Since 2003, India and Russia have conducted five of the Indra series military exercises between the armies and navies of both sides. The last such exercise was held between Russian and Indian army units in Uttarakhand in October last year. In sharp contrast, India has conducted over 60 military exercises with the US. Indian defence officials admit that exercises with Russia are largely symbolic but are an important barometer of healthy ties between the two sides. The strategic partnership with Russia still holds.
Defence Minister A.K. Antony says that Delhi's proximity to Washington will not be at the cost of ties with Moscow. On the ground, however, ties have been on a roller-coaster ride. Russia is unhappy at losing a lucrative $10 billion contract for 126 multi-role medium combat aircraft. The iaf narrowed its choice to France's Rafale and Europe's Typhoon, ejecting US and Russian contenders. Topychkhanov does not rule out cancellation of the military exercises as a retort by the miffed Russians. Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik visited Moscow recently to inspect progress on the joint Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (fgfa). The visit was also meant to mollify Russia and indicate India's commitment to the futuristic fighter which is expected to replace the most current fighter aircraft in the iaf's inventory when it is ready for squadron service in 2017.
Relations between India and Russia soured in recent years over the extended deadline for the refit of the aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov. The refit slipped by four years and the its cost doubled to $2.3 billion. The carrier will now be delivered late next year. Deadlines for the acquisition of an Akula-II class nuclear-powered submarine have slipped by over three years. India paid $670 million for completing the submarine under a 2003 contract. This month, a 100-man Indian crew that had gone to Vladivostok to bring the vessel back returned empty-handed. There is no word on when the strategic submarine, which the navy desperately needs, will be transferred to India. Russia is reportedly keen that India pay for the completion of a second unfinished Akula hull at the Komsomolsk shipyard. This has been turned down by the navy.
The real issue is the poor sourcing of components for Russian-made equipment operated by the Indian armed forces. Over half the inventory of the three armed forces comprise equipment of Russian origin. "It takes nearly a year for us to get even export permissions from Russia. This severely impacts force preparedness," says a defence official.
Some of India's consternation over these delays may have spilled over at a meeting between navy chief Admiral Nirmal Verma and the visiting Russian navy chief, Admiral Sergeevich Vysotskiy, this January. Various department heads of the Indian navy read out the riot act on the poor serviceability of warships, aircraft and submarines to the Russian naval delegation. After the meeting, Vysotskiy privately conveyed his dismay at the ambush. The warning signs appeared at a recent joint meeting in Moscow when Russian defence officials refused to discuss military exercises. Evidently, it was a portent of the chill to come.