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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hot Air Brings Cold Cash

Last week, President Vladimir Putin signed a strategic partnership agreement with India and was expected to add to it a number of multibillion arms sale contracts. It was even reported that deals worth more than $3 billion were signed.

But only agreements of intent, not legally binding contracts, were approved. Russian authorities have been indicating that this delay is in fact only technical, caused by some last-minute bargaining between Russia and India. But this does not seem to be the complete story.

Sources in the Russian delegation who accompanied Putin to Delhi say that the talks were not as easy and friendly as it seemed from the outside. Apparently, the Indians believed that the strategic partnership agreement in fact meant the two countries have become true allies, and they demanded access to our advanced nuclear and ballistic technology. Delhi pays hard cash for our conventional arms, and apparently the Indian government believes that now it is qualified to get nonconventional (read: mass destruction) assets from Russia.

But Putin defines "strategic partnership" more discreetly than his Indian counterparts; in Delhi he didn’t cave in to demands for nonconventional arms. Moscow’s new "strategic partners" got annoyed and, to reprimand Russia, Indian leaders have put conventional arms deals temporarily on hold.

India is increasingly surpassing Russia in economic development, and this fact is beginning to affect the traditional Moscow-Delhi axis. If India pays, it can order the tune and ask Russia to dance.

But Russia is reluctant to sell its most powerful weapons. And there is another problem complicating arms trade relations: Russia’s growing inability to fulfill contracts.

India has already ordered up to 50 Su-30MKI fighter bombers and is now seeking a license to build more on its own. Russia has also agreed to sell the same advanced jet to China. But there is a major hitch: Our defense industry has not managed for several years to begin serial production of the Su-30MKI. In fact, Russia has sold a plane that it does not actually have in its inventory.

To date, India has been supplied with a simpler version of the Su-30, a modified vintage two-seater trainer jet (Su-27UB) built into a fighter bomber. Moscow assured India that these planes will eventually be upgraded or replaced by up-to-date Su-30MKIs, which have advanced electronics and regulated thrust jet engines. India has paid Russia several hundred million dollars to help develop the Su-30MKI, but the new superfighter continues to be a mirage.

Russia has agreed in principle to sell India the Soviet-made aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov. (Today, the Gorshkov is a helicopter carrier, since its Yak-38 vertical take-off jets, designed in the 1970s, turned out to be unusable and were all scrapped in the 1980s.) Russia has promised to renovate the Gorshkov and equip it with MiG-29K jets. But no one in the world has ever yet managed to convert a relatively small carrier designed for vertical takeoff planes to accommodate regular jets instead.

Russia never managed to equip its carriers with takeoff catapults. Because of that, our only true aircraft carrier — the Admiral Kuznetsov — cannot send up jets carrying heavy ordinance. The Kuznetsov has an airwing of pure fighters (Su-27K). The Kuznetsov has been operational for 10 years, but our pilots are still given medals for virtually every takeoff and landing, since the risk is so high. (Test flights from the Kuznetsov happen from time to time, in very good weather, but not every year.)

The MiG-29K was designed for the Kuznetsov, but the navy decided not to buy the plane. It would be a miracle if anyone ever managed to fit the Gorshkov with a fully operational MiG-29K airwing.

It would seem that we are taking the Indians for a ride, and not just the Indians: Our defense industry cannot equip its own armed forces with modern weapons. Our designers can still build prototypes of new weapons, but serial production is becoming impossible. The subcontractor components industry has disintegrated, and its output was already totally out of date 10 years ago.

Russian arms trading is becoming a confidence trick game, attracting numerous Russian carpetbagger "oligarchs" who specialize in selling hot air for hard cash. But at the same time, China and India are increasing their arms orders. Maybe our new Asian strategic partners are hoping that Russia will in the end be forced to repay them with advanced nuclear and ballistic technologies.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst.