By Rajeev Sharma
Russia’s decades-old numero uno status in the Indian defence sector is under threat. This triggers questions about the more than half-century-old Indo-Russian ‘strategic partnership’ when the terminology ‘strategic partnership’ had not even entered the international lexicon.
The high point of Indo-Russian friendship came in the 1970s when Indira Gandhi (termed as “Durga” by Atal Bihari Vajpayee after India’s fabulous victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war) entered into a historic treaty with the then Soviet Union. The treaty had a significant clause: an attack on India will be construed as an attack on the Soviet Union and vice-versa.
The 20-year treaty proved to be the game-changer and won India the 1971 war with Pakistan despite American gunboat diplomacy. It is another matter, and a different story, that this treaty was renewed with post-Soviet Russia, with the significant omission of a clause that stipulated that an attack on India would be construed as an attack on Russia and vice versa.
The Russians fumed when the Indian dalliance with George W Bush-led America started in July 2005, when the world’s most powerful democracy initiated a civilian nuclear cooperation deal with the world’s most populous democracy. Indo-US relations were rocketing to higher and higher trajectories and by the time the two democracies legislated the nuclear deal four years later they were already being dubbed as “natural allies”.
China was understandably seething and a confused Russia was unsmiling.
Four years after the Indo-US nuke deal, in 2013 the Indo-Russian relations still remain in a wilderness of sorts. The traditional allies are still trying to rediscover the old romance in bilateral ties. However, this time the threat is coming from the Indian defence sector.
Russia will have to pull out a rabbit from thin air if it has to protect its prime status in the Indian defence scheme of things. Russia can ill afford to keep on losing big ticket Indian defence contracts one after another – the latest being the loss of the $1.68 billion deal for six air-to-air refuellers. European aviation major Airbus has beaten the Russians hollow for the mid-air refueller deal.
The Indian decision in favour of the Airbus A-330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (A-330 MRTT) has been firmed up and conveyed to the company. Airbus Military has gone on record acknowledging winning the contract as follows: "The decision follows a lengthy and thorough selection process, including the completion of extensive flight demonstrations in India by the A330 MRTT during which the aircraft refuelled multiple types of IAF fighters and operated from the high-altitude IAF base at Leh." Airbus Military also said India's selection of the A330 MRTT makes it the fifth nation to commit to the type following Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom which have ordered a total of 28 aircraft.
India was to buy six additional mid-air refuellers years ago and the Ministry of Defence had initiated the process in 2009 itself. However, the Ministry of Finance smelt a rat in the selection process and pricing issues and in 2010 vetoed the entire process of selection completed by the IAF. The purchase was scrapped and fresh tenders were invited in September 2010. By this time, American Boeing company lost interest in the contract and withdrew.
Why A-330 Won Over IL-78
The A-330 Versus IL-78 battle was won by the former because of its superior running and maintenance costs. A-330 is a twin-engined plane while IL-78 has four engines. In terms of lifecycle costs, Airbus was found to be better than IL-78 by the Indian fliers who had ample time and experience in operating the Russian mid-air refuelllers for a decade.
Other A-330 pluses over its rivals are as follows: (i) it can refuel several fighter planes simultaneously at the same time; (ii) it is a multi-utility aircraft which can function both as a transport plane as well as a mid-air refueller; and (iii) if the requirement is for the former (transport plane), it can carry 45 tonnes of cargo, but if the authorities want to use it as a mid-air refueller, it can carry 110 tonnes of fuel.
The dual capability of A-330 as a transport plane or a mid-air refueller has proven to be a game-changer in favour of the Airbus.
Another USP of the European tanker is that it comes with Aerial Refuelling Boom System (ARBS) which enables refueling even in adverse weather conditions at day or night. This technology is so far available only with the Americans so far.
Besides, the MRTT uses the stereoscopic vision and laser based-infrared lighting system. This gives a tremendous boost to India’s strategic potential as India is about to acquire 126 new advanced fighters, Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), at a whopping cost of $ 10.4 billion. Therefore, there can be a strategic wedding of MRTT and MMRCA for operational purposes from the Indian point of view and the MRTT deal thus meant value for money.
Why Russia Needs to Worry
This is a setback to the Russians who were front-runners and eminently eligible for the second part of the contract as the Indian Air Force already has a fleet of six Russian-made Illyusin-78 (IL-78) refuellers.
The Russians would inevitably be taking up the issue with the Indians through the diplomatic channels and inquire what went wrong where, diplomatic sources said. In the past also, Russians have activated diplomatic channels whenever they lost out on a major defence contract.
There is all the more valid reason for Russia to feel concerned as it is the second time that Airbus has emerged as the number one choice of the IAF. Russia getting pipped at the post by another country in the context of an Indian defence contract is increasingly becoming a familiar spectacle. It raises a question: is Russia increasingly getting edged out by other countries in winning defence deals in India?
The answer is in the affirmative. In fact, the already dark clouds are set to become darker in the near future. The reason is simple. The Indians have become more clever and are spoilt for choice. Major arms-exporting nations like the US, the UK, France and Israel have been wooing India and are offering competitive prices and value-added features.
Moreover, India has finetuned its defence procurement policy from time to time and made it mandatory that any big defence contract in India can now only be won after going through a transparent process of global competitive bids. Russia is increaaingly finding itself out of depth in this context.
Joint Production A Way Out
Though Russia has reasons to feel bad about losing the mid-air refueller deal despite being a top contender, there is no cause for the Russians to push the panic button.
The strategic ties between India and Russia have been so close for decades that the two governments will definitely find better ways out. Perhaps entering into joint production for various weapon systems is an idea whose time has come now. But this is another story.
The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and a strategic analyst who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.