In late October, India’s Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and its domestic industrial partners exhibited a range of military wares abroad, with a dedicated pavilion for the first time at ADEX-2013 in Seoul. Taken together with reported sales of indigenously developed sonar systems to neighbouring Myanmar and talks with the Philippines about the prospect of supplying two naval frigates, it seems that India is now keen to move beyond mere maintenance and training support to a limited number of ASEAN members.
Naturally current and near future sales are likely to be focused on areas where individual ASEAN states seek specific capabilities that India’s domestic industry can supply. The China factor in the background may meanwhile lend something of a maritime edge to these transfers. India’s defence supply relationship with various ASEAN states will unfold on a realistic bilateral basis rather than through any overarching India-ASEAN framework. However, while sensors and munitions can be more readily supplied, major platforms that require sub-systems potentially sourced from other players will create the need for India to co-ordinate closely with the United States and Russia and build a case for its entry into various export control regimes.
Now some of the more mature systems on display at Seoul are export variants of sensors already in use by the Indian military. An example would include a compact version of DRDO’s hull-mounted sonar (HUMSA) suitable for mounting on small frigates, corvettes and offshore patrol vessels (OPVs). Incidentally it has been reported that this is a variant of the HUMSA being exported to Myanmar’s Navy, which is recapitalizing its fleet with new OPVs and modest sized frigates. The sonars are also part of a larger pipeline of naval sensors being supplied to Myanmar, which has in the past included BEL-built RAWL-02 Mk III L-band 2D search radars and commercial grade navigation radars that are being sported by Myanmar’s new line of Aung Zeya Class frigates armed with a mix of Russian and Chinese weaponry. The primary strike armament of the Aung Zeya class is, however, the Russian Kh-35 Uran anti-ship missile.
The significance of the Indian sales emerges from the fact that Myanmar is now engaged in a competitive naval buildup with Bangladesh, particularly since the maritime standoff between their navies in 2008, which did not portray Myanmarese naval capabilities in a particularly good light. It brought home to the Myanmarese side the need to augment their surface fleet with larger ships equivalent to those the Bangladeshi navy fields. The 2008 standoff was ultimately defused through an intervention by China, which is still the chief supplier of naval equipment to both navies. But since then Myanmar has been keen to diversify foreign support for its naval buildup even as Bangladesh’s navy is actually increasing its dependence on China. Myanmar’s navy may be particularly concerned about Bangladeshi aims to source submarines from China as the former is known to be rather weak in anti-submarine warfare and sonar sales by India also assume significance in this light.
At the other geographic end of ASEAN, the Philippines is another nation drawing closer to India in the military domain. In a visit that signaled an uptick in bilateral engagement, India’s foreign minister Salman Khurshid is reported to have discussed the possibility of supplying two frigates to the Philippines Navy with his counterpart during his late October visit to Manila. This issue will be discussed further during the second meeting of the Philippines-India Joint Defence Cooperation Committee (JDCC) in New Delhi, likely to take place in the near future.
Philippines’ need for naval modernization is perhaps more acute than that of Myanmar since the China factor creates a direct need for augmenting naval surface warfare capabilities in order to protect disputed island territories. Port calls and transit exercises by the Indian Navy over the years have given the Philippine Navy a good opportunity to take a look at Indian-built warships and this has contributed to the evinced interest.
Nevertheless, the request for information issued by the Philippines for these two frigates specifies its armament to include just 50 km ranged subsonic anti-ship cruise missiles and very short-range (around 6 km) surface to air missiles (SAM). At the moment, India’s domestic industry does not build either an indigenously developed subsonic anti-ship missile or an indigenously developed very short-range SAM. Therefore any prospective sale of frigates by India to Philippines will require it to cooperate with third-party players that already have an existing relationship with India, given that India is still out of U.S.-led export control regimes. Israel naturally comes to mind, given the nature of Manila’s requirements.
Returning to the issue of ship-borne weapons, India could in the future offer the Brahmos cruise missile along with surface warships to ASEAN countries. However apart from the issue of getting the Russians onboard there will always be a question of cost. The Philippine Navy for instance, judging by its requirements, is looking for capability on the cheap and this is precisely the need that India is expected to fill in its defence engagement with countries in ASEAN wary of both China’s military might and its ability to arms countries in the vicinity.
Apart from absolute cost – which matters greatly for ASEAN states with modest budgets – India’s defence relationship with ASEAN members will also revolve around the terms of credit offered and the possibility of co-production and co-development. This will be especially important in the case of larger players in ASEAN such as Indonesia and Vietnam. Vietnam has already been offered a $100 million credit line for OPVs and is interested in the anti-ship variant of the Brahmos, as is reportedly Malaysia.
In the case of the Brahmos, it must be noted that India and Russia have failed to see eye to eye as far as its export potential is concerned. Russia’s reluctance on this front may also stem from the fact that it has been marketing overseas the Yakhont/Onyx missile, on whose airframe the Brahmos is based. Indeed, Russia in 2011 sold Bastion-P systems to Vietnam whose missile component is the Yakhont. On the other hand, prior reports of Prithvi surface to surface missile (SSM) sales to Vietnam have also come to nought, since India is not keen to supply non-MTCR compliant weapons abroad.
Recent developments show that India’s MOD, which has been accused of dragging its feet on the issue of adding a substantive military component to India’s Look East policy is now probably on board with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on this issue. The push factor obviously comes from the need to defray the cost of indigenous developments and to raise the profile of India’s growing military industrial complex. The MEA on its part sees these sales as a natural outgrowth of the Look East policy it has developed over the past two decades. Such sales also strengthen India’s case for membership of export control regimes such as the “Waasenaar Arrangement” which it has been seeking to enter for some time now. At the end of the day the future of India’s defence relationship with ASEAN states will depend more on how its manages to coordinate matters domestically and whether Indian industry is able to gets its act together on the timely delivery of weapons. (The Diplomat)