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Soviet Help for Self-Reliance in Defence (1981)


Up to 1959 the Indian Armed Forces depended exclusively on the Western countries for equipment. Bulk of the equipment came from the United Kingdom and the rest from France, US, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and Japan. There were reports that the Soviet Union had offered military equipment to India in 1954-55 but, for various reasons, it was not found possible to accept the offers. Our Armed Forces had strong links with the West in view of their history; language was also a major hurdle. Not much was known about the Soviet equipment.

By 1959 it was quite clear that India would face serious problems with China in the aftermath of Tibetan revolt and the border dispute. At that stage while the Chinese had enormous advantage of having developed their border communications in Tibetan Plateau, India was lagging behind in that respect. The Border Roads Development Board had been set-up but there was desperate need for equipment of various kinds including supply-dropping aircraft and logistic helicopters. In September 1959 the Soviet Union had indicated through a Tass statement, that it was not prepared to extend unqualified support to China in the bolder dispute. Subsequently the Chinese were to treat   this statement as the first public manifestation of the developing Sino-Soviet dispute. It was against this back-ground that the first agreement was concluded between India and the Soviet Union for purchase of AN-12 aircraft and Mi-4 helicopters. The equipment was acquired not by the Armed Forces but by the Border Roads Development Board and was financed by a commercial credit for five years.

By 1961 the United States had agreed to provide Pakistan the F-104 Starfighter aircraft under the US Military Assistance programme. That was the first introduction of a supersonic fighter in the subcontinent and it was felt by the Indian defence planners that such an asymmetric possession of sophisticated aircraft by Pakistan would place India at a grave disadvantage. Consequently India started looking out for an appropriate aircraft to counter the threat posed by the Pakistani Starfighter. The American Starfighter, the British Lightning, the Swedish Draken, the French Mirage and the Soviet MIG-21 were evaluated for their suitability. In that evaluation the Indian authorities were guided by two major considerations which would together contribute towards a cost effective selection of an aircraft for the Indian Air Force. Firstly, in consonance with our philosophy of self-reliance the aircraft should be available for licensed manufacture in the country. Secondly, since India had a serious foreign exchange problem, appropriate long-term credit should also be available to cover the manufacturing programme.

While the American manufacturer Lockheed was keen on selling the aircraft to India, the US Government, sensitive to Pakistan’s concerns, were not willing to permit the Company to transfer technology to India. So far as the medium powers of Europe were concerned, availability of credit on acceptable terms presented a major hindrance. The choice, therefore, narrowed down to MIG-21. At that stage there was tremendous opposition to Indian Air Force acquiring a Soviet aircraft both from air force officers with traditionalist orientation and from different political parties who had reservations of various kinds. Defence Minister Krishna Menon with the support of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was however able to guide the decision-making process towards MIG-21. The agreement with the Soviet Union was signed in August 1962 and it is not quite clear whether the historic significance of the agreement was clearly realised at that stage even by those who favoured the agreement. MIG-21 was an aircraft which the Soviet Union had refused to the Chinese and the Soviet Union was transferring technology of a sophisticated aircraft to India, a non-socialist country with whom China’s relations were fast deteriorating. In other words this aircraft deal was a clear indication that the Sino-Soviet conflict was getting exacerbated and the Soviet Union was developing a mutuality of strategic interest with India.

Even after a lapse of nineteen years it is difficult to come to conclude with any measure of certainty whether this aircraft deal itself triggered off the Chinese attack on India in October 1962. There is no doubt that at that stage the Chinese were increasingly concerned with the growing friendship between India and the Soviet Union and were interested in breaking it up. Perhaps they might have calculated that a limited attack on India might drive India into the Western Camp. That denouement would prove that the Soviet policy of befriending national bourgeoisie (like Nehru and Nasser) was wrong and compel the Soviet Union to come closer again to China after the break of 1960 when Khruschev had withdrawn the Soviet technicians from that country.

