With its huge economic footprint and epic geopolitical spats, India is an attractive market for the global arms industry. But recent publicized deals for US-made C-17 transports, surveillance drones, Apache gunships, and Chinook helicopters–not to mention existing arrangements with France and Israel–haven’t eclipsed Delhi’s longstanding reliance (and alliance) with Moscow for its warfighting hardware.
Contrary to the Make In India crowd’s best wishes, the Russo-Indian relationship is very much intact. Negotiations and procurement drives involving Russian-made stuff, whose estimated value could be worth up to $15 billion, have been underway for the past couple of years. Once these transactions are agreed on Moscow’s state-owned military-industrial complex can expect years of profits and productivity. Delhi, on the other hand, receives better weapon systems than any of its neighbors–including China.
Yet how far along are India’s latest acquisitions? The fine details of each are worth examining. Here they are.
A Glut of Helicopters
India’s climate and land area present an enormous challenge for the military, whose operations and contingencies must span high altitudes, monsoon weather, vast deserts, and an unbroken coastline.
It’s not surprising the appetite for rotorcraft is so large. It was in late 2016 when state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) and Rostec inked a billion dollar deal for a joint venture. This was for the acquisition, licensing, and technology transfer of 200 Ka-226T helicopters.
The agreement allows HAL to receive 60 completed helicopters, with a further 40 Ka-226T’s delivered as assembly kits, and then build 100 additional models whose engines are imported from France.
In the middle of 2017, however, news broke that Delhi and Moscow were negotiating for 48 Mi-17 medium-lift helicopters. The Indian Air Force maintains between 300 and 400 of the Soviet-era rotorcraft. Many are now too old for upgrades, hence replacements are needed.
So India can expect a total of 248 new helicopters, all made in Russia, within the next several years. Factor in its own domestic production of models like the Dhruv and the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and it’s easy imagining how much larger its fleet can grow compared to everyone else…and China.
Delhi is acutely aware that its waters are threatened by new enemies. Unlike before, its largest neighbor China (again) is capable of churning out advanced warships and submarines with ease and some are being sold to Pakistan. It doesn’t help that Beijing’s ambitions are stretching farther and farther away from East Asian waters.
No wonder Delhi is scrambling for diesel-electric underwater stalkers to protect its maritime domain. Though an ongoing program of local assembly for six French Scorpene-class submarines will certainly boost the current fleet (just 15 hulls compared to China’s 60+) the inevitable gap is too worrisome for comfort.
This is why Project 75I is a really big deal. It’s goal is finding a partner who can furnish six new diesel-electrics for the Indian Navy. These shall augment the ten Kilo-class SSKs in service and lay the groundwork for more acquisitions under Project 76. So far invitations have been sent to companies in France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden, and Russia. There’s no guarantee Moscow can use its influence to prevail, but hey, a $12 billion contract is at stake.
Though HAL has successfully developed a low-cost fighter jet, the Tejas, the Indian Navy hated it and want a genuine carrier-based model for its upcoming fleet. On January 25, 2017, it published a request for information on aircraft types that perform in all-weather and then some. This search is under the umbrella of the multirole carrier-borne fighter (MRCBF) program.
The Indian Navy is looking for 57 carrier-based fighter jets in total. This will add to the existing squadrons of MiG-29K’s and give them an inordinate advantage over any comers. ( Like the Chinese navy!)
It’s easy to assume the MiG-29K, and by extension United Aircraft Corporation, have cornered the MRCBF. But this isn’t the case. The ambitious MMRCA competition, for example, went awry once France emerged the winner. The navy isn’t too pleased with the MiG-29K either since the deal ran into problems. This is why twin engine fighters from France and the US are the main contenders, with some hope left for Sweden’s navalized Gripen.
The monetary value of MRCBF hasn’t been revealed–and the amount might change over time–but it represents another competition Russia must work on to win.
The Tank Deal
For decades now Indian government factories were capable of producing a Leopard 2 variant with upgrades–the Arjun and the Arjun Mk. 2. But the army always had better ideas, like Soviet T-series tanks. This didn’t change in the 2000s when it began to field the the T-90S. Since then the Indian Army has become the world’s largest T-90 operator and Indian factories have produced hundreds of the models.
But this accomplishment didn’t come easy. In 2014 a government audit discovered the locally made T-90S Bhishma had missing compenents like air-conditioning and thermal sights. This cast doubt on whether the current tank fleet, which mixed older T-72’s with token regiments of Arjuns and the new T-90S’, could function properly during a real war.
Beginning in 2015 the Indian Army sent feelers to Uralvagonzavod for the latest variant of its bestseller. This was the T-90MS and the army’s newfound preference stemmed from its belief the Arjun was too heavy for the border with Pakistan. A contract was finalized at the end of the following year worth $2 billion for 464 T-90MS tanks. Deliveries will commence from 2018 and continue until 2025 when the army plans to overhaul its mechanized forces with next-generation combat vehicles.