India diversifies defense imports, becomes less reliant on Russia

India diversifies defense imports, becomes less reliant on Russia

Tom Abke

India is pushing ahead with plans to modernize its defense forces while moving away from Russia as its arms supplier of choice.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has targeted U.S. $250 billion for modernization of India’s military over the coming decade, Bloomberg reported. Delhi has placed more defense orders — contracts totaling U.S. $17 billion — with the United States during the past two years than with any other supplier. Russia, however, remains India’s overall leading supplier, accounting for more than 60 percent of total defense imports, reflecting a partnership left over from the Soviet Union era.

“What we’ve been seeing for the last two years is just a follow-up of what has been happening over the last decade,” said Prateek Joshi, a defense analyst at VIS India, a Delhi-based policy institute. “The real thrust began with the 2005 U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement when India gained legitimacy in the international system as a responsible power, one that needs to be engaged.”

After the 2005 nuclear deal, the U.S. began supplying India with strategic defense assets to replace aging Soviet-era weapons, Joshi explained, as well as assets to address emerging defense needs. These included the 2007 import of Lockheed C-130J Hercules transport aircraft when old Soviet-made Antonovs were retired and Boeing P-81 maritime patrol aircraft in 2009.

In 2017, India ordered another strategic asset from a U.S. supplier, the Sea Guardian drone, made by General Atomics. (Pictured: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump exchange ideas during a walk through the Rose Garden at the White House.)

Joshi attributes the trend away from Russian defense exports to supply-chain disruptions caused by the breakup of the former Soviet Union, reliability issues and the need for asset diversity.

“The assembly lines of Soviet-era weapons and equipment were spread across the different Soviet republics,” he said. “Once the Soviet Union collapsed, all these supply chains got dismantled. It became very difficult for India to get together all the pieces.”

Defects in the MiG-29 fighter aircraft, supplied by Moscow in 2004 and 2009 at a time when India’s military needs to resupply its aging squadrons, have whet Delhi’s appetite for advanced fighters from other countries, including France and the U.S. “The Russians more or less supply the same things to the Chinese as they offer India,” Joshi said. “So, if we one day engage with the Chinese, why should we have the same weapons — even if they are more advanced than what we currently have — which the Russians are supplying to the Chinese?”

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.