Three Stages of Indo-Russian Defence Relations: A Military Perspective
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM


This Apr this year, India and Russia celebrated 70 years of their diplomatic relations. The occasion was marked with reciprocal visits of the Heads of State to each other's country. While PM Modi wrote 'India, Russia relations have withstood the test of time and have grown from strength to strength', the Russian President, in an article in the their National Daily, wrote on 30 May 17, ' Our Peoples have always had mutual sympathy and respect for each other's spiritual values and culture'.
While the total mosaic of Indo-Russian relations covers a very wide canvas, from a military perspective, the defence relations between the two countries have had three distinct and identifiable stages. This work attempts to take a look at each of these stages.


Though the founding fathers of our nation chose to follow the path of non-alignment, maintaining a visible ideological distance from the two rival poles of the Cold War era, there has always been something special about the relationship between Soviet Union and India, and later Russia and India.

Following a time chronology in the relationship between the two nations, in so far as it relates to the defence perspective, three distinct stages, as stated above are identifiable. The first one of these relates to the Soviet era, second relates to the times of the demise of the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and third is the current one, relating to the geopolitical realities of the Russian Block (implying a group of countries that earlier formed the constituents of the then USSR) of 'today' and the India of 'today'.

Stage 1: The Soviet Era

The USSR was one country that sent its Ambassador, Kirill Novikov to establish diplomatic relations with India even prior to our former declaration of Independence -he reported on 15 Apr 1947. Even in military and defence domain, the relations between the USSR and India have always remained very warm and cordial, carrying a bit of the 'big brother flavour' on part of the former. Starting with early fifties, the signs of support and solidarity from the Soviet Union were clearly visible when it announced its support to the Indian sovereignty over the disputed territory in Kashmir and in Goa. In fact, by very judiciously declaring neutrality in the Sino-Indian war of 1962, it faced strong objections from China, but Premier Khrushchev remained firm. History has it that in the next war thrust upon our country in 1965, it was USSR that played a major role in brokering peace between two warring nations.

Most significantly, from fifties to late sixties, it was defence technology and equipment coming from the USSR that actually built the spine of the Indian military. In 1962, USSR agreed to transfer the technology to co-produce its frontline fighter jet MIG 21; something it had denied even to China earlier. What this supersonic fighter interceptor meant to India at that point in time, and how, is indicated by this absolutely marvellous design spanning all sense of time with a tenure extending from 1961 to 2017-18 when it is slated to retire, while its updated version Bison, is still to go on till 2022. By that time, it is slated to be replaced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited ‘Tejas’.

If the above time window is extended and is taken up to around eighties, about 60 to 70 percent of all military hardware for the Indian defence forces came from the USSR -MiG 27, MiG 29, IL 76, Mi 35, Mi26,Mi 17, Mi8 in the current inventory of the Indian Air Force (IAF), IL 38 and MiG 29 K in the current Naval Air Arm, AK series of assault rifles, general purpose and heavy machine guns for the Infantry, multiple types of bridge laying equipments of several makes for Engineers, T 72 Tanks for Armoured Corps, BMPs for Mechanised Infantry, howitzers (M46, D30),heavy guns (180 mm), BM 21 rocket launchers for Artillery and a whole series of Ground Based Air Defence Weapon Systems (GBADWS), complete with their command, control and support systems - ZU 23-2 Guns, Schilka Weapon System, Strela 2M Shoulder fired Missiles, Strela 10 and OSA AK Very Short Range Missile Systems and Kvadrat Area Air Defence System- all belong to this era. The above weapon system list is by no way comprehensive. It is merely indicative and only includes some of the weapons still continuing in the current arsenal of Indian defence Forces.

What was this type of defence relationship and the pattern of acquisition of Defence equipment? Well, most of these deals related to Government-to-Government (G2G) agreements that normally preceded or followed the visits of national leaders on either side to each other's country. Most of the above procurements were a kind of 'what came as a packet from USSR' - main weapon systems and spare line. There were no such encumbrances like Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP), Request For Information (RFI), water tight and non-negotiable Services Qualitative Requirements (SQRs) , long winded chains of series of approvals starting from Acceptance of Necessity (AoN), categorisation on the type of acquisitions by Services Capital Acquisition Committees and Higher Committees (SCAPCC and SCAPCHC) and finally the casting of dice at the Defence Acquisition Committee (DAC), the chain that is currently in vogue.

Seeing one such deal first hand (SAM 6 Kvadrat Weapon System), the ease associated with the series of receipts of sub-consignment was easy to be taken for granted. Equipment were simply taken over, duly cleared in a G2G agreement in sub-unit groups, complete with main equipment, live equipment based simulators, ZIP drives (spare support kits) and a host of training literature. This was preceded by a select lot of all ranks moving to USSR for a hands-on training package on the equipment which culminated into live firing.

