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Russia Competing to Remain India's Top Military Supplier


India is planning to spend $100 billion over the next decade on new equipment and parts for its growing military. Much of it will be purchased overseas to supplement India's own modest defense industry. VOA's Steve Herman reports from the biennial Defense Exposition in New Delhi.

Spread across 35,000 square meters of the exposition center in the heart of India's capital, are enough firepower and military personnel to start a small war. But, the tactics being discussed at the defense fair focus on joint business ventures, rather than adventures into hostile territories.

The host country, India, has changed its strategic direction and that has visitors to the fair on high alert. Through the Cold War years and afterward New Delhi turned to Moscow for much of its military supplies. In the 21st century, Russia has lost its near monopoly on arms sales to India.

Looking beyond traditional threats from Pakistan and China, India wants to build a world-class military that can support longer-range strategic and diplomatic ambitions. That will require opening the bidding for its defense contracts beyond the tight, two-way channel between India and Russia.

Russian suppliers are not conceding defeat. A total of 25 Russian defense enterprises and organizations are attending the fair in New Delhi. But Leonid Gladchenko, spokesman for Rosoboronexport, a Russian state agency, acknowledges the landscape in India has changed.

"It's normal business that countries don't want to rely on only one source of weaponry," he said. "Other states, like Great Britain, France, Israel and the United States are competing with Russia on this market. But we'll see that perspectives of Russian-Indian military relations are not bright, but good."

While some Indian military personnel complain about the quality, reliability and cost of Russian equipment, they acknowledge Moscow has been very generous in sharing sophisticated technology with India.

Rosoboronexport's Gladchenko points to the presence of Russian MiG-35 fighter jets and T-90 tanks in India's arsenal.

"We don't only sell some weaponry, but at the request of the Indian side we are giving modern technology also," he noted.

That means India is not likely to settle for hand-me-downs from Russia's competitors.

While Russia may be more open-minded, other countries want to be sure that what they sell to India does not get passed to third parties, especially potential adversaries.

That issue is on the mind of one senior figure in the American delegation to the defense fair. Retired general Paul Kern used to be in charge of the U.S. Army's supply and logistics purchases. He makes a comparison between the information technology industry and the military sector.

"The software industry, I think, is a very good example of the amount of trust that America has put in India and how far we've come in a period of 10 or 15 years," he explained. "We need to do the same thing in the defense area, but you just have to build that trust."

Russia's comparatively looser regulations on exports are one barrier to the U.S. building a closer military sales relationship with India.

India's buying new U.S. military planes, second-hand naval vessels and other defense equipment also make some people here nervous. Critics say Washington's real motive is to make India a subordinate military ally of the United States.

The head of the U.S. delegation at the Defense Expo, former U.S. defense secretary William Cohen, says that perception is wrong.

"India is a friend, it's a democracy, it's a growing power and we would like to find ways in which we can strengthen that relationship," he said. "And that's the only motivation."

Israel is also a leading supplier of India's military hardware.

Each year, Israel sells India more than $1 billion worth of avionics, missiles, small arms and surveillance technology. That puts Israel second behind Russia in arms sales to India. Cooperation is rooted in the long-term mutual distrust of a nuclear-armed Pakistan and other shared threats, including Islamist terrorism.

At the Israel Weapon Industries booth, the manufacturer of the highly-regarded Uzi submachine gun displays a variety of small arms for Indian army officers. Marketing vice president Mark Shachar pitches the quality of weaponry his small country entrusts to young male and female draftees.

"We must give them the best weapons in the world," he said. "We cannot afford ourselves to give them 99.9. Less than 100 percent is not good enough for us. So the advantage of our customers is that they can get the weapon they we are producing for ourselves. The same quality, the same capability."

Israel Aerospace Industries and one of India's largest conglomerates, Tata, announced Sunday they are forming a joint venture to develop and manufacture missiles, drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) and electronic warfare systems.

Tata also is joining hands with Boeing to supply fighter aircraft and helicopter parts. The Indian conglomerate also has reached similar agreements with Sikorsky, a U.S. helicopter manufacturer. In addition, Tata is partnering with Raytheon and European defense giant EADS to bid on a $1 billion contract for an Indian Army tactical communications system.

Israel also wants arms trade with India to flow both ways. India's state-owned defense laboratory and government-run aircraft maker (Israel Aircraft Industries) are to develop long-range air defense systems to be installed on warships India is buying from Russia. Defense sources say the jointly-designed system is also intended for Israeli naval vessels in the years ahead.

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