Military planners weigh impact of Russia sanctions
India’s overwhelming dependence on Russian military hardware — from fighter jets to rifles and submarines to shoulder-fired missiles — to keep its military battle-ready has come into sharp focus on the back of the US and its allies slapping tough sanctions on Russia in response to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, people familiar with the development said on Wednesday.
While it is still unclear how the new sanctions could play out and the problems they could create for the armed forces in the short and long term, the possible impact of Russia’s unprecedented economic isolation on India’s military preparedness and the serviceability of weapons and equipment is being minutely examined, said a senior official, who asked not to be named.
India’s concerns are not exaggerated as Russia has been its preferred arms provider for decades.
The country was India’s top arms supplier during 2016-20, accounting for 49% of New Delhi’s defence imports, according to a report released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).
While the Sipri report factored in only the recent imports from that country, the Indian arsenal bears an unmistakable Russian stamp. Russian-origin equipment used by India includes fighter jets, transport planes, helicopters, warships, submarines, tanks, infantry combat vehicles and multi-rocket systems.
“Apart from new equipment such as S-400 air defence systems, fighter jets and frigates that we are getting from Russia, we depend on them for spares and maintenance of the existing military hardware. We are analysing all aspects including stability in supply chain and making payments for ongoing projects and services amid sanctions on Russian banks,” said a second official who too asked not to be named.
Each of the three services has a raft of Russian-origin weapons and platforms. The Indian Air Force operates fighter jets such as Sukhoi-30s, MiG-29s and MiG-21s, Il-76 and An-32 transport planes, Il-78 midair 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 operates Russian-origin T-90 and T-72 tanks, BMP-II infantry combat vehicles, Smerch and Grad multi-rocket systems and several surface-to-air missile systems.
Though India has been procuring US military hardware in growing numbers, including Apache and Chinook helicopters and P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft, about 60% of the inventory of the three services continues to be of Russian-origin.
“We are not talking about a few weapons and systems. Russian-origin military hardware forms the bulk of our arsenal. It is crucial for us to ensure it is fully serviceable at all times to deal with any eventuality,” the second official added.
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 highlighted the need for achieving self-reliance in the defence sector. Army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane on Tuesday said the biggest lesson from the Ukraine crisis was that India has to be ready to fight future wars with indigenous weapons.
A country that imports its major armament systems cannot indigenise them through sporadic policy changes and a media blitz, said Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), former additional director general of the Centre for Air Power Studies.
“Building an indigenous R&D environment and manufacturing base requires decades. So, the only way out is to have a long-term plan that is India-specific and not dependent on the political party in power. The day this is understood by all shades of political thought, India would be on its way to having true strategic autonomy,” Bahadur added.
How exactly the sanctions against Russia will affect India is still a grey area, said former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Major (retd).
“However, we have to cut dependence on imported weapons, whether they are from Russia or any other country. The only answer is indigenisation. In the current context, we should try to figure out how we can produce spare parts of Russian weapons in India to maintain the existing inventory,” he added.
From raising foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence manufacturing to creating a separate budget for buying locally-made military hardware and notifying two lists of weapons/equipment that cannot be imported, the government has taken several measures to boost self-reliance in the defence sector over the last two to three years.
In the union budget announced on February 1, India earmarked ₹84,598 crore, 68% of the military’s capital acquisition budget for 2022-23 , for purchasing locally-produced weapons and systems to boost self-reliance in the defence sector, besides setting aside 25% of the defence R&D budget for private industry, startups and academia to encourage them to pursue design and development of military platforms.