S-400 Missile System Deal: Geo-Political Hot Potato


AFTER much suspense, India and Russia finally inked the $5.4 billion agreement on October 5, 2018 for India’s acquisition of the acclaimed S-400 Triumf anti-missile system during the 19th annual summit between the leaders of the two countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin was leading a truly high-powered team to New Delhi comprising Vice-Premier Yuri Borisov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov among other officials and business delegates. The visit saw wide-ranging discussions covering the international scenario especially in regions of mutual interest such as Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia/Eurasia, defence and strategic affairs as well as trade between India and Russia, both of which have seen decline in recent times, and cooperation on a wide range of subjects. The long joint statement issued after the summit covers all this ground, but only briefly mentions the missile system deal in one sentence, a clear marker of how gingerly India, at least, was handling it. But interest of the media and strategic affairs commentators was clearly focused on the S-400 deal, since major geo-political spin-offs are anticipated involving world powers USA, China and Russia besides players such as India, Iran, Turkey and others. 

An inter-governmental agreement on India acquiring the S-400 system had been signed by India and Russia in October 2016, but the deal has come under a cloud of uncertainty due to the looming threat of sanctions by the US under its August 2017 CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) legislation which targets Iran, Russia and North Korea and countries that engage in significant military, intelligence-sharing or trade with them. India had been actively lobbying for a sanctions waiver from the US in advance of the deal but the US has not made its position clear as yet, possibly to keep up the pressure in the hope of getting India to back off.

Whether in deference to these sensitivities or not, the expected deals for four Krivak class Frigates, two of which were to be made in India, and for manufacture in India of Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifles, were not announced, with Indian officials indicating that negotiations could not be completed in time.

Several other significant agreements between Russia and India were also announced. Russia’s space agency Roscosmos will extend full support to ISRO for India’s 2022 manned space mission Gaganyaan and, in particular, would train India’s cosmonauts. ISRO would also set up a monitoring station in Novorsibisk in Siberia. 6 to possibly 12 nuclear power projects would also be set up in India over the next several years.

It is noteworthy that all the above deals could potentially attract US CAATSA sanctions, as they involve Russian agencies who have already been sanctioned under CAATSA, meaning any country dealing with them could also be sanctioned.  

Let us take a closer look at the centrepiece itself. The S-400 missile system is a mobile, multi-layered system to track and bring down multiple airborne targets such as reconnaissance and fighter aircraft, including stealth aircraft or those with low radar cross-sections, drones, and also missiles, depending on the specifics of the system. The S-400 system consists of multi-function 360-degree radar, separate and autonomous systems for target acquisition and targeting respectively, missile launchers with four launch tubes per Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL), and a command and control centre. An S-400 “regiment” typically has two missile batteries with four launchers each. India has acquired five regiments, that is, a total of 40 launchers, with deliveries expected to begin in two years.

The system India has acquired is believed to be equipped with four different types of missiles. The major weapon is the very long-range 40N6 missile with 400km range. A premium version the 40N6E has an altitude reach of 185 km (600,000 feet) capable of intercepting intermediate-range ballistic missiles, but it is not known which version India has received. The other missiles available are the 40N6 with a lower altitude reach, long range 48N6 with 250km range, the medium range 9M96E2 (120km) and the short range 9M96E (40km). The system can simultaneously track 100 targets and attack 80 with two missiles each. India is believed to have ordered an inventory of 7000 missiles of different categories.

India is believed to be preparing for deployment of S-400s not for defence of the national capital but along both the Western and Northern fronts, three regiments in the former and two in the latter region. Some reports have it that in the Northern region, the Indian Air Force is likely to utilise the S-400s in a partly offensive role to compensate for the current paucity of high-performance fighter aircraft, hence the repeated mention of the Rafale and the S-400 in one breath by the IAF chief.

Defence analysts the world over are almost unanimous that the S-400 is currently the best surface-to-air missile system available, considerably better that the US Patriot or Israeli Iron Dome systems which have shorter range and single missile types. However, it is a stand-alone system and is not networked with other surveillance and targeting systems unlike the US Aegis ship-borne anti-ballistic missile system capable of exo-atmospheric (beyond the atmosphere) intercepts. Some reports claim that the S-400 too can destroy incoming missiles at these altitudes, but there is no record of such proven strikes. Nevertheless, if the S-400 can, as it is widely believed, track and target 5th generation stealth fighters like the US F-35 and can also bring down cruise missiles and ballistic missiles with manoeuvring capability, the S-400 will indeed be a game changer.

The system entered into service with the Russian military in 2007 and has seen many countries wanting to acquire them despite US displeasure. S-400 systems currently defend Moscow and are also deployed by Russia in Hmeimim airbase in Syria where they have exercised a powerful deterrent influence.

The first country to buy S-400s was China in 2015 and deliveries began this year. It is not clear if the Chinese systems have the very long-range 40N6 missiles. Yet China became the first country to be sanctioned under CAATSA in September this year for acquiring the S-400 from Russia. Turkey, a NATO ally of the US, has signed a provisional agreement with Russia but has not taken the next decisive step amidst stiff opposition from the US. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and others are also in negotiations with Russia, and everyone is watching the US response carefully.