It is no wonder therefore that from early sixties to late seventies or beginning eighties, the Indian armed force accumulated a huge percentage (nearly 60+%)of arsenal from the Soviet Union. Another important feature in those times was that since the equipment was comparatively new and all the production lines of the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) were still open, the continuous supply of spares (which were in any case needed in lesser quantities) came directly as spare consignments while the ZIP spares largely remained intact!

That was the hey-day period for the Soviet arsenal. Receipt of complete consignment as packets with deliveries spaced over time and in smaller identifiable packages for specific fire units were being received in regular intervals. As said, since most of the equipment was in its first quarter life-cycle, requirement of deep spare support was very less while the running spares were smoothly coming with OEM production lines. Great times indeed!

Stage 2: Soviet Demise and Aftermath

And then the eclipse started to set in slowly. It all commenced in one way or the other with the demise of the Soviet Union on 25 Dec 1991. Besides a host of political and diplomatic upheavals arising out of what the newly independent States inherited from the erstwhile stature and the aura of Soviet Union, in the defence domain some earth-shaking events unfolded in the years that followed. These would leave some permanent scars on India’s defence system for years to come.

The most significant of them all was the grim reality that the erstwhile comprehensive defence manufacturing base of a host of big and small industries, design bureaus, production units, et al, that was spread over the entire landmass of the Soviet Union. These had a capability to design, manufacture and sustain a whole hierarchy of weapon systems all on their own, but now lay scattered into 15 newly born independent States, each in its cradle (except Russia) and each governed by its own set of newly defined or undefined national priorities.

The effect of this 'scattering away' of 'one whole' under 'one control' into many an independent entities had a far reaching effect. First and foremost, the umbilical chain which ensured that multiple systems and sub-systems produced by different manufacturing units are seamlessly integrated into one end-product, simply gave way as independent countries now controlled various production bases each capable of a part but not the whole. The connection had now to be established through dialogues with each of the newly independent States, many of which were just about rising from the smouldering ruins of the collapsed giant called the Soviet Union. Also several newly independent states, barring a few (Russia, Ukraine, Uzbek, Belarus), were in fractured state of economy. Funds required to restart the wheels of the defence industry were simply not there. Besides there were hundred other priorities to attend to, internal unrest and civil wars not the least of them.

As years rolled, while Russia as the legally accepted inheritor of the Soviet legacy took the lead in picking up the threads of what was the precedents and traditions of the mighty defence industrial design and production base of the erstwhile USSR, in effect, it could never reach anywhere to 'what it was'. Over the years, many OEMs faced with a quagmire of political and economic compulsions started closing production lines. For several of them it was kind of a vicious circle of a fait accompli chain reaction since they produced sub-systems whose demand in the 'pull system' shrunk because the final assembler and integrator was either not operating in full gear, or was in a scale down mode.

For the Indian armed forces sitting over a huge Soviet inventory and used to the seamless ease of dealing with the USSR, the 'demise after-effects' were catastrophic to say the least, though their total de-stabilising effect was fully felt only over the years. In fact, the first couple of years after the break-up got spent in just trying to re-establish the severed links and trying to find a re-connect with a new and hereto unknown flag bearer called Russia, who while trying its best to pick up loose threads and get a move on, fell short on many counts.

The above state of things started to show their ugly faces to the user domain. The first unwelcome realisation started to come over the spares of main frame combat equipment. As the spare support, which first stared drying up to a minimal sporadic trickle, the ZIP packs started to get opened up. As the show had to go on complete with its rigour of regular training and live firing of equipment year-on-year, reserves of spares started to dip lower and lower while hardly anything fetched up from the OEMs. The scheduled overhauls (OHs) started to slip only to be replaced later by OH and Repair as Necessary (ORAN).While several Russian and its supporting conglomerate of companies represented by Rosoboron Exports (RBE) promised the moon in spare support, hardly anything actually fetched up on ground.

The user made desperate attempts for Last Time Buys (LTBs) but it fetched a near void. Several countries like Israel, Poland, Singapore etc. came forward with a promise of spare support but all of that proved to be 'too little and too late for joy'. Another thing that was noticed by the users at this time was that Russia, with the state of economy that it was in, actually started sky-rocketing the spares costs by wide margins - for some critical components the costs went up by more than a 1000%! A stage slowly emerged when the users were left with no choice but to carry out cannibalisation to keep a portion of the fleet operational at the cost of losing out on some numbers. Around this time (2000-03), efforts were put in to indigenise the spares. Directorate of Indigenisation (DOI) came up under the Corps of Electronic and Mechanical Engineers. The journey for DOI has been long and arduous with very less actual throughput till date - understandably so.

Besides the spares imbroglio, the delivery schedules started to slip, especially in case of ammunition and missiles. The catastrophic beating which their economy had taken showed up at many places. RBE started quoting unrealistic costs for mainframe equipment thus losing out in several big ticket procurements in multi-vendor scenarios - case in point, Tunguska Weapon system for Army Air Defence. Since the time was now approaching for the periodic OH of mainframe equipment, The OEMs started to make astronomical time and cost estimates for setting up facilities for the OH – a case in point being the overhaul of guns and missile systems of Air force and Army. Besides this, RBE stared to drag its feet on many offset negotiations or asking for unbelievable costs for Transfer of Technology (ToT).

Getting frustrated with the emerging realities, the armed forces stated looking elsewhere towards countries like USA, Israel, UK, Sweden, France, Singapore, Germany and Korea. The initial years were a NO-GO for USA due to a seemingly impassable disconnect between our DPP and their procedure of Foreign Military Sales (FMS). It is besides the point that today the No 1 arms supplier to India is not Russia but USA.

At that stage things were actually looking bad and difficult for the Soviet origin equipment.

Stage 3: Move to the Present and Future

As time passed, the debilitating effects of the break up started to loosen its suffocating bind and Russia primarily, along with Ukraine, Bulgaria, and a few others stared to rise from the mess, so to say.

In the meanwhile, a complete metamorphosis was underway in India as well. This was marked with the new found euphoria of ‘Make-in-India’, strengthening of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), shaking the Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) from their deep slumber and the states of complacencies and despondencies. All this and more gradually started to usher a totally changed defence manufacturing eco system, made possible by the new found strength and techno-capability, as also a gradual coming of age of the defence private Industry.

Russia (as also the rest of the world) slowly came to realise that fuelled by DPP 2016, complete with its appendices and annexures, the defence eco system in India had 'new signatures and 'rules of survival' for the foreign OEMs. The new Code of Conduct now demanded a regime of make in India, joint ventures, memorandum of understandings (MoU), co-development of niche equipment, joint production with buy back clause, compulsion of transfer of niche technology in the 'know why' domain, equal ownership in cutting edge development projects, to name some. That code actually summed up the current and futuristic status of our defence procurement scenario. Thanks to the 'slow but sure' growth (though there are many a glitches yet) of the private industry and the opportunities for strengthening of the indigenous muscle of the defence procurement base by the DPP 2016, every foreign OEM came to know too well, the compulsions of following the spelt out mandate. Accordingly, it was not uncommon to see many OEMs aligning themselves to the tune of ‘Make in India’. In fact one of them has adopted the punch line 'Made in India'.

The Russian block was no exception. They adopted themselves nicely to the changed rules of the game. To sample these developments; some old, some new:-

• The BrahMos success story is actually the crown jewel in the Indo-Russia defence co-operation on equal footing. The project prides itself of co-design, co-development and co-production with equal rights on niche technology areas. This was prominently visible recently in the open source literature relating to the ongoing development of the miniature version of BrahMos or while developing the hypersonic velocity technologies ( 6 Mac+).
• Contract to sell the S-400 Air defence and BMD system is another example of contemporary defence relationship. A weapon system of such a capability (range 400 km, altitude coverage 20 km) is a totally way-up induction in what the capability is currently possessed by the existing weapon inventory of GBADWS across the three Services. This niche technology is poised to come to India aligned with the new DPP.

• Of the 200 Kamov KA 226 T helicopters, only the first 60 are coming in the fly away condition. The balance 140 are to be made in India with complete transfer of technology. Similarly in the co-development and co-production of the futuristic fifth Generation Fighter, T 50 PAK FA, issues like work share, Intellectual Propriety Rights (IPR) on ToT, access to codes and roots et al, are played between India and Russia on near-equal footing. In fact, an earlier one-sided imbalance in favour of Russia in the niche work share rights over technologies related to PAK FA actually delayed the project till a mutually acceptable balance was achieved.


And finally, a word on the age-old dictum, ‘There are no permanent friends or permanent enemies of a State, what is permanent is national interests’. In difficult times post the break-up of USSR, as also in the recent past (2012-2015 period) when India started to look elsewhere for its big ticket items (futuristic multirole fighter jets, artillery mainstay guns/howitzers etc), in 2015, Russia lifted arms embargo against Pakistan and sold to them 4 MI-35 attack helicopters. Again in Dec 2016 India was excluded by Russia from its joint exercise with Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. In essence, our historical warmth and goodwill notwithstanding, the Russia-China-Pakistan axis is also a reality that cannot be wished away. Its dormancy/ resurgence is driven by the perception of Russian national interests at any point in time. It is also a kind of 'tool of reciprocal behaviour' driven by Indian moves 'as perceived' by our friend.

Such are the three shades of Indo-Russian defence relations which have unfolded in the last seven decades. As it stands today, the future of these relations is likely to be driven by the new and emerging contours of resurgent India and will be tweaked by what measure of success we can turn in on our new found dream of MAKE IN INDIA.

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