Defence Minister must make the most of her upcoming visit to Russia. India can not only benefit from its existing technologies but as a trusted friend it can partake of new technologies too.
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will be the first high-level visitor to Russia as President Vladimir Putin begins his fourth term in office. Her visit, accompanied by a high-level defence and industry delegation, starting April 4, assumes significance as Russia, under Putin, has emerged as a major military power showcasing its new wave of technologies.
These technologies, including Mach 10 hypersonic missiles and nuclear-powered cruise missiles, have on the one hand, pitted Russia as a competitor in military power against the United States in the new arms race. On the other hand, it has opened added avenues for India as Russia’s traditional military-technology partner. Not only can India benefit from Russia’s existing technologies, it could, as a trusted friend, partake in the new technologies too.
The beginning is expected to be made by decisions on the nearly $10 billion worth of projects in the pipeline. These include the S-400 air defence missile system, the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) project, the guided-missile frigates of Admiral Grigorovich class, the Kamov-226 T helicopters and additional Mi-17V-5 military helicopters.
Of these, the S-400 and Ka-226T are high priority items. The Ka-226Ts are supposed to replace the aged Cheetah helicopters which are the life-line for troops at the Siachen glacier. The S-400, on the other hand, is needed to protect high-value targets, including major cities in India. The S-400 can fire four different missiles: The very long-range 40N6 missile with a range of 400km; the long-range 48N6 missile with a range of 250km; the medium range 9M96E2 with 120km range; and the short-range 9M96E with 40km range. The 40N6 is ideal to kill enemy Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), while the 48N6 will be able to destroy all air objects, including airplanes, helicopters, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles up to the speed of 4,800 meters per second. The ballistic missiles are killed 60km away from the target; this includes nuclear armed missiles, which once destroyed, will leave a thick nuclear haze over the target. The ideal ballistic missile for destruction could be Pakistan’s Nasr which has been touted as the answer to Indian Army’s Cold Start doctrine on the international border, and the sub-sonic Babur cruise missile.
However, the S-400, at an estimated cost of over six billion dollar for five regiments is expensive. Since India needs this system, it has been decided to continue the commercial talks.
It is understood that neither platforms would be contracted for during Sitharaman’s forthcoming visit. The additional Mi-17V-5, which is the proverbial low-hanging fruit ready for plucking, is, however, expected to be signed. Unlike the rest, these are follow-on order, have been extensively used in India, and have a development history associated with India’s varied hot and high operations.
According to retired Air Chief Marshal FH Major, “Mi-17V-5 multirole helicopters with its glass cockpit, improved propulsion, six stations for missiles and bombs, and its 6,000 metres altitude ceiling, which makes it the best machine for high-altitude and rugged terrain, are an outstanding platform which could, down the line, contribute to India’s military industrialisation.” With the unique distinction of having flown the single-engine Mi-4 and Mi-8 helicopters, until the Mi-17 evolved, ACM Major’s approval says it all.
The Indian Air Force already has 151 numbers of Mi-17V-5 in its inventory. Negotiations for an added 80 numbers, costing one billion dollar, which started in September 2015 after the Defence Acquisition Council gave its nod, were to be closed by March this year. Addressing select Indian journalist at the MAKS in July 2017 in Russia, CEO of Russia’s Rostec (which owns Russian Helicopters, the makers of this platform) had said that negotiations for this deal were over and contract was expected to be signed in the first quarter of 2018.
There is an operational reason why the additional Mi-17V-5 helicopters need to be procured urgently. Following the Doklam crisis between India and China, large numbers of troop have been moved forward to the border with China at heights of over 12,000 feet. Given the poor infrastructure in terms of roads, most logistics support would be the responsibility of the Indian Air Force by its proven Mi-17V-5s. Add to this, the extensive employment of these platforms for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) within the country.
India was keen that Russian Helicopters set-up the Mi-17V-5 production line under the Make in India policy in the country. This, for the time being, has not found favour with Russia, which though, is willing to start localisation of the helicopter parts in India. Moreover, Rostec has said that it would open service centres for Mi-17V-5 helicopters so that the machines are not sent to the Kazan helicopter plant in Russia for overhauling. Since this is not likely to be a sticking point, the possibility of the contract being signed during Sitharaman’s visit is high.
Once this happens, there could be technological and political benefits for India. India could seek design and development partnership on existing and even the new wave of technologies with Russia. Since scientists from the Defence Research and Development Organisation are accompanying the Defence Minister, this possibility is on the anvil. For India, which appears committed to indigenisation of its defence industry, it would do well to adopt a two-pronged approach.
One, it should seek technologies from all available friendly nations, including the US, Russia, Israel and France. Amongst these nations, Russia would seem as a good bet because (a) it has a single-stop window for technology shopping (with President Putin being the sole authority) and (b) there is a history of technology transfer from Moscow to Delhi.
And two, India knows that no country would share its core technology (called source codes) on which it has invested time, finances and research with anyone else. What they would be willing to share are object codes, or the capability to improve the existing technologies with indigenous research. This is a long and arduous process. So, while production stabilisation and employment generation is possible through the Make in India policy, India would need to generate its own core technologies to become a major power.
In political terms, closing on the Mi-17V-5 contract to be followed with optimism on the rest of the lot would help burnish the bilateral political closeness which appears to be diminished. The reasons range from the hardening of Russia’s relations with the United States; strategic relations between Russia and China; growing defence ties between India and the United States to name a few. The geopolitical reality for India is simple: India’s rise depends on building relations with all major powers. Moscow surely is the tested destination.