An Enduring Partnership: Russian-Indian military cooperation (Part 2: aircraft and ground forces)

Here’s part 2 of the piece on military cooperation with India from last summer. Look for part 3 (on joint projects) next week, as well as an update on recent developments (which include the failure of the Mi-28 in the helicopter tender discussed below).

Aircraft

The vast majority of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters operated by the Indian air force were purchased from Russia. These include 121 Mig-21 Bison, 69 Mig-29 Fulcrum, and 157 Su-30MKI fighter aircraft, 145 Mig-27UPG ground attack aircraft, 105 An-32 medium transport aircraft and 24 Il-76 heavy transport aircraft. The air force also operates three Il-76 aircraft equipped with Israeli EL/M-2075 Phalcon AWACS systems and 6 Il-78MKI aircraft fitted with Israeli refueling systems. In addition, the air arm of the Indian navy operates 8 Tu-142M and 5 Il-38SD maritime patrol aircraft. The latter aircraft, three of which were originally purchased 30-40 years ago, were modernized over the last 10 years.

In 2008, the two countries signed a contract to upgrade existing Mig-29s, in service since the 1980s, to the Mig-29SMT standard, at a total cost of $964 million. The first four aircraft will be upgraded in Russia, while the other 58 will be overhauled in India with the assistance of Russian experts. During the overhaul, which will be completed by 2013, the planes will be fitted with advanced avionics, new multi-functional Zhuk-ME radars, a new weapon control system, new armaments, and revamped engines. As a result, the lifespan of the aircraft will be extended by 25-40 years.

The Indian navy has ordered a total of 45 MiG-29K carrier-based fighter aircraft, to be used on the Vikramaditya and the indigenously built Vikrant. An initial 16 planes were ordered in 2004 as part of the Admiral Gorshkov/Vikramaditya deal, with delivery initially scheduled for 2011-12. The first five planes were transferred to India in early June 2011. In January 2010, the Indian navy ordered an additional 29 planes for the Vikrant at a cost of $1.5 billion. Together with a future naval variant of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.’s (HAL) Tejas planes, the MiG-29s will thus form the core of India’s naval aviation for the foreseeable future.

India has been purchasing fighter jets from Sukhoi since the mid-1990s. An initial contract for 50 Su-30 jets was signed in 1996. Four years later, HAL signed a $4 billion contract with Sukhoi to assemble from kits 140 Su-30MKI fighter jets. Since then, it has signed two further contracts for an additional 58 aircraft, worth a total of $2.4 billion. Eighteen of these planes were received in 2007 and 2009 in trade for an equal number of older Su-30K and MK aircraft that had been in service since the late 1990s. The other 40 were received in 2008-10 and included 20 finished aircraft and 20 assembly kits. The planes received in the first phase of deliveries are to be modernized, with 40 planes to be upgraded with new radars, avionics, and BrahMos supersonic missiles. The project will begin in 2012 and will be carried out by HAL at a cost of $2.34 billion with assistance from Russian experts.

A contract for another 42 planes at a total cost of $4.3 billion was negotiated in 2010. These planes are to be delivered by 2018. Their high unit cost, compared to previous units, has sparked rumors that these planes would be provided to India’s Strategic Forces Command and would be designed to carry nuclear weapons. These rumors have not been confirmed to date. Thus, by the end of this decade, the Indian air force plans to have a total of 270 Su-30MKI fighters in service at a total cost of around $14 billion, making it the dominant aircraft in its fleet. Furthermore, Mikhail Pogosyan, the head of Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), has stated that India might purchase an additional 200 Su-30s in the foreseeable future.

Other potential future aircraft sales to India include naval reconnaissance planes, where the Russian Be-200 amphibious plane is a finalist along with the Canadian Bombardier Q-400 and the Swedish Saab-2000. The United Aircraft Corporation’s Il-78 is a finalist (together with the EADS A-330) in a tender for refueling planes for the Indian air force.

