The US has yet again warned India that it could face sanctions over it acquiring five Russian Almaz-Antei S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air (SAM) systems for $5.5 billion.
Senior US officials told Reuters on January 15 that New Delhi was unlikely to get a waiver over Washington invoking its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) on the Indian Air Force (IAF) for its S-400 buy. Reuters reported that this position was unlikely to change under the incoming US administration headed by President Joe Biden that assumed office on Tuesday.
“We urge all of our allies and partners to forego transactions with Russia that risk triggering sanctions under CAATSA,” Reuters quoted a US embassy spokesman in Delhi as saying. CAATSA, the official added, does not have any blanket or country-specific waiver provision. Approved in July 2017, CAATSA is Washington’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its alleged interference in the US presidential elections two years later, in 2016.
In his recent farewell address, the returning US ambassador to Delhi Kenneth Juster too warned India that Washington could invoke CAATSA against it for buying the S-400. Speaking in parables, Juster stated that India will have to make certain ‘choices’ on its overall approach on acquiring military hardware, but mystifyingly added that CAATSA sanctions were never designed to harm friends and allies, of which Delhi was undoubtedly one.
“As systems get more technologically advanced, country A (Russia) that does not get along with country B (the US) will be less willing to sell technology that could potentially be compromising to country B,” he said, highlighting concerns that the S-400 could gather electronic signatures of US-origin aircraft which India’s military operates. These include C-17 and C-130J-30 transport aircraft and AH-64E Apache attack and CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, for now.
Sheathing the US’s mailed fist in a velvet glove, Juster went on to state that India “has to decide how much it wants to diversify its sources of (materiel) procurement”.
In short, the US ambassador was cautioning the IAF over taking delivery of the S-400s, the deal for which was signed in October 2018 and for which around $800 million has already been routed to Moscow, via convoluted banking channels. The S-400 deliveries, for their part, are scheduled to begin by the year-end and be completed three years later.
Why India Chose The S-400
So far, the US has imposed CAATSA on Turkey and China for taking delivery of two S-400 systems each, as Almaz-Antey is included in the list of 39 Russian defence entities sanctioned by Washington. As part of the sanctions, the US removed Turkey, a NATO ally, from the F-35 joint strike fighter (JSF) programme in July 2019, stating at the time that Ankara’s decision to purchase the S-400s renders its continued involvement with the JSF untenable. A White House statement declared that the F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform, as that can be used to learn about its advanced capabilities.
But do the US’s incipient sanction warnings to Delhi stem from an operational decision to protect its advanced platforms from being technically snooped upon by the S-400 or do they have a wider goal to penalise Moscow for its wrongdoings? Or do these threats emanate simply from Washington’s pique over the IAF opting for the S-400 instead of rival systems like Lockheed Martin’s Patriot Advanced Capability-3 or PAC-3 or the analogous Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) systems?
Both US air defence systems were tentatively on offer to the IAF a decade or so ago, but after due operational diligence India opted for the Russian S-400, believing it to be more efficient, cheaper and above all, acquirable from a long-standing materiel supplier, that entail no political strings or strategic obligations. Conversely, all defence purchases from the US are governed by a slew of inflexible protocols signed by Delhi and Washington over the past decade.
“The S-400 system is operationally more versatile, accurate and multi-faceted in all aspects compared to its US rivals,” said military analyst Air Marshal V.K. ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia (retired). The IAF, he added, was right to go for the S-400 despite CAATSA’s looming shadow, which now needs to be resolved before the IAF commissions the air defence system.