The reiteration of the veiled threat that India could be liable for ‘sanctions’ (the American word for embargo) if it acquired the Russian S-400 Triumf — the missile system is reaching this very year — by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, following similar warnings by officials of the former administration led by a Republican Donald Trump, suggests there are reasons other than those expressed by military experts for Uncle Sam’s concern. It has been widely reported for years that the US fears the S-400 because one of the importers of American warfare hardware, Pakistan, would be rendered a puny despite its possession of F-16 aircraft, as the missile can take on even F-22 and F-35. If an S-400 radar aperture or detection envelope promptly sends tracking data to another, India can track loop and actually engage enemy aircraft. While an imminent defeat of the US-equipped force will be bad publicity for the American military industry, that cannot be the sole reason for a law like the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which is bandied about before countries that have business with Washington. For, India has won decisively the wars of 1965 and 1971, relying heavily on Russian weapons and, so, there is hardly any further ignominy that American defence can earn from Pakistan’s future defeats. Whereas the US got away with sanctions against Iran, a country Americans are paranoid about, why should it worry if the militaries of Turkey and India, which are partners of the US, turn from defensive to offensive forces with S-400 missiles tracking incoming hostile aircraft or missile from a distance of 600 km and engage and neutralise the projectile at a distance of 400 km and altitude of 30 km at a velocity of 17,000 km/h? Militarily insignificant Nato allies of the US like Bulgaria, Greece and Slovakia operate the Russian system too, albeit its Soviet-era vintage versions. And the US cannot arm-twist China, which wants the Russian system too. Besides, Washington feels assured by Moscow’s conduct of dragging its feet on the agreement with Beijing since the arrest of scientist Valery Mitko accused of passing on secrets to an expansionist CCP regime that now eyes central Asia, traditionally the customers of Russian arms.
It must be probed whether the S-400 is capable of electronic espionage to the extent that when it is integrated with an importing country’s total defence apparatus, it sneaks into data from connected hardware, some of which may have come from the US. India has long stopped a complete reliance on imports from Russia and it now has considerable equipment from France, Israel and the US too. Can the Indian forces’ S-400 sneak into C-17 Globemasters, Apache attack helicopters, C-130J special operations aircraft, P-8I surveillance aircraft, M-777 ultra-light howitzers and other hardware procured from the US? If it can, it’s indeed a matter of serious concern for the US because several of its made-for-export products will then reduce to being sitting ducks, more so when S-400 reaches such partners of the US that use its fighter aircraft and short-range missiles too. In all likelihood, this is why Americans remind India time and again of the difficulty in “interoperability” with the US military after the induction of S-400.
Nevertheless, the US faces a diplomatic dilemma here. Imposing sanctions on a partner country would push the partner closer to Russia, which it is drifting away from, a situation the Americans want to avoid. Trump was, in fact, frustrated by the bill which, while being turned into the law called CAATSA by an overwhelming vote in the Senate and the House of Representatives in 2017, did not leave the US president with enough room to allow waivers in ‘special’ cases. However, given that previous Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had, after the signing of the S-400 deal with Russia, said the probability of CAATSA did not disconcert her, there ought to have been backstage diplomacy between India and the US where the assurance was given. After brow-beating Egypt to submission, a waiver for New Delhi will but be tough for the largest exporter of arms to explain in the international market. That is not India’s headache, but the government here must consider in its defence scheme why it must import from a country that makes hardware that is expensive yet vulnerable and not from alternative exporters that do not strain the budget while not compromising on the fighting tools’ reliability.