India’s materiel dilemma over Ukraine crisis : The Tribune India

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India’s materiel dilemma over Ukraine crisis

The more immediate crisis surrounded diverse Russian materiel awaiting delivery to India, for which substantial payments had already been made, alongside continually needed spares and components for the in-service kit to keep the military adequately operational. Also, India had recently concluded assorted deals with Russia to provide it diverse missiles.

India’s materiel dilemma over Ukraine crisis

Unpredictable: The Ukraine crisis outcome is uncertain and Russia’s future status as a weapons provider means looking at alternatives. Tribune photo



Rahul Bedi

Senior journalist

The chatter in official and media circles over diversifying India’s predominantly Russian materiel, following widespread punitive sanctions against Moscow over its Ukraine invasion, costs nothing. However, the expense, energy and time required to vindicate such a gargantuan endeavour are, well, simply inestimable.

A distant casualty of Moscow’s ongoing campaign, India faces a nightmarish situation that will necessitate its military replacing some 50 per cent of its Soviet-era and Russian-origin platforms for all the three services, assorted other hardware, missile systems and varied ordnance with local or imported equivalents.

The sheer magnitude, complexity and density of such an enterprise, however, would be exacerbated by India’s complex and hidebound procurement procedures, byzantine bureaucracy, continually deferred decision-making, corruption scandals and other handicaps. These, in turn, would be doubly compounded by the services’ ineptitude in clearly delineating their wants and in formulating realistic and attainable equipment specifications.

But the more immediate crisis surrounded diverse Russian materiel awaiting delivery to India, for which substantial payments had already been made, alongside continually needed spares and components for the in-service kit to keep the military adequately operational. These included four of the five Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air (SAM) missile systems, four Admiral Grigorovich Project 1135.6M frigates, leasing of one more Project 971 ‘Akula’(Schuka-B)-class nuclear-powered submarine (SSN) and providing 20,000 Kalashnikov AK-203 7.62x39 mm assault rifles, which were a part of the deal signed last December to locally licence-build 601,427 of them.

Additionally, India had recently concluded assorted deals with Russia to provide it diverse missiles, including man-portable Very Short Range Defence Systems (VSHORADS), tank ammunition and ordnance, much of it for employment by the Indian Army, which is locked in a continuing faceoff with China’s People’s Liberation Army in Ladakh since May 2020.

But more critically, the US and European sanctions on Russia could conceivably jeopardise India’s recent $375-million BrahMos cruise missile export order from the Philippines. Industry officials deemed this more than likely, as Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia (NPOM) that constituted the joint venture with India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation to design, upgrade and manufacture BrahMos was responsible for providing the missile system’s engine and seekers. NPOM’s inability to provide these vital components due to sanctions would threaten India’s first major overseas contract aimed at officially boosting materiel exports five-fold to Rs 35,000 crore by 2025.

India was also in advanced discussions with Russia to procure 464 Russian T-90MS main battle tanks (MBTs), an undisclosed number of 2S25 Sprut-SD light tanks for employment in Ladakh and 12 Sukhoi Su-30MKIs — to be licence-built locally — besides several other items. All are collectively imperilled now by the sanctions.

An inventory of the Russian defence employed by India’s military reveals the immense and unimaginable magnitude of the task in seeking substitutes. The Indian Air Force’s 29 or 30 combat squadrons, for instance, comprise some 272 Su-30MKIs, over 100 MiG-21 ‘Bis’ ground attack fighters, around 60 MiG-29 air superiority platforms and 220-odd Mi-17 ‘Hip’ variant medium-lift helicopters.

The Indian Navy’s principal warships were predominantly Russian in origin and design, or both. Topping this list was INS Vikramaditya (ex-Admiral Gorshkov), the retrofitted 44,500-tonne Kiev-class aircraft carrier and its air arm of 16 MiG-29K/KuB fighters. Concurrently, another 29 MiG-29Ks will comprise the combat fleet of INS Vikrant, the indigenously developed 37,500-tonne carrier, presently undergoing sea trials and scheduled for commissioning in August to mark India’s 75th Independence Day anniversary.

The Navy also operated six Talwar-class frigates, in addition to another four advanced variants on order, while its underwater platforms included nine ‘Kilo’-class Type 877 diesel-electric submarines of a total of 16 boats. Russia had also provided the DRDO vital assistance in designing INS Arihant, the Navy’s first indigenously designed and built nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) that joined service surreptitiously in August 2016.

Russia is also presently involved in transferring knowhow to miniaturise the 82.5-MW reactor for the four or five follow-on SSBNs, presently under construction at the classified Ship Building Centre in Vishakhapatnam.

No other country has been willing to make such strategic technology transfers to India, but sanctions would most definitely thwart Moscow’s ability to continue doing so, thereby endangering the SSBN programme and adversely impacting the Navy’s operational reach in the Indian Ocean Region to challenge the PLA navy.

Furthermore, over 95 per cent of the Army’s fleet of around 3,000 MBTs operated by 67-odd armoured regiments were Russian T-72M1 and T-90S variants — imported directly and licence-built — whilst some 2,000-odd infantry combat vehicles or ICVs — the Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty (BMP) 1& 2 — were similarly sourced.

Russia’s militarism also hit a multiplicity of Ukrainian contracts, like the upgrade of around 60 IAF Antonov An-32 ‘Cline’ transport aircraft, the supply of critical R-27 air-to-air missiles for Su-30MKIs and the transfer of eight Zorya-Mashproekt M7N1EW gas turbines to power the Navy’s four under-construction Talwar-class frigates. Two of these were being built at Russia’s Yantar Shipyard and two at Goa Shipyard Limited (GSL), under a transfer of technology pact. The Ukrainian engines for the former two warships had reportedly been transferred to Russia, but not the ones intended for GSL.

No Ministry of Defence official or service officer could even remotely predict the outcome of either the Ukraine conflict, the world order after it ended or Russia’s future status as one of the world’s leading weapons providers. But there was increasing unanimity amongst them that diversifying India’s materiel needs was critical and planning for it needed to begin straightaway, especially with regard to spares and related apparatus for in-use equipment.

Such a mammoth task, however, also presented the federal government and the services an opportunity to streamline procurement procedures and undertake realistic planning keeping in mind India’s depreciating financial resources. Accelerating decision-making and erring on the side of advanced technologies would also serve to effectively modernise the country’s lugubrious military and easing the formation of the proposed integrated theatre commands to meet the palpable threats in India’s neighbourhood. 

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