The Indo-US strategic partnership: Lack of Trust?

Image credit: Prime Minister's Office (GODL-India) [GODL-India], via Wikimedia Commons

The recent warning from the US administration of sanctions under the 2017 CAATSA act against the Indian purchase of S-400 missile defence systems points to a deeper distrust within the Indo-US policy establishment

S-400: Major American headache

Despite all the euphoria and media spectacle, the Indo-US strategic partnership currently has many unresolved issues, one of the most pressing concerns that has lingered on is the Indian acquisition of five S-400 Triumf missile defence system from Russia which was bought by India last year in October at a cost of $5.4 billion during Russian President Vladmir Putin’s visit to India. Washington has remained adamant that the countries buying Russian military hardware would risk facing sanctions under the recent Congress approved Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) which imposes economic and military sanctions on countries buying military equipments from traditional American enemies –Russia, China, North Korea.

The US is keen to make its defence partnership with India stronger, the Pentagon has said, but made it clear that it is against any country purchasing military equipment, including the S-400 missile defence system from Russia, that is designed to counter America’s sophisticated fifth-generation aircraft.

Playing a balancing game

Indian diplomacy has historically maintained a tight rope walk on important issues and the government’s efforts had been to largely try and manage a tight rope walk between Moscow and Washington.  The conclusion of the multi-billion dollar deal for S-400 air defence systems – albeit done in a low key manner, with the contract finding no mention in the remarks by Prime Minister Narendra Modi or President Vladimir Putin after their annual summit – underscores why Russia will remain the main supplier of hi-tech military gear for the foreseeable future. That India decided to go ahead with the deal despite the US threat of action was a clear signal that New Delhi intends to stick with its independent foreign policy, and retain the autonomy of acquiring advanced defence hardware from the best possible source. Such contracts have to be finalised keeping in mind India’s national security interests, not those of others, and if the US truly considers India an ally in the Indo-Pacific region and a counterbalance to China, it will understand and provide the necessary presidential waiver.

The Indian government on the other hand is playing a balancing game with the erratic US dispensation by increasing its defence purchases and through increasing imports to please the Trump administration. The growth of the defence relationship has been nothing sort of astonishing. In the span of about a decade, defence trade shot from $1 billion to over $18 billion. The US and India take part in numerous and combined exercises, and the US now authorizes the sharing of sensitive technologies with India on a level commensurate with America’s closest allies. There has also been a (somewhat under the radar) substantial deepening of the security partnership, with a focus on counter-terrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing.

Remaining committed to old allies

The bulk of India’s military equipment is of Soviet/Russian origin — including the nuclear submarine INS Chakra, the supersonic Brahmos cruise missile, MiG and Sukhoi fighters, the Il transport aircraft, the T-72 and T-90 tanks, and the Vikramaditya aircraft carrier. Also, Moscow gives New Delhi technologies that the US doesn’t yet want to share, including nuclear-powered submarines. As India tries to balance its relations between an unpredictable US administration and an assertive China, it would like Russia on its side; Moscow as an ally in the UN Security Council is valuable. At the same time, Russia’s growing proximity with China, and its newfound relationship with Pakistan, makes Delhi uncomfortable.

According to Sushant Singh, the national affairs editor of The Indian Express, the fundamental issue is why India went ahead with the controversial deal with the Russian government despite the threat of looming American sanctions? As former Air Chief Marshal B. S. Dhanoa said, the S-400 will be a “booster dose” for his force which currently has an obsolete air defence system. But the S-400 is a defensive system, and the IAF equally desperately needs fighter aircraft which are its sword-arm. The state of its fighter aircraft inventory is critical at the current level of 30-31 squadrons and they need to be built up to 42. The IAF has been pressing for more aircraft but we have not seen a similar desperation to procure fighter jets from Russia or elsewhere.

Clearly, there is more than that meets the eye about the S-400 deal with Moscow. The big question is about the dependency of the Indian armed forces on Russian spares for two-thirds of its military hardware. Despite protracted negotiations, the two sides have not been able to find an answer to the vexed problem which has seen Russian fighter jets in the IAF fleet operate barely at 50 per cent serviceability, a fact noted by the CAG. The situation is no better with the Navy. New Delhi’s dependency to keep its military platforms operational makes India vulnerable to Russian demands, a factor likely to have played its part in the S-400 deal.  In other words, India has signaled that it will not be drawn into an “either us or them” game.

The way ahead for India

India needs to tread carefully now because Washington for a long time has been issuing the threat of imposing sanctions, but going back on the deal would not only undermine the vital and time tested relations with Russia but also geopolitically India could be in a tight spot given the tendency of Beijing to deepen military and strategic relations with Moscow. The Russian government has taken steps to start military cooperation with China as the countries step up their arms trade.

Russia has in recent months completed the delivery of 24 Sukhoi Su-35 combat aircraft to China under a $2.5 billion deal. Moscow offered another batch of the multirole superiority fighters to Beijing last month. At the same time, there are areas of convergence between India and Russia that can provide a way forward, like the proposal in the 2018 joint statement to “actively promote joint projects in third countries” in areas “where there is a complementarity between them in terms of technology and resources”.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.