News Analysis: In S-400 deal, U.S. is the elephant in the room
Officials remain cautious on future of deal for the advanced missile system amid warnings from Washington
India’s ambitions to procure the Russian-developed S-400 Triumf long-range air-defence system has landed New Delhi right in the middle of global strategic complexities.
The S-400 is a complex military system comprising several radars, command post, different types of missiles and launchers that can track several dozen incoming objects simultaneously from hundreds of kilometres away, launch counter-missiles within seconds and shoot them down with great efficiency.
Given its advanced capabilities, the weapon system has added a new strategic angle to ongoing stand-offs around the world — in Syria, between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and in China and its neighbourhood.
As the Defence Ministry prepares to present the procurement proposal for the S-400 systems before the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), officials are divided on whether New Delhi will push the deal through in the face of possible U.S. sanctions and warnings that it will adversely affect transfer of U.S. military technology.
Government sources said New Delhi and Moscow have concluded the negotiations and the CCS note for a $5.5-billion deal is being drafted. However, one Indian Air Force source said he was not sure if New Delhi would defy Washington and sign up for the missile system. “Ideally, the deal should be ready for the annual summit between the PM and President Putin” in October, a senior official said.
Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Hindu that concerns over the system were partly technical and partly political.
“The S-400 (SA-21 Growler), when properly operated, is a potent medium-to-long-range surface-to-air missile system. To be most effective, however, it needs to be integrated with other air defence systems and components — such as radars — operated by the purchasing country. This however, presents problems if some of these have been bought from the U.S. or potentially other Western states, where the required levels of integration will not be possible because of security concerns,” Mr. Barrie said.
Frank O’Donnell, of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and the Stimson Center’s South Asia program, however, said New Delhi was unlikely to be deterred from completing this purchase by the threat of U.S. sanctions.
“Indeed, Washington will likely soon withdraw this threat and quietly acquiesce to the purchase once Indian diplomats have the opportunity to explain to their U.S. counterparts how the S-400 acquisition supports the U.S.-India shared goal of enhancing regional capabilities to deter Chinese aggression,” Mr. O’Donnell said.
In recent days, senior U.S. functionaries have made clear their stand on India’s proposal. Congressman Mac Thornberry, Chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, said in New Delhi last week that there was a “lot of concern in the U.S., in both the Administration and [U.S.] Congress over the S-400 system.”
Congressman Harry Cueller of House Appropriations Committee pointed out that India wants more technology sharing and co-production with the U.S. “The issue is: if we provide more technology and India buys the S-400, it raises concerns... it is about a third party and how they could access some of the technologies. We do have some concerns which we have conveyed at different levels in the Government,” he said.
It is not just in India-U.S.-Russia relations that S-400 has become a contentious issue. It emerged last week that Saudi Arabia has threatened military action if its neighbour Qatar goes ahead with the proposal to acquire S-400 from Russia.
The threat is part of communication between King Salman and the French President, according Le Monde newspaper. Qatar already under various sanctions by other Gulf states, because of its alleged funding of terrorism.
S-400 deployment in the Syrian theatre and Turkey’s move to acquire them have all added new dimensions to the already complex global scenario.