Armenia–India Relations: From Politics to Arms Trade
By Yeghia Tashjian
During my academic visit to New Delhi in February 2020, I met with Indian politicians and scholars and discussed opportunities for upgrading Armenian-Indian relations. While back then the idea of arms trade was still immature, I raised the issue of defense cooperation between the two countries. Through honest discussions about the Armenian cause, I came to a conclusion, which I summarized in a November 2020 article for the Armenian Weekly: “In order to balance the Turkish-Azerbaijani-Pakistani axis, Armenia and India must enhance strategic and security relationships and coordinate in international forums. Yerevan and New Delhi can create a common security center to share intelligence information and combat terrorist activities in the region. Moreover, military drills and exercises (anti-terrorism training) should be encouraged between both armies. In addition to the Russian Defense market, if needed, Armenia can also look to the Indian defense industry to modernize its army with heavy weapons such as attack drones, multiple launch rocket systems, and anti-tank guided missiles.”
Despite today’s tumultuous climate in Armenia, it’s reassuring to learn that this 2020 recommendation has materialized, and bilateral ties are taking military and strategic dimensions.
The Politics Behind the Modern Armenian-Indian Relations
After Armenia’s defeat in the 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan, the country became more politically and economically isolated. Due to its poor infrastructure, Armenia could not take part in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Chinese investments bypassed Yerevan and concentrated on Baku. This benefited India, as Yerevan has strived to establish ties with rising Asian countries in order to diversify its economic and political connections. Thanks to the Armenian Diaspora and the efforts of the Armenian government, a strong political bond has been established in recent years between Yerevan and New Delhi. High profile visits have characterized bilateral relations, and this was solidified with India’s PM Narendra Modi’s meeting with PM Nikol Pashinyan in New York in September 2019 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Thereafter, both counties coordinated their positions on Kashmir and Azerbaijan’s aggression toward Armenia.
Behind the Armenian-Indian rapprochement, there are political developments. On September 29, Pranab Dhal Samanra, from the leading Indian newspaper Economic Times, wrote an article titled “India cannot ignore the dangerous adventures of the ‘three brothers’ in Armenia and elsewhere.” He warns that if this axis is cemented in the South Caucasus, it will move southward, and Azerbaijan, Turkey and Pakistan will cooperate in other theaters, including Kashmir. Samanra says that Turkey and Azerbaijan have always supported Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, and in return, Pakistan has backed Azerbaijan in its war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Baku is also negotiating with Pakistan to purchase Chinese-origin JF-17 fighters. “It is probably in India’s interest that Armenia puts up a stand and not be trampled upon because of a power vacuum (in South Caucasus) caused by Russia’s preoccupation in Ukraine,” writes Samanra.
In an interview with the Armenian Weekly, Rananjay Anand, co-founder and president of the Indo-Armenian Friendship Society, mentioned that the recent arms deal between Armenia and India has many geopolitical implications in the South Caucasus region and beyond. This defense deal would certainly change the security equations in South Caucasus, wherein Russia has always been the dominant player so far. Russia has been the main weapon supplier to Armenia, but being preoccupied with Ukraine, Armenia is looking elsewhere to meet its defense requirements. Anand also raised concerns about the Turkey-Azerbaijan-Pakistan alliance. He argued that India must help Armenia to stay strong against this aggressive push by the “three brothers,” which may ultimately reach the gates of Kashmir as well. This is why India should stop this offensive push by the trio at any cost.
In addition to the political nature of Armenia-India ties, there is also some economic weight that cannot be ignored. According to Aditi Bhaduri, Armenia can play an important role in the Indian-backed International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) and the Iranian-backed Black Sea-Persian Gulf Transport Corridor. Bhaduri argues that by engaging in trade and defense agreements, Armenia can become a “strategically significant partner for India.” “India can set up bases and a commercial and defense hub for joint manufacture and Indian exports beyond. Located in Russia’s sphere of influence, this is an additional advantage for India,” writes Bhaduri. Indian bases in Armenia should not be a source of concern for Moscow, as they could bring security and stability to the South Caucasus. A strong and proactive Armenia will be beneficial to Russia instead of a military burden, as Moscow could be stuck in the “Ukrainian mud” in the long run.