The question on everybody’s mind now is, will the US place sanctions on India for the S-400 deal? So far, the US has sent out very mixed signals.

The US Embassy in Delhi responded to the deal announcement saying that CAATSA was not intended to punish friends and allies, but to penalise “malign behaviour” by certain countries. US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has been pushing hard for a US presidential waiver on the S-400 deal, and has even formally written to Congress for the same, arguing that the emerging strategic partnership with India and also India’s growing interest in US military hardware, could be jeopardised. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also believed to be in favour of a waiver.

On the other hand, spokespersons from the State Department and from the US Senate have said CAATSA sanctions have automatic triggers and no general waiver can be expected, only case-by-case waivers, which are usually meant to cover transactions for things like spares for legacy Russian equipment as with, say, Vietnam or Indonesia. Further, US spokespersons are on record saying that third country CAATSA sanctions are designed precisely to prevent such “significant” purchases from Russia as the S-400 system and acquisitions enabling “new or qualitative upgrades of (military) capabilities.” Additionally, National Security Advisor John Bolton, well-known for his extreme right-wing views of American exceptionalism, has long been opposed to special consideration towards India.

In any case, everyone in the US knows that the final call will be taken by the highly unpredictable President Donald Trump. And his messages have been more mixed than others. He continues to rail against India for trade imbalances, has put overt and public pressure on Indian tariffs on various US goods especially the iconic Harley-Davidson motorcycles, is severely constricting space for H1-B visas to Indian tech workers, has mocked Indian accents, and has just recently called India a “tariff king,” all while also speaking of “friend Modi!”

Ironically, President Trump is caught in a legislative problem not entirely of his own making but one that definitely stems from his over-centralised one-stop-shop style of running the administration. Indians should be very familiar with problems this can cause! When CAATSA was passed by Congress, Trump wrote two quite detailed notes calling the legislation “flawed” and “unconstitutional” on grounds that it trampled on the executive’s exclusive province in conduct of foreign policy, and curbed the administration’s ability to negotiate over specific issues. However, now the ball is fully in his court, since there are no indications that the US Congress is likely to take an independent direction as had happened with India on the 123 nuclear agreement with the US or as faced by then President Obama over the Iran nuclear deal.

In personal terms, which are very important to President Trump, if he gives in and grants a waiver to India, he will appear weak, and be constrained in dealing with Turkey and other prospective buyers of the S-400. He will also appear lenient towards Russia, an image he wants to get away from. If he does not sign a waiver, and allows Congress to either call for one or let sanctions be triggered there, he would appear to have yielded ground to Congress on foreign policy, which he had opposed in the first place. On the other hand, if Trump is seen to have personally called for sanctions, then he would have to face the music for endangering a burgeoning defence partnership and a multi-billion dollar client for military hardware. If Trump thinks along these lines at all, in geo-political terms, if the US imposes sanctions on India, it risks reversing the breakthrough in Indo-US relations achieved by the US through the nuclear deal, and risk losing an important potential ally and counter-weight to China, and pushing India closer to Russia once again, and to a multi-polar stance. 

No wonder, we have not seen a midnight tweet yet!

India too faces a challenging dilemma, especially since the present government, more than previous ones, has put so many strategic eggs in the US basket. India has shown a clear and sharp liking for US military equipment, taking Indo-US military into the tens of billions of dollars, and signing on to three out of four foundational agreements for bringing about full inter-operability with US forces on par with other US allies.

India would love to get a US waiver and keep both the US and Russia happy. But the world is not an ideal place! After a long hiatus, India has finally given Russia something to be happy about, pausing at least for a while the slide in India-Russia relations, especially regarding procurement of Russian military equipment in favour of an Indo-US alliance and growing preference for US defence hardware. In response, along with growing US-Russia tensions, Russia had been moving closer to Pakistan and cementing its ties with China. With the US being increasingly unpredictable and unreliable, this has left India uncomfortably isolated. The S-400 deal could mark a reset in India-Russia relations and possibly even assert India’s strategic autonomy vis-a-vis the US. But this may endanger its strategic relations with the US in favour of a much weaker Russia and unfortunately unfriendly relations with China.

Whatever the immediate outcome of this particular episode, it should jolt India’s pro-US political leadership, sections of its military brass and cheerleaders in the strategic community, and warn them of the perennial dangers of a strategic embrace with the US. The US has never treated its allies kindly but always as meek followers with no option except to obey orders. The US has always refused to accept international norms or laws while imperiously imposing its own domestic laws, like CAATSA, on other countries in both military and economic spheres. Any country, even its closest allies, run the risk of military technology or hardware denial, if it goes against US wishes. India should think really hard if it really wants to be a regular buyer of military hardware from such a country. Whatever be the short-term benefits, are the long-term threats worth it? Is the US really a reliable military supplier or, for that matter, a reliable friend?

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