US overtakes Russia as India’s Largest Defence Supplier

USA Set to be India’s Biggest Arms Supplier

Gone are the days when Russia claimed monopoly over defence supplies to the Indian armed forces. Last month, the United States made a renewed effort to become India’s largest arms supplier, having signed a number of new deals and worked out partnerships that shall mature over the next decade. The US is set to bag defence deals worth millions of dollars with the signing of the 10-year defence framework with India’s Ministry of Defence. Over the past eight years, US suppliers are believed to have bagged defence deals worth over USD eight million from the Indian Armed Forces.

Even as far back as August 2014, the then Defence Minister Arun Jaitley informed the Lok Sabha that the nation’s expense towards import of weapon systems from foreign vendors since 2011 was estimated at INR 83,458 crore. At the time INR 32,615 crore worth of arms and defence supplies came from the US while about INR 25,363.96 crore worth defence supplies came from Russia. India is the biggest buyer of arms across the globe. Our nation imports almost thrice as many weapons as neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and China. Through the Cold War era and beyond, Russia has been India’s largest supplier. Between 2009 and 2013, 75 percent of India’s defence imports came from Russia. But this is set to change.

American Deals in the Offing

Last week, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) led by Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, cleared purchase of four Boeing P8I maritime surveillance aircrafts for the Indian Navy – a deal worth about INR 4,380 crore (approximately USD 1 billion). This is in addition to the eight Boeing P8Is acquired in a January 2009 deal for USD 2.1 billion. The final approval from the Finance Ministry and the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) are now awaited. These aircraft come fitted with their own radars and are also equipped with a number of missiles, torpedoes, and rockets (including the Harpoon Block-II missiles and MK-54 lightweight torpedoes) effective in combating warships and submarines in the Indian Ocean.

Among the other aircraft that India is planning to import from the US, the C-17Globemaster III, a large military transport aircraft also manufactured by Boeing, deserves special mention. The C-17 Globemaster III already in service with the IAF heavily featured recently in the evacuation of Indian nationals from Yemen. The Contract Negotiation Committee (CNC) of India is currently scrutinising the deal. On the chopper front, the deal involving import of 22 Apache attack Longbow gunship has been passed by the CNC. The USD 1.4 billion deal is under consideration by the Finance Ministry. The ministry is also considering a USD 1.1 billion deal involving import of 15 CH-47F Chinhook helicopters. Indian Army may follow up these deals by importing 39 Apaches more at a later date.

Another important government-to-government deal being worked out involves the acquisition of M-777 ultra-light howitzers by India. The USD 770 million deal involves most of the artillery guns that India plans to import. These 155mm lightweight howitzers are 39-calibre and operate in a strike range of about 25 kilometers making them ideal for use in difficult terrains.

Apart from these deals, India and the US are planning to close a number of deals involving technology sharing over chemical and biological warfare, aviation designing, and drone technology.

Excessive Reliance on Russia

Indian armed forces have been heavily dependent on Russian defence supplies over the decades. Following India’s independence, during the USSR era, various defence deals signed between the two nations were viewed as a major cementing factor of the close ties that bound them. With the fall of the USSR, Russia has continued with the legacy of supplying the Indian armed forces most of its arms and vehicles.

Among the three defence forces, the Indian Air Force is, perhaps, most dependent on Russian imports. Some of India’s major fighter planes such as the MIG 21 (Type 69 and 96), the MIG 21 Bison, MIG 27 (upgraded), the MIG 29 and the Sukoi 30MK 2 aircraft are all based on Russian technology. Some of them were bought from Russia in a fly-away condition while others were assembled at the Hindustan Aeronautical Limited center in India through knowledge transfer from Russia. The Mil Mi-17 choppers used extensively in the north eastern regions by the Indian Air Force have also been procured from Russia.

Both, the Indian Army and the Air Force use a number of surface-to-air missiles that have been imported from Russia. The Russian surface-to-air missiles (SAM), Igla-S are extensively used by both the forces. Both forces also use a number of Russian transport helicopters, primarily the AN 32 and the IL 76. Most of India’s medium range gunnery and artillery is also based on Russian technology.

At present India’s dependence on Russia both in terms of its defence technology and procurement is immense. India’s need to diversify its imports and technology is almost as high as its need to develop indigenous capabilities. In the first budget he had presented as India’s Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley announced an increase in FDI in the defence sector taking it up to 49 percent. This certainly made way for a number of non-Russian companies to eye India as the next big market.

Where is Indian Defence Headed?

If the host of deals that are under negotiation with the US come through, Indian armed forces shall receive the big boost that it requires in terms of modernisation and upgradation of equipment. While other Asian nations such as China and Pakistan have undertaken major modernisation efforts in recent times, India has relied mainly on upgrades from Russia and Ukraine. Apart from the defence implications, these deals will breathe new life into Indo-US diplomatic ties as well.

American involvement, however, by no means diminishes the value of Russian involvement in India’s defence systems. Indian Air Force, at least, is still heavily dependent on Russian technology. A complete transfer of technology and systems is well-nigh impossible and even if undertaken may take a good 2 to 3 decades to completely implement. This includes the time required to train our personnel and induct new systems.

Despite the good cheer that newer deals and acquisitions bring, it becomes imperative to consider that India now needs to seriously look at developing indigenous capabilities when it comes to defence systems. We have the skills and the systems required to undertake these efforts. A complete understanding of our terrains, our need and requirements will go a long way in developing Brand India. The next step, perhaps, will be to curb our dependence on foreign technology and turn exporters.

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