Anand, for his part, noted that India also has geo-strategic and economic interest in the Central Asian Region, which is now known as the Extended Neighborhood by India. According to Anand, the establishment of INSTC along with Russia and Iran has been the mainstay in this equation, which will not only connect India with Eurasia and Central Asia but with Europe as well through a sea-rail-road route. Precisely the reason India and Iran wanted Armenia to join it for all benefits, although Baku has been engaging with INSTC as an integral part of the route. Given the geopolitical interest, it is imperative that Armenia becomes an integral part of the same to strengthen and take this cooperation to the next level. By joining the INSTC, Armenia will have easy access to Indian markets and Indo-Armenian trade via Iran will create a huge boost in their bilateral trade.
Military Dimension of Armenia-India Relations
In a recent interview, Armenia’s PM hinted that Russia is unable to fulfill Armenia’s defense requirement, likely due to the impact of Western-led sanctions on Russia’s defense industry or Moscow is under the pressure of short stocks due to the war in Ukraine. Armenia needs to purchase heavy arms to secure its borders, deter Azerbaijan’s aggression and liberate the occupied Armenian lands that Azerbaijan captured during the May 2021 and September 2022 military incursions. India is one possible military partner for Armenia.
Armenia had already shown interest in Indian military hardware before the 2020 war. In 2020, Yerevan signed a $40 million arms deal with India for the supply of four SWATHI radars to detect the location of weapons. The radar system is designed to to track incoming artillery shells, mortars, and rockets and pinpoint the locations of enemy launchers and positions. These radars have been successfully deployed along the Indian-Chinese and Indian-Pakistani borders.
In June 2022, with rumors surfacing of possible Azerbaijani military operations near the border with Armenia, an Armenian defense delegation visited India to negotiate with New Delhi for purchasing arms including drones.
The negotiations bore fruit in late September, when Indian newspapers reported that through a government-to-government contract, India will be exporting missiles, rockets and ammunition, including the Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launcher (MBRL) system, to Armenia. India’s Pinaka has six launchers (12 rockets), which can neutralize an area measuring 1000 meters x 800 meters with a range of 60 to 75 kilometers, and a DIGICORA MET radar. It is designed to replace the army’s Russian-built BM-21 Grad launchers.
In addition to Pinaka, India is also reportedly exporting anti-tank missiles to Armenia. The NAG ATGM (also called Prospina) is an Indian third generation, all-weather, fire-and-forget, lock-on after launch, anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) with an operation range of 500 meters to 20 km. It has a single-shot hit probability of 90 percent and can be launched from land and air. The strike range of the missile when launched from a ground-based platform is up to four kilometers, while the strike range, when launched from the air, reaches seven kilometers. The missile has a built-in Imaging Infra-Red (IIR) seeker system with integrated avionics that can disable heavy armor day and night.
India may also export its Man Portable Anti-Tank Guided Missile (MPATGM) to Armenia. The Indian Defense Research and Development Organization successfully tested it in January. The MPATGM has a maximum range of 2.5 kilometers and is guided by an IIR system.
Yet these weapons are not sufficient to boost Armenia’s defense capabilities. Both the Pinaka MBRL system and the ATGM would be helpful in ground-based attacks on Armenia but would not be able to combat the Turkish or Israeli-made drones as Armenia lacks the proper air defense mechanism. In October, Sakshi Tiwari argued that Pinaka is insufficient as Armenia needs “BrahMos” and “Akash” missiles to “break the opponents’ teeth.”
