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Why is the US saying India could face sanctions for buying S-400 missile systems?

ISSUE-4-India-21-01-2021

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 Defense (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.

A successor to the S-200 and S-300 air defence systems, the S-400 integrates the 91N6E multi-function panoramic radar with a 600 km range, autonomous detection and targeting systems and launchers. It can fire four missile types with strike ranges of between 400 km and 40 km to provide multi-layered defence against incoming fixed wing and rotary aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and ballistic missiles at altitudes of up to 30 km.

The S-400 is organised around the 30K6E administration system, with protection against jamming. It can simultaneously locate 72 targets and track another 160 alongside, compared with PAC-3s 36 and 125 respectively. The former can destroy a target at 400 km with its recently tested 40N6 missile, while the PAC-3 can locate – and destroy – an aircraft at 180 km and missile at 100 km with its missile complement.

The deployment time for S-400s is five minutes, whilst that for the PAC-3 is significantly higher, at around 25 minutes. The Russian air defence system can also down targets as low as 10 m and as high as 30 km, while the corresponding ranges for the PAC-3 system are 50 m and 25 km, respectively.

The THAAD system, on the other hand, is one of the unrivalled missile defence systems that can hit targets at altitudes of 45-50 km. But this extended strike capability renders it relatively ineffective against incoming aircraft.

But unlike the PAC-3 system and its earlier variants that are employed – other than the US – by the air forces of Germany, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Spain amongst several others, the S-400 remains operationally untested. It was employed in Syria but remained unused, though some reports indicate that it was responsible for keeping US and Israeli aircraft at bay. It is also believed capable of tracking the low radar signature of F-35s and China’s J-20 advanced fighters, but the S-400’s overall effectivity in this regard remains unproven.

US ignoring India’s other Russian orders

It is surprising that US officials are only referring to India’s acquisition of the S-400s and ignoring a raft of other equipment that Delhi is acquiring from Moscow. This includes procuring four Admiral Grigorovich-class stealth frigates and leasing a second Project 971 ‘Akula’-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) for the Indian Navy for 10 years.

India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) is also in advanced negotiations for the licensed production of 750,000 Kalashnikov AK-203 assault rifles by India’s state-owned Ordnance Factory Board and the acquisition of 200 Kamov Ka-226T ‘Hoodlum’ light multi-role helicopters by a joint venture led by the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). It is also in talks to acquire 21 more MiG-29 fighters and Sukhoi Su-30MKI multi-role combat aircraft.

Technically, all these are potentially sanctionable under CAATSA, but surprisingly only the S-400 is being targeted.

Meanwhile, senior military officials in Delhi said that in anticipation of Washington’s pique and displeasure over acquiring the S-400, the MoD, in July 2018 approved the $1 billion import from the US of Raytheon’s National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-2 (NASAMS-2) for the IAF to fortify the country’s missile defence shield over Delhi.

The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) headed by then defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman ‘quietly’ cleared the procurement of an upgraded version of the Kongsberg NASAMS-2 via the US’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route as part of the government’s Delhi Area Defence Plan against attacks by enemy aircraft, missiles and UAVs. Military sources said the NASMAS-2 was being acquired to eventually supplement the long delayed indigenous two-tier ballistic missile defence (BMD) shield that is in an advanced stage of development by the government-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

The DRDO had claimed in 2011 that the BMD shield would be in place over Delhi and Mumbai by 2014; but the system is still undergoing periodic testing to validate its capability to track and destroy incoming hostile aerial targets inside (endo) and outside (exo) the earth’s atmosphere.

A NASAMS-2 battery consists of 12 missile launchers, each one carrying six AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles and eight AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel X-band 3D radar. One fire control centre and an electro-optical camera vehicle and tactical control cell vehicle each, complete the air defence missile system. According to one senior military officer, by clearing the NASAMS-2 air defence system procurement, Delhi was offering the US a ‘lollipop’ for potentially waiving CAATSA over the S-400. But, so far, it does not appear to have worked.

“The manner and extent of CAATSA are unknown, as are its implications on the bilateral defence trade between Delhi and Washington that has been the mainstay of their relationship,” said Amit Cowshish, former MoD acquisition advisor. If imposed, CAATSA could end up harming both countries, without serving the intended purpose of punishing Russia, he added.

Since 2002, India has acquired around $20 billion worth of US military equipment and another $5-6 billion is under purchase or negotiation. Washington, it seems, wants even more custom from India; or it sanctions.