Balance Strategic Relationships

Success in the domain of foreign policy is unlikely unless a carefully crafted and discreet balance is maintained in relationships with the leading global players.

Issue: 7 / 2019By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By Wikipedia
S-400 air defence missile system

India has formally concluded a deal with Russia to purchase five batteries of the Russian S-400 Triumf long range air defence missile system valued at $5.4 billion. This deal which is of significance for India has unfortunately triggered off tensions between the United States (US) and India. It was signed in Delhi on October 5, 2018, after a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 19th Russia-India Summit.

During the Cold War era, even though India was not an ally, the nation was tethered almost entirely to the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) which practically was the only source for the acquisition of military hardware for the Indian armed forces. Despite its proclaimed non-aligned status, for some reason, the US viewed India to be in the Soviet camp and never conceded to its request to provide military hardware especially combat aircraft as well as offensive and defensive missile systems. All that the Indian Air Force (IAF) received from the US after the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 was a fleet of 79 old C-119 Fairchild Packet twin-piston engine transport aircraft that had been deployed in support of US forces during the war in Korea and was to be retired from service. With the breakup of the USSR in 1991 and the consequent emergence of a uni-polar world, India was now free to explore markets in the West for a wider range of options and possibly for weapon systems of better quality and capability. As expected, India veered away from Russia and looked to the US for military hardware and acquired a variety of military transport aircraft some of which are already in service with the IAF while other platforms are to be delivered in the near future. The list includes the C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlift aircraft, the C-130 tactical transport aircraft, P-8I Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, MH-60R naval helicopters, Predator B armed drones and the NASAMS II air defence system. Since the time India developed this new relationship with the US, around $15 billion worth of military hardware has already been procured and delivery of platforms and systems against orders valued at $10 billion are expected to begin in the near future.

Further, action is also in hand to acquire 114 medium multirole combat aircraft for the IAF for which the Lockheed Martin F-16 is a strong contender. In fact, Lockheed Martin has carried out modifications to the F-16 and rebranded the platform as F-21 specifically for India. Meanwhile, the Indian Navy is to procure 57 carrier-capable twin-engine fighter jets for the aircraft carrier Vikrant currently under construction at the Cochin Shipyard. The twin-engine F/A-18 from Boeing would be a strong contender.

The dynamics of strategic relationships among the nations in the Indo-Pacific region are indeed complex. The US has always regarded India as a significant player in this region; but was unable to develop a meaningful strategic relationship during the Cold War era. However, since 1991 when the year the Cold War ended and liberalisation of the Indian economy took place, there has been changes in the equation between India and the US. In 2007, Prime Minister Abe proposed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the ‘Quad’, under which India was to join a formal multilateral dialogue with Japan, US and Australia. Although the US was in support of this plan, it did not takeoff as Australia saw it as an unwarranted step to antagonise China. India too had similar apprehensions. In the year 2016, the US took a major step forward to strengthen the strategic relationship with India by declaring her a “Major Defence Partner”. This certainly facilitated further procurement of military hardware by India from the US. On July 2, 2019, the US Senate passed a legislation elevation India to be on par with NATO allies of the US.

On account of the growing ties with the US, procurement of military hardware from Russia had practically stopped. Two major projects undertaken by India involving the development in collaboration with Russia, of the fifth-generation fighter aircraft and the medium transport aircraft to replace the ageing fleet of An-32 aircraft, were abandoned leading to much consternation in Russia. It would have subsequently dawned upon the political leadership in India that in the long term, it would be politically and strategically unwise to stop procurement of military hardware altogether from Russia that had stood by India for over half a century. As for the Russian aerospace industry, driven possibly by commercial considerations, it has begun to supply military hardware to Pakistan, something that it had not done in the golden years of relationship with India.

Procurement of the S-400 air defence missile system from Russia, despite threats of sanctions from the US, therefore, appears to be a positive step and in the right direction on the part of India. In the context of the prevailing strategic environment, success in the domain of foreign policy is unlikely unless a carefully crafted and discreet balance is maintained in relationships with the leading global players.