Tiwari has conducted interesting interviews with retired Indian military experts on this issue. Retired Indian Major General Raj Mehta said, “What (India is) exporting won’t be enough. More importantly, Pinaka and tank missiles aren’t drone compatible and are also expensive. In war, hammers aren’t the right way ahead to kill flies. One must carry out a threat assessment, after which the correct weapons can be chosen. A ‘transparent’ battlefield allows wise choices to be made. An Indian assessment team could identify the real battlefield problems and then suggest what India could provide at a reasonable cost.” A simple look at the outcome of the 2020 war would tell us how the Turkish Bayraktar drones razed entire Armenian tanks and rocket launchers to the ground. Most of the Armenian military casualties both during the 2020 war and the September 13 aggression were a result of drone attacks on the front lines, which Armenia does not possess the air defense system to hinder. These attacks also had a psychological impact, demoralizing conscripts on the ground.
Tiwari claims that in the Indian export list for 2021, there is one missile that could strengthen Yerevan’s air defense capabilities: the “Akash” missile. The “Akash” medium-range mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) system is one of India’s most powerful missiles that can engage multiple aerial targets in any weather. It can destroy aircraft within a range of 30-35 kilometers and carry conventional and even nuclear warheads weighing up to 60 kilograms. According to Eurasia Times, “the system also includes an arming and exploding mechanism, a multifunctional fire control radar, a digital autopilot, a launcher, a control center, an integral mission guidance system, and a missile.” Additionally, it also has C4I (Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence) centers. “Akash” missiles are suitable for destroying attack drones, cruise missiles and missiles launched from helicopters and aircraft. This can be useful for Armenia providing cover to its defensive units being targeted by the Azerbaijani air force including the Turkish-made Bayraktar drones.
Recommendations and Assessment
According to the draft budget the Armenian government distributed during the September 29 cabinet session, the government may increase its military budget for 2023 by 50 percent, reaching $1.2 billion.
Tiwari quoted a retired lieutenant colonel from the Indian army, JS Sondhi, stating that though expensive, Armenia could purchase the Indian-Russian-made BrahMos supersonic missile. BrahMos is the world’s fastest cruise missile in service capable of hitting targets at more than 400 km range. This can be a strong deterrent force in the hands of the Armenian army to prevent further Azerbaijani incursions deep into Armenian territory. Sondhi added that Armenia can also purchase the Israeli-Indian-developed “Barak 8” air defense missile system. However, this is questionable as Israel could reject the sale under Azerbaijani pressure. Another possible purchase can be the Indian-made Rustom II attack drones. According to Indian military reports, the domestic drone “will probably replace the Israeli-made Heron UAVs in service with the Indian armed forces.” Of course, incorporating new military systems in Armenia’s Russian or Soviet-made defense systems is not an easy task, and training Armenian soldiers on these new weapon systems will take a long time, but that topic is left to military experts and policymakers.
Anand also argued that the current arms deal can be a step forward. He says the timing of this defense deal is important, as India has delivered when it matters the most for Armenia to defend against a brutal aggressor. “In the coming future, both sides anticipate there should be even bigger and better deals involving drones, anti-drone systems, surface to air missiles, and fighter aircrafts wherein India’s defense exports have been making huge inroads now. India should offer its world’s lightest fighter aircraft Tejas and newly-inducted attack helicopter Prachand as well, as they suit Armenia’s defense as per their affordability,” he said.
Anand concluded his remarks that apart from being a reliable defense-equipment supplier, India can also help Armenia by offering the training of Armenian defense personnel in various formats even involving exchange training visits, conducting war-games etc. Such military relations would continue developing as India has already appointed a defense-attaché in Armenia (with residence in Moscow).
Therefore, the Indian-Armenian arms trade can be a win-win solution for both countries. If the Indian arms prove effective in the battles to come, it could boost the Indian defense market and increase interest among other states in purchasing Indian arms. Moreover, by arming Armenia, India can use Armenia as a deterrent force against the “three brothers.” For New Delhi, Yerevan would be the first near abroad stronghold against the Turkish-led emerging “triple alliance.”