What is the S-400 air defence missile system? How and when was the deal for its acquisition struck?
The Russian-built S-400 Triumf — NATO calls it SA-21 Growler — is the most dangerous operationally deployed modern long-range surface-to-air missile (MLR SAM) system in the world, considered to be much ahead of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system (THAAD) developed by the United States. The mobile S-400 system can engage all types of aerial targets including aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and ballistic and cruise missiles within a range of 400 km, at an altitude up to 30 km. It can track 100 airborne targets, including super fighters such as the American built F-35, and engage six of them simultaneously.
The S-400 system, which can be deployed within five minutes, integrates a multifunction radar, autonomous detection and targeting systems, anti-aircraft missile systems, launchers, and a command & control centre, and is capable of firing three types of missiles to create a layered defence. It is responsible for defending Moscow, and was deployed in Syria in 2015 to guard Russian and Syrian naval and air assets. Units have also been stationed in the Crimean peninsula.
The S-400 is the fourth generation of long-range Russian SAMs, successor to the S-200 and S-300, and is twice as effective as the pervious version of the air defence system. The first systems were made operational in 2007, and could be integrated with existing and future air defence units of the Russian military.
China signed a deal in 2015 for six battalions of the S-400, and delivery began this January. While the Chinese acquisition has been seen as a “gamechanger” in the region, the concern for India on this count is limited because of the system’s range. However, acquiring the S-400 for itself can be crucial for India in case of a two-front war. In October 2015, the Defence Acquisition Council considered buying 12 units, but it was subsequently determined that five units would be adequate for India’s needs. Negotiations on the $5 billion agreement are at an “advanced stage”, and the deal is expected to be inked before a summit meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin scheduled in October.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia, too, are negotiating deals with Russia, and Iraq and Qatar have expressed interest.
What is the US sanctions law, and how does it impact India’s deal with Russia?
The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), passed by Congress and reluctantly signed into law by President Donald Trump in August last year, aims at taking punitive measures against Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Title II of the Act primarily deals with sanctions on the Russian oil and gas industry, defence and security sector, and financial institutions, in the backdrop of its military intervention in Ukraine and its alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.
Section 231 of the Act empowers the US President to impose at least five of 12 listed sanctions — enumerated in Section 235 — on persons engaged in a “significant transaction” with the Russian defence and intelligence sectors. The State Department has notified 39 Russian entities — including almost all major Russian defence manufacturing and export companies/entities like Rosoboronexport, Almaz-Antey, Sukhoi Aviation, Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG, and United Shipbuilding Corp — “significant transactions” with which could make third parties liable to sanctions.
Almaz-Antey Air and Space Defence Corporation JSC, the manufacturers of the S-400 system, are in the list of 39. If implemented stringently, CAATSA would impact Indian defence procurement from Russia — not just S-400s, but also Project 1135.6 frigates and Ka-226T helicopters — as well as joint ventures like Indo Russian Aviation Ltd, Multi-Role Transport Aircraft Ltd and Brahmos Aerospace. It would also affect purchase of spares, components, raw materials and other assistance. The bulk of India’s military equipment is of Soviet/Russian origin — including the nuclear submarine INS Chakra, the Kilo-class conventional submarine, the supersonic Brahmos cruise missile, the MiG and Sukhoi fighters, the Il transport aircraft, the T-72 and T-90 tanks, the Mi helicopters, and the Vikramaditya aircraft carrier.
How did the exemption come about? What’s in it for Washington?
CAATSA impacts Indo-US ties, and dents the image of the US as a reliable partner at a time when it is projecting India as a key player in its Indo-Pacific strategy. Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the US Pacific Command, has referred to a letter written by Secretary of Defence James Mattis to members of a Senate Committee, seeking “some relief from CAATSA” for countries like India. Admiral Harris has himself favoured relief, citing the “strategic opportunity” that India presents, and also the opportunity “to trade in arms with India”.
Indeed, the US defence industry sees India as a major market. Over the last decade, deals with India have grown from near zero to $15 billion. “Since 2008, the US has bagged more than $15 billion in arms deals including for the C-17 Globemaster and C-130J transport planes, P-8 (I) maritime reconnaissance aircraft, M777 light-weight howitzer, Harpoon missiles, and Apache and Chinook helicopters,” Laxman K Behera, Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), wrote in an April 2018 paper titled Implications of CAATSA for India’s Defence Relations with Russia and America.
“Between 2013-14 and 2015-16, the US has won 13 contracts worth Rs 28,895 crore ($4.4 billion). Both in term of the number and value of contracts, the US is way ahead of other major suppliers. In percentage terms, the US share of Indian arms imports total 23% in terms of the number of contracts and 54% by value,” Behera wrote.
This value is set to increase with the US likely accepting an Indian request for Sea Guardian drones. In addition, US manufacturers including Lockheed Martin and Boeing are strong contenders for a number of high-profile arms deals, including the recently floated tender notices for 110 fighters for the IAF, 57 Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters for the Navy, and 234 naval utility and multi-role helicopters.
The CAATSA exemption also underlines the growing defence and security cooperation that has seen India sign a logistics pact with the US, the US designating India as a Major Defence Partner, and both countries coming together on Indo-Pacific strategy, the newly resurrected Quad.
It also marks an acceptance by the US of the point of principle that as a sovereign country, India cannot be dictated on its strategic interests by a third country.