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Conflict in West Asia and war in Ukraine: Supply chain impact on Indian defence sector

Opinion

Conflict in West Asia and war in Ukraine: Supply chain impact on Indian defence sector

It is time to indigenise from split pins, nuts, bolts and sealing rings and simple spares to larger aggregates. India has both economic and technological backing today

Air Marshal Anil Chopra Last Updated:October 28, 2023 19:53:57 IST Conflict in West Asia and war in Ukraine: Supply chain impact on Indian defence sector

BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. Image: X/ @DDNational

The never ending and somewhat stalemated conflict in Ukraine has crossed 600 days. Within a few initial months, Russia took control of nearly 20 per cent of Ukrainian territory. Ukraine has received a large amount of military equipment from the US and other mostly Western countries amounting to over $150 billion. The items included fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, artillery guns, anti-tank weapons, vehicles, AD systems, Missiles, UAVs, drones, military gear, ammunition, among others. US President Biden plans to request the Congress for $100 billion more in funding that would include money for Israel and Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russia has been closer to China and also become friendlier with Iran. The Ukrainian counter-offensive did not work out as planned. The Russian army was continuing its military operations in areas where it could improve its position. Russia is likely to take advantage of shifted global attention and launch a fresh ground offensive aiming to break through Ukrainian defences. Clearly it can be a protracted war.

The large-scale surprise attack by Hamas militants from Gaza against Israel on 7 October 2023, left hundreds of Israelis dead, and many more injured. Very significant numbers, including a few Israeli soldiers were taken hostage. The multi-pronged attack included rocket strikes, forced militant crossing into Israel, and commando entry using motor gliders. Israel responded promptly with retaliatory airstrikes followed by a formal declaration of war. Israel also cut off fuel, electricity, water, and food supplies to the Gaza strip. Massive Israeli air assault continues using stand-off weapons. There have been a large number of casualties on both sides and numbers continue to increase. Israel is getting all set for the ground offensive to weed out all Hamas presence from the Gaza strip. There is also a risk of Iranian backed Hezbollah opening a front from Lebanon. Both sides are apportioning blame on each other for the bombing of a hospital that resulted in many deaths. With over 3,500 Palestinian deaths already, there is a sympathy wave for innocent civilians. The world is trying to prevent an expanded conflict that could engulf the region with more global and regional powers taking sides.

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Military equipment used in ongoing conflicts

The world is closely watching the use of both Russian and Western equipment being used in Ukraine. The vulnerability of the tank and other ground targets from anti-tank missiles and kamikaze drones got highlighted. Similarly, large ships being vulnerable to cruise missiles, was a lesson. Success of ground-based air defence systems meant air denial to Russian air power which was forced to use expensive stand-off weapons. Blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports showed the importance of sea power. Unmanned sea-surface and submarine vehicles were also used. Hypersonic missiles were used operationally for the first time. There is a need to assess the efficacy of using expensive hypersonic weapons against static strategic targets, vis-à-vis use of conventional cruise or ballistic missiles. Among the others, the importance of Satellite based Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance Reconnaissance (C4ISR); AEW&C and JSTAR; UAVs; anti-drone systems; and directed energy weapons; got highlighted.

Failure of Israeli intelligence agencies to monitor such large rocket stocking by Hamas, and to anticipate a massive assault is being questioned. In Israel-Hamas conflict, additionally, used were ground launched rockets; motor gliders; precision-strike aerial weapons; AD systems to take-on rockets; laser weapons etc. Also the accuracy and lethality of weapons vis-à-vis the cost is being evaluated. Iron Dome’s capability to take on a huge barrage of rockets has been questioned. Containing co-lateral civilian casualties in a densely populated area is a challenge despite precision weapons. This is more so when civilians are being used as human shields. It requires a high degree of intelligence.

War impact on military supplies from Russia

India has been buying Soviet/Russian weapon systems since the 1950s when the USA chose to align with Pakistan. At its peak, India had nearly 85 per cent military equipment of Russian origin. Even after the Soviet Union imploded and became weak economically, the decoupling from Russia was not easy.

Today, nearly 60 per cent of Indian armed forces are of Russian origin. While India has been consciously trying to reduce dependence on Russian arms, but yet, between 2011 and 2021 India’s import from Russia arms worth $22.8 billion. India’s imports from the Western countries including Israel were $13.5 billion or around 60 per cent as from Russia for the same period.

For a long India has been making payments to Russia in dollars. Immediately after the Russian invasion, the USA had imposed sanctions and put restrictions on dollar payments to Russia. India had already ordered some major equipment from Russia including the S-400 AD system. Also India purchased large quantities of crude oil from Russia in the last year. All these payments had to be made in Indian Rupees. There is only finite amount that Russia can accept in this de-facto barter system. This would mean delays in payments, and in turn, supplies of some systems.

