Soviets, India's No. 1 arms supplier, work to keep it that way

Edgy about being seen in too tight a bear hug, the Indian government is conspicuously downplaying a visit this week by the highest-ranking Soviet military delegation ever to travel to a noncommunist country.

But the more the government characterizes the visit by Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov and a top-brass-laden entourage as a routine goodwill call, the more speculation grows that another major Indian-Soviet arms deal is in the works.

The Soviet Union is India's major foreign arms supplier, and Moscow reportedly is bent on keeping it that way. All indications are that the Russian delegation will try to woo India away from its current and pending Western arms purchases by offering new-generation Soviet weaponry at rock-bottom prices and credit terms.

India buys Jaguar aircraft from Great Britain and has begun to assemble them locally under terms of a 1979 agreement. This year it purchased submarines from West Germany, and it is negotiating with France for Mirage 2000 aircraft. The Western arms purchases reflect India's desire to lighten its defense dependence on the Soviet Union by diversifying its arms purchases.

They are also tied to increasing unease, in high political and government circles, over India's image as a nonaligned nation. India has abstained on United Nations votes calling for Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and has recognized the Soviet-supported Heng Samrin regime in Kampuchea (Cambodia).

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi frequently maintains that India is neither pro-Soviet nor pro-American - just pro-Indian. But looking at the Indian stands on Afghanistan and Kampuchea, plus India's ongoing 1971 friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, many nonaligned colleagues aren't so sure.

Hence, India has been embarrassed by the effusive publicity emanating from Moscow about Ustinov's visit. It highlights Indo-Soviet friendship.

Officials here have stressed that the visit is merely a delayed response to a 1979 invitation that the Soviet Union couldnot return until now because India didn't have a defense minister. After returning to power in January 1980, Mrs. Gandhi acted as her own defense minister until naming former Finance Minister R. Venkataraman to the job this year.

But both the size and rank of the Soviet delegation have raised eyebrows here. The Aeroflot Ilyushin 62 that landed Monday at Delhi's Palam Airport brought not only Ustinov but also the chiefs of both the Soviet Air Force and Navy and the deputy Army chief, plus a host of beribboned generals.

The Indian government also gave Ustinov an honor normally reserved for visiting heads of state or government - lodging in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the former British Vice Regal Palace that is now the home of the Indian president.

India's last major Soviet arms agreement was a 1980 purchase of $1.6 billion worth of equipment for all three branches of its armed services. Western military analysts set the actual value at four to six times higher, ascribing the lower cost to Russian cut-rate prices and easy credit terms - 21/2 percent interest and 17 years to pay - unavailable in Western arms markets.

To maintain Moscow's position as India's leading defense supplier, Ustinov is believed likely to extend some almost irresistible bait. That is a transfer of technology and licenses to enable India to manufacture at home the advanced MIG aircraft it now buys off the Soviet rack.

An Indian spokesman said that local manufacturing of the MIG-27 warplane, an advanced version of the MIG-23 India now buys straight out, ''may or may not be discussed.''

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