A great success has been achieved in one area of cooperation between India and Russia: the military and technical sphere. For quite some time now, the Republic of India has been viewed as a key importer of Russian weapons. In recent years, this special status enjoyed by India has come into question. However, these doubts were dispelled after India signed an agreement with Russia to purchase its S-400 Triumf missile system in October 2018.
From 2012 to 2017 India bought approximately $15 billion worth of weapons from Russia. It has been reported that one of the most sought after items was the T-90 tank, although the Republic of India also purchased a large number of different military aircraft, helicopters, ships and other expensive equipment. In addition, collaboration between the two nations on joint research and development projects has resulted in creation of the India-Russia BrahMos supersonic cruise missile.
In light of the previously mentioned developments, the opening of a manufacturing facility licensed to produce Kalashnikov (AK) assault rifles in March of 2018 in India does not seem noteworthy at first glance. However, the significance of this event should not be underestimated. Heavy weapons are used infrequently and in rare emergency situations, while, on a daily basis, safety and security is ensured by equipping rank-and-file combatants with weapons. From an economic perspective, it is often the case that the sale of fairly inexpensive goods yields more substantial revenues than those received from industrial sectors that manufacture exceptionally pricey products sold in very small numbers. Each soldier in an army is equipped with assault weapons such as AK, while warehouses are established to stock a large number of additional automatic rifles, their spare parts and ammunition. In a large populous country such as India, weapons have to be manufactured in vast quantities in order to fully equip the army and its reserves with firearms. For now the previously mentioned manufacturing facility is expected to produce approximately 800,000 AK assault rifles, but this could only be the beginning.
The Indian Army still uses INSAS rifles (made in the Republic of India), which were first employed to arm its soldiers in the 1990s. According to experts, these weapons are yet another foreign-produced equivalent of AK automatic rifles, but of a lower quality and with comparatively poor performance characteristics. After the military decided that these rifles did not meet their needs in 2010, India’s Ministry of Defence initiated a tendering process for the procurement of new weapons to replace the INSAS rifles. Unfortunately, local manufacturers were unable to offer an alternative that fully satisfied the current needs of the Indian Army. In the end, a proposal was made to rearm the military with Kalashnikov automatic rifles.
At the beginning of April 2018, India’s Minister of Defence, Nirmala Sitharaman, arrived in Moscow to take part in the VII Moscow Conference on International Security. During this event, she held negotiations with her Russian counterpart Sergey Shoygu and other representatives of the Russian government. As a result, a decision was made to start manufacturing AK automatic rifles in India. The very same month, a delegation from India’s Ministry of Defence visited a manufacturing facility of the Kalashnikov Concern in Izhevsk, where they were able to see, first-hand, the production of various models of automatic rifles and also try these goods out.
The final decision to initiate the production of AK weapons in India was made in October 2018, when the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, visited the Republic of India and held relevant negotiations with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
At first, the plan was to use the joint India-Russia manufacturing facility to make the 100-series AKs, primarily the AK-103, a derivative, intended for export, of the AK-74M family of rifles, which was chosen to arm the Russian military in 1995. The Russian Federation has exported hundreds of thousands of these AK-100 series rifles to nations in Africa, Asia, South America and Oceania, and these weapons have proven their worth in numerous military conflicts. However, in January 2019, it was reported that the joint production facility would manufacture more advanced and high tech AK-200 rifles, which were initially conceived in 2009. The AK-200, AK-203, AK-204 and AK-205 automatic rifles were first exhibited to the public at the 2019 IDEX International Defence Exhibition and Conference, which was held in Abu Dhabi (the UAE) from 17 to 21 of February 2019. The weapons impressed exhibition participants, and orders flooded into Rosoboronexport, the only Russian state organization licensed to export armaments. India also chose not to miss this opportunity, and a decision to manufacture AK-203 automatic rifles at the India-Russia plant was made. Production of AK-200 rifles is costlier than that of AK-100, however, Russian as well as Indian experts believe that it is a worthwhile investment.
The $1.7 billion intergovernmental agreement on the joint manufacturing facility to produce AK assault rifles was signed by the Republic of India and the Russian Federation at the beginning of March 2019. It has been reported that immediately after the signing, Russia handed 50,000 AK-203 weapons to India for its army’s immediate needs.
The plant, dubbed the Indo-Russian Rifles Private Limited, was built in the territory of India’s old weapons manufacturing facility in the town Korwa, located in the state of Uttar Pradesh. And on 3 March 2019, an official ceremony to mark the opening of this factory was held. It was attended by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Minister of Defence, Nirmala Sitharaman, who read a congratulatory message from Vladimir Putin addressed to participants and guests at the ceremony. The Russian President highlighted that traditionally, cooperation in the military and technology spheres is a key area of focus of the special and privileged strategic partnership between Russia and India. He also expressed his appreciation to all the project participants, who ensured it was completed within such a short period of time. In addition, Vladimir Putin said that he was confident that the AK manufacturing facility would strengthen India’s defense capabilities; would foster development of the nation’s science and technology as well as economic spheres, and would also transform into yet another symbol of the friendship between Russia and India.
The AK assault rifle has long become synonymous with Russia’s (and previously the USSR’s) military might used to protect its allies all over the world. AK weapons in the hands of military personnel symbolize their close ties to the Russian Federation, which is why the opening of this joint manufacturing facility can be seen as an ideological victory for Russia, a country forced to compete with the USA and other countries, with a well-developed military-industrial complex, in the arms market in Asia. From a purely practical point of view, the Indian Army’s widespread switch over to AK-203 assault rifles can improve its military capabilities several fold, which is especially important at a time when the threat of international terrorism to all the Asian nations is on the rise. Besides, the Indo-Russian Rifles Private Limited venture could yield considerable financial benefits to the Republic of India and the Russian Federation. As mentioned previously, for now the plan is to manufacture approximately 800,000 automatic rifles at the joint facility, which should fully satisfy the needs of the Indian Army. However, the possibility of producing additional batches of AK-203 weapons for the sale to third party countries is currently under discussion.
Therefore, the start of AK production in the Republic of India is an impressive achievement for India as well as Russia, and one of the most important developments in the course of their collaboration. Global media outlets have continued reporting on the purchase of Russia’s S-400 Triumf missile systems by India at the end of last year, which is a cause for concern in the United States since Americans view the Republic of India as their strategic partner. In the meantime, India and the Russian Federation have made yet another step that will greatly enhance mutual trust and cooperation between these two nations for many years to come.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”