India's Defence Cooperation with its major traditional & New Strategic Partners

Ambassador Ronen Sen
April 1, 2011

I am glad to have the opportunity of addressing this distinguished gathering at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. At the outset, permit me to pay my personal tribute to late K. Subrahmanyam, who was India’s foremost authority on strategic studies and the visionary Founder-Director of this widely recognized centre of excellence.

I will speak to you this afternoon on India’s defence cooperation with its traditional strategic partner, the former Soviet Union and then Russia, and our newly emerging defence cooperation with the United States, with which our relationship has been rapidly transformed into a broad-based strategic partnership in recent years. The perceptions I will share with you are based on my own experiences in Moscow in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s and ‘80s and much of the ‘90s and my recent longish assignment in Washington D.C. My focus on Russia and the US does not, in any way, imply my lack of appreciation of our defence cooperation with leading West European countries, where I have also served , as also of our highly valued defence partnership with Israel.

Defence cooperation, or for that matter, nuclear, space and high technology cooperation, has to be seen in the perspective of the evolving global economic and geo-strategic architecture.
The essential under-pinning of such cooperation is strategic partnership based on the convergence of long-term interests.

These include protecting our territorial integrity, tackling threats posed by terrorists and insurgents, nuclear proliferation, promoting energy security etc. It also involves promotion of our economic interests through balanced trade and market access.

After our independence we went through several phases in our defence cooperation. First it was primarily the British, and then predominantly the Soviet Union from the ‘60s onwards, followed by diversification of procurements from West European countries since the early ‘80s Thereafter, we had to cope with unprecedented challenges to our defence preparedness following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which accounted for over two-thirds of our defence inventories, and establish a partnership with Russia in the ‘90s. The latest stages involved our relatively non-controversial defence partnership with Israel and the ongoing process of establishing defence cooperation with the U.S. During virtually all these transitional phases there were initial reservations and resistance to changes in significant sections of our political, bureaucratic and, to a lesser extent, military establishments. The debate on the current transitional phase in our defence cooperation is thus not unprecedented.

The only difference is that this transition coincides with a cyclical peak in our defence modernization programme.

This is in the backdrop of the massive military modernization and force projection programme of China, rather than its surrogate in the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan. In this perspective, what are the evolving positions of Russia, the US, and West European countries? Russia remains China’s most important defence partner, but it is not oblivious to possible challenges. The US and China are highly inter-dependent, and for both countries this relationship is more important than any other. It is highly improbable that there will be a revival of a US-China-Pakistan military axis against India. The US maintains its arms embargo against China and has ensured that its European allies do not break ranks. France is already straining hard against this leash. For this reason, among others, US controls on arms sales to Pakistan will remain much more restrictive than those to India, given our impeccable track record of non-leakage of sensitive technologies to third countries to third countries. In the India-Russia-China trilateral forum, Russia has better relations with India and China and these two countries have with each other. The US has the same advantage in a similar triangular context. It will thus be to the longer term benefit of both India and China to take reciprocal measures to build on the legacy of Rajiv Gandhi’s historic visit to China.

Let me now dwell briefly on our defence cooperation with the former Soviet Union. This cooperation was based on one of the most stable and resilient strategic partnerships since the mid-‘50s. Modern defence systems were supplied to us at attractive prices and financed by soft credits repayable in rupees.

The bulk of our defence industrial infrastructure was set up with Soviet assistance. There were no interruptions in supplies. There were no strings attached to this cooperation. In spite of the mutual goodwill, Indo-Soviet defence cooperation went through long and persisting teething problems through the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The serviceability of Soviet systems were unacceptably low, neutralizing the initial cost advantages. Both sides were responsible for problems of adjustment of their different systems. After the emergence of Russia, there were expectations in Moscow of “international prices”, without comprehension of international practices of efficient product support.