The development which the Chinese hoped to bring about however did not take place. Inspite of enormous pressure from different parties Prime Minister Nehru stuck to the policy of non-alignment. Though some parties tried to make capital out of the Soviet statement on the border conflict on October 27, 1962, with references to ‘Chinese Brothers’ and ‘Indian Friends’ the Prime Minister clearly understood the pressures on the Soviet Union — involved at that time in the Cuban missile crisis — and explained to the Parliament that the Soviet Union was not unfriendly to India.

In 1963 India concluded agreements with the Soviet Union to acquire surface-to-air missiles, more AN-12 transport aircraft and Mi-4 helicopters. In 1964 a team headed by Defence Minister Y.B. Chavan visited USSR and held discussions on defence cooperation at the highest level. Agreements were concluded for Indian acquisition of 130-mm medium guns, PT-76 amphibian tanks, more MIG-21 squadrons and plant and machinery for the new MIG factories. It was at this stage that the Soviet Union agreed to modify the five-year credit terms to ten-year credit, thereby easing the burden of repayment. In, August 1965, as a result of further negotiations between visiting Indian naval team and the Soviet authorities, agreements were concluded for sale to India of F class submarines, Petya class frigates and other miscellaneous vessels.

During this period 1962-65, an American military aid programme was also in operation for India following the Chinese attack in October, 1962. According to that programme, then described as ‘massive military assistance’ from the West, the US pledged 50 million dollars of emergency assistance in 1962-63, and 60 million dollars in 1963-64. In pursuance of the discussion which Defence Minister Chavan had with US Defence Secretary McNamara in May 1964, it was agreed that the US would provide 500 million dollars of military assistance in the period 1964-69. Half of that was to be grant and the other half loan. The entire assistance programme was, however, terminated in September 1965 during Indo-Pakistan Conflict. Between October 1962 and September 1965 India was supplied about eighty million dollars of equipment against a promised commitment of 610 million dollars.

Even during the period the assistance programme was in force it was made clear by the US Administration that they were not prepared to transfer to India any lethal equipment such as Combat aircraft, artillery, armour or even the self-loading rifle M-14. When India requested for Combat aircraft the US proposed holding of an air defence exercise over India by the airforces of US and its allies. The Indian request for the supply-dropping C-130 aircraft was countered with the proposal that the US Air Force C-130s would carry out the supply dropping operation from Palam. In other words the US aimed at reducing the Indian Army to a trip wire force against the Chinese.

Similarly when Sukarno of Indonesia, in alliance with the China-oriented Communist Party of Indonesia, laid claims to some islands of Nicobar group in 1965 and intensified naval activity around our island territories India approached the Western powers for naval equipment. The request was again turned down and India had to turn to the Soviet Union for naval equipment also.

The experience of the sixties is of contemporary relevance also. Even today though the US talks of threat posed to the subcontinent by Soviet forces in Afghanistan that country is not prepared to contribute to the defence preparedness of India. For instance the US is not willing to sell anti-tank missiles to India except under conditions which are totally unacceptable. They would not give license to manufacture and they also want to control the rate of flow of spares.

While the Western European Countries have been willing to transfer technology to India the costs of such transfer are relatively high since the volumes of production of defence equipment by those medium powers are comparatively lower than that of the two big powers and therefore, the economies of scale do not operate to the same extent. Secondly, the medium European powers are not in a position to extend long-term credit to India. Thirdly in a few cases the Western European countries incorporate American technology in their equipment and in those cases the United States retains the right of veto on transfer of technology as they did in the case of Swedish aircraft Viggen. It is because of these factors that the Soviet Union has, over a period of time, become a reliable and stable source of defence technology for India.

The Soviet Union is able to extend long term credits — now as long as seventeen years — at a comparatively low rate of interest. Secondly, the repayments are by way of exports to Soviet Union which are determined through annual trade plans. Therefore the balance of payments problem also does not arise. Thirdly, the Soviet Union does not risk its own prestige when it supplies defence equipment as very often happens in the case of the United States.

