Recently, India and Russia signed two long-term agreements in New Delhi to produce military spares in India. Russia has broadly agreed to produce as many as 60,000 small and big spares for Su-30 MKI in India. The Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30 MKI is India’s mainstay fighter aircraft. The move is historic and in many ways telling.
India remains the world’s biggest importer of weapons. And, ever since the Narendra Modi-led NDA government came to power, it has been trying to boost defence manufacturing in India. The Defence Production Policy – that guides how India acquires weapon systems – gives priority to weapon systems that are designed, developed and manufactured in India.
Despite these efforts, defence production in India is yet to take off. It can, however, be argued that it is “still early days”.
The agreement to produce spares in India is historic because serviceability of Russian platforms continues to be the bugbear of the Indian defence forces. According to back-ofthe- envelope calculations only little more than a half of Russian-made aircraft are available at a given point of time for operational deployment. In simple terms it means only 8 to 9 fighters in a squadron (16 fighters each) are available for operations. The rest remain grounded for various reasons.
Add to this the following: The Indian Air Force needs about 42 squadrons to put up a credible defence in case of two-front war – a scenario where India is forced to fight both on the Western and Northern borders. But IAF has only 33 squadrons. That’s not all, the IAF will have to decommission about 9 squadrons of aging MiG-21 fighters in the next three years. The IAF is looking at a situation where it is left with about 25 squadrons of fighters. Some of the 36 French-made Rafale fighters that India has contracted to buy are likely to be delivered as the MiG-21s are being phased out.
Producing spares in India for the Su-30 MKI is historic because it is expected to cut down delays. Serviceability of the fighters is likely to increase which would mean more fighters will be able for deployment at a given point of time. The reduction in the number of fighters by way of decommission of 9 squadrons could be made up, to some extent, by having the existing fighters available for deployment for longer durations.
The agreement with Russia is telling because India’s forays towards the western world, particularly the US, for defence technology are yet to materialise. And, with the Trump administration in the saddle in Washington it is not yet clear how keen the US will be to share critical technology with India. South Block believes that institutional agreements under the Indo-US Defence Technology and Trade Initiative will be honoured. That said it is not clear whether the Trump administration will continue with the previous administration’s focus on the Indian Ocean region. If the focus were to change under President Trump, chances are the US won’t be as keen to shore up India as a counter to China’s assertiveness in the Indian Ocean region.
Last October, on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Goa, India reached out to Russia. On the other hand, Russia’s growing relationship with China and Pakistan is also a cause of concern for India. That said the meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Putin set the somewhat drifting relations between the two countries back on track. Besides, agreeing to make the Kamov- 226T in India, India agreed to buy warships from Russia. This despite the fact, that India now makes world-class naval ships.
Producing spares in India for the Sukhoi-30 MKI is historic it itself because it is expected to cut down delays
A year on after agreeing to manufacture Kamov-226T multi-utility helicopters in India, the plan hasn’t yet taken off. Russia is unsure about sharing technology with the Indian private sector, according to top defence ministry officials.
So where do our defence forces stand and more importantly what happens to reducing India’s dependence on foreign-made defence equipment and platforms?
Make in India in defence equipment isn’t going to be easy to achieve because no country or company will easily share technology with Indian counterparts. Developing technology especially critical defence technology costs money and is time-consuming. Nonetheless, it is the right path to venture on. And, it is agreements like the one inked with Russia to produce spares in India for Russian-made equipment that are critical. Such agreements may appear to be small steps, but they will certainly achieve much. To begin with it will create an eco-system of defence manufacturing outside defence public sector companies or ordnance factory boards. Second, and most importantly, it will assure foreign equipment manufacturers that India’s private sector can be trusted with technology – however inconsequential that may be in larger frame of things. And, finally, it will get the juices flowing in the private sector. It will trigger research and development within the private sector and, who knows, innovation as well.