Explained: What S-400 air defence system deal with Russia means to India

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The Russian government has confirmed that President Vladimir Putin will oversee the signing of the S-400 air defence system deal with India after his arrival Thursday. The over $5-billion deal, whose signing during the visit is “quite likely” according to India, was delayed after it qualified for sanctioning under a new US law targeting the regimes in Moscow, Tehran and Pyongyang. What is S-400, and why does India need it? How did the deal run afoul of Washington, and what has changed since to allow its signing?

To begin with, what is the S-400 air defence missile system?

A missile defence system is intended to act as a shield against incoming ballistic missiles. The Russian-built S-400 Triumf — identified by NATO as the SA-21 Growler — is the world’s most dangerous operationally deployed modern long-range surface-to-air missile system, and is considered much more effective than the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system developed by the US. The S-400 is a mobile system that integrates a multifunction radar, autonomous detection and targeting systems, anti-aircraft missile systems, launchers, and a command and control centre. It can be deployed within five minutes, and is capable of firing three types of missiles to create a layered defence. It can engage all types of aerial targets including aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, and ballistic and cruise missiles within a range of 400 km, at an altitude up to 30 km. It can simultaneously track 100 airborne targets, including super fighters such as the US-built F-35, and engage six of them at the same time.

The S-400 was made operational in 2007, and is responsible for defending Moscow. It was deployed in Syria in 2015 to guard Russian and Syrian naval and air assets. Units have also been stationed in the Crimean peninsula.

Why does India need it?

It is important for India to have the capability to thwart missile attacks from the two likeliest quarters, Pakistan and China. Beijing signed a deal with Moscow in 2015 to buy six battalions of the S-400 system, and deliveries began in January 2018. While the Chinese acquisition has been seen as a “gamechanger” in the region, the concern for India is limited because of the system’s range. However, the S-400 can play a crucial role 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 would be adequate for India’s needs. The Indian Express had reported earlier that negotiations were at an “advanced stage”, and the deal was expected to be signed before the Summit meeting between President Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi (October 5). Turkey and Saudi Arabia are among others negotiating for the S-400; Iraq and Qatar, too, have shown interest.

How did the US come into the picture?

In August 2017, President Donald Trump signed into law the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which specifically targets Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Title II of the Act seeks to punish Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine and its alleged meddling in the 2016 US Presidential elections, by taking aim at its oil and gas industry, defence and security sector, and financial institutions. Section 231 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 US State Department has notified 39 Russian entities, “significant transactions” with which could make third parties liable to sanctions. Almost all major Russian defence manufacturing and export companies/entities including Almaz-Antey Air and Space Defence Corporation JSC, the manufacturers of the S-400 system, are on the list.

So, how did India get around CAATSA?

Concerns about Russia apart, CAATSA also impacts the United States’ ties with India, and dents its image when it is trying to project India as a key partner in its Indo-Pacific strategy. Secretary of Defence James Mattis had written to members of a Senate Committee, seeking “some relief from CAATSA” for countries like India. Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the US Pacific Command, had cited the “strategic opportunity” that India presented, and the chance “to trade in arms with India”. Over the last decade, US defence deals with India have grown from near zero to worth $15 billion, including key Indian acquisitions such as C-17 Globemaster and C-130J transport aircraft, P-8(I) maritime reconnaissance aircraft, M777 lightweight howitzers, Harpoon missiles, and Apache and Chinook helicopters. The US will likely accept India’s request for Sea Guardian drones, and American manufacturers including Lockheed Martin and Boeing are contenders for mega arms deals with India.

In July, the US communicated that it was ready to grant India (along with Indonesia and Vietnam) a waiver on the CAATSA sanctions. The waiver also conveyed the acceptance by the US that India could not be dictated on its strategic interests by a third country.

What is the state of the India-Russia defence cooperation now?

Stringent implementation of CAATSA would have impacted not just the S-400s, but also the procurement of Project 1135.6 frigates and Ka-226T helicopters, and joint ventures like Indo Russian Aviation Ltd, Multi-Role Transport Aircraft Ltd, and Brahmos Aerospace. It would have also affected 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 supersonic Brahmos cruise missile, MiG and Sukhoi fighters, the Il transport aircraft, the T-72 and T-90 tanks, and the Vikramaditya aircraft carrier.

In recent years, however, the relationship has appeared to cool off somewhat. Having once rested on multiple pillars from people-to-people to space, it is now one whose principal pillar is defence. Indio-Russian trade is at $10 bn, compared to Indo-US at $100 bn. Yet, India needs Russia for spare parts for its legacy defence equipment. Also, Moscow gives New Delhi technologies that the US doesn’t yet want to share, including nuclear-powered submarines. As India tries to balance its relations between an unpredictable US administration and an assertive China, it would like Russia on its side; Moscow as an ally in the UN Security Council is valuable. At the same time, Russia’s growing proximity with China, and its newfound relationship with Pakistan, makes Delhi uncomfortable.

Engagement through multilateral settings such as the SCO and the BRICS, and bilateral as well — Modi flew to Sochi for an informal summit with Putin in May this year — are signs of efforts at a robust relationship.

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