US seeks to wean India from Russia weapons with arms-aid package

The effort is part of a much larger initiative to court India as a long-term security partner. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI/WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The US is preparing a military aid package for India to deepen security ties and reduce the country's dependence on Russian weapons, people familiar with the matter said.

The package under consideration would include foreign military financing of as much as US$500 million (S$692 million), according to one person, which would make India one of the largest recipients of such aid behind Israel and Egypt. It's unclear when the deal would be announced, or what weapons would be included.

The effort is part of a much larger initiative by President Joe Biden's administration to court India as a long-term security partner, despite its reluctance to criticise Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, according to a senior US official who asked not to be named.

Washington wants to be seen as a reliable partner for India across the board, the official added, and the administration is working with other nations including France to make sure Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has the equipment it needs. While India is already diversifying its military platforms away from Russia, the US wants to help make that happen faster, the official said.

The major challenge remains how to provide India major platforms like fighter jets, naval ships and battle tanks, the official said, adding that the administration is looking for a breakthrough in one of these areas.

The financing package being discussed would do little to make those types of systems - which can cost billions or tens of billions of dollars - more affordable, but it would be a significant symbolic sign of support.

India's Foreign Ministry didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Officials at the State Department and US embassy in New Delhi didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

India is the world's largest buyer of Russian weapons, although it has scaled back that relationship of late. Over the past decade, India has bought more than US$4 billion worth of military equipment from the US and more than US$25 billion from Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which collects data on arms transfers.

India's dependence on Russia for weapons against neighbours China and Pakistan is a big reason Modi's government has avoided criticising Russian President Vladimir Putin over the war in Ukraine.

As the US, Europe, Australia and Japan piled economic sanctions on Russia, India has held off and instead continued imports of discounted Russian oil.

While the US and its allies were initially frustrated with India, they have sought to woo Modi's government as a key security partner - including against China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Modi is set to join a summit with Biden next week in South Korea. The meeting will include leaders from the Quad, a partnership between the US, India, Japan and Australia that has drawn criticism from China. Modi also received an invitation to join the Group of Seven leaders in Germany next month.

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin made the point about China when he spoke at a news conference in April with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Indian Defence Minster Rajnath Singh and Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

"We're doing all this because the United States supports India as a defence industry leader in the Indo-Pacific and a net provider of security in the region," Austin said. "And we all understand the challenges that we face there. The People's Republic of China is seeking to refashion the region and the international system more broadly in ways that serve its interests."

Links between the US and India have steadily deepened over the past two decades, with the two sides reaching agreements that allow for more interoperability between their military platforms.

Backing for India is a rare point of bipartisan unity in Washington, and the Biden administration has signalled that it isn't interested in sanctioning New Delhi over its recent decision to buy the S-400 missile defence system from Russia. Turkey's purchase of the same system deeply damaged US ties with the Nato ally.

Still, it remains to be seen how far India will go in accepting US military assistance. Russia has historically supplied the majority of India's military hardware, including fighter jets and missiles, as well as almost all its tanks and helicopters.

Modi's government has told the US the alternatives to moving away completely from Russian weapons imports are too expensive, according to people familiar with the situation, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorised to speak with the media.

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