UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a file photo. Image: Facebook

The United Kingdom and India will collaborate on the development of fighter jet engines and maritime electric propulsion among other defense technology fields, as part of a major partnership deal signed on April 22.

Both countries seek closer defense procurement “to meet threats across land, sea and air, space and cyber, including partnering on new fighter jet technology and maritime technologies to detect and respond to threats in the oceans,” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement.

In a policy paper released last Friday, the UK and India noted cooperation in key areas of modern fighter aircraft design and jet engine advanced core technology. The UK likely seeks to make India into a strategic partner in its Tempest 6th generation fighter program, which was first launched in 2018.

The UK is already working with Sweden and Italy on its Tempest fighter and has recently begun cooperation with Japan to develop sensor systems for the warplane. Notably, India already has an existing partnership with French jet engine maker Safran to co-design its Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) indigenous stealth fighter.

The policy paper also mentions collaboration on maritime electric propulsion systems, in a move that aims to cut India’s dependence on Ukrainian gas turbine engines, as Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine threatens exports of such vital machinery for the Indian Navy.

Other than jet engine and maritime electric propulsion technology, the UK aims to cooperate with India in terms of helicopters and undersea battlespace.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also welcomed the UK’s announcement of an open general export license in defense to facilitate technology engagement with India to participate in the UK’s aviation and shipbuilding programs.

This defense technology partnership comes at a particularly opportune time, as India aims to lessen its dependence on imported Russian arms. India imports 70% of its military equipment, with 60% of those purchases hailing from Russia. However, the war in Ukraine has raised Indian concerns about its dependence on Russia for high-end weapons systems.

In response, India has released a series of Positive Indigenization Lists, which outlines the military equipment it aims to produce domestically within a given timeframe.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) Sarang helicopter team performs at Bakshi Ka Talab Air Force Station as part of the IAF Day celebrations in Lucknow, India, November 2, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Pawan Kumar
The Indian Air Force (IAF) Sarang helicopter team performs at Bakshi Ka Talab Air Force Station as part of the IAF Day celebrations in Lucknow, India, November 2, 2016. Photo: Agencies

Prime Minister Johnson added that this new defense partnership “will enable India to strengthen its own domestic defense industry as well as protecting vital shared interests in the Indo-Pacific.”

India has come under criticism for its muted response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with a US official describing India’s stance towards the ongoing conflict as “unsatisfactory but not surprising”, considering India’s dependence on Russian military equipment.

That said, India’s recently concluded defense deal with the UK may be part of larger efforts by the US and its allies to wean India off its Russian weapons dependence.

On April 21, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman stated that the US will work with India to help it move away from its traditional reliance on Russian weaponry. She said that India understands that its military, “which was built on Russian weapons, probably doesn’t have a future with Russian weapons anymore because our sanctions have pulled back the military-industrial complex of Russia and it’s not coming back anytime soon.”

Yet some analysts argue that, in practice, there is little the UK can do to replace Russia as India’s strategic partner. They point out that the UK doesn’t have enough oil, nor the right military equipment to sell to India.

Although India’s ties with the West have improved considerably in recent years, New Delhi still depends on Russia for more than half of its weapons amidst its ongoing tensions with China in the Himalayas and Pakistan in Kashmir.

The US has also struggled to allay Indian fears it will only provide India with cheap alternatives to Russian weapons in a subordinate ally role. While the US has previously offered the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot PAC-3 missile defense systems to India, they cost three times as much as the S-400 systems that India purchased from Russia last year.

Still, the war in Ukraine may have forced India to rethink its longstanding dependence on Russian arms. One of Russia’s key selling points for its weapons is the lack of political strings attached, which jibes with India’s strongly held strategic autonomy.

While Russia can still produce “superweapons” such as the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic missile, its weapons exports are largely upgraded versions of Soviet-era arms whose base designs are rapidly becoming obsolete.

Although Russia has fielded advanced conventional weapons such as the T-14 tank and Su-57 fighter, its struggling economy ensures that these platforms cannot be mass-produced for its own armed forces, much less for export.

A motorized rifle unit serviceman of the Russian Southern Military District on a BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicle of the tank force of the Russian Southern Military District in a cross country driving exercise at Kadamovsky Range. Photo: Erik Romanenko / TASS

At the same time, Russia still relies on Western technology for its own defense industry. It has become the world’s 4th largest importer of machining tools with the EU and Japan being its largest sources of this key technology.

Russia also relies on Taiwan for its advanced semiconductor chips used in its own precision-guided munitions (PGMs). An export ban from these countries could cut off these vital tools to Russia’s defense industry, potentially jeopardizing India’s defense procurements as well.

As such, international isolation and sanctions may force Russia to rely even more on China to keep its struggling defense industry afloat, including for Chinese-made electronics and aerospace components.

If Russia decides to keep China as its primary strategic partner in its defense industries, China could leverage the relationship to withhold critical defense technology from rival India.