America’s defence secretary James Mattis understands military hardware well. A retired Marine general who commanded US troops in southern Afghanistan in the opening weeks of the war in 2001, Mr Mattis sees India as one of the most lucrative and attractive destinations for his country’s defence contractors as he gleefully advised members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He is clearly trying to reshape the psyche and policy of his country’s political masters when he comments: “India... we probably have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to find more common ground” … “I think it’s there... We don’t have to search hard for it in the sense of creating it. We just have to get an understanding of each other’s interests”.
A profound observation indeed. For Western arms manufacturers, particularly those from the United States, India is just “waiting to be lapped up”. The country seems a readymade and tailored market. The arms manufacturers just have to land, in the manner of Vasco da Gama or Robert Clive, and things will immediately fall into place.
Mr Mattis appears to be a practical, wise and thinking general. His advisory comes as a forewarning to his political colleagues, who more often than not have shown propensity to pass laws which later came back to harm, and not help, their own cause.
Mr Mattis’ diagnosis is near perfect and precise. He urges that US legislators should allow the government “flexible waiver authority” pertaining to Russia-related sanctions that seek to punish Third World countries, like India, for making “significant transactions” like arms purchase from Russia. He has clearly seen through the US fault line; he says “it is likely to prevent ourselves (US) from acting in our own best interests and place an undue burden on our allies/partners”. The waiver he seeks is from punitive actions under the “Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA)”, passed by the US Congress in January last year.
So what’s the status of the Indo-Russian relationship? The answer is that it’s solid. Despite the volatile and changing international scenario, India’s reliance on Russia, even today, is peerless. Russia supplied 68 per cent of India’s imports in 2012-2016, compared to the US’ 14 per cent and Israel’s 7.2 per cent. Imports from Russia are often in the form of assembly or licensed production of major weapons by India’s state-owned arms industry. If we look at the contemporary order list and long-term planning, it will be clear that Russia will continue to be India’s main supplier of major arms and equipment in the foreseeable future.
Hence, it is necessary to make everyone understand, and particularly the United States, that there is no point even in trying to think of imposing sanctions on India for buying Russian arms. Despite its chaotic polity and its endlessly quarrelling and squabbling leaders, India can’t be cajoled or compelled to “fall in line”. No one doubts Russia’s loyalty towards India; what Russia has been doing for India in the armaments industry since 1950s no other country has done! No doubt Russia too has made money and at times did not play fair financially, yet in the overarching scenario, despite being a virtual monopoly stakeholder in the Indian arms bazar, Russia has always given whatever India has asked for and it never pulled strings or imposed conditions on the “end-use” of weapons that it supplied to this country.
A cursory glance at the inventory of India’s Army, Navy and Air Force reveals this reality. According to Military Balance 2018 (published in February 2018 by International Institute for Strategic Studies, London), apart from 122 (India-made) Arjun tanks, all 1,950 T-72M1 and 1,025 T-90S main battle tanks (MBTs) are of Russian origin. Further, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, armoured engineering vehicles, recovery vehicles, anti-tank infrastructure and surface-to-air missiles are also from Russia.
The Indian Navy’s dependence on Russia goes back to the 1960s when the first Foxtrot-class diesel electric patrol submarine was inducted into its fleet on December 8, 1967. Today, the lone nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) INS Chakra (ex-Russian Akula II) is on lease from Moscow. So is the case with nine imported Kilo-class submarines. The Navy’s long-range lethality originated with five Rajput (Kashin) class destroyers on September 30, 1980. The sole aircraft-carrier INS Vikrama-ditya today is of Russia’s Kiev class. All the indigenous surface shipbuilding programme of India, like those of the Delhi, Kolkata and Shivalik class destroyers and Brahmaputra, Godavari, Talwar class frigates are either designed by Russia or derived heavily from it. In naval aviation too, there is the MiG-29K/KUB Fulcrum; Ilyushin-38SD and Ka-28 helicopter.
The Indian Air Force too has banked heavily on various types MiGs — MiG-21, 23, 25R, 27 and 29 — for more than 50 years. Although MiG-25R and 27 are retired, according to Military Balance 2018, there are “62 MiG-29 fighters” and over 250 operational MiG-21 and 23 “fighter ground attack” aircraft in the Indian fleet. The IAF also flies Mi-25, 35 and 17 helicopters.
So the relationship between the Indian military and Russia just cannot be wished away by anyone. I am no supporter of Russia, or for that matter anyone else, other than our own enterprises. However, realpolitik and real-time “situations” became a compulsion for India from 1962 onwards to seek assistance. That was the time when the West did not feel it necessary to give us the “latest and the best”.
When late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had complained over the arming of Pakistan with the F-86 Sabre jet, Lockheed F-104 and (then) General Dynamics F-16, the situation indeed looked grim and gloomy for the Indian armed forces. Her fault was that she had waged a war in 1971 to break what some in the West felt was perhaps the strongest bulwark against “hegemonic India”. It was during those dark hours that the Russians came to New Delhi’s rescue. Of course, the Russians too had their own motives — to counter their Cold War rivals on Indian soil. However, it was a blessing in disguise for India.
The point to make today is that the American establishment — both the administration and Congress — should heed what Mr Mattis says, and desist from trying to impose sanctions on India for purchasing arms or collaborating with Russians in matters related to India’s national security. The Americans’ fight with Russia can’t be carried out on, or from, Indian soil the way 18th and 19th century Europe’s Anglo-French wars were waged from Wandiwash and Arcot to Plassey and Bharatpur to Seringapatnam.
India needs to be able to take its own sovereign decisions on what it considers best for its national security. Other nations need to stay out and not try to interfere, just as the Indian Parliament does not try to exercise jurisdiction over foreign lands!