The abysmal failure of Russia’s weaponry in President Vladimir Putin’s brutal and ill-conceived war on Ukraine should compel a reconsideration of India’s traditional overdependence on Russian armaments.
A dossier compiled by Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence reveals that Russia’s weapons, many of which have been retrieved from the battlefield, have been ineffective, obsolete and unreliable, and don’t meet the requirements of modern warfare. Its armoured vehicles and helicopters have wilted under fire, and its missiles have missed around two-thirds of their targets.
The situation was made more dire after the US-led West imposed economic sanctions on most Russian arms vendors following Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea in southern Ukraine in 2014. These punitive measures were ‘massively expanded’ upon Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, when the Western powers added a significant number of individuals and entities to the sanctions list and adopted unprecedented measures with the aim of significantly weakening Russia’s economic base and depriving it of critical technologies and markets. These sanctions are expected to remain in place for years, if not decades.
Clearly, India’s policy of not recognising unilateral sanctions, meaning those not imposed by the United Nations, cannot stand up to the might of the US. American sanctions carry the heft of the US dollar in international finance, and any country, corporation or other entity contravening them can be blocked from the US financial system and, by extension, from global markets.
Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act
India and other buyers of Russian arms may also be drawn under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the US law that provides for economic and financial penalties against any nation transacting on arms with Russia, Iran, Venezuela or North Korea.
Falling foul of CAATSA could cripple India’s defences by cutting off access to international arms markets. One casualty could well be the country’s newly commissioned 43,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, whose aviation facility complex was to be supplied by one of the sanctioned Russian companies, Nevskoe Design Bureau.
These issues may be compounded by the fact that more than 450 foreign-made components have been detected in Russian weapons recovered in Ukraine, originally sourced from American, European and Asian companies. A recent study indicates that 27 of the recovered weapon systems, ranging from cruise missiles to air-defence systems, relied primarily on Western components.
Russian air-defence systems and cruise missiles are very much part of India’s arsenal, as are a range of other crucial systems that arm its three services. However, with the US, France and Israel aggressively building largely transactional partnerships with India, Russia’s share of India’s arms imports declined from 69% in 2012–16 to 46% in 2017–21. India accounted for the largest share of major arms imports, of 11%, in the 2017–21 period.
Other countries evidently have also diversified their arms imports. Russia’s arms exports fell by 26% between 2012–16 and 2017–21, and its share of global arms exports decreased from 24% to 19%. Russia delivered major arms to 45 nations in 2017–21.
Diversifying away from Russian weapons
Russia has had to suspend multimillion-dollar arms contracts with other nations, either because of the sanctions or in order to replenish losses of combat equipment in what it calls its ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.
Its overstretched arms production has caused a delay in the setting up of an Indo-Russia joint venture for manufacturing more than 600,000 AK-203 assault rifles costing over US$607 million in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Similarly delayed has been the delivery of four follow-on Talwar-class guided-missile frigates for the Indian Navy, two of them to be constructed in Kaliningrad and two in Mumbai. Russia has also deferred supplies to India of systems and spares for its Kilo-class submarines and its MiG-29 fighters and Mi-17 transport helicopters. Also delayed are five S-400 Triumf missile-defence systems.
Uncertainty in arms supply led India to suspend negotiations with Rosoboronexport, the export arm of Russian defence conglomerate Rostec, and its sister concern, Russian Helicopters, for 10 more Kamov Ka-31 helicopters costing US$520 million. The Indian Navy currently operates 14 Ka-31s, four of which were inducted in 2003, five in 2005 and five in 2013.
A superpower that had ushered in the Cold War era, Russia is now seeing its sphere of influence crumble as its forces persevere with a dispiriting battle and Putin tactlessly threatens the nuclear option as the military advantage slips from his grasp.
These issues have been testing India’s foreign policy, which has been guided by panchsheel, Hindi for five principles—respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence.
India seemed to have overlooked them all when it abstained from criticising Russia at both the UN and Quad forums. Prime Minister Narendra Modi heartened the US-led West, though, when he told Putin at their meeting at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan in September that the ‘era of war’ had ended. The Russian leader, however, lauded the comment as an expression of concern about the war. Yet, within a month, at the 13 October emergency special session of the UN General Assembly, India had abstained from voting on a resolution condemning and rejecting Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian regions, when 143 states voted for the proposal.
Can India escape CAATSA?
It’s unclear whether India will escape CAATSA if it accepts delivery from Nevskoe Design Bureau of the aviation facility complex for INS Vikrant that’s scheduled for the end of next year. The bureau was among 29 entities of Russia’s defence establishment sanctioned by the US State Department in April. An aviation facility complex is a crucial assembly that supports an aircraft carrier’s air wing, and without its integrated airpower the Vikrant will remain essentially a floating hull.
India is nevertheless hopeful of following through on the deal in the same way it managed to secure a CAATSA waiver in 2018 on its US$5.3 billion order with Russia for the five S-400 Triumfs. In July, the US House of Representatives passed an India-specific waiver under CAATSA by 330 to 99, while sanctioning Turkey, a NATO member, under the act for the purchase of the same Russian systems.
A country like India, however, can’t procure vital armaments on the basis of hope. Yet it appears that India’s reliance on foreign arms and ammunition will remain high. Modi’s keenness to boost domestic manufacturing of defence systems has been creating gaps, and Indian industry is not yet in position to produce high-technology military systems that can prove to be appropriate import substitutes.
The stress on indigenisation is preventing India’s air force, army and navy from importing certain critical weapons systems to replace ageing ones, leaving the country critically short of helicopters by 2026 and with an enormous shortfall of fighter jets by 2030. The prime minister’s proposal mandates between 30% and 60% of homemade components, depending on the nature of the military purchase and where it is sourced from.
Sarosh Bana is executive editor of Business India in Mumbai; regional editor, Indo-Pacific region, of Germany’s Naval Forces; and India correspondent of Sydney-based cybersecurity journal Asia Pacific Security Magazine.
This article was originally posted on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist blog, and is reposted here with their permission.