NEW DELHI: The impending threat of US sanctions under its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) barring all materiel purchases from Russia, has compelled India to resuscitate its defence ties with Russia.

The two sides have revised their bilateral framework to augment their flagging military engagement by creating a new unit under the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-MTC).

This unit is expected to focus on joint training and exercises, reciprocal visits by senior service personnel, enhancing interaction between the respective defence establishments and reviving lapsed bilateral military programmes.

Under the revised proposals the IRIGC-MTC will also be renamed the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Military and Military Technical Cooperation to emphasise the military aspect of the mutual relationship between New Delhi and Moscow.

India’s military ties with Russia had progressively wilted over the past 15 years as Delhi moved strategically closer to Washington, conducting the largest number of single-service military exercises with the US than it did with any other country. The two sides also recently agreed to hold their maiden tri-service exercises on India’s east coast next year.

More significantly, India has sourced over $15 billion worth of materiel from the US since 2002 that include transport and maritime reconnaissance aircraft and attack and heavy-lift helicopters, all of which had earlier been provided by Moscow.

Much to Russia’s chagrin India was currently in an advanced stage of negotiations with the US to procure weaponised Guardian unmanned aerial vehicles and an air defence system together worth over $3 billion, amongst other assorted equipment.

But the provocation that pushed Delhi and Moscow militarily closer was provided in early September during President Vladimir Putin’s India visit when both sides signed the $5.5 billion deal for five Russian S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air missile systems.

When asked about imposing sanctions on India for the S-400 purchase, President Donald Trump enigmatically declared that it was “about to find out; sooner than you think”; this ie being interpreted in official circles in Delhi as Washington’s intent to levy CAATSA on India.

Security sources in Delhi indicated that the US was waiting for India to make its initial 15 per cent payment for the S-400 before activating CAATSA and sanctioning, in all probability, the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

“Indian diplomats and military officials are taking Trump’s statement as a possible indicator of impending sanctions on Delhi under CAATSA” said a senior Indian security official.

Consequently, Delhi has opted to re-define its ties with Moscow in order to mitigate the fallout from possible US sanctions, he declared, but added that the entire issue was riddled with ‘confusion’ and ‘lack of clarity’.

It is, however, no secret that Russia remains a critical and enduring link to India’s defence equipment requirements and re-buttressing bilateral ties to vindicate these demands remains a priority for Delhi.

Currently India is in the final stages of negotiating the licensed production of 768,000 Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifles by the state-owned Ordnance Factory Board and the acquisition of four additional Project 1135.6 Grigorovich-class stealth frigates, two of which are to be built in India.

Also pending is the a deal to procure 200 Kamov Ka-226T ‘Hoodlum’ light multi-role helicopters for the Army Aviation Corps and the IAF- 140 of which would be locally assembled-as is the acquisition of two supplementary airborne early warning and control (AEW& C) platforms.

The upgrade of a large number of the IAF’s Sukhoi Su-30MKI fleet and the leasing of another nuclear attack submarine (SSN) too are awaited. In 2012 India had leased INS Chakra the 9.246-tonne Russian Schuka-B(Akula)-class SSN for a decade for $962 million, an arrangement no other country would have sealed.

Alongside, the Indian Army (IA) operates a preponderance of Russian military platforms, assorted missile systems and varied ordnance, all of which will remain in service for 20-25 years, necessitating continued servicing, maintenance and upgradation by their Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs).

“The IA’s primary fire power for the immediate future will be provided by Soviet or Russian origin platforms like tanks, artillery and infantry combat vehicles (ICVs)” said former Lieutenant General Vijay Kapur. Consequently, Russian OEM’s will remain central to IA’s inventories, he added.

Over 95 per cent of the army’s fleet of around 2200-2500 main battle tanks (MBTs) are Russian T-72 and T-90S variants-imported directly and licence built-whilst its 2,000-odd ICVs-the Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty 1& 2 were similarly sourced.

A large number of the forces missile systems, particularly the jewel in the pack-the surface-to-surface BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, successfully inducted into navy and army in 2007- are from Russia.

Switching to alternate sources to replace all gear is not an option military planners want or desire, as it would not only entail colossal expenditure but reworked infrastructures and inordinate delays. India can ill afford this at a time when the security situation in its immediate and extended neighbourhood is fast deteriorating and service chiefs talk of being prepared to fight a war on two-fronts with Pakistan and China.

The Indian Navy (IN) was similarly Russia dependent for major platforms like INS Vikramaditya, its sole 46,000 tonne refurbished Kiev-class aircraft carrier and the complement of 45 MiG-29K/KUB naval fighters. These fighters would also constitute the air complement of INS Vikrant, the under-construction 37,500 tonne carrier.

The IN also operates nine ‘Kilo’-class Type 877 diesel-electric submarines and three Project 1135.6 Talwar-class stealth frigates and a host of smaller, albeit obsolete vessels like minesweepers.

Russia had also provided the Defence Research and Development Organisation vital assistance in designing INS Arihant, the navy’s first indigenously designed and built nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) that was secretly commissioned into service in August 2016.

It is also involved in providing technical know-how to miniaturise the 80MW reactor for the four follow-on SSBN’s presently under construction at the classified Ship Building Centre at Vishakhapatnam. No other country, especially the US, would be willing to provide such strategic technology technical transfers.

In conclusion, there are three fundamental reasons for India’s partiality to Russian defence equipment that were difficult to contest.

It was cheap, hardy-capable of operating in extreme temperatures of minus 44 degrees Celsius on Siachen and Ladakh’s forbidding heights and over 50 degrees Celsius in the Rajasthan desert- and familiar to succeeding generations of Indian servicemen.

“Russia is unlikely to be dislodged as the army’s principal weapon provider, even by a combination of the US, France, Israel, each one of whom have individually increased their defence exports to India in recent years” said Amit Cowshish, former MoD acquisition advisor.

It will continue to play a major role, not only in sustaining and retrofitting existing systems, but also in providing newer ones, he added.

(Rahul Bedi is a senior journalist and writer on defence affairs)