New Delhi: Although India now buys its defence hardware from a range of countries in addition to Russia, the Indo-Russian defence relationship remains stronger than ever. Instead of fighter aircraft, tanks and air defence guns, Russia is now India's prime source for "sub-strategic" systems that incorporate closely guarded technologies.
These include the nuclear-propelled submarine INS Chakra, which Russia has provided on a 10-year lease; the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya; and potential access to the precision code of Russia's Global Navigation Satellite System. After jointly developing the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, the two countries are joining hands to develop next-generation systems for both their militaries, like the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft and the Multirole Transport Aircraft.
Russia has also helped India develop its own nuclear-propelled ballistic missile submarine.
Although the defence relationship has recently made headlines for negative reasons – cost escalations, time overruns and serious glitches in technology transfer – it remains not just a positive driver of Indo-Russian relations, but increasingly the primary one, along with the other two strategic fields of space and nuclear co-operation. With trade relations languishing, Moscow playing hardball with Indian hydrocarbon companies, and the Sistema row roiling relations, the defence relationship is a reliable sheet anchor that steadies the overall partnership.
Importantly, given the wariness that characterises relations with China, any distancing from Russia would make India appear uncomfortably like a western ally. With Russia growing politically closer to China and increasingly dependent on the Chinese economy, strong Moscow-Delhi defence ties give Russia the strength to keep China's defence industry at arm's length.
Moscow's ambitious State Armament Programme aims at practically re-equipping the entire Russian military by 2020 at a cost of $650 billion. This requires developing a whole menu of new-generation systems and technologies, something that Moscow cannot fund on its own. The trust between Moscow and New Delhi makes India the ideal partner for co-development, with the cost and the technological risk shared by both of them rather than absorbed purely by Russia.
Furthermore, the vast requirements of the Indian military, combined with Russia's own modernisation drive, provide the economies of scale needed for both militaries to obtain high-tech, low-cost systems.
Beijing's institutionalised embrace of reverse engineering means Russian technology czars prefer India, which buys cutting-edge systems and customises a few key sub-systems to suit its own requirements.
While India benefits from Russia's superior technology and experience in building advanced weaponry, working with a senior partner could create an undesirable dependency unless there are clear systems in place to ensure that technology is absorbed by Indian engineers. New Delhi has also realised that there are times when it has to accept delays and cost increases.
There are geopolitical and military advantages of a close relationship with Russia, but New Delhi needs to deal with the disadvantages that are evident at the transactional level and shape the relationship to both parties' advantage.