Home India - Russia Defence Cooperation: Time to Look Forward

India - Russia Defence Cooperation: Time to Look Forward

The Soviet Union earlier, and Russia thereafter, have been the most reliable suppliers of state-of-art armament for India’s defence forces. India and Russia have an institutionalized structure to oversee the complete range of issues of military technical cooperation. The India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-MTC), set up in 2000, is at the apex of this structure.

The backbone of India’s military deterrence, in the form of frontline offensive equipment like the Sukhoi 30 MKI combat aircraft of the IAF, the Navy’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, Rajput class guided missile destroyers and the nuclear submarine, as also the T-90 main battle tank and BMP II infantry combat vehicles (ICVs) of the Indian Army are all of Russian origin. In fact, the MBTs and ICVs are manufactured under license in the Medak and Avadi Ordnance factories. In addition, other critical military equipment in the Indian inventory like long range artillery,  air defence missiles, attack submarines, medium helicopters, surveillance aircraft and transport aircraft have also been majorly sourced from Russia.

More recently, the ‘buyer-seller relationship’ has transformed to a new approach involving joint research and design development for production of ‘state of the art’ military platforms. Joint development and production of the Brahmos cruise missile and joint development of the fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) signify landmark advancements in the field of defence technological cooperation between the two countries. The supply and joint manufacture of two hundred Kamov 226T helicopters for the Indian military, as part of the Indian Govt’s ‘Make in India’ initiative, puts Russia at the forefront of the new model of India’s equipment procurement procedure.

Since 2003, naval ships and army units from Russia and India have been participating in combined annual military exercises called ‘Exercise Indira’, alternately in either country. This has enabled both countries to build relationships, share tactics, techniques and procedures as well as gain knowledge about each other’s military and ethos.   

The Soviet Union initially, and Russia subsequently, have also provided support to India in the field of military training. Though, most of this support was in the form of technical training related to military equipment procured from Russia, Indian officers also attended tactical and military leadership courses at prominent academies like Voroshilov, Frunze, Malinovsky, Vasilevsky, and Kursi Vystrel. Indian officers also trained at the Timoshenko Academy on Chemical and Nuclear Defence. Russian officers attended the Indian Staff College. Unfortunately, language and cost proved serious barriers in later years and this element of the mutual relationship was allowed to die down after the previous bilateral agreement on the subject expired in 2004.

Challenges in Indo-Russian Defence Cooperation  

As Soviet Union-India Defence Cooperation had mostly remained a buyer-seller relationship in the field of military equipment, problems started surfacing in the post-Cold War era when the cost of Russian items shot up suddenly, the problem of spares’ availability kept deteriorating (after Russia lost access to its erstwhile factories in other republics of the Soviet Union), and India started making efforts to diversify its sources of defence procurement. Russia sought privileged ‘single vendor’ status and expressed uneasiness at being put through ‘multi-vendor’ procurement procedures along with vendors from other countries. The major difference in original and re-negotiated cost of aircraft carrier Gorshkov was also a bone of contention, which defied resolution during the period from 1999 to 2004, but fortunately, was resolved eventually. There are major problems even today related to Russian aircraft being delivered without critical parts, due to Western sanctions, which India has to import directly.

It is also a fact that, politically, since recent years, quadrilateral dynamics of the India – United States – Russia – China relationships are also throwing their shadow on the India – Russia relationship. At a time when relations of the United States with both China and Russia have been deteriorating, its relations with India have been on an upswing. China and Russia have been strengthening their mutual security relations through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is developing as an anti-US/Western grouping. Further, India’s relationship with China continues to face challenges due to its border disputes as well as China supporting Pakistan on a host of issues of concern to India. Nonetheless, it is to the credit of both India and Russia that they have not let these challenges come in the way of their mutual relationship.

Towards that end, the Indian government has painstakingly ensured that positive developments in India’s relations with the United States have not been at the cost of its special relationship with Russia. The Indian Govt has always been at pains to explain to their Russian counterparts that India has its own strategic and security compulsions independent of Russia, where the United States plays a special role. India has always shared a special relationship with the United States due to sharing common democratic values and the English language. Indian Americans draw the highest income and are the best educated immigrant people in the United States, and at 3.18 million, are also the fastest growing racial group. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that India will never allow the dynamics of the India-US relationship to impact negatively on Russian interests. And so far, it appears Russia is appreciative of these facts.

