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CAATSA, Russia’s S-400s, And The Challenge For India’s Defense Indigenization – Analysis

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By Kartik Bommakanti

The possibility of American sanctions in the form of the Counter America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) loom large over India’s decision to purchase the S-400 Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM) Triumf from the Russian Federation. There have been several analyses in both New Delhi and Washington D.C. about the potential rupture the India-Russia S-400 deal is likely to cause in US–India relations if sanctions were to be imposed on India by the United States (US). New Delhi for its part appears to be reasonably confident of a waiver from the Biden administration due to the robust state of strategic ties between India and the US.

Notwithstanding the current optimism about the prospect of a waiver, there are much deeper problems that are likely to impact ties between Washington and New Delhi due to India’s dependence on Russian military hardware. Indeed, there is evidence that there is sufficient flexibility in the US Senate with Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Mark Warner of Virginia urging President Biden to grant a waiver. However, moving forward, there will be limits to how much India can ward of pressure from the US over India’s future arms purchases from Russia. These limits include efforts to lobby the US Congress through various support and interest groups within the US seeking to advance the mutual interests of the US and India and preserve comity in the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

If US–India interests do not align sufficiently that are not germane per se to the bilateral relationship as is the case today over the S-400 SAMs due to current tensions between Russia and the US over Ukraine, there is potential for a fraught relationship with Washington. The Americans, to be sure, would have preferred that India purchase either the Patriot Battery system built by the American defence major Raytheon or the Theater High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system built by Lockheed Martin. For cost, operational requirements, and other reasons, India demurred in purchasing the American SAMs.

For now, India will get away with a waiver, however, there are more fundamental problems besetting India whether New Delhi sources capabilities to counter China and Pakistan from Russia or the US. These problematic issues afflicting India defence needs have very little to do with either Moscow and Washington, they are to do with the country’s still limited domestic defence industrial base.

India’s indigenisation deficit

Regardless of the state of India–US and India–Russia ties, there remains an inescapable challenge that India has struggled to achieve since its independence—New Delhi’s inability to indigenise the development of military products to optimally service the needs of the Indian armed forces, makes the challenge that the country is facing more pronounced. Absent a Military Industrial Complex (MIC) as is prevalent in the US, Russia, and even China, the current denouement India confronts in meeting the capability requirements of all the service branches of the Indian military will continue.

The S-400 deal is only symptomatic of a larger, yet perpetual malaise. Even if India substituted the S-400s for the Patriot or THAAD systems, New Delhi would have replaced one external supplier with another creating another dependency. On the other hand, India may have to compensate the US for its refusal to buy the Lockheed or Raytheon built SAMs by purchasing some weapons system or platform from the US entrapping India in a vicious cycle of interminable addiction to foreign military supplies.

Conversely, sourcing capabilities from the US are not without their negative consequences for India–Russia defence relations either. Unless India is able to limit this foreign dependence on crucial weapons systems more generally, frequency of tensions with one or two weapons suppliers, which also happen to be major powers will persist. Indigenisation of defence hardware significantly limits extraneous pressures and in all likelihood in some cases even render them irrelevant. On the other hand, absent strong indigenisation India will remain susceptible to geopolitical pressures from supplier states and will fall prey, sometimes, to the strategic tensions between them.

Admittedly, in the area of missile development, India has had success in air-to-air missiles such as the Astra, Pinaka Multi-Barrel Rocket Launch Systems (MRBLs) including its enhanced variants, a range of ballistic missile ranging from the Prithvi Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs) to the AGNI series of Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBMs), the K-4 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)the latest Pralay SRBM and geared for conventional missions, and the Supersonic Missile Assisted Torpedo (SMART). In addition, the Indian armed services also field all variants of the BrahMos cruise missiles, albeit a Joint Venture (JV) between India and Russia, reflecting again the level of dependence India still has on Russia.

However, in the air defence domain India’s Defence Research and Develop Organisation (DRDO) is yet to develop a single credible SAM capability comparable to the S-400. In the Indian Air Force (IAF)’ inventory, there are short-range SAMs such as the Akash NG and a vertical launch short range SAM for integration on board the Indian Navy’ (IN) surface vessels, which notwithstanding the DRDO’s claims may still be subject to additional testing before deployment in not just countering China and Pakistan, but equally one that weans India’s reliance on oversees suppliers such as Russia.

Looking ahead

Unfortunately, India is an unintended victim of the parlous state of strategic relations between Moscow and Washington today. However, relying exclusively on the robustness of strategic ties between New Delhi and Washington as well as on the strength of the relationship between Moscow and New Delhi to finesse and obviate pressure over arms deals is best avoided. The US and Russia are sovereign states and their quiescence cannot be taken for granted beyond a point, especially when India faces real military threats from China and Pakistan.

If New Delhi is to prevent future fracas with either Washington or Moscow, as a priority India’s has to make every effort and leave no stone unturned to become independent and self-sufficient in every class of missiles, if it is to overcome external dependence. To be sure, missile capabilities are not the only set of weapons that India needs to completely indigenise, but rather the entire breadth or at least a significant number of weapons systems and platforms that New Delhi sources from foreign suppliers. Building a robust domestic defence industry has been a longstanding commitment of Indian governments since independence. Despite shortfalls, there is no reason to abandon the aim.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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