The Indian military is also one of the largest customers of the Russian Helicopters Corporation. The air force currently operates 260 Russian-made helicopters, including 4 Mi-26 heavy transport helicopters, 68 Mi-8 and 156 Mi-17 utility and transport helicopters, 5 Mi-25U training helicopters, and 7 Mi-25 and 20 Mi-35 helicopter gunships. The navy operates 5 Ka-25 multi-purpose helicopters, 18 Ka-28 ASW helicopters, and 9 Ka-31 airborne early warning helicopters. An additional 9 Ka-31s and 8 Ka-28s are under contract for future delivery.

India has been systemically replacing its aging Mi-8s and Mi-17s with upgraded Mi-17s. An initial contract for 80 armed Mi-17-V5s was signed in 2008, 59 Mi-17-1V transport helicopters were purchased in 2010, and a contract for another 80 Mi-17-V5s was signed in June 2011 at Le Bourget. The first four helicopters were delivered in September 2010, with further deliveries anticipated over the next five years. Russian Helicopters Corporation is also hoping to receive a contract to modernize 108 Mi-17s for the Indian army and 15 Ka-28s for the navy.

Russia has made the short list for all four helicopter tenders being conducted by India, which include the following:

1) A $2 billion tender for 197 small utility helicopters for the army, where the competition is between the Ka-226T Sergei and Eurocopter’s AS-550 Fennec;

2) a $600 million tender for 22 attack helicopters, with the Mi-28NE Night Hunter and the AH-64D Apache Longbow still in the running;

3) the Mi-26T2 is competing with the CH-47F Chinook in a $700 million tender for 15 heavy transport helicopters; and

4) a recently announced tender for 50 light multi-purpose naval helicopters.

Decisions on at least some of these tenders are likely to come later this year. If Russian Helicopters is chosen for at least one of these deals, it will increase its credibility for exports to other countries and potentially spur further foreign sales.

Ground Forces Equipment

Several years ago, the Indian army chose the Russian-made T-90 as its main battle tank. An initial party of 310 T-90S tanks had been purchased in 2001 and received by 2006. In 2007, it bought an additional 347 upgraded T-90Ms, which are being assembled in India under license. Another 1000 T-90M tanks will be built locally over the next ten years. The Indian army also operates almost 2000 older T-72 tanks and 1500-2000 Soviet-made BMP-1 and BMP-2 armored vehicles.

A significant percentage of the Indian army’s artillery and missile systems are also Soviet or Russian-made. The most significant items include the Tunguska and Shilka self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, Smerch and Grad multiple rocket launchers, as well as a range of tactical surface-to-air missile systems that includes the Strela, Osa, and Klub. The Indian Army also operates the S-200 and S-300 strategic SAM systems. However, India has no plans to make additional purchases for its ground forces from Russia, as it increasingly shifts to domestic military production.

 

The death of Tupolev

To continue the aircraft theme of the last few weeks, I just read a very informative article by Ruslan Pukhov that appeared in last week’s NVO. In this article, Pukhov contrasts the state of Russian aircraft design bureaus that have successfully made the transition to the post-Soviet economic environment, such as Sukhoi and (to a lesser extent) MiG, with those that haven’t, such as Ilyushin and (especially) Tupolev.

One might have expected quite the opposite situation, as MiG and Sukhoi designed aircraft exclusively for the military during the Soviet period, while Ilyushin and Tupolev combined military and commercial aviation. Given the complete lack of government financing for military procurement during the 1990s, one might have thought that a greater diversity of projects and clientele might have helped the latter two companies to come out of the 1990s in better shape than the purely military design bureaus.

