Russia recently announced that they would be halting production on their latest and most technologically advanced main battle tank, the T-14 Armata, in favor of lower cost programs like updating their existing fleet of T-72 tanks. The problem with the T-14, like the nation’s stealthy fifth-generation fighter, the Su-57, isn’t that the platform doesn’t seem to be worth the money, but rather that Russia can’t afford them. Their nation’s struggling, sanction ridden economy simply can’t support such a broad-stroked modernization effort: Russia’s military is too far behind in too many fields to hope to compete in each one. As a result, Moscow tends to allocate funding based first on how new weapons platforms will inform international perceptions of the nation’s military capabilities, and second on actually increasing military capabilities.
The Su-57, which was intended to serve as a foreign export fighter produced by the Russian government to compete with the likes of America’s F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, was reliant on an agreement with India to purchase the platform in order to move forward. India’s decision to back out of the deal was followed shortly by Russia’s announcement that they would be fielding no more than a dozen or so of these advanced aircraft — a far cry from the more than 2,000 fifth-generation fighters the United States plans to field. Until recently, it seemed the T-14 tank was destined for a similarly undignified death, as Russian officials limited procurement of the platform said to be a direct competitor for the M1 Abrams to just about 100. That figure may sound formidable until you consider that the United States currently maintains a fleet of nearly 6,000 M1 Abrams main battle tanks.
However, India may now be looking to buy into the T-14 Armata program, which would not only put the tank back into production, but would provide the Russian government with an influx of cash that could be used to either increase their own tank procurement plans or advance other high-profile platforms aimed at making Russia the go-to government for nations looking to purchase advanced weapons systems without necessarily having to be on America’s good side.
Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat is currently visiting Russia, with Kremlin-owned media outlets widely reporting that part of his six-day visit will be devoted to discussing the possibility of India purchasing some number of T-14s. While Indian officials have yet to confirm Russia’s claims, they do seem possible. Rawat is indeed visiting Russia, formally for the purposes of discussing the strategic partnership between the two nations, and India is in the market for new armored platforms. Last November they released a global Request for Information (RFI) aimed at finding potential platforms to replace their aging armored assets — which are notably made up of the same T-72s Russia claims they see no need to replace at all.
If India does decide to pursue such a procurement program, it could result in strained relations with the world’s other largest defense supplier: the United States. The U.S. has made no apologies for enforcing sanctions placed on Russia following its military annexation of Crimea in 2014, most recently by levying new sanctions against China’s People’s Liberation Army for their purchase of Russia Su-35 fourth-generation fighters. The U.S., however, may prefer maintaining positive relations with India. Trump’s administration has the authority to issue a waiver to mandatory sanctions that should fall into place when any nation aims to aid Russia through weapons purchases, but it would create a difficult geopolitical position regarding China. If the Trump administration isn’t careful, allowing India’s purchase of the T-14 could look like selective enforcement of sanctions based not on national security or punitive action regarding Crimea. The sanctions on China would then look more like an alternate avenue of attack for the ongoing trade dispute between the U.S. and China.
The U.S. and India maintain strong ties, but India’s decision to purchase new weapons systems from Russia may chip away at them. The U.S. has already voiced concerns about selling U.S. made fighter platforms to the Indian military because of their recent purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft platforms. The concern is that having both American jets and Russian jet-defenses operating in the same military would offer India, and therefore Russia, highly valuable intelligence on how effective their air-defenses really are against American aircraft… and worse, how to make them more effective in the future.
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