Is Russia Losing Ground in India’s Arms Market?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 54

"INS Vikramaditya" Gorshkin-class aircraft carrier (Source:

India remains Russia’s biggest customer for arms sales and technology transfers. It still receives about 70 percent of its defense imports from Russia and accounts for between 30–40 percent of Russia’s defense exports. Nevertheless, not all is well in this relationship. Multiple examples of shoddy Russian quality and maintenance, including the Gorshkov aircraft carrier that is supposed to be retrofitted for India, the INS Chakra nuclear power submarine, the R-77 air-to-air missile, as well as the superior competitiveness of many Western (and Israeli) systems on price and quality have led to a series of embarrassing losses to competitors in major Indian arms contracts (see EDM, October 31, 2012). Given the size of such contracts—e.g. for French company Rafale’s sale of 126 fighters to India—Russia’s arms sellers and the media have shown mounting anxiety (Interfax-AVN Online, February 20). At the same time, there is a conscious effort on the part of Russian officials to avoid signs of public anxiety by arguing that other reasons exist for these failures in major tenders.
As a result, Anatoly Isaikin, the director general of Russia’s sole defense import/export intermediary Rosoboronexport, said that Moscow lost the tender for supplying Mig-35 multi-functional jets, Mi-28N combat helicopters and other heavy-duty helicopters largely because the Russian military is not using these aircraft (Interfax, February 13). While Isaikin may be partially correct, more importantly India is determined—even if every effort until now has proven unsuccessful—to indigenize its weapons based on the transfer of high technology and production capabilities and is increasingly angry about being dependent on imports, especially poor quality ones (Jane’s Defence Weekly, February 28). While Indian decisions in many cases (e.g. aerial transports) went to the candidate with superior quality, Russian officials and media evidently have trouble acknowledging this fact (, Mumbai, February 2). Other Russian media reports tried to argue that despite losses to rivals, many of the contracts for these Indian arms deals had not yet been finalized and, therefore, the results of the tender in the case of the 126 French-made fighters to India might be annulled and a new tender opened (Interfax-AVN Online, February 20).
President Vladimir Putin, on his most recent visit to India in late 2012, successfully negotiated some major arms deals. However, that visit occurred under the shadow of Russia losing out on some large contracts to Western competitors (India Strategic, February 1–28). And it seems clear from the Russian media reports that, at least in public, Russian officials cannot quite come to grips with these losses. Thus, the deputy director of Russia’s Federal Service for Military and Technical Collaboration (FSMTC), Vyacheslav Dzirkin, could not understand how Russia lost the tender for helicopters where the Mi-26 took part because this Russian helicopter supposedly has no equal in the world with regard to its technical characteristics (Interfax-AVN Online, February 20). Viktor Komardin, who headed Russia’s delegation to India’s military air show Aero India and is the deputy director of Rosoboronexport, went even further, accusing India of buying aircraft, submarines and weapons from Western countries at inflated prices “without military logic.” As is typical in many such cases worldwide, Komardin took out his anger on the local media even though the media is obviously not buying weapons for India. He also blasted the fact that arms transfers are now “all politics.” In other words, in his remarks, he showed not only that Russia felt betrayed by its failure to convince India to accept its weapons automatically, he also showed that Russian arms officials had obviously come to feel that they were entitled to expect such automatic deference from India—a dangerous assumption given the actual track record of Russian systems. But Komardin was not deterred by questions about delays, disruptions or poor quality, saying typically that other manufacturers were no better than Russians in this regard (The Telegraph [Kolkata], February 9).
While quite revealing, such arguments will hardly work with an increasingly assertive and capable India. Russia still is number one on the Indian market. But Komardin’s statement that “no one else but Russia provides contemporary military technologies to India,” must have generated smiles in London, Paris, Washington and Tel-Aviv (Interfax-AVN Online, February 6). In the past, when Russia lost a contract, it apparently worked through diplomatic channels to find out what went wrong where ( [Mumbai], February 2). But Komardin’s and others’ outbursts show an erosion in that sense of diplomatic tact.

While Russia certainly need not panic, these losses, plus the losses of Syria, Libya and Iran as buyers—and now the potential for Venezuela to move in a different direction with the death of Hugo Chavez—underscore an increasingly competitive global arms market. And Russian weapons manufacturers, frequently berated domestically for the poor quality of their products (see EDM, March 14), are finding it ever more difficult to break through internationally. Evidently Russia’s defense industrial complex still has much to learn about what a true market economy requires.