An Indian army soldier keeps guard from a bunker near the border with Pakistan in Abdullian. Photo: Reuters / Mukesh Gupta
An Indian army soldier keeps guard from a bunker near the border with Pakistan in Abdullian. Photo: Reuters / Mukesh Gupta

At a time when India’s diplomatic commitment to rally international support against Pakistan’s alleged role in the recent terrorist incursions into Indian-administered Kashmir is producing no significant result, Delhi’s drive for military modernization has instead received a new boost.

Fresh off a US$10 billion defense deal with Russia, inked on the sidelines of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in the Indian tourist spot of Goa on October 15, Delhi proves itself again to be the world’s largest defense importer.

The Indo-Russian arms contract includes the Indian acquisition of five S-400 air defense systems, four stealth frigates and the creation of a joint venture to produce Kampov-226T light helicopters. In particular, Delhi’s purchase of S-400 missile systems is seen as a game-changer in a potential conflict pitting it against Islamabad or Beijing along Himalaya’s disputed borders – the so-called Line of Control (LOC) that India shares with Pakistan and the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) with China.

Fifth-generation aircraft

But India and Russia have other defense arrangements in the pipeline. The day after the weapons deal’s finalization with Delhi, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the two countries would work together to manufacture a fifth-generation aircraft based on the stealthy Sukhoi PAK FA, the Russian answer to the US F-22 and F-35 fighter jets. Still in the experimental stage, the PAK FA is expected to be in the hands of Moscow’s Air Force by 2017.

Sergey Chemezov, CEO of Rostec Corporation, an umbrella organization for Russia’s defense companies, stressed on the fringe of the BRICS meeting that India and Russia should seal the PAK FA contract by the end of the year; Rostec will carry out the project in collaboration with India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.

In the aerospace realm, India inked an US$8.8 billion agreement to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets from France’s Dassault Aviation last September. In early October, then, the French aircraft maker announced the launch of a partnership with Indian Reliance Group to set up a supply chain for the production of Rafale’s components and work on its design and performance.

While it is still not clear whether the Indian Ministry of Defense will require more Rafales in the future, given the high costs of this aircraft and India’s attendant budgetary constraints, Delhi would be considering the purchase of Lockheed Martin F-16 or Swedish Gripen-E fighters to modernize its fleet, according to recent Indian media reports.

Joint missile development

The military cooperation between India and Russia affects missile development as well. Putin upheld in Goa that his country and Delhi will joint develop a new generation of BrahMos cruise missiles with a range of over 600 kilometer and more target accuracy.

The current BrahMos version can hit a target up to 300 kilometer; without Delhi’s accession to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MCTR) in June, the Indo-Russian cooperation to double the BrahMos reach would have been impossible. The MTCR is a multilateral defense export control regime; in relation to non-participant countries, it imposes restrictions on its members over the sale, transfer or joint manufacturing of missiles with a range exceeding 300 kilometer.

Thanks to BrahMos’ upgrading, Delhi could deploy an advanced delivery system capable of covering the entire Pakistani territory and striking deeper in southwest China’s Tibet region, and with much more precision than the ballistic rockets now at its disposal. Not least, BrahMos missiles could target Chinese aircraft carriers in the future; indeed, India and Russia will reportedly hold the first test of an air-launched BrahMos in December, simulating an attack on a warship in the Bay of Bengal.

Strategic diversification

Since Narendra Modi took over as India’s prime minister in 2014, the United States has snatched ever-larger shares of the Indian defense market. Challenged by Washington, but also by rampant military exporters like France, Israel and Sweden, Russia is trying to revive its long-standing position as Delhi’s top military provider. This focus on India entails a more cautious approach toward Pakistan by the Kremlin. During the BRICS summit, Chemezov pointed out that Russia would not sell SU-35 fighters or any other military aircrafts to Pakistan down the line; a new problem for Islamabad’s Air Force, which already viewed the possible purchase of F-16s from the US to fade in May.

Thus, India’s long-tested multi-vector foreign policy also translates into diversification of arms suppliers. That goes hand in hand with efforts to develop a home-grown advanced defense industry, which is definitely among the defining traits of a big power. Yet, Delhi’s regional rivals are able to play on different diplomatic tables too, and this will inevitably weaken Indian plans to spread out strategic relations over a number of (heterogeneous) partners.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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