On the eve of his trip to Moscow, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did well to remind the country that in time of desperate need Russia helped with military hardware and technical assistance in strategic programmes when no other country would. Gratitude, perhaps, counts for little in international affairs. But correct geostrategics is critical — something the Indian Foreign Office and, increasingly, the NSA Ajit Doval, handling foreign policy, seem often to forget.
A basic geostrategic constant is the fact that while the US, Russia and China are big and powerful powers, China is the obvious security and economic challenge to India, and in dealing with it, it is the continentally proximal Russia, with the ready ability to play off China and Pakistan against India, that matters more than the distantly seaward America. Russia’s record of assistance in sensitive strategic technology projects, moreover, remains unmatched by any power. Because the military supply relationship has been central to bilateral reflations, these policy fundamentals require iteration considering the tendency of the Modi regime is to take Moscow for granted and benefit Western defence companies at the expense of their Russian counterparts in the dog-eat-dog world of capital military sales — this even though economics dictate, as in the case of the Su-30MKI, that it is a far better option every which way and even in performance terms than the Rafale the PM unwisely and ill-advisedly committed to — by way of a personal initiative — on his trip to Paris earlier in the year, thereby majorly screwing up the laid down the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft shortlisting and selection process geared by the IAF from the start to favour some Western aircraft or the other. But that’s a different story!
The above is by way of prelude — to set the context, as it were — for mistakes Modi may make in his Kremlin meeting with President Vladimir Putin, and what he expects to gain from it. The fact is, on the international scene, India is seen as a sort of rich yokel, a perennially dim-witted fool, who can be easily taken to the cleaners — divested of his monies with jingly-jangly, prohibitively expensive, armaments whose acquisitions make little sense. To wit, the Rafale! So, everybody pitches this and sells that as the answer to India’s security problems, with the government and the PM’s Office in particular — bereft of dispassionate outside experts without vested service and other interests on its staff and a knowledge base of its own and, hence, minus any deep understanding about geostrategics or about the genuine security-defence needs, relying on the armed services whose proven myopia is now creeping into the realm of the legendary. It is another matter that the Indian taxpayer ends up paying for their acquisition follies even as the country gains zilch in terms of its strategic military standing and capabilities.
The game being military procurement seller states will lie, cheat, induce us to sign lopsided contracts, take our money and then fail to deliver on contracted technology transfer, etc, without compunction, as has routinely happened in the past. GOI is not unaware of it. But how is it leveraging its manifest buyer’s clout? Pathetically, the NSA/Foreign Office is confident that the transfer of cutting-edge nuclear submarine technology, for instance, can be extracted from France in return for signing on with the Rafale — this according to a news report. If the past deals and contractual agreements with French and Western suppliers generally were to be dissected, the obvious would be discovered, namely, that the one thing these countries have always protected with the utmost zeal is their technology, being ultra careful to restrict transfers, and then in extreme circumstances, to only sell dated technology from which no further sales-revenue is possible. It explains why the US has been so reluctant to transfer advanced military technology and just pushes G2G (govt-to-govt) Foreign Military Sales (of C-17 and C-130J air transporters, Apache, Sikorsky Seahawk, and heavy-lift Chinook helos) and, when it comes to transferring tech, talks of joint programmes to develop batteries and small-time drones, playing on this govt’s phobia and claiming G2G means absence of hanky-panky! True, the technology producers in the US, more than in France UK, etc, are private firms for whom commercial sales and profits thereof make more sense than passing technology and helping a potential competitor in the global arms bazaar to set up. This is why S. Jayshankar and his MEA cohorts’ confidence in their ability to negotiate substantive technology transfer by holding the Rafale as bait, and by dangling Russia as alternative source of advanced weapons platforms (such as the SSN –N-powered attack submarines) and armaments is so misplaced. Can Messrs. Doval, Jayshankar & Co. manage to get the onpassing of nuclear submarine technology mentioned as a conditionality in the contract for the Rafale or in the French company DCNS’ bid for the conventional 75i submarine project, or in any legal deed, for that matter, the two sovereign govts could sign? That’s about as likely as India’s getting into the UN Security Council by begging for a permanent seat with every passing small and big power. That this hurts national self-respect is seemingly no one’s concern.
But, it is on such ridiculous premises that India’s foreign and military policies are run. Russia has been forthright, as regards the SSN. Russia has long voiced its willingness to lease an Akula-class boat — the Iribis, with the hull upgraded to Mk-III standard and reconfigured, if required, to fire Nirbhay cruise missiles (as an SSGN) and including sophisticated sensors in its nose, for instance, to detect thermoclines — the differently-temperatured layers in the waters of the “closed”, warm water, Indian Ocean, which makes it easier for submarines to lurk in them undetected for especially easy kills of surface combatants. But the Navy wants a Yassen-class SSN, when there are only two such boats in existence, both in Russian naval service. So Yassen won’t happen, unless Modi sweetens the deal enough for one of these submersibles to be detached for use by the Indian Navy. Such a sweetener, Moscow has hinted, could be Delhi’s taking up the $3.7 billion offer for three Sukhoi-50 PAK FA Fifth generation aircraft along with total transfer of technology — source codes and all, to any Indian entity– not excluding private Indian defence industrial companies. Can any other offer on the table from anywhere compare with such a composite deal? Does the NSA-MEA combo believe the French, Americans, the British or anybody else can top it? Really????
The most telling deal on the anvil is actually the low-key one Tata’s are negotiating with the Sukhoi Division of Russia’s United Aviation Corporation to manufacture nuts and bolts up, all the spares necessary to hereafter keep the Su-30MKIs in the Indian Air Force flying. In one fell swoop it will remove the ulcer afflicting the military supply relationship with Russia — the genuine concern about the spares shortages that have always plagued the serviceability and operational readiness of Russian/Soviet armaments in Indian employ. This could be the model for other Indian industrial majors to tie up for the spares for the T-72/T-90 tanks, for example.
The $3-4 billion purchase of the S-400 missile system which’s a great anti-aircraft system, but no good in the anti-missile defence (AMD) role — then again there’s no system anywhere able to take out incoming ballistic missiles, or 200 Kamov utility helos, 4 additional Talwar-class frigates, etc. are fine but are only a palliative for more serious ills. Moscow is convinced Delhi is climbing on to the Western arms bandwagon — which will mean the end of Moscow’s special relationship with India. These fears will not be addressed by buying more 1000 MW VVER reactors for the Kudankulum complex.
Hope Modi makes a course correction to ensure principally that all arms buys from any source go into strengthening not just the country’s defence manufacturing sector but in beefing up its design engineering capability — this last being the big void of arms dependency India stepped into when GOI first acquiesced in IAF’s mean-minded killing of the indigenously designed Marut HF-24 Mk-II in the Seventies. And Russia has so far proven the best bet in exporting “know how” aspects of technology rather than, as is done by Western firms and govts, trust in the “know who” factor to fetch them rich arms contracts..