MOSCOW SET TO BOOST INDIAN-RUSSIAN ARMS COOPERATION?

Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 80

Russia’s efforts to turn itself into a significant player in the Asian arms market have taken an interesting turn. This week, reports surfaced suggesting that a joint Indian-Russian military aircraft venture may be in the works to supply Sukhoi Su-30MK multirole fighters to Malaysia. Although the Malaysian Defense Ministry denied that any such deal had been finalized, reports of the joint venture suggested that Moscow and New Delhi might be on the verge of expanding a major joint aircraft production agreement they signed last year.

If successful, the proposed sale to Malaysia would bring major benefits to both Russia and India. It would help Moscow penetrate the lucrative Southeast Asian arms market even farther and keep its own struggling aircraft producers in business. It would also strengthen Russia’s “strategic partnership” with India. New Delhi, in turn, would further one its key security goals–to become a producer and exporter of world class military hardware–by gaining access to additional Russian military technology and upgrading its own manufacturing capabilities. As a Russian proponent of the joint venture pointed out, the India-Russia-Malaysia deal could also help both Russia and India to compete more successfully in Asia against U.S. and European military aircraft manufacturers. An Indian news sources speculated that the three-way deal, which would see the air forces of both India and Malaysia strengthened, might help to counterbalance the current superiority of the Chinese air force in the region.

At issue are Malaysia’s plans to spend some US$1 billion on a squadron of advanced combat aircraft as part of a broader military buildup. Kuala Lumpur is currently considering both American-made Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets and Anglo-Swedish Jas-39 Gripen fighters as well as the Russian Su-30MKs. The Malaysian tender is especially important for Russia, which sees itself as having some advantages in the competition, thanks to a 1994 contract under which it supplied Kuala Lumpur with eighteen MiG-29 fighters. That sale was seen at the time as a major breakthrough for Russia in the Southeast Asian market, but Moscow has not been able to follow up on it.

Arms spending is expected to rise across the Asia-Pacific region, however–in part because countries there have recovered from the 1997-1998 financial crisis and in part because of new security concerns after the September 11 attacks–and Russian arms producers and their foreign competitors are now targeting the region. Indeed, the Malaysian government is said to be in the market for a number of defense systems, and Russia is undoubtedly hoping that the aircraft sale would be but one of a package of arms deals it might conclude with Kuala Lumpur.

Speculation about a possible India-Russia-Malaysia aircraft deal was triggered by an article published in the Indian daily The Hindu on April 21 (and in a pair of subsequent reports) that carried comments made by Aleksei Fedorov. Fedorov is president of the Irkut aircraft manufacturing corporation, a Russian company that is working with the India-based Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) on a US$3 billion deal under which 140 Russian Su-30MKI aircraft will be produced in India under Russian license. He reportedly suggested to The Hindu that India and Russia were considering working together to produce a variant of the Su-30MKI for export to Malaysia.

The Russian executive, who arrived in New Delhi yesterday for two of talks with Indian officials, placed the proposed Malaysia deal–and Indian-Russian military-technical cooperation more generally–in the context of a broader effort by Irkut to better position itself within a global arms market place that is forcing a consolidation of major aerospace companies. “Our aviation industries face the choice of either becoming appendices of Western corporations or joining forces with each other to win a share of the aerospace market.” Indeed, Fedorov suggested that Russia’s negotiations with Malaysia over the aircraft tender have already benefited from the Indian-Russian joint Su-30MKI production project. He said that Irkut was busy exploring the possibility of setting up a regional center in India for integrated logistical support for the Su-30, and he reportedly expressed confidence that HAL would ultimately also become an active partner with the Malaysian air force in providing spare parts and technical services for their fleets of MiG and Sukhoi aircraft.

Fedorov also suggested that Indian-Russian cooperation in the aerospace industry might go well beyond the manufacture of Su-30MKIs and the potential supply of aircraft and support services to Malaysia. In other comments reported by The Hindu, he spoke of Russia’s willingness to grant India permission to export Sukhoi jet fighters produced under Russian license to other countries as well. Of perhaps more importance, he also described a possible partnership between Irkut, HAL and two other Russian arms exporters–Ilyushin and the Russian state arms export company Rosoboroneksport–in a project to design, produce and market an advanced, new multifunctional transport aircraft.

It is unclear to what extent Fedorov’s comments match reality or coincide with the plans of India’s own arms planners–or those of Malaysia, for that matter. Indeed, in an apparent response to the April 21 article in The Hindu, Malaysian Defense Minister Najib Razak was quoted on April 22 as saying that Kuala Lumpur had in fact not yet made any decision regarding which fighter plane it intended to purchase. Najib said that Malaysian authorities were still looking at the proposal submitted by the Russian manufacturer (presumably Irkut), and he made no mention of a possible role for India in the deal (The Hindu, April 21-23; Times of India, April 20, 24; Reuters, New Straits Times, AFP, April 22; Vremya Novostei, April 8).

Top Indian defense officials must nonetheless have looked on Fedorov’s comments with interest. They have long emphasized their desire to develop India’s own arms manufacturing capabilities, and have repeatedly described Indian-Russian cooperation in this area as a marriage of equals rather than a relationship between seller and buyer. Fedorov’s comments, in other words, appear to reflect views that coincide exactly with the relationship that New Delhi is seeking in its arms dealings with Russia. Whether the two sides can make this vision a reality remains to be seen, of course. At present India is reexamining its long defense relationship with Russia and, against a background of improved relations with the United States and Europe, is looking to expand its base of arms suppliers. At the same, Russia remains New Delhi’s largest arms supplier by far. And despite some recent turbulence in negotiations on a broad package of new arms deals, there were signs that a recent visit to Moscow by Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes put talks between the two countries back on track (see the Monitor, April 18).

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