Pukhov describes the many false starts made by Tupolev in its efforts to remain competitive in the commercial aircraft industry, including such recent howlers as a proposal for in-flight refueling of passenger aircraft. But the main source of its problems resulted from an inability to launch full serial production of its Tu-204/214 medium-range passenger airliner, which was designed in the late 1980s and has now become somewhat outdated. The situation was made worse by Tupolev’s difficulties in servicing these aircraft. Other potential projects, such as the Tu-334 regional jet and the supersonic Tu-444 business jet have fared even worse. The Tu-334 was recently canceled with only two prototypes built after two decades of effort, while the Tu-444 is unlikely to ever move beyond the concept stage. As a result, Tupolev seems poised to be completely shut out of the commercial airliner market in the very near future

Tupolev’s position in military procurement is not much better. Tupolev’s core military business was in long range and strategic bombers. While there are ongoing plans to modernize existing aircraft, these programs are proceeding very slowly. Pukhov believes that if the military ever decides to develop a new long range bomber, it is unlikely that Tupolev would get the contract for this work. Tupolev’s Soviet-era efforts to develop UAVs is largely useless for the types of missions required of 21st century UAVs. There is no chance that Russian efforts to design UAVs would be based on Tupolev’s experience in this field.

By contrast, Sukhoi in the last decade has not only developed a number of successful new combat aircraft, but has also entered the commercial aircraft market with the SSJ-100. The difference between these manufacturers goes a long way toward explaining the differences in the Russian military’s ability to relatively quickly restore the potential of its combat aircraft, versus the problems it is having in modernizing its transport aviation and developing an indigenous UAV capability. As Pukhov argues in his conclusion, the failure of companies such as Tupolev and Ilyushin to adapt has opened the door for new entrants to take over the commercial and military transport aircraft sectors. In addition to Sukhoi, the leading candidate for this role is Irkut, formerly just a manufacturing concern, which has now entered the design field with a new mid-range commercial airliner currently in developed and expected to enter production in 3-4 years. Tupolev, for its part, is likely to face closure in the next few years as United Aircraft Corporation consolidates its holdings.

 

Future prospects of the United Aircraft Corporation

In today’s VPK, Ilya Kramnik discusses the prospects of the UAC. Here are some highlights. This is in the context of the removal of Aleksei Fedorov as the company’s director and his replacement by Mikhail Pogosian, the general director of the company’s Sukhoi and MiG divisions.

Military Aircraft

Kramnik notes that the prospects of the Sukhoi division are much better than those of MiG. Sukhoi’s strength is based on the success of its Su-27 fighter plane, which has not only become the mainstay of the Russian air force, but has been exported to 17 countries. These planes are used by countries as diverse as Angola, Eritrea, China, and Indonesia, as well as several former Soviet states. Kramnik argues that delays in the production of NATO’s F-35 will ensure continued exports for the Su-27 in the coming decade.

Sukhoi’s future success in the domestic market lies in the 4++ generation Su-35 fighters and Su-34 bombers, as well as orders of Su-30MKI fighters, which were previously manufactured exclusively for export. Down the road, Sukhoi will be building the fifth generation fighter aircraft (known variously as the PAK FA or T-50), both for the domestic market and for export to India. In addition to the construction of new aircraft, Sukhoi will be busy modernizing existing Russian air force planes, including the Su-25 close air support planes, Su-24 bombers, and the older Su-27 fighters. After modernization, these planes may be expected to serve another 15-20 years.

Compared to Sukhoi, MiG is in fairly poor shape. Few of its MiG-29 fighters have been sold abroad in the post-Soviet period, while the Russian air force has focused on modernizing Su-27s rather than its MiG-29s. The crashes of two MiG-29s in 2008, which led to an investigation that revealed serious corrosion in the tail sections of 80 percent of existing MiG-29s, was a further blow to the aircraft’s reputation.

MiG is now betting on two projects. The MiG-29K is the naval version of the MiG-29, and will be used on the Indian Vikramaditya carrier and most likely on the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov. The MiG-35 is a 4++ generation fighter aircraft that is in the running in the Indian Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition. Prospects for victory in the tender seem somewhat poor, given rumors that MiG-35 was not on a list of finalists. Without a victory in this tender, its prospects are unclear, given that the Russian air force is focused primarily on procuring Su-35 and PAK FA fighters. Unless the MiG-35 wins the MMRCA tender, UAC may well fold the Mikoyan division into Sukhoi.