Russian Armed Forces require a continued supply of weaponry to continue the war in Ukraine, therefore production capacities have got diverted to their own needs. This also affects foreign sales, even though arms exports are an important source of foreign exchange for Russia.

Among the major Russian systems with India are Indian Army’s T-72 and T-90 main battle tanks, BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles, Smerch multiple rocket-launch systems, and mobile and static air defence systems. Indian Navy has Vikramaditya (modified Kiev-class) aircraft carrier, Soviet Kilo-class attack submarines, Soviet Kashin-class guided-missile destroyers, Soviet Krivak-class frigates, Soviet Pauk-class corvette, and Soviet–Polish Polnocny­class amphibious warfare vessels, among a few others. Indian Navy also has a fleet of MiG-29 fighters, Il-38 maritime-patrol aircraft, and Ka-28 anti-submarine and maritime patrol helicopters. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has a large fleet of Su-30 MKI, upgraded MiG-29s, some MiG-21 Bison, Il-78 aerial tankers, Il-76 heavy transports, An-32 medium transports, and a large number of Mi-17 transport helicopters. IAF has very significant Russian aerial missiles (R-27, RVV-AE, R-73, Klub cruise missile and others), bombs (KAB, and others), and rockets in its inventory. The three services operate some Russian ground based radars, and AD weapon systems like Pechora, OSA, and Igla. BrahMos is a joint venture to produce cruise missiles. The AK-203 assault rifle will be produced in India.

In July 2022, the US government granted India a waiver in for the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), that allowed India to continue to receive the S-400s.

The war in Ukraine has caused delays in supplies of systems ordered and has impacted supplies of Russian spares and aggregates, along with hampering the munitions supply chain. It will impact the Su-30 MKI upgrade plan. India had been negotiating with Russia to acquire a few more MiG-29s and SU-30s. This may also be affected. IAF was also reportedly forced to cancel/postpone plans to purchase 48 Mi-17 V5 helicopters from Russia. Some of these will affect its overall modernisation plan. Acquisition of additional Russian Ka-31 airborne early warning and control helicopters for the Indian Navy has been postponed. The proposal for Ka-226T helicopters may also be shelved, giving boost to the indigenous LUH. There has been delay in supply of two frigates currently under construction for the Indian Navy because of delays in Russia supplied components. BrahMos missiles have been ordered in significant numbers. Some parts have to come from Russia. Also the newer variants of BrahMos have to be developed. Similarly there is a need for some other weapons.

The most important ongoing Russian system under delivery is the S-400 Triumf air defence system bought by India in 2018 for $5.4 billion. Three of these systems have been delivered and two more are awaited. They are bound to be delayed. IAF could not use up its capital budget allotments because of this.

Spares are also required for repairs and overhauls that are done in India. Some items still go to Russia for repairs and overhaul. Some of these supplies are getting delayed and could impact fleet serviceability. IAF also sources many An-32 spares from Russia.

This has underscored the need for India’s self-reliance in the defence industry. For some time, India has been working towards diversifying away from the Russian arms basket. The war in Ukraine will actually hasten that process.

While Russian President Putin announced a large-scale effort to build up capacity to produce more weapons for the war, the same may not be the case for the exports. In fact, Russia has been seeking back some critical spares from India and some other clients.

Supplies from Ukraine

The bilateral trade between India-Ukraine was $2.8 Billion pre-Covid-19, in 2018-19. India was Ukraine’s largest export destination in the Asia-Pacific and the fifth largest overall export destination. The main items imported by India from Ukraine are chemicals, equipment, machines and engines.

Critical defence equipment that got spares from Ukraine include the 130 mm medium guns, spares for T-72 tanks as well as the T-90 tanks, the OSA-AK surface-to-air missile system, and Tunguska anti-aircraft weapon system. The gas turbine engines of several ships of the Indian Navy also come from Ukraine. There were some other items like helmet mounted sights, and some missile test equipment. With Ukraine’s military industrial complex more or less destroyed by Russia, such supplies are likely to be affected.

Before the conflict, Ukraine was also showing interest in participating in some hi-tech programs of the Indian Armed Forces, such as in supply of anti-UAV systems. It was also vying for the upgrade of tanks and Smerch multiple rocket launcher system. Ukraine is not affected by dollar payments. But dealing with Ukraine could antagonise Russia and would have serious implications.

