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Uncertainty in India over Russian defence equipment amid Ukraine crisis

India is acquiring five S-400 Triumf missile systems from Russia at a cost of almost US$5.5 billion (S$7.5 billion). PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - Top Indian army commanders are meeting this week with the crisis in Ukraine and its impact on defence cooperation with Russia high on the agenda.

The conclave, held biannually in April and October, kicked off on Monday (April 18) in the capital. Chaired by army chief, General M. M. Naravane, ended on Friday (22 April).

The high level assessment on the impact of the Ukraine crisis on India comes amid uncertainty in sourcing new defence equipment, potential delays in ongoing orders, and difficulties in paying for spares amid wide-ranging Western sanctions against Russia

The United States has offered to help India diversify defence imports but with 60 per cent of the latter's equipment of Russian origin, keeping defence ties with Moscow on track remains crucial for India, said analysts.

Turning to other sources will lead to escalating costs and Western countries are also expected to be less forthcoming in transferring high-tech defence technology.

"For many decades, the only country which shared defence technology with India was Russia, so whatever we are making ourselves, like the T72 tanks and DMPs (mechanised infantry combat vehicle), are all at the kind courtesy on Russia," said retired Major-General S. B. Asthana, a strategic and defence analyst.

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"As far as sanctions are concerned, the critical equipment which has also been signed and paid for will go through irrespective of what the West does. The S400 (Triumf missiles) has been paid for... but because of the war, it may get delayed."

India is acquiring five S-400 Triumf mobile, surface-to-air missile systems at a cost of almost US$5.5 billion (S$7.5 billion).

"The dependency is quite large whatever equipment we make or buy in that also some critical equipment comes from Russia," said Mr Asthana.

Problems are expected to mount if the Ukraine crisis is prolonged as the two countries explore rupee-ruble convertibility to bypass Western sanctions.

India's overall relationship with Russia in the aftermath of the Cold War has been shaped by defence cooperation, which has been crucial to building up India's capabilities amid long-running border problems with China and Pakistan.

Russian origin jets, tanks and missile systems are part of crucial weaponry for the Indian military, underlining the necessity of a steady supply of equipment and spares.

A nuclear-powered submarine is being refitted at a northern Russian shipyard, for instance, for India as part of a US$3 billion deal between the two sides. The agreement for a 10-year lease of the Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine was signed in 2019. It is expected to be handed over in 2025, becoming the third Russian-leased submarine in the Indian Navy.

Analysts pointed out that there was no way around India's dependence on Russia even though efforts at diversification by buying from Israel and the US have been ongoing in recent years.

"There is currently a fairly heavy dependency on Russian equipment which cannot go to zero in a hurry," said former commander of the Northern Command and retired Lieutenant-General D.S. Hooda.

"For us to say there is no impact would be closing our eyes to what is reality because the (Russian) defence industry has been put under sanction so you will have to find some ways of how to get over that," he said.

Indian media has reported that the military maintains a War Wastage Reserve Level of 10 days. This means that if a war broke out, there would be reserves of spare parts and equipment for 10 days.

But the conflict in Ukraine will put pressure on Russian military resources, according to analysts who say Moscow will need to direct its defence manufacturing prowess towards the needs of the war.

"The Russian defence industry itself has some supply chain issues. There would be problems for India to some extent. What could be the fate of projects like BrahMos is not yet known and, particularly, what could happen to their plans for exports," said Dr Ajey Lele, a strategic affairs expert.

The BrahMos, a medium-range supersonic cruise missile, is a joint manufacturing venture with Russia with the weapon built in India. New Delhi recently clinched an export deal with the Philippines.

Separately, the Indian government has been stressing boosting domestic defence production.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) listed India as the largest importer of weapons in the world with 46 per cent of its imports from Russia between 2017 and 2021. Only 12 per cent was from the US.

"Going by past experience, becoming atmanirbhar (self-dependence) in the sense we would like to be certainly will be possible not before a decade," he said, noting that only the manufacturing of low-end defence equipment had started.

"Till then we will have to do strategic balancing of engaging both sides (Russia and the West)."