Invariably the transfer of military equipment by the United States in significant quantities has to be through an Act of the Congress. In view of the relatively greater sophistication of the equipment the United States tends to establish an infrastructure in the recipient third world countries such as military supply missions, training teams, maintenance teams etc., and this, in turn, leads to a broad-based military relationship between the US armed forces establishment with that of the country concerned. It was because India resisted this kind of arrangement that the US aid programme during 1962-65 fizzled out. Where third world countries allow the US to establish such a relationship the US slowly gets drawn into a politico-military commitment to the country concerned. This was what happened in the case of Pakistan in the sixties and even in 1971. Though the US had assured India that it would take appropriate action against Pakistan if that country were to use its weapons against India, in April 1965 when Pakistan used the US weaponry in the Rann of Kutch the US found itself helpless. That encouraged Pakistan to later on launch the Operation Gibraltar.

Similarly in 1971 the US administration, led by Nixon and Kissinger, felt that it had to support Pakistan during the Bangladesh liberation war. It is because of this behaviour pattern of the US that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi remarked that India did not mind Pakistan getting weapons from anywhere, but India was concerned with Pakistan becoming part of a strategic entity ranging from Pacific to the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.

To revert back to Indo-Soviet military cooperation the embargo imposed by the US and the Western powers on India in the wake of 1965 Indo-Pakistan war gave further fillip to arms transfers from the USSR to this country. In early 1966 agreements were concluded for Sukhoi-7 fighter bomber aircraft, T-55 medium tanks, 130-mm artillery, mobile radars etc. This was followed by agreements for supply of missile boats, more Petya class frigates, four more submarines, Mi-4 and Mi-8 helicopters. The MIG factory complexes had established regular production and the Soviet Union made available the more advanced model of MIG-21 the MIG-21M. In mid-seventies the further advanced model, MIG-21 bis, was also made available to India for manufacture in the MIG Complexes. The MIG-21 project symbolises a long and enduring cooperation in high technology between the two countries. Now the cooperation is moving into a higher stage with preparations to manufacture MIG-23 aircraft. MIG-21 was the first mach-two aircraft to be licensed for production in a developing and non-socialist country; and, now, MIG-21 will be the first variable geometry aircraft to be manufactured in a developing country.

In view of the size of AN-12 transport fleet India has, and the crucial role it plays in the logistic operation to the forward areas, it became necessary to establish the overhaul facilities for this aircraft in the country with the Soviet help. Such a facility has been set up in Chandigarh and that enables the Indian Air Force to maintain the fleet without having to send the aircraft to the Soviet Union for major repairs or overhauls.

The acquisition of large number of naval vessels from the Soviet Union also necessitated setting up of dockyard facilities to service and refit the Soviet vessels. Therefore a major naval dockyard designed to servicing the Soviet vessels is nearing completion in Vishakhapatnam.

It is in this atmosphere of fruitful cooperation that the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and cooperation came about in August 1971, essentially to signal to the United States and China (who through their policies were encouraging Pakistan in its genocide in Bangladesh and intransigence of keeping ten million refugees out in India) that the Soviet Union’s countervailing support was available to this country. 

The correctness of this step was proved by the actions of the Nixon-Kissinger administration during the liberation war of 1971. Kissinger has recorded in his book ‘White House Years’ how he attempted to egg on the Chinese to apply military pressure on India assuring them that any consequent Soviet countermove against the Chinese would be responded to – by the US. The Chinese very prudently decided not to act on Kissinger’s advice. At the same time the US Administration sent in the Enterprise mission into the Bay of Bengal in a move to intimidate India. 

The nature of Soviet response to this is not very clear though some US analysts appear to believe that there was one. In the period after the Bangladesh liberation war the co-operation between India and the Soviet Union continues to be sustained in the defence field. Some of the major items of weapons transferred were Nanuchka class missile Corvettes, the Kashin class destroyers (named Rajput class in India), the T-72 tanks, the BMP infantry combat vehicles, SAM-6 missiles, the MIG-21-bis, the MIG-23, and MIG-25 aircraft. The IAF has also chosen AN-32 as medium transport aircraft to replace Dakotas, Packets and Avros. 

