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India and Russia Arms

How Russia became India’s Defense Supplier

In 1947, India’s military was 100% Western made. By 2022, Moscow had become India’s top defence supplier.. We’ve heard a lot about India’s dependence on ๐Ÿ‡ท๐Ÿ‡บ weapons. But how did India pivot from an entirely Western-made military to a ๐Ÿ‡ท๐Ÿ‡บ made one?

Top diplomat YD Gundevia recounted that in 1962 India’s military was largely British made. The Air Force was crewed by UK-made Hunters, Gnats & Canberra bombers. The Army and Navy were also largely Western made. INS Vikrant, India’s first aircraft carrier, was bought from Britain.

But there were problems with Western defence sales to ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ. First, the West was actively arming Pakistan, which had signed a military partnership agreement with the US in 1954. While India warned that ๐Ÿ‡ต๐Ÿ‡ฐ would use these weapons against ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ, the West denied this. This caused tensions.

While Pakistan received a flood of Western weapons on favourable terms, ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ felt short-changed by the West “We were forced into buying arms, gun for gun and aircraft for aircraft, in hard cash, at the cost of everything, else in our low-powered economy,” Gundevia said.

These tensions were because of India’s larger non-aligned foreign policy. America’s President Eisenhower & his top diplomats took a “with us or against us” approach to diplomacy. Because ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ has not explicitly aligned with ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ in the Cold War, defence ties were strained.

Western defence supplies could also be unreliable. A key example was Britain’s Canberra bombers, which ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ bought in 1957. More than halfway through the deal, Britain told ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ that it could not sell it bombs to go with the Canberras since they were on a NATO Secret List. ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ threatened to cancel the deal, after which the UK informed Delhi that the bombs were, miraculously, no longer on the secret list. From aircraft to submarines, Western powers were increasingly unwilling to sell ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ equipment in the 1950s and 60s. That’s where the Soviets came in.

Gundevia, later India’s Foreign Secretary, recounts that ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ wasn’t sure about the Soviets. “Nehru or no Nehru, the bureaucracy in New Delhi was suspicious of the Russians. Less than half a dozen of us had by then gone anywhere near Moscow,” he said of India in the 1950s.

Until 1962, India had bought no weapons from the Soviet Union. But then, the 1962 war between India and China took place, where ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ suffered serious setbacks. The West, on which ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ was dependent for weapons, provided a limited amount of support. But that was unlikely to continue.

“The ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ Ambassador was, in 1963, making it clear to us, categorically, that we should not ever hope to get enough war material from them to throw the Chinese aggressors out of Aksai Chin, in the north- east. At best, we were clearly told, we might hope for just enough help to defend ourselves a little better, in case of any repetition of Chinese incursions of the kind we had suffered the year before,” remembers Gundevia. That was when ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ began reaching out to the Soviets for arms.The Soviets, unlike the West, did not make political demands.

An example: after the defeat in the 1962 war, ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ wanted to improve connectivity to Ladakh in case ๐Ÿ‡จ๐Ÿ‡ณ tried to fight another war. So, it asked to purchase America’s C-130 transport aircraft. Despite selling these planes to Pakistan, ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ was unwilling to sell to ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ. US Ambassador John Galbraith told the Indians that the planes were too expensive for ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ & hummed & hawed about a sale. Left with no choice, India bought the Soviet-made AN-12s. ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ also lectured ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ about costs when it tried to buy the F104 supersonic fighter but sold it to ๐Ÿ‡ต๐Ÿ‡ฐ.

So, Gundevia says, India went out and bought the Soviet MiG21. When ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ wanted submarines, Britain asked ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ to wait for 3 years & offered to sell obsolete designs. Gundevia recalls that the Soviets didn’t lecture ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ & offered more subs than India requested. The Soviets didn’t ask India for political support while the West always pushed for ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ’s backing in the Cold War. Gundevia recalls travelling to Yugoslavia as Secretary to Prez Radhakrishnan in 1965. India had just fought the ‘65 war with ๐Ÿ‡ต๐Ÿ‡ฐ& ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ had imposed an arms embargo on ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ.

During the war, India’s supply of British-made Centurion tanks had declined. Cut off from Western arms supplies, ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ requested T-54 tanks from Yugoslavia. During the visit, Gundevia made the request to the country’s Defence Minister. The Minister responded: “You want T 54 tanks? There are none on our assembly lines, just now. But we will pick them up from the fields, Mr. Secretary, and send them to you as fast as we can.” The Indians, Gundevia recalls, were floored at the offer after dealing with the West.

“A gesture like this, behaviour like this, conduct like this makes a big difference, inevitably,” he said. Soviet flexibility on terms and its unwillingness to push ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ to take sides built trust. India’s army predominantly uses Russian tanks, to this day.

The story, pulled largely from Gundevia’s memoirs, illustrates that India’s defence dependence on ๐Ÿ‡ท๐Ÿ‡บ wasn’t really part of a tilt towards USSR. The West’s flaky behaviour, its backing of Pakistan and its unwillingness to sell ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ the equipment it needed pushed Delhi to the Soviets.