India, the US and the Triumf S-400 Systems: Decision Time for Modi

12 June 2019 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme


Reports indicate that India is moving rapidly to acquire the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-2 (NASAMS-2) from the United States. This is to be part of its defence shield to protect New Delhi, in the first instance, followed by other major Indian cities, from missile and drone attacks. The initial area in New Delhi that is to be protected against missile and drone attacks is the “VIP-89” zone, which includes the Parliament building, Rashtrapati Bhavan and North and South Blocks. The NASAMS-2 system will be integrated into an overall, multi-layered, defence anti-missile network that will eventually include indigenous, Israeli and Russian systems.


New Delhi’s anti-missile defence system will use Russian S-400 Triumf missiles as its first layer of defence, these being capable of intercepting incoming missiles at ranges of 120, 200, 250 and 380 Kilometres. The second defence layer will use indigenous missile systems, developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). India’s Advanced Air Defence and Prithvi missiles, which are currently limited to 15-25 and 80-100 Kilometres respectively, could have their strike ranges extended in future, to become the first layer of defence. The third will use the Barak-8 medium-range missiles that were jointly developed by India and Israel. The NASAMS-2 system would form the innermost layer of defence and ’will help in preventing 9/11-type attacks on Delhi.’

The fly in the ointment in that reasoning is India’s decision to purchase and use Russia’s S-400 missile systems. The US’s ’Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act’ (CAATSA) permits Washington to impose sanctions on any entity that makes significant economic or military transactions with an entity that Washington deems an adversary. The Act encompasses Iran, North Korea and, most importantly in the present context, Russia. According to its terms, any entity that deals with those countries could itself face penalties imposed upon it by the United States. India’s purchase of the S-400 missile systems places it squarely in that category.

The Trump Administration has enacted several defence, oil-related and trade measures against India, which are detrimental to India’s interests. Among these is the termination of the US Generalised System of Preferences, which allowed India to export some goods to the US under a reduced or zero-tariff regime, since it was deemed a developing nation. With the removal of that classification, Indian exports of some goods to the US will now cost more to purchase, thus potentially reducing its earnings from those goods. Washington has also coerced India into terminating its oil imports from Iran and Venezuela, thus forcing up its energy import costs. The example of Turkey ought to demonstrate to Mr Modi that the American president could indeed hurt India.

The implicit threat now hanging over India if it purchases the S-400 missile system from Russia, like the other two actions mentioned above, appears to show scant regard for India’s concerns. India believes it requires the S-400 systems, not only to defend New Delhi, but also to protect it from attacks by China or Pakistan. While it is true that the US has stated that it would sell its Patriot missile defence system to India, that system is more expensive and, according to New Delhi, does not meet its requirements as fully as the S-400 system does. Russia, moreover, has for many years now leased nuclear attack submarines to India and also worked with India’s marine architects to design India’s own nuclear submarines. The US, on the other hand, will not lease or sell its nuclear submarines to India.

India does not wish to be bound to any one supplier or its military systems, for fear of becoming overly-reliant on that supplier. It is for that reason that it sources its military systems from Russia, the US, France and Israel, among other sources. Despite increasing its purchases of US systems, India is concerned that it could be forced to obtain the greater part of its systems from the US and, in doing so, lose its strategic autonomy.

Russia, on the other hand, has demonstrated that it is willing to force India into sales agreements that are unfair; the case of the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya comes to mind immediately. Spare parts for other platforms, such as India’s strike aircraft, the Sukhoi 30MKI’s, are not readily available, which has led to only 50 per cent of those aircraft being serviceable at any given time. Many of the spare parts, when they are available, are of poor quality. Then there was the matter of the development of Russia’s fifth-generation stealth aircraft, the Sukhoi Su-57, a project in which India participated. After several setbacks and amidst much finger-pointing, India withdrew from the project. Russia, further angering India, threatened to sell Pakistan advanced helicopter gunships when India began purchasing US systems and platforms. The Indo-Russian relationship has, in short, lost its shine in recent years.

This leaves Mr Modi in a predicament. Whereas he would like to have complete control over which platforms he purchases from which supplier, he is being forced to choose between Russia and the US. If he chooses to purchase the S-400, he could well see India come under US sanctions under the terms of the CAATSA. If, on the other hand, he opts for US equipment, he could well lose Moscow’s support and political backing; especially difficult at a time when China is becoming increasingly assertive, if not plainly belligerent.

Mr Modi will need to employ all of his experience and diplomatic skills to overcome this difficulty.

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