Russian-Indian Summit Firms Up Conventional Arms Deals

November 2000

By Wade Boese

During Russian President Vladimir Putin's first visit to India, Russia and India solidified arms deals potentially worth billions to Moscow and signed a host of cooperation agreements, including a declaration on strategic partnership. Though press reports from both countries carried varying details of whether final contracts were signed during the October 2-5 trip, it appears that India will eventually acquire hundreds of Russian tanks, fighter aircraft, and an aircraft carrier and that it may lease strategic bombers.

In the works for years, the centerpiece of the arms package agreed to October 4 by Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes and Russian Deputy Premier Ilya Klebanov is the purchase of 310 T-90 battle tanks, 124 of which will reportedly be shipped whole from Russia, with the other 186 being coproduced in India. The T-90s will replace aging Soviet-era tanks and, according to Indian defense officials, will be used to offset Pakistan's 1996 buy of 320 T-80UD tanks from Ukraine.

India will receive technology transfers to manufacture 140 Su-30 MKI fighter aircraft under licensed production. New Delhi is still waiting for Russia to complete delivery of 40 Su-30s ordered in 1996 for $1.8 billion. To date, India has yet to receive even half of the aircraft, and some of the fighters already delivered still need to be upgraded to match the specifications in the original contract.

The Indian navy will receive the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov for the cost of refurbishing the ship, which is expected to total at least $400 million and perhaps as much as $750 million. As part of the deal, the navy will also purchase MiG-29K fighters to base on the carrier. The most commonly cited number of MiGs to be bought is 24, though some reports suggest as few as 13 and others more than 40.

In addition, India may reportedly lease up to four Tu-22M Backfire bombers from Russia. The Backfire, which first entered serial production in the early 1970s, is a long-range, low-level penetration bomber designed to carry out conventional or nuclear strikes against surface targets.

This spate of Indian arms buys, which Pakistan criticized October 9 as destabilizing, follows a September deal with France to buy 10 Mirage 2000H fighter aircraft and a June deal to purchase 40 Mi-17 combat transport helicopters from Russia. India is also currently negotiating with Britain to purchase as many as 66 Hawk trainer aircraft, and it is exploring options for airborne early-warning and aerial-refueling aircraft and anti-aircraft systems. A 28 percent increase in the defense budget early this year helped pave the way for India's latest weapons procurement spree.

To facilitate and "upgrade" future defense cooperation, according to Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the two countries agreed October 3 to establish an Inter-Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation. Fernandes and Klebanov will head the delegations for their respective sides. Along with China, India is already one of Russia's top arms customers, but some Indian officials have expressed concern about Moscow's reliability as a supplier of spare parts, technology, and services.

Russia and India also issued a declaration on strategic partnership October 3 that calls for the two countries to consolidate "defence and military-technical cooperation in a long-term perspective." In addition to pledging to hold annual summits, improve economic ties, and combat terrorism, the declaration stated that Russia and India would cooperate in the "peaceful use" of nuclear energy and outer space. (See Russia, India Sign Secret Nuclear Energy Accord.) The two sides emphasized that the strategic partnership is not a military-political alliance and is not directed against any other country.

On arms control issues, the two leaders noted in a joint statement that both countries would work toward the "early commencement" of fissile material cutoff treaty negotiations at the UN Conference on Disarmament and "stressed the need for full implementation" of arms control treaties, specifically the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.