Passenger Aircraft

Kramnik argues that UAC’s prospects in building commercial aircraft are relatively poor. UAC no longer builds long range commercial aircraft, while the construction of the Tu-204 mid-range aircraft was recently in crisis with the possibility of a construction freeze under discussion until recently because of production problems and a lack of orders. A recent order by a Russian airline for 44 Tu-204SM aircraft has revived this plane’s prospects. Its production is scheduled to end in 2014 in favor of the MS-21 aircraft currently in design, though there is little confidence that the new plane will be ready by then.

The joint Russian-Ukrainian An-148 regional jet has achieved significant popularity, with 237 planes ordered by companies and governments in nine countries. However, only eight planes have been delivered since the An-148 first went on the market in 2009 and slow production continues to be a problem.

The An-148 may be displaced by the SSJ regional jet, which is being built by a joint venture between Sukhoi and an Italian company. This plane is currently undergoing certification but may be ready for operations sometime in the next year. Over 180 planes of this type have been ordered by airlines from seven countries.

Despite the relatively high number of orders for UAC’s regional jets, production delays and the lack of a viable long range commercial airliner products has clouded the prospects for UAC’s commercial aviation division.

Cargo Aircraft

Existing Russian cargo aircraft are getting old. Most of the fleet are Antonov planes, built in Ukraine. The largest and most modern of these are the An-124, which have been in the fleet since the 1980s. An-12, An-22, and An-26 aircraft are much older, with many dating from the 1960s.

UAC’s Ilyushin division will fill the bulk of the Russian air force’s cargo plane needs in the coming decade. The Il-76, built by UAC, is the mainstay of the Russian air force and common in civilian use as well. The average age of these planes, however, is 30 years, so they are rapidly approaching the end of their useful lives. The air force is planning to modernize about 100 of its Il-76s, including the installation of new engines, which would allow them to last another 20-30 years. Kramnik believes that it’s possible that some could be used for as long as a total of 80-100 years, with suitable maintenance and occasional engine replacements.

In addition, UAC is planning to build a modernized version of the Il-76, labeled the Il-476, with digital flight controls, new avionics and new engines. 30-40 of these will be purchased by the Russian air force beginning in 2014.

UAC will also build smaller cargo planes, including the light Il-112 and medium Il-214, though neither is expected to enter serial production before 2015.  Some experts believe that neither of these planes will be built because of excessive cost increases. If these planes are canceled, the air force will have to order planes from abroad. Kramnik suggests that the Ukrainian An-178 could be a substitute for the Il-112, while the Italian C-27J Spartan might be bought instead of the Il-214.

Seaplanes

UAC’s Beriev division builds Be-200 special purpose amphibious aircraft designed for search and rescue operations, maritime patrol, and fire fighting. Several Be-200 planes are operated by the Russian and Azerbaijani Ministries for Emergency Situations, with another 10 on the way for the Russian MES.

Assessment

Though the situation in the Russian aircraft industry is better now than it was a few years ago, many problems remain. Most importantly, the average pay of workers and engineers at Russia’s main aircraft plants is lower than of sales people in Moscow and St. Petersburg, while the technical education system is much worse at preparing new workers for this field than in the Soviet period. Furthermore, most of the main plants have not been substantially modernized. As a result of these problems, we are likely to see continued production delays for most of the aircraft described above.

The strategic significance of the Sevastopol basing agreement

Pretty much all analysts are in agreement that the strategic value of the Black Sea Fleet is limited. This is due to factors that go beyond the age of the fleet and its limited warfighting capabilities, which were addressed in my last post. It is obvious that even if the most optimistic Russian projections for rebuilding the fleet over the next 10-15 years are fulfilled, it will remain much weaker than Turkey’s navy, not to mention that of NATO as a whole. Furthermore, Russia just does not face any particularly serious threats in the Black Sea. Georgia, the only remotely possible adversary, has not rebuilt its Navy after the 2008 war. Despite the occasionally belligerent rhetoric from Moscow and the text of Russia’s new military doctrine, NATO does not present a threat to Russia and there is no chance of conflict between Russia and NATO in the foreseeable future.

