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India-Russia defence ties

IN THE MONTHS that preceded the visit of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, there was considerable speculation that his trip to India would mark the finalisation of some high-profile defence deals, particularly the inking of the much-awaited acquisition of the Admiral Gorshkov. Talks have been underway to finalise the purchase of this Kiev class aircraft carrier since 1994 and both sides had in fact appeared to be scrambling to finalise the deal before Mr. Putin's visit. Russia has offered the ageing aircraft carrier free of charge, but major differences obviously persist over the cost of retrofitting the vessel. The Indian Navy is extremely keen on making the acquisition, one of the reasons being that in a few years from now the country's sole aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat, would be near the end of its service life. Some defence analysts, however, have questioned the strategic or logistic wisdom of acquiring a large and potentially vulnerable naval system for use against Pakistan. However, the reasoning behind the acquisition is possibly also larger, owing at least partly to the perceived imperative to counterbalance what are seen as external influences in waters of India's interest.

Russia remains India's biggest supplier of defence products but as the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, stressed during the Putin visit, the India-Russia defence relationship goes beyond that of merely buyer and seller as it now encompasses a wide range of activity including joint research, design, development and co-production. Given the sheer number of pending military deals between the two countries, it is more than likely that final agreements will be reached on a number of products over the next few years. The Admiral Gorshkov purchase itself is far from over and the Russians remain both keen and hopeful that the price negotiations for the purchase of the retrofitted carrier, a package which includes about 40 aircraft, the naval variant of the MiG-29. Besides the negotiations on the aircraft carrier, what will be keenly watched is whether Mr. Putin's visit will speed up the licensed production of the Sukhoi (Su-30 MKI) as India wants. The first squadron of these multi-role aircraft are already operational but as many as 140 of them are scheduled to be made under license by HAL only a couple of years from now, after the Russians transfer technology, supply raw material and provide support technicians. Speeding up the deliveries of two Krivac stealth frigates and the progress on the Smerch multi-barrel rocket delivery system are among the other things that will count towards forging an even closer defence relationship. India has broached the subject about the possibility of leasing two Russian nuclear submarines but it is evident that any progress on this will have to be within the parameters of Moscow's commitment to the various non-proliferation mechanisms it is a party to.

Defence deals figured less prominently during Mr. Putin's visit with international terrorism and economic and trade ties occupying the top slots in his agenda. The absence of another major agreement should be viewed in the context of the fact that major defence agreements — including the finalisation of the massive T-90 tank deal and that for the Sukhois — were concluded less than two years ago. Given the number of things ranging from surface-to-air missiles to special purpose planes and helicopters that are under negotiation, the future of the India-Russia defence relationship should be assessed not by new agreements reached but by the progress made on those that are pending. The protracted delay in the much-awaited handing over of Admiral Gorshkov to the Indian Navy is indeed puzzling. But what is really mystifying is the hold up over what is arguably the country's most urgently needed defence acquisition — the Advanced Jet Trainer. India continues to keep rival bidders on their toes even though the acquisition of AJTs, which are essential for improving flying safety, was first proposed a staggering 20 years ago.

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