NEW DELHI: The Defence Ministry on Thursday gave its approval to the Indian Air Force to speedily procure 21 MiG-29 fighter jets besides 12 Sukhoi MK1 from Russia – a key development that comes in the middle of an almost two-month long military standoff with China.
The Defence Ministry’s Defence Acquisition Council also gave its nod for the upgradation of existing 59 MiG-29 aircrafts, a statement from the ministry said.
The defence ministry nod came on a day Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Russian president Vladmir Putin and Putin reiterated his commitment to “further strengthen the Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership between the two countries in all spheres," an Indian foreign ministry statement said. It did not say whether the two leaders had discussed India’s border tensions with China. Indian foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivatasva on Thursday said New Delhi and Beijing will “continue their meetings both at the military and diplomatic levels… in the future to resolve the issue (current boundary tensions) to mutual satisfaction."
That Russia seemed to respond to India’s list for defence purchases at a time of tensions with China – seen a strong partner of Russia -- together with support for New Delhi from countries like the US and France shows what “the global mood is like" on the question of India-China tensions, said Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at the London-based King’s College. “The support for India remains broad. It would be a smart strategy on the part of China to take this into account," he said.
The orders for the fighter jets and 248 beyond visual range ASTRA air to air missiles – with the capacity to engage and destroy highly manoeuvring supersonic aircraft during night or day -- besides long range land attack missile systems having a firing range of 1,000 kilometres are expected to come as a shot in the arm for India’s military especially the Indian Air Force whose squadron strength is now down to 30 from the sanctioned number of 42.
“While the MIG 29 procurement and upgradation from Russia is estimated to cost ₹7,418 crores, the Su-30 MKI will be procured from HAL at an estimated cost of ₹10,730 crore," the statement said.
It referred to the "current situation and the need to strengthen the armed forces for the defence of our borders" – a reference to the tensions that have erupted between India and China since 5 May leading to a major standoff between the two sides. On 15 June, soldiers of the two countries clashed with each other resulting in the deaths of 19 Indian Army personnel and one colonel-rank officer. Talks are on to resolve the tensions but people familiar with the matter have described the situation as “complex" indicating a long drawn out process before a solution is arrived at.
The tensions had resulted in Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to visit Russia last month and meet senior members of government in Moscow to ensure supplies of spares and weapons systems. Despite India diversifying the sources from where it buys its military hardware in recent decades, an estimated 60% of its arsenal contains Russian origin systems making New Delhi depend on Moscow for critical spares and upgrades. Singh’s Moscow visit also came on the back of news reports that China had conveyed to Russia not to respond to Indian requests for defence hardware.
“The Russia-India relationship undergone a change" from the past, King’s College professor Pant said in reference to ties that were seen as close during the Cold War days. In the present context, “Russia would like to preserve its independence vis a vis China," he said referring to the development of strong bonds between Moscow and Beijing in the aftermath of Russia annexing Crimea in 2014 and attracting Western sanctions. “China is the big brother in relationship but Russia has means to moderate that effect. The India-Russia defence relationship is important for Russia and India is one market Russia would not like to lose," he said.