EVERGREEN RUSSIAN FACTOR IN EVOLUTION OF IAF
Geopolitics|February 2021
AMIT COWSHISH argues why it is hard to ignore the Russian factor in India’s military capability
AMIT COWSHISH

Despite the threat of US sanctions looming over India’s $5.5 billion import of five Russian Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air (SAM) missile systems, it is improbable that India will dump Russia as its most reliable material provider. If anything, the reliance on Russian defence equipment which presently arms over 60 per cent of its services, will not only be sustained but will further proliferate, as India struggles to modernise its forces to meet security challenges in the neighbourhood.

The camaraderie that has evolved between the defence establishments of the two countries over the past six decades also remains robust, despite several irritants, including India’s increasingly sourcing of newer equipment from alternate sources in France, Israel, and the US. But the US, it seems, is seeking to dent these symbiotic ties that successfully weathered the storm caused by the Soviet Union’s disintegration in the early 1990s and the consequent dispersal of its vast military-industrial complex into many Republics, several of them inimical to Russia.

Senior US officials, including Kenneth Juster, the outgoing US envoy to New Delhi, recently indicated the possibility of Washington invoking the four-year-old Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) against India for acquiring the S-400 air defence systems for the Indian Air Force (IAF). Other Russian equipment like combat aircraft, helicopters, warships, nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and small arms, varied missiles, and munitions, amongst others, make Indian vulnerable to the US sanctions.

CAATSA is the US response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and alleged interference in the US presidential elections two years later. The Act applies to 39 Russian entities covering almost its entire defence industry and associated organisations.

Ever since CAATSA became law in August 2017, the US has maintained that India inducting the S-400 would ‘jeopardize’ military interoperability by ‘compromising’ its platforms in service with the Indian military. So far, the US has invoked CAATSA against Turkey and China for having acquired two S-400 systems each, though the extent and scope of these sanctions remain somewhat nebulous.

The US has also divested Turkey, a NATO ally, of its involvement in Lockheed Martin’s F-35 joint strike fighter programme. A statement from the White House imposing CAATSA upon Ankara in July 2019 stated that the F-35 ‘cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence platform that will be used to learn about its (the fighters) advanced capabilities’. The US applies similar logic to India which operates a slew of US military platforms like C-17 and C-130J-30 transport aircraft and Apache attack and Chinook heavy-lift helicopters.

India, for its part, has reacted cautiously to the prospect of CAATSA’s imposition, as it realises Russia’s near-indispensability in providing its defence equipment. The bulk of the existing inventory of all the three services is of Russian and earlier Soviet- origin. This is best illustrated by the history of acquisitions of aircraft by the IAF over the past six decades from the Soviet Union/ Russia and, more importantly, the role played by those aircraft in various military operations.

In one of the earliest deals in 1961, India imported the first lot of MiG-21 Fishbed Type 64 single-engine ground attack fighters for the IAF, designed by the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau, in addition to signing a contract for their licensed production by the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in Bengaluru. In an unusual move, the first lot of MiG-21 fighters were supplied to the IAF some five years before they entered service with the Soviet air force. These fighters arrived at a critical juncture for India when it was boosting its military capability after its ignominious defeat in the 1962 border war with China over a territorial dispute that remains unresolved.

Over succeeding decades HAL license-built some 700-odd MiG-21 variants, but sadly nearly half of them were lost in accidents in which scores of pilots died, prompting the local media to christen them as the IAFs ‘flying coffins’. But even this harsh moniker did not obfuscate the reality that these MiG-21s were the most operationally competent and economical fighters of their generation that served the IAF well by giving a good account of themselves in all three wars with Pakistan in 1965, 1971, and once again in the mountainous Kargil region in Kashmir, in 1999.

It is remarkable that some six squadrons or around 110-odd upgraded Fishbed MiG21’Bison’-93 were thereafter commissioned into IAF service 2002 onwards, at a cost of around ₹200 million each after being fitted with Russian, French and Israeli avionics and weapon kits. Nearly two decades later these retrofitted MiG21 Bis fighters were part of a formidable IAF formation that engaged the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in a dogfight over Kashmir in February 2019. One of them reportedly downed an advanced enemy US-origin F-16 combat aircraft, before itself being shot down with its pilot bailing out safely. But the fighters are now nearing the end of their Total Technical Life (TTL) and around five squadrons face retirement next year onwards.

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