The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has put Russia under an unprecedented volley of Western sanctions, which will hit its military industrial complex’s production capabilities. It is a well-known fact that India is the largest importer of Russian arms, contributing to some 70 per cent of the equipment in its arsenal. The ongoing hostilities and the consequential sanctions may jeopardise the supply of spares for equipment from Russia. The Indian Ministry of Defence has already taken note.
The MoD apparently views this as a problem for the short and medium term. However, the ongoing conflict demonstrates how over-reliance on one supplier can have major consequences for India’s force structure long-term, even while slowly widening its defence supply base.
Through the decades, India has made limited progress in indigenising the sourcing of spare parts for these Russian-origin platforms. India also only very recently started negotiating long term spares and after sales support contracts with Russia, despite being a customer since the 1960s during the Soviet era. Friction between Russian state arms company ROSTEC and the Indian government over spares goes back to at least the early millennium.
Russia has also objected to India issuing global tenders for spare parts, which ends up involving ex-Soviet countries and former Warsaw pact nations. These alternate suppliers other than Russia either have similar Soviet-origin platforms in service or decommissioned hardware in boneyards from which spares can be salvaged. Russia has also not been keen on letting India mix and match components sourced indigenously and from around the world, on platforms for which it is the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), especially during upgrades.
It is uncertain if Russia may have to dedicate its available stock of spare parts and channel its military-industrial complex’s currently uncertain production capability for its own forces’ needs.
However, India should be ready for any eventuality and while hoping for the best, plan for the worst scenario.
To mitigate the looming shortage of spares from Russia, India has at its disposal two major pathways to acquire spares. Despite the threat of Chinese aggression in the Himalayas, the Indian military must explore the possibility of optimising sorties for maximum situational awareness and quick response capabilities.
Buying from others
The first of these pathways is fairly easy: look for suppliers in former-Soviet states or in countries that have experience in retrofitting Soviet and Russian equipment with their own technologies. For example, Poland is among the best-known countries for upgrading its fleet of T-72 tanks with its very own upgrades package. Similarly, Georgia has also taken a similar route to upgrade its ageing armoured vehicles. These countries, which have taken to indigenous incremental innovation, could act as India’s spares suppliers.
This solution, however, does not apply in all cases. Acquiring spares for Russian aircraft for the relatively newer platforms like the MiG-29 and the Sukhoi-30 MKI will be much more difficult. While it is true that India builds Russian fighters such as the Sukhoi-30 MKI under licence, it still depends on Russian suppliers for critical components, which often leads to spares being in short-supply.
The gray zone
The second solution, therefore, is to manufacture these components indigenously and innovate incrementally to improve existing capabilities. Iran’s pathway to maintain the air-worthiness of its F-14 fleet offers useful lessons.
Hit by sanctions and isolated from the majority of the international community, Iran has managed to maintain a sizeable chunk of its US supplied and subsequently embargoed F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft fleet, which protects Iranian skies to this day. To get the maximum utility out of these planes, Iran ingeniously optimised the sortie rates and increasingly indigenised the production of parts, despite the obvious setbacks managing to keep its F-14 fleet a force to be reckoned with.
Iran also relied on smuggling and sourcing parts from US-based individuals with access to decommissioned airframes from US military boneyards. Iran also used the infamous hostage crisis during Ronald Reagan’s presidency to coerce a huge stock of spares, new components and ammunition from the US for its military, including the F-14s.
Interestingly, Russia and Ukraine also have a similar dynamic in their strained relations, ever since the events of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Ukraine’s MiG 29 aircraft legacy of its Soviet era inheritance used to depend on Russian spare part supplies, however things have now changed. Ukraine has not only indigenised maintenance, but also managed to modernise and upgrade its airframes with some help from other countries. According to reports in Russian media, individuals have also been caught smuggling not only MiG 29 spare parts but also spares for components of S-300 air defence systems, presumably destined for Ukraine.
Of course, choosing to manufacture equipment for Russian weapons will certainly violate contractual agreements and infringe intellectual property. If, however, Russia is unable to maintain its obligations in the near future, the MoD will either have to witness a slow decay of India’s Russian-origin military equipment or manufacture spares indigenously under such extraordinary circumstances.
Maintaining long-term force effectiveness
For the past decade or so, India has slowly managed to diversify its weapons procurement, showing its preferences towards Western suppliers. However, the Indian armed forces will continue to depend on Russia for key components and spares.
The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict gives the MoD an opportunity to re-think its approach on reducing dependence. Seeking alternate suppliers for spares will certainly mitigate some of the quibbles of over-reliance on Russia.
The ongoing crisis also provides an opportunity for the MoD to align its plans more closely with the Narendra Modi government’s vision of ‘atmanirbharta’ or self-reliance. For long, the Army and the Air Force have looked to leapfrog in technology innovation and have often failed to meet expectations. Seeking a path of incremental innovation through indigenous manufacturing of spares may help in setting a strong foundation for future indigenous projects.
Aditya Pareek is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution. He tweets @CabinMarine. Pranav R. Satyanath is an independent analyst. He tweets @duke_notnukem. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)