Mikhail Klementiev/Russian Presidential press service/TASS

Russia is set to deliver S-400 air defence systems despite sanctions pressure

December 6, 2021
India getting delivery of the most advanced S-400 air defence missiles from Russia enhances its capability to deal with aerial threats from its arch rivals, China and Pakistan, but this weapon acquisition may not have any adverse impact on its ties with the United States, including any sanctions, in view of the present geopolitical realities

"The supplies of the S-400 'Triumf' air defence system to India have started and are proceeding on schedule," Russia's Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC) Director Dmitry Shugaev was quoted by a Russian media house from the Dubai Air Show in mid-November.

India will get the first S-400 squadron by the end of this year, which would mean the Indian Air Force (IAF) will have the capabilities, considered to be the best in the world, against enemy aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles.

"The S-400 will give India the capability to look over the horizon deep inside the adversary's territory. The S-400 in India's possession will also push back enemy capabilities such as the airborne early warning and control systems or the mid-air refuelling aircraft, as these platforms can be picked up by S-400," said Manmohan Bahadur, a former additional director general of the New Delhi-based aerospace think-tank Centre for Air Power Studies.

"But the missile systems' full potential can be achieved when India gets all the three S-400 missile variants, including the 400-km range one," said Bahadur, who is a helicopter pilot and a retired air vice marshal of the IAF, which will deploy these air defence missiles.

Made by the Russian firm Almaz Antey, the S-400 can hit airborne targets, tracking the enemy weapon platforms from 600 km away, even before they reach India's air space.

Why is the S-400 important?

India's growing status as a key nation in the Indo-Pacific region, and its ties with other powers including the United States, Japan and Australia under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, are obviously a challenge to China's ambitions as a global power.

India and Russia have been strategic partners for decades now, and their ties have seen a rupture following efforts by New Delhi to source defence equipment from the United States. Russia is also a major partner of China, and has already supplied the S-400 air defence missiles to Beijing.

It is in view of China's S-400 missile capabilities that India signed a nearly $6 billion contract to buy five squadrons of the S-400 missiles from Russia in October 2018 on the sidelines of a BRICS meet, a multilateral forum that was also attended by Brazil, China and South Africa.

The air defence capabilities enhancement of the IAF would mean India will now be on an equal footing with China. The two nations are currently in a military faceoff in the Ladakh region since May 2020, which is yet to thaw, and the two nations have been blowing hot since their talks in October failed to resolve the current eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.

Meanwhile, a military gossip website from India mentioned, without citing from where it got this information, that Russia is likely to offer its S-500 missile with better capabilities than S-400 to both India and China, and it is hoping that India grabs the offer first.

The US move awaited

In fact, soon after India signed up with Russia for the S-400 missile, it came under the possibility of being sanctioned under the then Donald Trump administration's law Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act or CAATSA, targeted at all those doing military business with Russia.

Yet, India has gone ahead and pursued the S-400 missile, though the US sanctioned Turkey in December last under CAATSA when it bought the same missile, losing its F-35 programme deal with the US in the bargain.

Under the new Joe Biden administration, there have been calls from within the US Congress to waive the CAATSA for India, as the US has already declared it as a Major Defence Partner during the Barack Obama regime.

"India is a different kettle of fish altogether. The adverse impact of CAATSA sanctions on India-US relations far outweighs the benefit it brings to the US in view of the situation in the Indo-Pacific," said Jon Grevatt, Principal, Indo-Pacific Research and Analysis at Janes based in Bangkok.

"I can't see the possibility of CAATSA sanctions on India, as the US had three full years to act since at least 2018 and yet, has not sanctioned India, which has made it clear to Washington that its ties with Russia are independent of its relations with the US," said Grevatt, who keenly observes the Indo-Pacific region and its geopolitical developments.

The concern for the US on the S-400 in India's possession is the possibility of its technology being compromised or jeopardised, and that is a possible reason why Washington hesitates to provide India with its most advanced technologies such as the F-35 combat jets or the nuclear submarines, Grevatt said. The US had earlier this year tied up with the United Kingdom to provide Australia with its most advanced nuclear submarine technology under the AUKUS security alliance.

Boosting India-Russia ties

India and Russia are now all set to further boost their ties when President Vladimir Putin visits New Delhi for a bilateral annual summit meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December.

That meeting is slated to set the stage for a renewed and an expanded military-technical cooperation agreement between India and Russia that will be signed next year when the defence ministers of the two countries meet.

Indian armed forces have relied mostly on Russian equipment in the decades gone by. Legacy equipment from the erstwhile Soviet Union and now Russia, after the Cold War ended, continue to be deployed by India.

Russia is also the only nation that supplied two nuclear-powered submarines to the Indian Navy, one of which, a Nerpa-class Akula submarine, is serving India as INS Chakra on a 10-year lease. The previous Chakra nuclear-powered submarine, which served three decades ago, was also supplied by Russia on a lease.

India and Russia also jointly developed and manufactured the BrahMos missile that can hit targets 300 km away and beyond, at speeds three times that of sound. BrahMos is the lone operational supersonic cruise missile in the world today.

"India has already made its stand clear on its operational requirements on S-400 to the US. If India relies on the US for its P8I, C-17, C-130, Apache and Chinook fleet, it also relies on Russia for its fighter, transport and helicopter fleet. It is actually a balancing act that all three nations have to do," Bahadur said on the ties among India, Russia and the US.


N. C. Bipindra