In this file picture, Russian servicemen drive S-400 missile air defence systems near Yeisk test site

The Russian side believes that for the systems to be delivered by 2020, as the Indian side desires, the mega deal has to be inked before the end of this year

by Manu Pubby

New Delhi: Work is on to seal a symbolic deal for air defence systems with Russia ahead of President Vladimir Putin’s visit, which had become a prestige point with the US. However, there are no assurances yet that the contract would be signed at the bilateral summit early next month.

The Rs 39,500-crore deal to procure the S-400 system that Indian Air Force believes has the potential to virtually ground its adversaries in Pakistan, is in the final stage with an approval note ready for a decision by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).

Sources say there is no question of backing away from the deal and assurances have been given at the top level that India will not fall under US pressure of sanctions. However, there is still no clarity on when the final deal will be signed Defence ministry officials say things are in the final stage and that there are no points of contention but refrain from commenting on it being taken up at the summit. Meanwhile, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has said that “we'll have to see it if it's signed before the Russian President's visit”.

The Russian side believes that for the systems to be delivered by 2020, as the Indian side desires, the mega deal has to be inked before the end of this year. “It would be feasible if the respective contract is signed by the end of this year. Being the best in the world and so far unrivalled anti-missile defence system S-400 is, naturally, in high demand…no production can start before the contract is signed,” an official of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC) told ET.

The air defence system that is designed to take down aerial targets from a distance of over 400 km has been ordered by China as well as Turkey, with negotiations on with other nations, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Deliveries for China are almost complete and the system is expected to be fully operational by next year.

India has been negotiating the S-400 deal since 2015 and it would be the most expensive missile shield ever bought. In 2016, then defence minister Manohar Parrikar led a major overhaul of India’s air defence plans that showed that the S-400 would save the taxpayer Rs 49,300 crore in acquisitions over the next decade by cutting down the requirement of other short and medium range anti-air missiles.

While a final call will be taken at the top level by India ahead of the visit, the Russian side says that all technical and commercial issues have been negotiated. “Given the importance of the contract to bilateral defense ties, it seems logical and symbolic to sign it at the upcoming summit. But it is up to our partners to decide,” the FSMTC official said.

As reported by ET, Reliance Defence had announced a plan to partner with S-400’s manufacturer Almaz Antey but this fell through after India decided to waive off the offsets clause for the contract. This was done in 2017 to shorten the delivery period of the system and after taking into consideration that the S-400 is a cutting edge system that would give India a unique new defensive capability.