by Rudroneel Ghosh

In signs of fresh pressure from the US over India’s purchase of the S-400 missile defence system, acting US assistant secretary of state Alice Wells has asserted that at a certain point a strategic choice has to be made about partnerships and what weapons systems a country is going to adopt. In this regard, Wells again cautioned New Delhi that its purchase of the Russian S-400 would limit India-US defence cooperation. And while interoperability of Indian and American weapons systems — which has become an issue in recent times due to greater synchronisation of the two countries’ militaries — has been cited as a reason, the heart of the matter is actually India’s strategic autonomy.

India in the past heavily relied on Russian weapons import. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, India made a strategic choice to diversify its defence procurement. This meant that while the Russian component in India’s defence remained strong, other platforms from countries such as France, US, Germany, etc would also be incorporated into the Indian military. Not only did this give New Delhi flexibility but also ensured that no one supplier country could hold India’s defence needs to ransom through end-user agreements.

Now, in recent years India-US defence ties have been growing and the two countries have also inked some foundational agreements such as COMCASA and LEMOA. But that doesn’t mean we abandon Russian platforms. Let’s face it, defence sales are often linked to strategic choices and the US wants India on its side at this point. But those who remember history will know that this wasn’t always the case and there was a time that the US favourably looked upon Pakistan. And Russia (or the erstwhile Soviet Union) had done a lot to boost India’s defence capabilities in the past. The BrahMos missile system bears testimony to this.

Thus, there is no good reason why India should lock itself completely into the American military system. We must have autonomy and operate multiple platforms. The Russian S-400 is a great system. There is no question of abandoning the deal just because the US wants us to. We must maintain our defence and strategic autonomy, and no country should be in a position to manipulate us with defence sales. The US can sell India hardware. But telling India what not to buy should be off the table.