Line of Strong Defence

Once inducted, S-400 will be a game changer for India

Gp Capt. G.D. Sharma (retd)

Despite the threat of US sanctions, India concluded USD5.43 billion deal with Russia for purchase of five regiments of S-400 ballistic missile systems. S-400 is state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technology and considered one of the best air defence system. It is a robust anti-access and anti-denial weapon system meant to protect high value military and economic targets.

Once inducted, this is destined to be a major game changer in the South Asian strategic environment. Strategists believe that threat of sanction from the US is borne out of fear due to its unmatched performance vis-a-vis contemporary systems and US concern for the security of their mainstay 5th generation fighters, multirole F-35 and Raptor F-22 whose offensive capabilities it suspects will get compromised.

Apart from India, several other countries have shown interest to acquire or have purchased the missile defence system from Russia. The list includes Turkey, China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Belarus and Iraq. Even Qatar, which houses US central command, is also known to be interested. China and Turkey, who have already taken the delivery of the weapon system, are already in the ambit of US domestic sanctions law, Countering American Adversaries through the Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

The US have tried to persuade India to jettison the deal but India remains steadfast with its planned purchase. It has already made the advance payment and there is no going back from the deal now. The main reason for choosing the Russian system apart from its superior performance is also the fact unlike Russia, US has always in past shown reservation for selling mainstay strategic defence systems to other countries probably with a desire to maintain dominance.

Discussion between India and Russia on purchase of S-400 goes back to President Obama’s tenure but at that time it received little attention from the US as such a deal was not perceived to threaten US interests. Unlike Russia, it was opposed to introduce any strategic system in India. Hence, it did not offer any alternative to S-400 earlier. Differences cropped up during Trump administration and articulation of national security policies where India now is a centrepiece of both South Asian and larger Indo-Pacific policy.

US domestic law CAATSA was passed by the US Congress in 2017 to deal with perceived malevolent activities of North Korea, Iran and Russia. US claims that CAATSA is not intended to undermine the defence capabilities of any particular country but, it is ‘aimed at imposing costs on Russia, North Korea and Iran in response to their malign activities’. As per the law, the President of US will impose sanctions on any entity that engages with significant transactions in defence and intelligence sectors. The sanctions cover banking, economic, defence, atomic sector and trade in goods and services. The situation is worrisome and poses a big challenge for India.

Both the US and Russia are important for India – the US for technology and growth and Russia for defence trade. Meanwhile, over the years, India’s defence imports have diversified. India imports substantial weapons from other countries including the US. India hopes to get a waiver for purchase of S-400 as it meets the stipulation for waiver under section 1294 National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA), after having taken demonstrable steps to reduce defence dependence on Russia.

Russia’s S-400 air defence system

Secondly, India had announced its intent to acquire the S-400 system in 2015, much before CAATSA was legislated by the US Congress in 2017. Thirdly, our argument for getting waiver is that India holds significant percentage of Russian legacy equipment and have earlier too acquired strategic defence platforms such as nuclear submarine from Russia. Hence, there is nothing unusual in acquiring S-400 surface to air missile system. Time will tell whether the US decides to issue a waiver, as India remains important to it for furtherance of its Asian security policy. In any case, the sanctions would kick in only after the delivery of the weapon system starts, which will be sometimes in 2020-24. The strategic environment could undergo changes by then. At the same time, in the intervening years, India-US engagement may enhance further at all levels including defence. Hence, a positive outcome could be expected.

S-400 is capable of firing four types of missiles to neutralise ballistic missiles, aircraft, cruise missiles and drones threats, and create a layered defence which is a very strong point in favour of this system. S-400 has not been operationally tested as yet but, it was deployed in Syria. It is perceived that its incorporation in the Indian defence system will give India a significant advantage over adversaries in the region.

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