Supplies from Israel

The highest engagement with Israel is on aerospace. Nearly 8-10 percent of IAF assets are of Israeli origin. 37 per cent of all Israeli arms exports in the period 2018-22 were to India. Israel’s expertise in missiles, sensors, cyber-security, and various defence sub-systems is of immense value to India. Specific systems with Indian armed forces include UAVs, UCAVs, drones, aerial radars, AEW&C radar, ground based radars, Aerostats, aerial and ground based missile systems, electronic warfare equipment, targeting pods, PGM laser guidance kits, FLIR equipment, integrated helmets, head-up displays, and many other avionics, among many others. Israel also supports India’s indigenous AD systems development including the Anti-Ballistic Missile system.

Indian armed forces continue to integrate the next-generation Barak-8 surface-to-air missile systems under three joint projects between the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organization) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), representing an investment worth over Rs 30,000 crore.

Israeli companies such as IAI, Rafael Advanced Defence Systems, Elbit, and Elta Systems have also formed seven joint ventures (JV) with Indian counterparts. These ventures aim to further strengthen the defence partnership, focusing on technology sharing and innovation.

All these items are critical operational systems. Israel also supports India in space based sensors (RISAT), and intelligence. Israeli SPICE glide vehicles were used for the Balakot strike. The much larger Crystal Maze (POP-EYE) is also supplied by Israel. The Special Forces of the two countries work together and also use some similar equipment. The two work closely on cyber warfare equipment and software tools.

For India, Israel remains a very reliable, ‘no-questions-asked’ defence systems supplier. The relations between the two are based on mutual interests and strategic considerations. But India has traditionally maintained a balanced approach in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It made a strong statement against the Hamas terror attack, but also wants a solution to the Palestine problem in a fair and equitable manner. Extended conflict in Israel would increase their own needs and thus impact India supplies.

Way ahead

India has a two-front threat scenario, with two nuclear power neighbours, both having significant military power. Trigger events can start wars. Indian armed forces have to continuously build capability and be trained and ready. Capability building involves producing or acquiring state-of-the-art platforms, equipment and munitions. It also means training to acquire human skills. This is a deliberate continuous activity that also requires funding. These two conflicts have highlighted the need for air defence systems to take on small projectiles, including when fired in a barrage. Having a huge stock of munitions, and secure supply chains is another important lesson. Punitive capability has to be visible, and even advertised, so that it can act as deterrence.

The involvement of India’s two principal military hardware providers Russia and Israel in war is significant and the impact may last for some time. It would mean an impact on very significant Russian and Israeli military equipment. There will surely be delays. These two conflicts have added to the impact that Indian armed forces faced due to two years of Covid-19. India would have to find alternatives and try to indigenise some items. This will have its own limitations.

While India’s arms dependence on Russia in absolute terms is still high, nevertheless, India’s imports from non-Russian sources are steadily growing, and in-turn gradually reducing dependence. Since 2008, India has acquired from the US the P-8I maritime aircraft, C-17 heavy lift, C-130J for Special Operations, Chinook heavy-lift, Apache attack helicopters, M-777 ultra-light howitzers, and MH-60 R multirole helicopters. GE-404 is powering all LCA Mk1 and Mk1A variants. India will soon acquire the General Atomics Predator MQ-9 UAVs, and build the GE-414 in India.

France has been India’s time-tested partner. With them, it was business as normal even after India’s Pokhran nuclear tests. From Toofani, Mystere, Mirage-2000 to more recent Rafale fighter jets, have all proved their worth. French Alouette helicopters, and support for ALH aero-engine have helped India. Safran could one day partner GTRE or a private player to develop India’s indigenous fighter aircraft engine. India has also acquired many other systems from the UK and Germany, among some other European countries.

India’s thrust for ‘Atmanirbharta’, ‘Make-in-India’ is very well founded. India is already insisting on more Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) to set up manufacturing facilities in India. The most recent being the GE-414 engine for LCA Mk2. India’s private sector has already been galvanised. The Indian private sector is already making many aero-structures, including fuselage, wings, and sub-systems for international customers. The MSME sector makes a large number of sub-systems. The UAV and drone sector is picking up. Both the defence PSUs and DRDO have been asked to promote private partners. India has also decided to upgrade its Su-30 MKI fleet on its own, albeit it may still source some items from Russia.

Each service headquarters has set up a directorate of indigenisation. Large number of items have been identified for indigenisation and listed on service and MoD websites. Import substitution of spares, especially of Russian origin are being driven. A technology development fund has been set up. Procedures have been further simplified. It is time to indigenise from split pins, nuts, bolts and sealing rings and simple spares to larger aggregates. India has both economic and technological backing today. These two conflicts should be a catalyst for pushing indigenisation. Time to act is now, lest India gets left behind.

The writer is Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely that of the author. They do not necessarily reflect Firstpost’s views.

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