Finally, the Black Sea Fleet does not have (and has never had) any strategic value in a large scale conflict. In the absolutely unlikely event of a conflict between NATO and Russia, it would be very simple for Turkey to block the Bosphorus to Russian ships to prevent them from entering the Mediterranean. In that situation, the BSF would be bottled up in the Black Sea, able only to harass Turkey, Romania, or Bulgaria. Given the likely scale of such a conflict, this battles would be insignificant. Even during the Georgia war in 2008, the Black Sea Fleet had a distinctly secondary role.

In the words of Leonid Radzikhovsky, the Black Sea Fleet is a “prestige fleet” or a “PR flotilla.” Its value for both Russia and Ukraine is primarily symbolic. For Russia, the symbolism has to do with past greatness and sacrifice, both during World War II and earlier, during the 19th century Russo-Turkish war. For Ukraine, the symbolism has to do with either independence from Russian domination or with maintaining ties with Russia, depending on which side of the political divide one stands.

Despite the fleet’s military and strategic irrelevance, the extension of the leasing agreement is quite important for Russia. First of all, allowing the base to remain in Sevastopol means that Russia will not have to spend a great deal of effort and financial resources to relocate the base to Novorossiisk or elsewhere. Novorossiisk is not an ideal location for the fleet because of its less central location in the Black Sea, poor climate, and limited space for military ships in the port, which is dominated by commercial shipping.

The strategic value of the deal for Russia is even more significant. It is in effect a public announcement that Russia and Ukraine are resuming a partnership that was dissolved five years ago after the Orange Revolution. This partnership will have major economic and political benefits for both countries.  Various economic cooperation projects have been proposed, including the politically highly contentious possibility of a merger between Gazprom and the Ukrainian Naftohaz. Of more direct benefit, Russia has promised to increase its investment in infrastructure and economic development in Crimea. Ukrainian anti-Russian forces will undoubtedly see this as yet another step in a gradual Russian takeover of the region, but the reality is that the region is in desperate need of investment and given its current economic crisis Ukraine simply does not have the money to invest in Crimea. Russian newspapers have published articles discussing the rapid influx of Russian businessmen coming to Crimea with proposals for joint projects in the week after the announcement of the basing treaty.

There have also been several proposals for increased cooperation in military construction, including the possibility of joint shipbuilding projects using Ukrainian shipyards in Nikolaev/Mykolaiv and the possible merger of the Ukrainian airplane builder Antonov with Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation.  Of course, both of these manufacturers are not in any better shape in terms of physical plant or staffing than the equivalent Russian plants. For them, cooperation with Russian defense industry may make survival possible, but is unlikely to lead to a genuine revival. For Russia, working with Ukrainian defense industry will not reverse the decline of its own industry.

Finally, the deal allows Russia to score symbolic points against two long standing betes noir. Russian experts believe that as long as the Black Sea Fleet remains in Sevastopol, Ukraine’s accession to NATO is off the table, as the alliance prohibits members from hosting bases of non-NATO states. In reality, Ukrainian accession has probably been off the table for several years, due to the unpopularity of membership among a majority of the population and increasing “Ukraine fatigue” in Europe caused by that country’s unstable politics since the Orange Revolution.

The deal also allows Russia to settle some scores with Ukraine’s opposition in general and with former President Yushchenko in particular. Given the glee with which Yushchenko strove to stick it to Russia over the last five years over this issue, this deal must have felt like especially sweet revenge for Putin and Co., and especially the sight of the opposition being helpless to stop the deal’s ratification in the Rada despite resorting to acts of assorted hooliganism (egg throwing, smoke bombs, etc). Even if the deal did not help Russia’s geopolitical goals, this last factor was probably enough to make it all worth while for Putin, given how personally he takes slights from other world leaders.