New Delhi, June 17: The United States is again trying to put India in a fix over the purchase of S-400 missile defence systems from Russia. The United States seems determined to dissuade India from going ahead with the acquisition of S-400 missile defence systems the deal for which was signed in October last year when Russian President Vladimir Putin had come down to New Delhi.
The latest nudge from Washington over the S-400 warns of serious implications on India-US defence ties if New Delhi's goes ahead with the deal to procure the lethal missile system from Moscow. A PTI report quoted Senior State Department official (South and Central Asian Affairs) Alice G Wells as saying that the US has serious concern over S-400 purchase and in a veiled manner hinted that it may have a direct impact on any high technology cooperation in the future.
In a way, the US is once again creating a 'me or them' situation for India and asking New Delhi to choose between them or Russia. The situation is tricky for India, but New Delhi will opt for a mid-path and would not send any signal to suggest openly that it is leaning too much towards one side. There are plenty of reasons for this.
The developments in the recent years may suggest that India is increasingly leaning towards the West for defence technology, but the fact remains that military ties between New Delhi and Moscow are decades old and Russia will continue to play a big role in arms supply to India. A majority of India's defense assets, ranging from air defence systems to tanks and fighter jets, are sourced from Russia. Russia continues to supply over 70% of military equipment to India and most importantly it shares critical technologies with India.
Even in October last year, India signed on the S-400 missile deal with sword of US sanctions hanging over it. India made it very clear that sanctions or no-sanctions, India-Russia defence ties would not be effected.
Even after finalising the deal with Russia, the Trump administration issued veiled threats of imposing sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). But till now no such sanctions came.
An ET report now suggest that the US could offer India the fifth-generation F-35 fighter jet for both the air force and navy, if the deal with Russia for the S-400 air defence system is dropped. According to an Economic Times Times report, the United States is tempting India with F-35 and pitching for it as the only air platform that will be equipped and upgraded to beat the S-400 air defence systems that have also been acquired by China.
The United States feel that its F-35 bait can be very effective given the fact that the Indian Air Force (IAF) is facing a massive problem of depleting squadron strength. With many fighters set to be phased offf in the next five years, IAF is frantically looking for replacement options. It now remains to be seen how India reacts to this tempting bait.
India will not sour ties with Russia and US cannot afford to be too harsh:
The situation for India is such that it cannot choose one over the other which means the New Delhi needs both the US and Russia for its defence requirements. India wants to maintain its strong military ties with Russia, but at the same time does not want to sour relations with the US.
For that matter, even the US may not take a strong stance and punish India for being close to Russia. By doing so, the US may harm defence relationship with India which is considered as one of the world's most lucrative markets for arms exporters. According to a 2017 report by the UK's Royal Institute of International Affairs, India was responsible for 10.3% of global arms imports between 2000 and 2016, with Russia supplying 72% of those imports. So, it is all pure business in a way. Everyone wants a share of India's big defence spending.
S-400 deal is something which made headlines, apart from this there are many other India-Russia deals in the pipeline like New Delhi's plan to buy of four Krivak III-class frigates, a US$1.5 billion deal to build 200 Kamov-226T light helicopters in India and a billion-dollar contract to manufacture Kalashnikov assault rifles in India.
India just cannot do away with its dependence on Russia for help in defence supplies. Two of the most important projects - BrahMos and Sukhoi- have Russian involvement. Moreover, there are still a lot MiG fighters in IAF's fleet which need service support from Russia. Russia has in the past stood by India as a strong ally, since Nehru's times.
If New Delhi falls for F-35 bait, then reports say that it would force India to sign rest 2 agreements with the USA to get full access to its technology. The signing of BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) and CISMOA (Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement) to have access to US state-of-arts technology. This would mean switching over to new weapon systems to which India is reluctant.