Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 4

In yet another development during the West’s celebration of the Christmas holidays, Russia and India signed on December 28 what some reports said was the largest single arms negotiation in modern Russian history. Under the terms of the deal, which was estimated to be worth in excess of US$3 billion, Russia has reportedly licensed Indian defense enterprises to manufacture 140 Sukhoi-30MKI multirole fighter aircraft over a span of some seventeen years. The deal was inked at the Iapo aircraft plant in the Siberian city of Irkutsk by an Indian Defense Ministry representative and by the recently reorganized Russian state arms trading company Rosoboroneksport. India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which in the past worked with the Irkutsk plant in assembling more than 100 MiG-27 fighters under Soviet license, will continue its association with Iapo in the production of the Su-30s (Hindustan Times, Times of India, Izvestia, December 29, 2000; Itar-Tass, December 28, 2000).

The inking of the deal ends years of negotiations and finalizes a memorandum agreement signed during President Vladimir Putin’s high-profile summit visit to New Delhi this past October. Russian sources had at that time trumpeted the importance of both the Su-30 deal and a package of other arms sale agreements, yet the fact that none of these deals were actually finalized (as some had expected) raised questions as to whether Putin’s talks in India had gone as smoothly as reported indicated (see the Monitor, October 10, 2000). Indeed, another lucrative arms deal, one by which Moscow was to provide India with 310 T-90 main battle tanks (about half to be produced in India under Russian license), was also left partly unresolved during Putin’s India visit. A Russian report in late December suggested that Russian and Indian officials are still haggling over the details of the deal, but that Moscow hopes it can be finalized in the near future (Russia TV, December 29, 2000).

Not surprisingly, a key Russian defense official hailed the December 28 deal as a manifestation of increasingly close ties between Moscow and New Delhi. Russian Deputy Defense Minister (for defense cooperation) Mikhail Dmitriev also described the deal as “an unprecedented, long defense contract with India,” one that ensured that “our defense cooperation with India would be further strengthened in future and [that] new military contacts would follow.” A defense analyst at the Moscow-based Carnegie Center claimed in similar fashion that the Su-30 deal “reflects the growth of [the] Russian-Indian strategic partnership.” Of perhaps greater import, Andrei Ryabov also suggested that the deal elevated India above China among Russia’s major arms clients because it involved a transfer of Sukhoi technology which has been refused to Beijing. The signing of the Sukhoi deal with India was, Ryabov said, “an indication of where Russia’s priorities lay among its two Asian strategic partners” (Times of India, December 30, 2000). China and India are the two largest purchasers of Russian military hardware and account, according to most reports, for more than 75 percent of all Russian arms sales.

As was the case with the arms deals Putin signed in New Delhi this past October, however, details of the December 28 agreement remain obscure. Russian news media, for example, suggested that the Russian side was happy with the deal because it would provide work for more than a hundred cash-strapped defense factories and for thousands of their employees (Times of India, December 30). That same sort of point was made several days earlier–on the eve of the agreement signing–by a Russian daily. It claimed that most of the more technically advanced parts of the Su-30MKIs would still be manufactured in Russia–not in India–and, in particular, that the engines for the aircraft would be produced at the Salyut plant in Moscow. Each aircraft will require two engines (at US$3 million each) the newspaper said, adding that the “Russian part of the avionics and details of the hull, which require special technologies, will be delivered from Russia as well” (Vedomosti, December 27, 2000).

At least one Indian source appeared to paint a different picture, however. The Hindustan Times hailed the Su-30 deal for the fact that it involved a “deep” license agreement, one which “provides for the indigenous production of all the components of the Su-30MKI,” including the aircraft’s advanced “state-of-the-art thrust-vectoring engines.” The newspaper went on to say that the December 28 deal entails a “complete transfer of the technology involved in making this multipurpose fighter,” and that India expects to be able “to manufacture every component of the aircraft.”

Perhaps more worrisome for Moscow, however, the newspaper also disparages to some degree both the level of the Su-30MKI’s technical sophistication and the prowess of Russia’s military aircraft industry more generally. In this vein, the newspaper argues that, while Russia remains the world’s fourth largest peddler of arms, “it is rapidly falling behind in the high-technology aspects of warfare.” The newspaper pointed to apparent Indian dissatisfaction with earlier versions of the Su-30 which New Delhi has purchased, claiming that India has had to purchase Israeli or French equipment to plug gaps in the aircraft’s avionics and electronic warfare apparatus. This latest deal should provide India with a “lot of engineering know-how,” the paper says, but it “will not provide electronics or software.” Russia will “remain a good source of platforms, especially tanks and basic aircraft component like engines, for maybe another decade,” the newspaper concludes, “but this latest deal is quite likely to be the last bit of arms technology India will be able to squeeze from the leftovers of the old Soviet arms industry” (Hindustan Times, December 29-30, 2000).