The US Congress in July 2017 passed the CAATSA to impose sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea 

Making a subtle nudge to New Delhi to rely more on the United States and less on Russia to source its weapons, outgoing American Ambassador, Kenneth Juster, on Tuesday stated that New Delhi might like to keep options open, but it would ultimately need to make its choices.

Juster indicated that the United States might not have any plan to immediately impose restrictions mandated by the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) on India for buying S-400 missile defence systems from Russia. He, however, added that it might not be optimal for India to source its military hardware from a range of suppliers from different countries, given the prevailing strategic landscape.

“The CAATSA sanctions were never designed to harm friends and allies (of the US). They were aimed at a particular country...There are many variables involved in it...And, I think from my perspective I would put that issue aside. I see other issues that potentially affect the future of the defence relationship (between India and the US),” said Juster, who would soon leave New Delhi after completing his term as the US envoy to India. “India seeks to keep its options open and purchase from any countries. But there are also limitations that imposes and choices that might ultimately need to be made (by India).”

The outgoing US ambassador to India was responding to a question after delivering a farewell lecture at an event hosted by a think-tank in New Delhi.

The US last month imposed the CAATSA sanctions on Turkey for the $2.5 billion deal President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Government clinched with Russia for procuring the S-400 Triumf air defence systems. The US move against its NATO-ally Turkey triggered concerns in New Delhi, where many saw in it a not-so-subtle warning to India, which too in October 2018 inked a $ 5.4 billion deal to buy five S-400 Triumf long-range surface-to-air missile systems from Almaz-Antey Corporation of Russia and is expecting the delivery to start in 2021. The US not only imposed sanctions on Turkey, but also asked “other countries” to take note and avoid acquisition of military hardware from Russia.

The US Congress in July 2017 passed the CAATSA to impose sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea. Trump signed it into law in August 2017 and its scope was further expanded in October 2017. The Section 231 of the CAATSA mandated secondary sanctions to any nation entering into high-value deals to procure military hardware from Russia.

New Delhi has been arguing with the Washington DC over the past few months that India cannot not abruptly scale down its reliance on military hardware from Russia, given the decades-old history of defence cooperation between the two countries.

“While we appreciate that India has its own historical and geographical perspective, in today’s strategic landscape it may not be optimal to source equipment across a range of suppliers from different countries,” Juster said on Tuesday.

He said that defence procurement should not be solely about selecting the lowest bidder, but also about recognising quality and value over the entire lifecycle, and ensuring strategic interoperability across services – and perhaps even with other friendly forces. “Already, platforms have given way to systems, and, in tomorrow’s world, systems will fight systems simultaneously across all domains – ground, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. Information and the ability to share and integrate it into broader communications and operating networks will be key.”

“In this security environment,” he said, “it is worth considering how effectively one piece of equipment will integrate into a broader system and strategy, and whether a particular purchase today will pave the way for – or preclude – future acquisitions of more sophisticated technology.”

The US ambassador also argued that as India looked at co-production opportunities, it might wish to focus on manufacturing equipment that would address the needs of the global marketplace, with sufficient demand worldwide to make it a worthwhile endeavour.

“More broadly, will the evolving international environment require India to adjust how it expresses strategic autonomy? Might practical security needs necessitate building closer operating relationships with a smaller circle of trusted, like-minded partners to best preserve India’s independence of action while protecting it from coercion?”

“And, with which nations does India have the best chance of realizing its own ambition of a vibrant, indigenous defence industrial sector? These are important issues for the Government of India to consider,” said Juster, who, like other political appointees of President Donald Trump’s administration, would leave the office of the US ambassador to India on January 19 – a day before Joe Biden would take over the Oval Office at the White House.