India’s decision to purchase the S-400 air defense system from Russia, as well as the fact that it leaves New Delhi exposed to American sanctions, was discussed during a House Armed Service committee hearing on Wednesday.
Assistant Defence Secretary Randall Schriver told the lawmakers he thought “it would be an unfortunate decision” if the Indians completed the S-400 deal. “We are very keen to see them make an alternative choice,” he said, adding that “we’re working with them to provide potential alternatives”.
A similar line came from Admiral Philip Davidson, Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command. “I continue to make the point with them that our interoperability and compatibility going forward will be advantaged with the purchase of US systems,” he said.
The purchase of advanced Russian arms makes any country a potential target for US secondary sanctions under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The US slapped some on China for buying Russian Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 missiles in September last year.
This didn’t stop India from signing a contract a month later, purchasing five S-400 batteries with estimated worth of $5.43 billion. The two nations have a decades-long record of defense cooperation. Russian producers supplied some of the most advanced weapon systems to the Indian Armed Forces as well as contributed to joint projects like the BrahMos supersonic missile.
The threat of possible US sanctions was of course retained during the negotiations, with Indian officials insisting that New Delhi was pursuing an independent defense policy and was not dissuaded by it.
“When Russians asked about the American sanctions, my reply was, ‘Yes, we do appreciate that there could be sanctions on us, but we follow an independent policy,’” General Bipin Rawat, India’s chief of staff, said in the run-up to signing the deal.
Arguably adding insult to Injury, India even agreed that the contract would be paid in rubles rather than dollars, as was customary in international arms sales. Russia’s policy is to move away from the greenback where it makes sense, which Washington understandably does not appreciate.
Schriver warned the committee about being too zealous in implementing the provisions of the law against India.
“We want to work through it because India is an emerging partnership for us,” he said. The official added the law “is not designed to be an impediment in the growing strategic partnership we have with India. It’s designed for consequence to Russia.”
Potential US-made alternatives for the Russian offer would include Raytheon’s Patriot system or possibly Lockheed Martin’s THAAD system. The former is pitched as the better option to another buyer of the S-400, Turkey. Washington is pressuring Ankara into changing its mind on the deal with Russia by threatening that it could block delivery of F-35 fighter jets.
Speaking to the same Armed Service Committee a day before Schriver and Davidson, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Washington wants Turkey to get F-35s and that the only way for Ankara to do it is to buy US missiles. “We need Turkey to buy the Patriot,” he stressed.
Turkey refuses to yield to US pressure, but hinted it may buy the Patriot system to complement the S-400, not as a replacement.