News Analysis |
New Delhi seems all set to purchase the most powerful missile defense system in Moscow’s arsenal as the Russian President concludes a two-day visit to India this week. The S-400 is widely recognized as the most advanced anti-air missile defense system that Russia has. It is categorized as SAM or Surface to Air Missiles, meaning it can launch projectiles from the ground to hit targets in the air.
It is an upgraded version of the S-300 and said to have about 2.5 times faster firing rate than its predecessor. The missile defense system is a thorn in NATO’s side since it can shoot down stealth fighter jets like the American F-35 while keeping track of up to a hundred airborne targets from a range of about 400 kilometers. It was developed in the 1990s and has been in use by the Russian military for over a decade.
When India signs a deal worth over $5 billion to acquire an American adversary’s most advanced weapon systems, this has potentially strategic consequences as well.
Why is this deal between New Delhi and Moscow so significant? For one, it shows ‘India’s strategic autonomy’ as major newspapers in India, such as the Time of India, is arguing. It is a sign that Delhi is not beholden to Washington’s interests, despite the fact that India and the US have a ‘100-year strategic partnership’, as described by former secretary of state Rex Tillerson.
The US needs India to act as a bulwark against growing Chinese dominance in Asia. For this purpose, it is augmenting India’s military capabilities. There have been joint naval exercises by the US and India, in addition to the historic Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) a couple of years, a deal which allows them to use each other’s military bases for refueling and supplies.
Total trade between the two amounts to over $74 billion a year. However, the relationship is not without stumbling blocks. India has long been trying to finance the construction of the Chabahar port in Iran. It has provided nearly $500 million already to this end. But when President Trump decided to pull out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, the prospect of American sanctions began looming over any trade or finance deal New Delhi makes with Tehran.
As far as the joint naval exercises are concerned, the two sides don’t have a common communications platform yet because that level of trust has not been developed so far. New Delhi fears having such a platform would allow the US military to spy more easily on Indian military’s activities.
NATO officials decried the move, arguing that purchase of the S-400 would raise issues as far as compatibility with NATO’s own defense system is concerned.
Furthermore, the erratic nature of the American president who has pulled the US out of a number of deals worked on by the previous administrations-case in point, the Trans-Pacific Partnership- has America’s allies all over the world looking for more reliable means of economic and military support.
The same can be said of the New-Delhi Washington partnership, despite the ideological affinity between Trump’s populist support base in the US and the Hindu nationalists that elected Modi. When India signs a deal worth over $5 billion to acquire an American adversary’s most advanced weapon systems, this has potentially strategic consequences as well.
An American delegation did visit New Delhi over a couple of weeks ago, led by the secretary of State Mike Pompeo accompanied by the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, but the deal to buy the S-400 system had been under negotiations for about a couple of years. Putin’s visit to India is symbolic in that as the deal has been finalized.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, has not yet made a visit to India. His daughter, though, met Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi. India sees the acquisition of the missile defense system as a necessity. It sees itself surrounded by hostile states, namely Pakistan and China. New Delhi’s force potential is concentrated towards Pakistan for the most part.
A more likely possibility is the administration would try to wiggle out of CAATSA for the sake of ties with India and offer a better trade and defense deal.
The new S-400 missile defense will probably be placed near the Pak-India border and the Pak-China border. The question worth pondering, however, is why India didn’t buy advanced SAM systems from the US, the world’s most advanced military. Only a handful of countries have been able to acquire the S-400.
Turkey inked a deal worth over $2.5 billion to get the missile defense system at a point when tensions with NATO, the US, and EU reached a peak. NATO officials decried the move, arguing that purchase of the S-400 would raise issues as far as compatibility with NATO’s own defense system is concerned.
The US threatened to block the sale of F-35 stealth aircraft to Ankara, should Turkey continue with the deal. The only other major state to have the S-400 is China, also an adversary of the US. Countries don’t sell their most sophisticated weaponry unless there is a history of strong ties to make the deal viable.
Even the US keeps the latest versions of the F-35 for itself while choosing to sell relatively less advanced copies to allies. Delhi and Moscow have enjoyed a close, if not strategic, relationship throughout the past half-century. The S-400 defense deal is a proof of that. On the other hand, the US administration is required under domestic law to sanction countries engaged in ‘significant’ business or military transactions with America’s adversaries, namely North Korea, Russia, and Iran.
Read more: US strikes at India-Russia defense ties
The law in question is the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act or CAATSA. It was signed into law by President Trump in August of 2017. Will the administration comply with this act and impose economic sanctions on India for signing defense deals with Russia? That seems too rash a move to make, given previous statements by White House officials of the importance of ties with New Delhi.
A more likely possibility is the administration would try to wiggle out of CAATSA for the sake of ties with India and offer a better trade and defense deal. Nevertheless, the S-400 deal seems to have been concluded successfully. It says a lot about the US-India partnership and where it’s heading.