Global Affairs Desk

Tue Jun 18 2024

India, S-400 and CAATSA

~ By Aarush J on 3/28/2022

India, S-400 and CAATSA

In the month of October, 2018, India inked a $5.43 billion deal for 5 squadrons of the S-400 missile system. Initially, the delivery was to begin within 24 months, but was delayed. The Government of India, in it’s address to the Parliament in July 2019, pronounced that all the systems were expected to be delivered by 2023. The deliveries of this missile system appears to have been accelerated ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India and summit meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The delivery of these missiles is expected to ignite the flame of possible United States sanctions under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which could hinder the bilateral relations between India and the United States of America.

The following article will annonate on the following:

  • What is the S-400 and what are its capabilities?
  • What is CAATSA and can US afford to sanction India?

What is the S-400 missile system and what is it capable of?

The S-400 is a long-range surface-to-air missile (LR-SAM) system developed in the 1990s by Almaz-Antey, a Russian state owned enterprise, as an upgrade to the S-300 family. The LR-SAM is capable of taking doen multiple aerial targets including stealth fighter jets, bombers, cruise and ballistic missiles, and even unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). It possesses four different kinds of missiles that can engage beyond visual range (BVR) targets up to a range of 400 kilometres and it also carries two separate radar systems, which can detect aerial targets to a range of 600 kilometres and can simultaneously engage 80 aerial targets.

Keeping the context of regional stability in mind, the accession of the S-400 becomes important. In the aftermath of the border skirmishes between the Indian army and the People’s Liberation Army of China in 2020, Beijing ordered for a buildup of armour and military infrastructure, including its own S-400 battalions along the Line of Actual Control. The S-400 uses up to five types of missiles to fill its performance envelope. It uses 9M96E missiles for ranges up to 40 km; 9M96E2 for ranges up to 120 km; 48N6E2 for ranges up to 200 km; 48N6E3 for ranges up to 250 km and 40N6 missiles for ranges up to 400 km.

India has also kept its Western neighbour in mind while purchasing the missile system. The aerial distance between a city on Pakistan’s western frontier, say Peshawar, and Lahore, a city on Pakistan’s eastern frontier is not more than 385 kilometers, well within S-400’s firing range. The Indian Air Force’s deployment of these missile systems could lead to simultaneously detecting and engaging aerial movements in Pakistan and China.

The S-400 sqquadron is highly mobile in nature. It can be made operational minutes after arriving at a new location. This offers the benefit of easier and frequent relocation, if such a circumsatnce arises, making it harder for India’s adversaries to detect.

The Russian S-400 system today is one of the most sophisticated air defence platform and costs around half of its western equivalents, for instance, Lockheed Martin’s Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) systems. Further, to add to the disapproval of the United States, the S-400 has the ability to detect NATO stealth fighters like F-22 and F-35 and fire missiles four meters above ground to destroy them even before they take-off.

The induction of the S-400 squadron is a major boost to India’s defence arsenal given the Chinese aggression along our eastern frontier, which continues to violate the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement which we had signed along with China. Further, it is important to counter Beijing’s forward deployments along our eastern borders and counter Chinese dominance in the subcontinent.

What is CAATSA and why does the purchase of this missile system invite possible sanctions from the US?

*Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or, *CAATSA, is a US federal law passed in August 2017, which enables the American government to impose sanctions on any country that has "significant transactions with Iran, North Korea or Russia”. Ever since the arrival of the S-400 squadron, there have been insinuations of possible US sanctions on India. There have also been a lot of talks in the US administration regarding sanctions on India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had already begun bilateral discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin with respet to the S-400s way back in 2016, a year before the federal law was passed. Further, imposing sanctions on India under CAATSA would hinder the progression of the bilateral relations between India and the United States of America. The Senate India caucus, for instance, said, “We believe that the application of CAATSA sanctions could have a deleterious effect on a strategic partnership with India, while at the same time, not achieve the intended purpose of deterring Russian arms sales.” A Republican Senator had earlier termed this decision to be “extremely foolhardy”.

India-US strategic ties have been on the rise for more than a decade and is only set to rise in the future. Today, both countries face a common threat, China, for which they require mutual assisstance. India has diversified its defence sourcing and a large number of American systems are also in service with the Indian forces.

The Biden administration, today, recognises the fact that India and the USA share a strategic partnership and are allies and hence, will not rush into imposing sanctions on India. Further, India being a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an initiative aimed at countering China’s growing presence in the region, could persuade Pentagon to soften its voice on India’s purchase.

“India is a really important security partner of ours now,” assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs Donald Lu told the US senate foreign relations committee on March 2. “And that we value moving forward that partnership and I hope that part of what happens with the extreme criticism that Russia has faced is that India will find it’s time to further distances,” he said.

The US last sanctioned India in 1998, right after the nuclear tests at Pokhran. The US cut off all aid, except humanitarian, to India. This amounted to a loss of an estimated $142 million for India. The US also banned the export of defence technologies, besides all American credit and credit guarantees, to India. It was also required to oppose all international lending to India via the World Bank. Most of the sanctions were lifted between 1999 and 2001, and the US eventually recognised India as a legitimate civilian nuclear power and, by 2008, a de facto military nuclear power.

Given many of the current geopolitical contours, USA needs India by its side more than ever. The menace in Afghanistan, rising Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific are all situations which strengthen the India-US relationship. US can use India as a counterweight to China and as a strategic ally as US-Pakistan relations continue to downgrade. Also, India is currently the world's fastest growing major economy and is a huge market for major American software, entertainment and defense industries. Imposing sanctions on India would seriously affect the fortune of these companies.

The S-400 is a major boost to the Indian defence arsenal. It is also a significant boost to the time-tested Indo-Russian relationship, especially at a time when Russia is in much need of foreign exchange. It should also be understood that India follows an independent foreign policy and in any geopolitical context, India will follow and pick one side and that is the “India side”. India will continue to do what best suits her interests and will no longer be a prisoner of her past image.

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