In the geo-political context, the Soviets extended invaluable support to India in the UN Security Council. They had, however, given a prior assurance of neutrality to China before the Chinese aggression in 1962. Ever since the Soviet-brokered Tashkent agreement of 1965, the Kremlin leadership persisted in seeking a mediatory role between India and Pakistan. They sought to gain leverage with Pakistan through clandestine supplies of offensive armaments like tanks and howitzers from 1968 onwards. Khrushchev’s speech in Srinagar on the status of Jammu & Kashmir was never acknowledged thereafter, even as a historical document. Soviet, and subsequent Russian maps, like Western ones, continued incorrect depictions of Sino-Indian and India-Pakistan borders. The invaluable Soviet support to India during the Bangladesh liberation was, as manifested by the Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971, was not as spontaneous as widely presumed.
Questions were raised by the top Soviet leadership about the appropriate response to a “refugee problem” and the advisability of Indian intervention in a “civil war” between East and West Pakistan. Even after the Simla Agreement there were repeated probes about Moscow’s mediatory role in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

In the ‘90s, the Russians resumed intensive clandestine contacts with the Pakistanis on Russian arms supplies. There were high level talks, exchanges of delegations, field visits for demonstrations of military equipment. The Russians also carefully monitored India’s reactions to arms supplies by other countries to Pakistan, particularly the sale of angusta submarines to France. They noted our decision to cancel the Indo-French Joint Commission meeting at that time. I did not waste my time in detailed analyses of such developments, but ensured that such moves, or attempts to link Russian restraint with ongoing Indo-Russian projects, were aborted.

One of the most difficult tasks in my diplomatic career was not only to restore defence cooperation with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but to give it a boost with new contracts, as an indispensable element of a new strategic partnership with Russia. The old monolithic structure of defence production involved thousands of major and subsidiary enterprises spread all over the Soviet Union meeting centrally determined production quotas. No enterprise had any idea of costing, supply chains or marketing mechanisms. Russia retained about 80% of this industrial infrastructure.
Yet it could not on its own produce many weapon systems without inputs from enterprises in newly independent States. Orders from the Russian armed forces dried up, with a budget cut of 68% in 1992 alone. They lacked funds for maintenance of existing inventories and resorted to cannibalization for spares and aggregates. Defence production declined by almost 90% between 1992 and 1997. Old structures had collapsed. New ones were not in place.

We had no option but to resort to unorthodox measures. We ultimately succeeded in going beyond problem resolution. We revived efforts to convert a buyer-seller relationship to one of long-term partnership, involving joint R&D, co-production etc. We ensured continued collaboration on the nuclear submarine project and the second lease of another nuclear submarine. The joint venture on the Brahmos missile was finalized. Several other projects were put back on track. New high profile projects were launched. These including for the SU-30 MK I Multi-role combat aircraft which, in its totality, represents the biggest defence deal entered into by India.

I am certain that after more than a decade of subsequent consolidation and revival of the Russian economy, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, our defence cooperation has been further strengthened. The biggest challenges to this relationship is to impart it with greater and more balanced economic content, and modernizing of the Russian defence industry to sustain defence cooperation in a longer term perspective.

We have a big stake in the success of Russia coping with these challenges, since our dependence on Russia for defence supplies is greater today than with the rest of the world combined. It is in fact greater than the dependence of most NATO countries on the US. Russia will have to demonstrate its competitiveness not just in defence supplies but in substantially increased serviceability of its systems in current use by us and for new procurements.

Let me now turn to our defence cooperation with the US. Small beginnings were made by Rajiv Gandhi.

GE engines were supplied for our Light Combat Aircraft. It was not accidental that a proposed supply of AWACS aircraft for Pakistan did not take place in the ‘80s. Various forums for institutionalized defence cooperation were set up during the tenure of P.V. Narasimha Rao. It was, however, George W.Bush and Atal Behari Vajpayee who gave a major thrust to strategic cooperation with their joint announcement in January 2004 of the next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP). This envisaged cooperation in civil nuclear, civil space, high technology trade and missile defence. Earlier in May 2001, India was the first country to welcome the Anti-Ballastic Missile Defence proposal in the new strategic framework announced by the Bush administration.

A high profile manifestation of Service to Service cooperation was that of the Navies of India, the US, Japan and Australia after the tsunami in 2004. The then Secretary of State, Colin Powell, had turned down UN Secretary General Kofi Anan’s pleas for including China in these operations in the Indian Ocean.

