-30MKI and S-400 SAM systems. Imports of spare parts were already falling behind prior to the Russian invasion. Given Russia’s need to service its own equipment, the global sanctions regime, and India’s lackluster defense industrial base, India will soon face a shortage of spare parts for its Russian-made aircraft and armored vehicles.

The Russian invasion also threatens ongoing arms deals, including continued domestic license production of Russian-designed systems. All three of India’s service branches are affected. The Indian army recently signed a deal to license produce over 500,000 AK 203 assault rifles to replace its current aging service rifle. Likewise, the Indian Airforce (IAF) recently inked deals for upgrades to its Mig-29 and SU-30MK1 fighters and the Indian Navy signed a $3 billion dollar lease of a Russian Akula class nuclear attack submarine set to be delivered in 2025. Worse yet for New Delhi, ongoing western sanctions on Russian firms threaten its most successful co-production and licensed production deals, including its few export successes. The SU-30MK1, the backbone of the IAF’s fighter fleet, is a copy of the Soviet SU-27 produced by Hindustan Aerospace Limited (HAL). Continued production of the type is reliant on both Russian licensing approval and continued spare parts support. Likewise, India’s BrahMos missile, a joint production of Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyeniya and India’s Defense Research and Development Organization, is dependent on Russian designed and manufactured ramjet engines. India, which has historically failed to achieve export success, had successfully signed a $375 million dollar deal for BrahMos missiles with the Philippines. Sanctions on the Russian regime threaten this rare export success.

India’s defense imports from Ukraine are also threatened by the conflict. India’s dependence on Ukraine is most pronounced in the military transport aircraft sector. India currently operates around 100 AN-32 transport aircraft, which comprise the bulk of the IAF’s medium size transportation fleet. AN-32s proved critical in rapidly moving soldiers and materiel to Ladakh during India’s border crisis with China in 2020. Additionally, Ukraine is in the process of supplying India with marine gas turbine engines to outfit its Russian-built frigates, and R-27 air-to-air missiles for its Russian and Soviet legacy platforms. Given the ongoing Russian invasion and pressing need for defense equipment domestically, Ukraine’s defense exports are a low priority. Ukrainian units have already been seen employing products like Corsar anti-tank missiles intended for export against Russian forces. Furthermore, Putin has explicitly targeted Ukrainian defense production facilities, including those of Antonov, the manufacturer of the AN-32. Given ongoing Ukrainian needs and the targeting of the Ukrainian defense sector by Russian forces, it is highly likely few, if any, of the deals Ukraine inked with India will come to fruition in the near future.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine thus presents a clear danger to India’s ongoing defense modernization efforts. As of the time of this writing, Indian officials have remained tight-lipped about ongoing defense contracts, refusing to confirm or deny if India is currently paying for ongoing defense deals. The future of joint production programs like the Brahmos and SU-30MKI depend on the Russian ability to produce defense products given their own wartime needs and international sanctions, as well as the willingness of New Delhi to risk potential western financial sanctions under Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Perhaps most importantly for India, the Russian invasion has reaffirmed the Indian need for greater domestic self-sufficiency in the defense sector. The Chief of the Indian defense staff publicly stated in the aftermath of the Russian invasion, “[w]e’ve to be ready to fight future wars with indigenous weapons. Steps towards Aatmanirbhar Bharat [self-reliance] in defense have to be taken more urgently. Wars of [sic] future should be fought with own weapon systems.” While Indian indigenous production has made some progress in recent decades, Indian defense self-sufficiency will remain out of New Delhi’s reach for years.

India’s best bet in the medium and near term is partnering with western countries, including the United States, to license produce or coproduce military equipment. India has slowly been diversifying its arms imports over the past two decades, buying substantial western military equipment including French Rafales and Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters. However, previous large western deals to domestically produce defense equipment have collapsed due to strict Indian offset and technology transfer requirements. These requirements are not uncommon in the defense export sector, but India’s desire for full technology transfer and domestic manufactured armaments in recent decades has led New Delhi to place unreasonable demands on foreign defense firms. For instance, a 2012 deal with French company Dassault to license produce 108 Rafale Aircraft for the IAF fell apart because New Delhi demanded Dassault take responsibility for all the aircraft built by HAL. New Delhi, facing both uncertain future Russian arms imports and pressing security concerns, should reevaluate and relax its stringent domestic production requirements to seal licensed production deals with western firms and reduce its dependence on Russian systems. This could include reviving the Dassault deal to domestically produce Rafale fighters or even signing deals with the United States to produce aircraft like the F-21, a modified version of the F-16, under license. However, given the complex nature of these deals and the timeframes involved in building up production lines, these efforts will take decades to bear fruit. In the near-term New Delhi’s defense modernization fortunes look bleak.

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