Amid US sanctions, India set to sign S-400 missile deal during Vladimir Putin’s visit next week
India will sign the S-400 missile system deal with Russia during the annual summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin next week, hoping that it has done enough business with the US to secure a waiver from sanctions, and to prevent Russia from directly selling weapon systems to Pakistan if India says no to the deal.
Hindustan Times had first reported in April that the deal would be signed during the October summit and, in May, that New Delhi would go ahead with the purchase despite US sanctions against countries buying arms from Russia.
South Block officials said that the deal is also in line with India’s efforts to maintain strategic autonomy and not be dependent on any one nation for its military hardware imports.
The South Block officials told Hindustan Times on condition of anonymity that while the purchase of five units of the S-400 missile system was cleared this week by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the deal to build four stealth frigates in collaboration with Russia is stuck on technical aspects.
Even though India has apprised US of its intentions to purchase the S-400 system and has requested a presidential waiver of CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), the Modi government has had to tread a fine balance between a new partner and an old ally which could cut off hardware spares in case the missile system acquisition is either delayed or shelved.
More than 60% of Indian military equipment, including fighters, tanks and missiles, come from Russia and without the spares, the armed forces’ fighting capability will be significantly emasculated. For instance, the Indian Air Force Sukhois and Indian Army T series of tanks and Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier Vikramaditya are all from Russia.
The other reason why the Modi government is keen to push the deal through is because it is worried, the officials added, that an upset Russia may directly sell arms to Pakistan just as it is doing so to China, skewing the military balance in the region.
Diplomatically too, deferring or shelving the S-400 deal will sour the close relationship shared by Prime Minister Modi and President Putin. PM Modi has personally invested a lot in building close ties with Putin, the officials said, although this has not come at the cost of India’s relationship with the US.
According to the officials, while Russian hardware may not be top of the line as compared to the US platforms in terms of technology, it is much cheaper initially and comes without additional conditionalities on the buyer. While the tussle between the US on one side and Russia/China on the other have made a fit case for Indian state-owned defence manufacturers to step up to manufacture indigenous weapons at a rapid rate, the fact is that most have been found wanting.
For instance, the officials pointed out, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) cannot keep up with the requirements of the Indian Air Force for light combat aircraft (LCA). Nevertheless, the government is clear that the only way out of this imbroglio is to manufacture indigenous systems and platforms rather than be dependent on anyone, the officials admitted.
Meanwhile, the Modi government has deepened its military ties with the Pentagon by placing over $5 billion worth of orders with US defence contractors for strike platforms. India has placed orders for one more C-17 heavy lift transport aircraft (it already has 10), four additional P8I Neptune anti-submarine warfare aircraft, six additional Apache attack helicopters for the army, 24 Sikorsky helicopters for the navy, and M-777 lightweight howitzers. US F-18 and F-35 fighters are also in contention for the additional fighter order the Indian Air Force is evaluating.