By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 8th June 18
Senior defence ministry officials say India’s purchase of five units of Russia’s S-400 Triumf mobile surface to air missile system (M-SAM) is “a done deal”.
“All that remains is to decide whether the deal should be signed when Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets President Vladimir Putin later this year”, said one official who is closely involved in the negotiations.
On Tuesday, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was only marginally more circumspect when she said in a press conference in New Delhi: “It (the S-400) has been for a very long time in negotiations. We have reached a final stage in the S-400 negotiations.”
With the time-consuming hurdle of cost negotiations crossed, only the Indian cabinet’s concurrence remains for the deal to be ready for signing.
In 2015, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) had cleared the purchase of five S-400 units for an indicative price of about Rs 30,000 crore ($4.5 billion). However, the ministry is keeping a tight lid on the price finally agreed.
For President Donald Trump’s administration, New Delhi’s determination to buy the S-400 is a significant problem. A law passed by the US Congress last year – titled “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA) – binds the administration to impose sanctions against countries that engage in “significant transactions” with Russian, Iranian and North Korean defence and intelligence entities.
Given close US-India defence ties, and recognition by US officials that India’s predominantly Russian arsenal prevents New Delhi from abruptly severing ties, American officials are asking Congress for a waiver from CAATSA for key allies like India.
New Delhi has dug in its heels. “We have very clearly explained how India and Russia’s defence cooperation has been going on for a very long time. It is a time-tested relationship and India has got quite a lot of defence assets from Russia. [In] assets, spares and servicing, we have a continuous relationship with Russia [and that] has to be recalled. Therefore CAATSA cannot impact on us”, said Sitharaman on Tuesday.
Senior Indian government officials are reportedly upset at this “lack of American understanding”, after India last year scuttled the project to jointly develop a Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) with Russia.
Senior US officials complain that the US Congress displayed a “lack of nuance” in passing CAATSA. Intending primarily to tie down Trump to a hard line against Russia, Congress inadvertently placed the US administration at loggerheads with valued partners like India, Indonesia and Vietnam, who field large Russian-origin arsenals.
Behind the scenes, both governments are searching for a solution. Secretary for Defence James Mattis, who has argued before the US Congress for a CAATSA waiver for key allies, is working with New Delhi on the wording of an acceptable waiver.
Defence ministry sources say New Delhi has rejected at least one draft, while also declaring that India has no obligation to respect CAATSA, which is an American law.
Separate from the CAATSA imbroglio is Washington’s concern over technology security. US officials say they will not allow the F-35 Lightning II – their latest, hugely expensive and secretive fighter aircraft – to operate alongside the S-400.
Given the IAF’s growing interest in the F-35, this concern could significantly impact any such plans.
Echoing technology security concerns, the US House Armed Services Committee chairman, Mac Thornberry, told Indian journalists that if India bought the S-400, inter-operability between the Indian and US militaries would be undermined.
Underlining US sensitivity over the S-400 – which China could well buy in the future – is Washington’s growing confrontation with Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ally that is pushing to buy the S-400. Turkey is an F-35 partner country, but US officials say it could well be denied that fighter if it bought the S-400.
The S-400 Triumf (NATO designation: SA-21 Growler) can detect an incoming ballistic missile (perhaps carrying a nuclear payload) from 600 kilometres (km) and shoot it down when it is still 230 km away, and 185 km above the earth. It can shoot down fighter aircraft at ranges out to 400 km.