In recent years, the non-renewal of Russia-India Agreement for military training in each other’s institutions of higher learning has led to loss of opportunity at strengthening the mutual defence relationship. The previous agreement on the subject was allowed to lapse in 2004 (possibly due the high cost of military courses in Russia) and thereafter remained unsigned for ten years, up till President Putin’s visit in 2014. Consequently, the relationship got restricted to just equipment issues – and suffered from the ups and downs related to equipment shortcomings, non-availability of spares, and so on. Costs of military courses, in dollar or euro terms, are perceived as extremely high and there are also issues with regard to ‘medium of instruction’ (language) and course content. Reciprocal arrangements for attendance at courses by officers from both sides may be a good way out to resolve the current impasse and resume this important instrument of defence cooperation available to both sides.

Furthermore, recent developments In Russia-Pakistan defence cooperation have been causing concern in India. Since the last three years, in a marked shift in Russian defence policy, Russia has started enhancing defence cooperation and supplying defence equipment to India’s arch-rival Pakistan, in contravention to earlier informal agreements between India and Russia. Russia has reportedly signed an agreement last year to sell four Mi 35 advanced attack helicopters to Pakistan. It has also signed an agreement to directly supply Klimov RD-93 engines for the JF-17 fighter aircraft, being manufactured by Pakistan under license from China. Pakistan is also reportedly in talks with Russia for supply of the Su-35 multi-role combat aircraft. Russia has also started conducting joint military exercises with Pakistan.

In their discussions with their Indian counterparts, Russian officials make efforts to play down these developments and explain them as being linked to Russian interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Russia needs to be conscious of the fact that all defence equipment that is sought by Pakistan are meant for use against India. Consequently, enhanced defence cooperation, resulting in supply of modern military equipment to Pakistan by Russia, will have its negative impact on India-Russia relations, which definitely needs to be avoided at this stage.

The Road Ahead

Energising the India-Russia strategic partnership remains a vital need for both countries amid a changing regional and global security environment. This assumes special challenges at a stage when both countries appear to be strengthening strategic relationships on opposite sides of the global power divide. In these challenging circumstances, which could get complicated further based on the outcome of the US presidential elections, both countries would need to tread a careful path to make sure that they do not undermine each other’s strategic and security interests.

In addition to the strong traditional bilateral partnership, the BRICS platform must be used by both countries to enhance their mutual partnership and develop relationships in many fields, including defence cooperation. Russia must show understanding about India’s efforts to assume a more substantive role in regional and global affairs and provide support accordingly. Russia must understand that any progress by India will not run contrary to Russia’s interests. In fact, India’s growth will always be cognizant of and sensitive to Russia’s strategic interests.

There are agreements underway for Russia to supply and/or jointly manufacture a number of items of critical need to the Indian military, including Kamov 226T light helicopters, stealth frigates, Triumf S400 long range air defence systems and air launched Brahmos missile systems. Russia can play an important part in the ongoing future ready combat vehicle (FRCV) and future infantry combat vehicle (FICV) projects of the Indian Army by collaborating with the Indian public or private sector. Negotiations are also reportedly underway for upgradation of frontline equipment like Sukhoi 30 MKI aircraft, T72 tanks and ICVs. Thus, India-Russia defence cooperation is likely to continue with renewed vigour, albeit, in a more cooperative mode, involving collaborative manufacture in Indian facilities.

With regard to the overarching need to enhance defence cooperation, Russia-India defence relations must expand beyond the field of military equipment and tactical level training. Training of military leadership, especially strategic and operational level training of middle level military officers, provides maximum opportunity to build bridges between militaries. Both countries must get over the language barrier and engage each other more vigorously in the field of military training, especially attendance at each other’s military courses and other events.

In the meanwhile, a special effort must be put in mutually to address the problems in spares availability that has cropped up in recent years. Russia must be cognizant of India’s aims and objectives to achieve self-reliance in the field of arms manufacture.  A joint and mutually cooperative approach would enable Russia to play an important role in empowering the Indian defence industry, thus contributing to further strengthening the mutual relationship. 


The Author is former Vice Chief of Army Staff. Views expressed are personal.

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Lt Gen Philip Campose

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