There is a way to wean India off Russian weapons

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The Indian government’s reluctance to forcefully condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine appears to have awakened Washington leaders to a long-simmering issue: how to wean the Indian military from its dependence on Russian weapons. According to Bloomberg News, the US government is considering a $500 million defense package for India to fund the purchase of US weapons systems.

While half a billion dollars might seem like a lot of money, it really isn’t compared to the scale of the problem. Until recently, India bought almost all of its front-line weapons from Russia. Stimson Center researchers calculate that, thanks to decades of collaboration, India’s major weapons are overwhelmingly – around 85% – of Russian origin. Moreover, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute states that “new orders [from India] for a variety of Russian weapons in 2019-2020…will likely lead to an increase in Russian arms exports over the next five years.

Solving the problem will take time. And that will only happen if India’s defense establishment is willing to make tough choices.

The fact is that, like all developing countries, India faces an impossible trinity when it comes to weapons programs: it cannot simultaneously achieve self-sufficiency, affordability and quality.

Moving towards buying more Western weapons systems and reducing its dependence on Russia, for example, would strengthen India’s autonomy. But the country would have to sacrifice affordability, which means it wouldn’t be able to buy as much. India is spending $5.5 billion on Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile platform. The American-made high-altitude terminal area defense system costs about six times as much and isn’t even as versatile.

Suppose India wants both affordability and quality? Well, some countries have always made do with fewer but more powerful weapons – often because they are closely tied to the West or China and enjoy the protection of their allies.

But India – with a giant, thorny neighbor to the north and a slightly smaller but still nuclear-armed neighbor to the west, and continents far from friends who could help in a conflict – is highly unlikely to wanting to rely on someone else for the essentials. defense requirements. In its last full-scale war with Pakistan in 1971, India found itself constantly short of artillery shells and had to covertly import mortars from an Israel with which it did not even have full diplomatic relations at the time.

Defense planners have a long memory. The lack of weapons at hand represents a loss of autonomy that no Indian government could accept.

For decades, India tried to establish a local defense industry, building its own battle tank and its own jet plane. Unfortunately, our military hates the results – the Arjun tank and the Tejas fighter. The Arjun, complains the Indian army, cannot be part of any battle plan on the militarized and canal-rich border with Pakistan: it weighs nearly 70 tons and would collapse most of the bridges in Punjab . (In contrast, the Russian T-90 tank weighs less than 50 tons.) Meanwhile, the Indian Air Force has a long list of reasons why the Tejas isn’t good enough: its payload is smaller than that of the F-16, the aircraft takes too long. long in service and so on.

In the short term, indigenization provides affordability and self-reliance at the expense of quality. The question is whether India has the patience and the political will to fight the initial setbacks. The Chinese government invested for decades in the Shenyang J-8 fighter jet, which was significantly less sophisticated than other interceptors of its time. Indian defense analysts might point out that it was only by buying a lot of substandard equipment, over decades, that China finally built the Chengdu J-20 stealth jet, which may well be a “near-peer” of fifth-generation American fighters.

Of course, China’s rulers didn’t have to deal with constant leaks to a free press from a furious air force. And then there’s the fact that, in India at least, you’re going to have to produce many, if not most, of these new jets, tanks and ships in the private sector. Are Indian politicians – and, more importantly, voters – ready to accept the delays and opacity associated with a larger defense industry?

Curiously, it is probably politically safer to have literal boatloads of cash going to Russian or Western defense companies than to pay a much smaller sum to an Indian oligarch. The Indian state’s toxic relationship with the private sector is one of the biggest obstacles to the indigenization of arms production.

Yet that is what must be done. If Indian leaders want a reliable, affordable pipeline of decent-quality weapons that arrive fast enough to deter an aggressive China, they’re going to have to fund local defense companies, convince voters of the need for big military budgets, suffer failures and scandals. , and use less powerful weapons until they can develop better ones.

The task will be messy and politically difficult. They should probably start.

(Corrects description of Indo-Israeli relations in seventh paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior researcher at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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