Tanks, Ships, and Assault Rifles: India Still Buys Most of its Weapons from Russia
And why it might not change anytime soon.
Since the 1960s, India has procured the larger part of its armaments from Moscow, and weapons systems such as the Mi-4 helicopter, T-55 tank and SS-2 Styx anti-ship missile have played a decisive role in India’s military conflicts.
As alliances shifted in the post-Cold War era, Washington has heavily courted New Delhi as part of an effort to counter-balance China’s rise as superpower. This has led India to purchase U.S. military systems such as P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol planes and Apache attack helicopters.
Moreover, India withdrew from an ambitious program to jointly develop an India-specific variant of Russia’s Su-57 stealth fighter in 2018. Moscow has also indicated a new willingness to export arms to India’s rival, Pakistan. And in the wake of Moscow’s seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Washington has passed the CAATSA act which threatens sanctions on countries that make major military purchases from Russia.
But despite these negative factors, and the Modi administration’s insistence that foreign imports come with a domestic manufacturing component on Indian soil, in reality Russia by far remains India’s dominant arms supplier going into the 2020s, accounting for 62 percent of Indian arms imports in the previous five years according to SIPRI.
In the first nine months of 2019 alone India spent a record $14.5 billion on Russian weapons, with many of the deliveries and financial outlays continuing into 2020. Furthermore, India also struck an agreement with Russia allowing it to license manufacture spare parts for Russian systems.
So to borrow the well-worn expression, reports of the Indo-Russian arms trade’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. While a companion piece looks the Indian Air Force’s latest purchases of MiG-29 and Su-30 jets and S-400 air-defense missiles, here we’ll survey major new purchases by the Indian Army and Navy.
AK-203 Assault RIfle
In 2019, India also established a joint venture with Kalashnikov (50.5 percent Indian/49.5 percent Russian) to manufacture a whopping 750,000 AK-203 rifles. 100,000 will be built in Russia, while the balance will come from a new factory in Uttar Pradesh. These are basically modernized AK-74s with improved ergonomics and support for accessories. They will replace India’s indigenously developed INSAS rifles, which has performed exceptionally poorly in combat.
Curiously, the Indian Army had previously announced it was seeking rifles using NATO 7.62x51 millimeter rounds with greater long-distance accuracy and hitting power compared to the 7.62x39 millimeter rounds used by the AK-203.
Indeed, the Indian Army is also acquiring 72,000 SIG-716 rifles at greater cost, which will reportedly be issued to ‘frontline units’. But production of the lower-performing AK-203 may conveniently help Modi build electoral support in Uttar Pradesh, while giving Kalashnikov a long-term foothold for future orders in India.
Project 11356 Frigate Talwar-class
India also has finalized a deal for four frigates based on the Russian Admiral Grigorovich-class stealth frigates. India already operates six Talwar-class frigates based on the earlier Russian Krivak-class frigate.
The 4,000-ton Grigorovich subclass of the Krivak measure 127 meters long and boasts formidable armament: over two-dozen short- and medium-range air-to-air missile, a 100-millimeter gun turret, two rapid-firing point-defense guns, torpedoes and anti-submarine rockets, an anti-submarine helicopter, and vertical launch cells that can accommodate anti-ship or land-attack cruise missiles.
Russia originally planned to operate six Admiral Grigorovich frigates, built using a Ukrainian engine. But Ukraine cut Russia off after Moscow seized the Crimean peninsula in 2014, leaving Russia with two nearly complete frigates without an engine.
Under the current deal, those two frigates will be completed at the Yantar shipyards in Russia at a price of $950 million (paid in Rupees to avoid CAATSA sanctions) and delivered in 2022. India will furnish a domestic gas turbine engine.
Furthermore, India will pay another $1.2 billion to license-build two more frigates in its Goa shipyards, due for delivery 2026 and 2027.
The Indian “Advanced Talwar” variant will be armed with Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles and a domestic radar and navigation systems.
T-90MS Main Battle Tanks
In November 2019, India signed a $1.2 deal (paid for in rubles to circumvent CAATSA) to transfer technology components to license build 464 additional T-90 tank at factory in Avadia—enough to equip 10 additional armored regiments as they are delivered through 2025.
The Indian factory is being paid an additional $1.9 billion for production, and will build components including night sights and thermal imagers, while Russia will still furnish the engine and transmission.
Over a thousand T-90S and T-90MS main battle tanks form the core of Indian’s armored forces, supported by a larger number of older, upgradedT-72 tanks and a few hundred domestic Arjun tanks. The 52-ton T-90MS is not as heavily armored as Western main battle tanks, but it benefits from advanced reactive armor and active protection systems that make it more resilient versus anti-tank guided missiles.
India’s later T-90MS actually boast superior engines, sensors and protection systems to the T-90As model fielded by the Russian Army. However, India T-90s have experienced embarrassing technical problems over the years which have necessitated exorbitant fees paid to Russia to correct.
Due to these problems, an Indian defense official lamented to Defense News that India will end up “ paying three times more than the original cost of the tank” over each vehicle’s life cycle.
Igla-S Man-portable Air Defense Missiles
In November 2019, India also awarded $1.47 billion in its Very Short Range Air Defense competition to procure 5,175 missiles (the last 600 built in India) and 800 man-portable launchers.
These heat-seeking fire-and-forget weapons will provide a last-ditch defense for Indian infantry units, and could be particularly useful to neutralize enemy helicopters, drones and even cruise missiles, particularly in mountainous areas. The Igla-S will replace India’s older Igla-M missiles, boosting range, engagement altitude, and resistance to countermeasures.
However, like most Indian defense procurements, VSHORADS has been mired in spectacular delays—20 years since the first incarnation of the competition was begun in 1999!—and accusations of dirty dealings.
The Igla-S competed against the Saab RBS-70 and MBDA’s Mistral missile. Both foreign companies complained that the Indian evaluators waived performance requirements that the Igla-S failed to meet. For example, during one trial the Igla-S failed to intercept targets in a hot climate during the summer (a more challenging task for a heat-seeking missile), but was allowed to attempt the same trial a second time under colder climate conditions.
It seems possible however that the contract was simply awarded to the lowest bidder rather than based on performance, as the Mistral was offered for $2.7 billion and the RBS-70 for $2.1 billion. As is, there are doubts the Indian Army can muster the funds necessary to finance the Igla-S purchase.
Ka-226T Utility Helicopters
India’s armed forces must prepare for potential mountain warfare with Pakistan on its north-western border and China on its eastern flank. In such regions, helicopters are highly useful for bypassing torturous mountain terrain—but also struggle to operate due to performance limitations at high altitude.
In January 2020 Indian companies recently negotiated a $4 billion price tag for a 2015 agreement with the Russian Kamov corporation for delivery of 200 Ka-226T light utility helicopters: 60 built in Russia, and another 140 built as a joint-venture in India at a factory in Tumkuru.
India's dated HAL Cheetah and Chetak helicopters—based on the French SA 315B and Alouette III respectively—were showing their age. The Ka-226 by comparison can fly twice as high as the Cheetah, 25 percent faster at a maximum of 155 miles per hour, and carry six or seven personnel or one ton of cargo, rather than just four or five troops.
It features the Russian Kamov corporation’s famous coaxial rotor arrangement, which at the cost of complexity, results in greater stability and high-altitude performance than a traditional helicopter.
The current deal includes transfer of 50 percent of the technology (particularly the rotor blades, structure and landing gear). India will also be able to export the Ka-226Ts abroad, but domestic orders might also swell, as the Army currently requires 259 light utility helicopters, the air force 125, and the Navy 111 such choppers refitted with anti-submarine gear.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.