These acquisitions contribute towards the modernisation programme of the Indian Armed Forces. The new Godavari class frigate to be built in India will also incorporate some of the weapons and other subsystems of Soviet origin.

The above analysis would indicate that while there has been considerable Soviet help in regard to Indian defence programme only the MIG-21 and 23 manufacturing programme, the naval dockyard at Vishakhapatnam, the AN-12 overhaul facilities at Chandigarh and contribution to Godavari class frigates relate to production and servicing facilities in India. The rest of the help has been by way of outright sale of equipment. 

This has been so partly due to the fact that Indian defence planning has not had a long enough time horizon and has been unable to forecast requirements on a long-term basis. The 130-mm guns, the T-55 tanks, the submarines and the Petya class frigates were ordered in instalments. If the total requirements had been correctly estimated right at the beginning, production lines could have been established in India leading to a wider spectrum of technology transfer.

We are in a transition period from one generation of weapons to a newer generation. Precision-guided munitions are being adopted in all three services. New technologies in materials, electronics, sensors, propellants etc., are contributing significantly to these new weapons. Our defence modernisation plan can be on the basis of acquisition of individual weapons and it can also be on the basis of acquisition of new weapons and the new technologies that have led to the development of those weapons. If the first course is adopted as we have been doing hitherto, it may result in India acquiring weaponry to safeguard its security but not in building up a self-reliant defence production base. That can be achieved only if India opts for transfer of technologies for defence in a massive way. The mutuality of strategic interests between India and the Soviet Union forms an adequate foundation for building up such a framework for transfer of technology. The past experience in regard to transfer of technology both in the defence sector (the MIG 21) and a whole range of civil sector (Steel, heavy machinery, electricals, oil exploration, mining etc.) is available to formulate an integrated strategy for the eighties.

Such a transfer of technology is not an easy and trouble-free process, especially between two societies which are at different technological levels of skills, performance and organisation. The West has not had any experience of such massive transfer of technology to a large developing country and the examples of South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore are exceptions rather than the rule. The Soviet experience in regard to China, though historically without precedent, has not been a happy experience. On the other hand for various reasons the Soviet transfer of technology to India, in spite of various difficulties, on the whole had been a fruitful and mutually beneficial experience.

Defence technology is not available in the international market for the mere asking. Transfer of defence technology is necessarily a reflection of mutuality of strategic and political interests. There are only three sources of defence technology in the World. The US does not transfer technology except to its military allies. The chances of India and US developing in the next few years even a modicum of mutuality of interests appear to be remote since the US has no interest at all in the development of Indian defence capability. On the other hand its policy appears to be directed towards containing, countering and neutralising India. France, in pursuit of its independent strategic position in international politics, has some interest in transferring defence technology to India and this country should make use of it as much as possible. But in view of the limitations of France’s ability to extend large long term credits the transfer of technology from France has to be on an eclectic basis. Only the USSR has adequate mutuality of strategic interest in India’s development of defence technology and has necessary resources to support the effort with necessary credits. The new US policy in regard to transfer of weapons and technologies to China is likely to influence USSR further favourably in this direction.

If India is to derive full benefit from these developments the framework of our defence planning must shift from selection of individual weapon systems to the technologies which will have to be developed in the country and the USSR must be approached for transfer of technologies rather than weapon systems. Simultaneously a strategy has to be worked out for our R&D and production base to absorb those technologies effectively so that full self-reliance can be achieved over the period of next fifteen to twenty years. That is the only way in which this country can develop a self-reliant defence production and R&D base.

Author is Director, Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi

From a collection of documents and comments on Studies Indo-Soviet Cooperation 

Edited by Dr. Shankar Dyal Sharma