New Delhi: With no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, Russian supply lines are disrupted with New Delhi waiting for the advanced S-400 air defence systems. Moscow has postponed delivery of Talwar Class stealth frigates with shortages prompting massive military indigenisation plan.
For India, which has invested much in Russian armoury in the last six decades, the nine-month-long Ukraine war has come as a reality check. Roughly 70 to 85 percent of India’s military platforms are of Russian origin, a 2020 assessment by US think tank Stimson Centre said. It makes Russia the biggest exporter of military hardware to India.
About 90 percent of the Indian Army’s equipment comes from Russia, while the Indian Navy’s share of Russian equipment is, in contrast, estimated at 40 percent. Around 70 percent of the equipment of the India Air Force (IAF) is of Russian origin.
Given the two-front tensions that India faces, including an ongoing, two-year-long battle of attrition with China in Ladakh, there is very little breathing space.
With no end in sight to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Indian defence planners are particularly worried about the future of two crucial defence systems, the prestigious S-400 state-of-the-art Russian anti-aircraft defence system and the T-72 tanks that constitute the bulk of the country’s armoured power.
“The delivery of S-400s is already facing delays. With all signs of the war prolonging, there is little doubt that Russian supply chains are impacted. In fact, the Indian push towards indigenisation of arms and ammunition is, in the main, prompted by this war,” said Lt Gen Prakash Menon (Retd), director, strategic studies programme, Takshashila Institution.
New Delhi was hoping to acquire S-400s by 2023-end. Regarded by Western military members as one of the most compact and efficient air defence systems in the world, the Ukraine war has, however, shown that S-400s may not be as infallible as thought earlier.
India’s top security planners say they are watching the situation closely. Former IAF chief R K S Bhadauria said “we too have heard of this attack, but there is no confirmation. However, India has its own plans to defend S-400 systems. After all, our enemies have a better attacking arsenal than Ukraine, but Indian defenders are also better placed.”
The other cause for worry is the T-72 and T-90 tanks, India’s main armoured columns, which come from the family of Soviet/Russian main battle tanks (MBTs) that began production in 1969. Indianised as the T-72M1 Ajeya MBT, it includes 1,800-plus T-72M1 Ajeyas that were imported from the then USSR. The T-90s are now manufactured in India under licence from Russia without any transfer of technology. They are an upgrade of the T-72s.
Around 1,500 T-72 Ajeyas are in the process of being upgraded with new engines and fire control systems, reactive armour, fire detection and suppression systems, as well as new communication and navigation systems under the Combat Improved Ajeya program.
Although the first phase of the programme kicked off in the 1980s, it is unclear how many MBTs have been upgraded to date. The programme has faced delays on account of budget shortfalls and now the Ukraine war.
According to one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, around 70 percent of Indian T-72s may not be ready for combat. The combat readiness has been affected “due to various technical problems and because of missing spare parts, which are facing delays on account of the war in Europe.”
Now to the sore point. According to western and Ukrainian estimates, more than 2,200 Russian tanks have been destroyed in the war so far, and the numbers could well be higher. Even if Ukrainian information can be discounted in the fog of war, there is enough evidence to suggest that the Russian tanks, many among them T-272s, have been sitting ducks for US-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles and UK-produced next-generation light anti-tank weapon missiles (NLAWs).
“Javelin and NLAW are very potent,” Nick Reynolds, research analyst in land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), England, told BBC, adding that “without this lethal aid, the situation in Ukraine would be very different”.
India’s dependence on Russian military hardware goes back to the Cold War years. This defence partnership deepened after the Sino-Soviet split and resulted in robust security cooperation that acted as a counter to Pakistan’s ties with both the US and China in the 1970s.
Deals with Russia have often included lower-scale projects based on domestic development and production, such as the recent $677 million arrangement to jointly produce over 600,000 AK-203 assault rifles in India, the most popular gun in the hands of Indian soldiers operating in Kashmir. They also include large-scale, blockbuster deals for equipment such as fighter aircraft, submarines and India’s flagship aircraft carrier, the repurposed Admiral Gorshkov that now sails as INS Vikramaditya.
When it comes to anti-tank and air defence systems in the army, a large portion is constituted by the likes of the Konkurs anti-tank-guided missile (ATGM), Kornet ATGM, OSA surface-to-air missile (SAM), Pechora SAM, Strela SAM and the Igla SAM. Besides, Smerch and Grad, the multiple rocket launcher systems in use with the Indian Army, are Russian.
Moreover, despite the Indian names of surface ships, the Rajput-class destroyers, Talwar-class frigates, and Veer-class missile corvettes are all Russian off-the-shelf sales.
As for firepower, India also operates a whole series of made-in-Russia weapons, including the Kh-35 (a turbojet subsonic missile) and P-20 anti-ship missiles, Klub anti-ship/land attack missiles and APR-3E torpedo. This is apart from the INS Vikramaditya, which served in the Soviet Navy before it was decommissioned and bought by the Indian Navy in 2004.
Regarding submarines, the eight Kilo-class submarines acquired from Russia form the bulk of India’s fleet. And New Delhi also remains intent on the lease of a third Russian nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN), Chakra-III.
The Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters constitute about 14 of the IAF’s 30 squadrons. There are also MiG-29UPG and MiG-21 fighters, IL-78 tankers, as well as two IL-76 aircraft that have been converted to carry airborne warning and control systems that India has bought from Israel.
In a March 2022 paper for Australian think tank Lowy Institute, strategic analyst Dhruva Jaishankar wrote, “Militarily, a Russia at war (or on a war footing) will be less capable of providing India with critical defence equipment… Moreover, economic transactions of all kinds with Russia will be more difficult amid wide and severe international sanctions involving virtually all US allies. There are also political implications: it will be harder for Russia to provide support or even neutrality to India in the event of a China-India clash given Moscow’s growing economic and political dependence on Beijing.”
Adding to the complexity is the fact that India has several essential defence imports from Ukraine, including upgrades for the AN-32, R-27 air-to-air-missiles and propulsion systems for frigates, which are facing disruption because Kyiv needs it for self-defence.
That the Ukraine war has hastened India’s defence indigenisation push is beyond doubt. In March this year, India issued a list of 107 subsystems that are to be banned from import and indigenised over the next six years. Several of the items on the list are meant for T-90 and T-72 tanks, warships, helicopters, infantry combat vehicles, missiles, ammunition and radars, among others, all of which are procured from either Russia or Ukraine.
Even as the Department of Military Affairs is collating information from all the three services to understand the dependency on Russian supplies, India continues to wait for the S-400s and other military hardware that are contracted. Russia has already delayed the delivery of two Talwar-class stealth frigates for up to six months. It is only when these weapon systems arrive that New Delhi’s fears will be allayed.