India is confidently pursuing Russian S-400s – what the Indian Air Force calls weapons of top priority – despite the possibility of facing US sanctions.
India is asserting itself by striking a defence deal based on its sovereign need rather than be bogged down by geopolitical pressure.
India’s S-400 Triumf deal with Russia has attracted a lot of attention for several reasons. One, India is purchasing a sophisticated defence system that could strike an arms race in the region by coercing Pakistan to work towards more advanced nuclear forces. Second, the deal has invited speculation that the United States (US) might impose sanctions on India for striking the deal with Russia. This is because Russia is facing sanctions by the US for manipulating its presidential election. Third, the deal marks India’s expanding defence cooperation with Russia amid its growing relations with the US in the Indo-Pacific region.
Amid these developments, we analyse the need for India to buy the S-400s, the US sanctions and whether, if imposed, they would work, and how India would balance its relations with Russia and the US.
The Need for S-400
The quest for a sophisticated missile defence system in India is not new. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been working on an indigenous ballistic missile defence (BMD) capability that included a two-tier defence system – Prithvi Air Defence, now Prithvi Defence Vehicle (PDV), and the Advanced Air Defence (AAD). While the former is to intercept exoatmospheric targets, the latter is to intercept targets within the atmospheric zone.
Despite claims of the DRDO that the BMD is a foolproof system, India is also looking for options from friendly countries that have developed technologically advanced missile defence systems to complement its BMD system. With India’s inclusion in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), this process has become even easier.
There have been talks for a while now about the possible S-400 Triumf purchase for India. The S-400 air and missile defence system is developed by Russia and has been high in demand by many countries like Turkey, China, and also Pakistan. The defence system is one of the most advanced developed by Russia and is currently deployed in the western and eastern regions in Russia. In fact, according to reports, the S-400s have been labelled by the Indian Air Force as weapons of top priority.
The Air Force has been quoted as claiming: “Requirement of fighter aircraft is our first priority. Next is the long-range SAM S-400…that would substantially change our posture towards northern adversary as well as towards western adversary.” The S-400s have also been purchased by China and therefore having the same sophisticated weapon system in India’s arsenal maintains a strategic parity that would lead to stability.
Strategic destabilisation is usually not a result of countries possessing sophisticated weapon systems; it instead comes about when a country possesses a sophisticated weapon system while the other country at conflict does not.
Moreover, the Indian Air Force aircraft strength is depleting due to the presence of older aircraft on the verge of retiring. This makes air defence a complex task with aircraft and, therefore, the S-400s would considerably improve Indian Air Force’s air defence capability. It is an affordable weapon system; moreover, and according to reports, it is expected to cut the need for aircraft for air defence role. Presently, the deal for five S-400 defence systems is reported to cost $4.5 billion.
It is noteworthy to see that the deal reached its final stage just months after Pakistan received a missile tracking system from China that could enable Pakistan to rectify the limitations in its missile systems and improvise on them. It is also expected to help Pakistan develop multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) that would enable the ballistic missiles to evade enemy missile defence system.
What also draws attention is that this deal comes amid India’s growing ties with the US. India is a member of the QUAD, comprising the US, Australia, Japan and itself, to exert greater influence in the Indo-Pacific region. India’s relations with the US are also defined by defence cooperation. Amid these developments, India-Russia defence cooperation only proves that India seeks to modernise its military force and it would induct the best weapon systems for that, whether it comes from the US, Russia, France, or any other country. In fact, early this year Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited Moscow to discuss ways to create “synergy between the defence industries of the two countries”.
US CAATSA and its Impact
One of the biggest concerns with respect to this deal has been that Russia is subjected to Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was imposed on it in 2017 for meddling with the US presidential election of 2016. Hence, there have been assumptions that the US could impose sanctions on India for carrying on defence deals with a CAATSA-sanctioned country.
However, India’s Defence Minister has eased this concern. “We have mentioned that CAATSA cannot impact the India-Russia defence cooperation,” she has said. One of the reasons for India’s stern stand on Russia-India cooperation is Russia’s “time-tested” relations with India ever since the Cold War. Russia’s assistance to India during the 1971 war is well-known while Russia has been a loyal friend to India, providing weapon systems to the country since the Cold War period.
In recent times, India has taken stringent measures with respect to the stance and the actions of the US. For instance, India recently retaliated against the Trump administration’s tariff hikes on steel and aluminium. In June 2018, New Delhi informed the World Trade Organization that there would be an increase in tariffs on some of the US goods that India imports. For the US, on the other hand, the concern with such defence deals is that they would prove economically beneficial for the sanctioned Russian government. India, on the other hand, is keeping its efforts strong in insulating its defence cooperation with Russia and in the July 2+2 talks, it would try hard to fructify its efforts with the US.
Russia remains one of India’s most important strategic partners to enable New Delhi to exert influence in the Asia-Pacific Region. India has already acquired the Su-30Mki fighters from Russia while it has co-developed the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile with Russia. Just months after India pulled out of the Indo-Russia fifth-generation fighter cooperation, the prospective S-400 deal has instilled a new sense of confidence in Russia, probably that India’s decisions on weapon systems are not dependent on external influences but on its national security needs.