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India to buy more defence systems from Russia

India is and will remain Moscow's principal strategic partner in the Asia-Pacific region -- and its principal business partner in the regional arms trade.

In Moscow for meetings with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin, Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda underlined the mutual advantages to be found in deals that made New Delhi the world's biggest buyer of Russian weaponry.

Russia’s arms industry, one of the country’s few forward-looking trade blocs, is second only to the US, selling weapons to 51 different countries. It has made or designed most of India's tanks and artillery in the former Soviet Union, it is the obvious source for new hardware.

India is paying $ 1.8 billion for 40 multi-purpose Sukhoi SU-30 jet fighters, with the first eight delivered this month. It has also agreed to buy submarines worth $ 800 million and is now angling for a $ one billion Russian anti-missile system.

New Delhi officials have said a draft agreement would soon be made on the buying of six or seven air defence systems to build more systems under license by India's state-run ordnance factories.

The Russian S-300 systems, each one deploying 48 missiles, are supposed to be an improved version of the US Patriot missile system deployed during the 1992 Gulf War to destroy Iraqi Scud missiles.

Russian experts say that unlike the Patriot, the S-300 will destroy the warhead as well as the missile and would be equally effective against aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles.

Its homing system, based on satellite communications, has earned it the nickname 'the Third World's Star Wars' -- a reference to the failed 1980s space defence programme started by former US president Ronald Reagan.

India's existing Russian-made Sam-3 missile systems are good against jet planes only, and New Delhi has long sought a system that will give it an edge over Pakistan which also has acquired missiles, and some insurance against China and its long-range Silkworm cruise missiles.

Talks are also on to upgrade the Sam-3s and its existing batteries of Russian-made Prechora missiles in the wake of Pakistan's reported plans to buy Chinese M-11 tactical missiles. India says it bought the SU-30 specifically to counter the 'threat' from Pakistan's squadrons of US-made F-16s and French Mirage 2000s.

Another six SU-30s are expected to be delivered by April 7, and all should be operational by 2000. Russia's Zhukovsky Air Academy and the Sukhoi design bureau have already trained 15 Indian pilots and 40 engineers to run the SU-30s, it is reported.

Accordingly, Deve Gowda's visit to Moscow was always expected to touch upon the issue of arms sales to Pakistan by Russia and other former Soviet countries. Russia sold 12 Mi-17 attack helicopters to Pakistan a few years ago and several T-85 Russian tanks have also reportedly ended up in Islamabad's care, allegedly via China.

Saying this, India is hinting specially at the Ukraine, which inherited nearly a third of the old Soviet Union's armament plants when the old bloc broke up. A four-year Kiev-Islamabad deal worth almost $ 650 million to ship the latest version of the T-80 main battle tank, the T-80 Ud, to the Pakistan army has upset both India and Russia.

Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Davydov has even refused Ukraine a licence to export key parts for the tank's weapons' system still made in Russia. He commented tartly that ''Russia is not going to assist the building up of Pakistan's military potential to the detriment of India, Russia's strategic partner''.

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