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How the Indian Army can be weaned off its reliance on Russian weapons

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

While half a trillion dollars may 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 weaponry from Russia. Researchers at the Stimson Center estimate that, thanks to decades of collaboration, India’s main weapons are overwhelmingly, about 85%, of Russian origin. Furthermore, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says that “new orders [from India] for a variety of Russian weapons in 2019-20…will likely lead to an increase in Russian arms exports in the next five years.”

Solving the problem will take time. And it won’t happen unless the Indian defense establishment is willing to make some tough decisions.

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

Switching to buying more Western weapons systems and lessening its dependence on Russia, for example, would bolster India’s autonomy. But the country would have to sacrifice affordability, meaning it wouldn’t be able to buy as much. India is spending $5.5 billion on the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile platform. The US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system costs about six times as much and isn’t even as versatile.

Suppose India wants both affordability and quality. Well, historically, some countries have gotten by with fewer but more powerful weapons, often because they are closely tied to the West or China, and benefit from the protection of their allies.

But India, with a giant, prickly 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 want to depend on someone else for its essential needs. defense requirements. In its last large-scale war with Pakistan, in 1971, India found itself constantly short of artillery shells and had to secretly import mortars from an Israel with which it did not even have full diplomatic relations at the time.

The memory of defense planners is long. The scarcity of available weapons represents a loss of autonomy that no Indian government could allow.

For decades, India has tried to establish a local defense industry, building its own battle tank and jet. Unfortunately, our army hates the results: the Arjun tank and the Tejas fighter. The Arjun, the Indian army complains, cannot be part of any battle plan on the militarized, canal-strewn border with Pakistan: It weighs nearly 70 tons and would collapse most bridges in the Punjab. (By contrast, Russia’s 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 the F-16’s, the plane takes too long to service, and so on.

In the short term, indigenization offers affordability and autonomy, at the cost of quality. The question is whether India has the patience and the political will to overcome the initial bumps. China’s government invested for decades in the Shenyang J-8 fighter jet, which was significantly less sophisticated than other interceptors of its day. Indian defense analysts might point out that it was only through the purchase of vast amounts of low-quality equipment, over the decades, that China finally built the Chengdu J-20 stealth aircraft, which may well be an “almost pair” of the American fifth-generation fighters.

Of course, Chinese leaders did not have to deal with constant leaks to a free press from an outraged air force. And then there is the fact that, at least in India, it will have to produce many, if not most, of these new planes, tanks and ships in the private sector. Are Indian politicians, and more importantly voters, willing to accept the delays and opacities associated with a larger defense industry?

Interestingly, it is probably safer politically for literal amounts of cash to go to Russian or Western defense companies than to pay a much smaller sum to some Indian oligarch. The toxic relationship of the Indian state with the private sector is one of the biggest obstacles to indigenizing arms production.

However, that is what needs to be done. If Indian leaders want a reliable and affordable pipeline of decent-quality weapons that arrives quickly enough to deter an aggressive China, they will have to fund local defense companies, convince voters of the need for large military budgets, suffer failure and scandals. , and deploy less powerful weapons until they can develop better ones.

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


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