There have been around 50 joint exercises between the armed forces of India and the US so far, which have been of mutual benefit and led to great recognition of the high professional standards of our armed forces.

By far the most important agreement governing our cooperation was the India-US New Framework in Defence Cooperation signed in June 2005 at the Defence Ministerial level in Washington D.C.

After the NSSP, and just prior to the historic civil nuclear initiative, this agreement was a significant manifestation of the strategic dimension of India-US relations.

The US, which has been used to dealing with either allies or adversaries, is currently in the process of learning to deal with a partner with shared values and inter-secting interests, but assertive of its autonomy. The process of understanding and undertaking mutually acceptable adjustments for addressing systemic differences between India and the US will have to be done quickly, and not over several years as in the case of the Soviet Union and Russia. Increasing public awareness in India of the extraordinary extent of US support to our national security concerns in our region and beyond should help in balancing deep-rooted perceptions of the unreliability of the US as a defence supplier. We could also explore ways of reducing dependence and promoting inter-dependence and mutual stake-holding in defence collaboration with all our partners. Pending issues for creating a better atmosphere and enhancing comfort levels for cooperation should also be addressed.

Since 1991 our Service to Service contacts have been with the US Pacific Command (PACOM). This has been of mutual benefit and will continue to be so, given our interests in South, South East and East Asia. Our lack of institutional links with the US Central Command (CENTCOM), covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, West Asia etc. has been a constraint. Rumsfeld had over-ruled earlier US reservations, and agreed to our proposal of having our Liaison Officers at both PACOM and CENTCOM.

We were disoriented by this unexpected positive response in 2005. There was thus no follow-up on our proposal.

Another instance is the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). We did not accept the standard CISMOA text. Drafts were discussed and negotiated. The last I knew was that we had second thoughts about accepting our own draft which we had communicated to the US!

The proposed Logistic Support Agreement (LSA) was similarly not the standard Access & Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) which the US signed with around 90 countries in all continents. All our expressed concerns were addressed in the negotiated text. It is difficult to address sub-conscious concerns. The US is the only country with a global military presence. Our international presence will grow with the need for enhanced capabilities for evacuating our citizens from conflict zones, anti-piracy operations maritime security for trade etc. Both countries will gain from an LSA. But who will gain more?

We have also put on hold a decision on our participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), on interdiction of ships in international waters and on proliferation concerns. Yet we were the first, or at least one of the first countries in the world to stop, board and confiscate the cargo of missile components etc. of a North Korean ship on its way to Libya via Karachi in the mid ‘90s. Even earlier we interdicted a ship with civilian hostages during our Maldives operations in the ‘80s.

These are only two examples of unilateral operations undertaken in our interests. We had indicated our interest in joining the Core Group of the PSI.

When we learnt that the Core Group was wound up and all participants were treated on par, we lost interest.

I fail to see why virtually all major Indian ports like Navashiva are not compliant with the Container Security Initiative (CSI), when ports of major trading nations, including China, are CSI compliant.

Following the defence agreement and nuclear deal, the US had moved significantly in removing hurdles to high technology cooperation with India and these in Defence, DRDO and ISRO establishments were removed from the Entity List. India was first implicitly and later explicitly recognised as a State in possession of nuclear weapons by the US and other major countries followed suit. India was removed from the US Identified Group of countries of proliferation, which includes countries like China, Pakistan and major Non-NATO ally Pakistan. The US conveyed its support to India’s membership of the Nsg, MTCR, Wassaanar arrangement and the Australia Group.

Our approach to all these issues and responses to pending proposals reflect not just our perceptions of the US, Russia or any other country. They relate primarily on how we perceive ourselves. It is high time that we stopped making a virtue of procrastination and lack of decisiveness.

We need less of ideological posturing and a more open debate on whether our own interests best served by remaining outside global regimes or in joining the global mainstream. We need to ask ourselves whether we should remain fence-sitters or prepare to take our place at the global high table.

Excepts of the address were published in the Indian Express, April 4, 2011.