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British defence firms look to exploit a chink in Russia's armour

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Indian Army - AP Photo/Manish Swarup
Indian Army - AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Russia's army was considered a formidable force ahead of Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine. As forces marched on Kyiv, Western intelligence agencies had expected the capital to collapse within days.

But the Russian military's performance has fallen far short of expectations. In a far cry from Putin’s desired May 9 victory parade, Twitter users have been sharing videos of Ukrainian farmers using their tractors to steal Russian tanks worth tens of millions of pounds. British spy chiefs, meanwhile, are saying morale in the Russian army is so low that soldiers are damaging their own equipment, refusing to follow orders and accidentally shooting down their own aircraft.

Jeremy Fleming, head of Britain's intelligence agency GCHQ, said in March that Putin had "overestimated the abilities of his military to secure a rapid victory.”

In a speech to the Australian National University, he added: "We're now seeing Putin trying to follow through on his plan. But it is failing. And his plan B has been more barbarity against civilians and cities.

"We've seen Putin lie to his own people in an attempt to hide military incompetence."

The reports have been damaging for the Russian defence industry, which has been a supplier to militaries across the world.

Yet it has presented the UK arms industry with a unique opportunity to pitch its goods to militaries that previously relied on Soviet-era weapons - most notably India.

In April, Prime Minister Boris Johnson travelled to India to meet his counterpart Narendra Modi with one of the key aims being to boost defence ties.

EW DELHI, INDIA - APRIL 22 : Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson greet each other prior to a meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India on April 22, 2022 - Anadolu Agency
EW DELHI, INDIA - APRIL 22 : Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson greet each other prior to a meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India on April 22, 2022 - Anadolu Agency

A Ministry of Defence adviser recently said Russia's failings could be lucrative for British defence giants such as BAE Systems and Rolls Royce. Dr Rob Johnson, who leads the MoD's Office for Net Assessment and Challenge, told The Times that the Indian authorities in particular would be looking to replace their Soviet-era equipment.

He said: "There are a lot of countries around Africa and the Middle East that have made use of Soviet equipment over the decades. They must all now be looking, saying it's cheap, it works, but it is so vulnerable.

"The Indian authorities, right now, I suspect, are looking at the very poor performance of Russian-made equipment, and no doubt they are asking themselves, does India really want its armed forces to be using Russian equipment?"

Prior to the war, Russia's T90 tanks were regarded as a hugely popular export with India, Vietnam, Algeria and Libya all putting in orders.

India signed a $2.8bn (£2.3bn) deal for 464 T90 tanks in 2019, but experts say army chiefs will be reassessing its stock in light of the Ukraine war.

Francis Tusa, an independent defence analyst, says: "If you were the Indians looking at quite how many T90 tanks have been turned into blazing hulks, blowing up one after the other, and you have a requirement for about 1,000 to 1,200 tanks, you might be looking outside Russia.

"If you were an Indian tanker you would be asking yourself: do I really want to be in one of those?

But it is not just tanks that buyers could be looking elsewhere for. Tusa adds: "One area that could be particularly interesting to watch with India is whether we will try to sell them nuclear submarines like the Astute."

Built by BAE systems in Barrow-in-Furness and powered by small nuclear reactors manufactured by Rolls Royce, the Astute submarines carry ballistic missiles that can hit targets up to 1,000 km from the coast.

 Astute submarine - Will Haigh/Royal Navy
Astute submarine - Will Haigh/Royal Navy

Tusa says the Indians might also be interested in purchasing the Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon, or NLAW missile. The missiles, which cost around £20,000 to produce, are developed by the Swedish company Saab and built in Belfast.

The British Army has sent more than 4,000 NLAWs to Ukraine to support the war effort, with the weapons achieving “cult status” in the country.

Britain is also expected to tout its Sky Sabre missile system to foreign governments. The surface-to-air missile has been developed by defence firm MBDA to shoot down stealth jets and hypersonic missiles.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced the British army was sending the Sky Sabre system to Poland while on a trip to Warsaw in March. The missile has been deployed alongside 100 troops to safeguard Nato's eastern border.

Johnson touted Britain's defence companies on his recent visit to India. A strategic statement published alongside the trip said: "The leaders noted the importance of robust defence industrial collaboration for manufacturing of defence equipment, systems, spare parts, components, aggregates and other related products and key capabilities.

"They noted cooperation in key areas of strategic collaboration including Modern Fighter Aircraft and Jet Engine Advanced Core Technology."

Tusa says British defence companies could also aim to sell their equipment to the likes of Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, which all have stockpiles of Soviet-era arms.

But Tusa cautions about the readiness of British firms to deliver on the market opportunity presented by Russia's faltering war effort.

He says military chiefs have been failing to back British products for their own armed forces, and that this has put a dent in international sales, and adds that foreign militaries are unlikely to back goods from the likes of BAE if they aren't being bought in bulk by the British Army first.

"There are no British tanks, for example. We don't have a production line," he says.

"At the moment, the army just wants to buy American stuff, so it's £14bn going largely to them.

"You would think with Ukraine that the military would be going to BAE Systems to ask for more artillery ammunition, but no such activity is happening.

"We are stuck because there is a massive lack of activity at the MoD on this. There is a perceived lack of commitment from our own armed forces. We are in a weak position and this has all been predictable."

The war in Ukraine has placed a renewed focus on the readiness of armies for combat. But as global nations look outside Russia to shore up their armaments, Britain may well have to stock up on its own products before it tries to sell them somewhere else.

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