Both Turkey and India are purchasing the Russia S-400 SAM systems, putting them in conflict with the US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). India should be ready to accept that it is unlikely to see a F-35 in its arsenal, given the S-400 in its armoury

by Vikram Mahajan

The first batch of S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile (SAM) system from Russia was delivered to Turkey last month. As a result, the US cancelled the delivery of around 100 fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft, ordered by Turkey, which also co-manufactures the plane. US officials claim the F-35 cannot coexist with the Russian system, which they believe will be an ‘intelligence collection platform’ to be used to learn about the F-35’s advanced and stealth capabilities. Turkey has been a NATO ally for 65 years. The US helped Turkey build the second-largest military among NATO members. Turkey was one of the very few countries permitted to locally manufacture F-16s, and 270 F-16s are in its inventory today. It further honed aircraft manufacturing by building F-16s for export to countries like Egypt, and upgrading those of Pakistan, Jordan and other customers.

Turkey was also involved in various other projects involving aircraft and helicopters like the Black Hawk, S-70, Eurocopter and Boeing 737 AEW&C (airborne early warning and control) before being one of nine manufacturing partners for the F-35. About 8% of every F-35 is manufactured in Turkey, which is also building its own Pratt & Whitney F135 engines to power the fighter.

Turkey also possesses the European regional F135 engine depot overhaul facility, servicing all European F135 engines, the most advanced fifth-generation engine and fighter available in the world today. Cooperation with the US and NATO alliances has helped Turkey build a robust aviation ecosystem. In anticipation of the F-35 deal being scrapped, it unveiled its own indigenous fifth generation fighter TF-X at the Paris Air show in June, which is scheduled to fly by 2025.

India, on the other hand, has been getting most of its military equipment from the former Soviet Union/Russia since the early 1960s. In 1990, when around 80% of the inventory was Russian, the dissolution of the Soviet Union made India realise the risk of being dependent on a single nation for military hardware.

Russia’s loss has been the US’ gain. US sale of defence equipment to India stands at $18 billion today. From 2008 to 2013, 76% of Indian defence imports were from Russia. From 2013 to 2018, this number dropped to 58%. In the meantime, imports from the US have increased significantly. The purchase of Sea Guardian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), 24 multi-role helicopters (MRHs), 10 additional long-range maritime patrol P8Is (Poseidon Eight India), and other platforms from the US are on the cards.

Both Turkey and India are purchasing the Russia S-400 SAM systems, putting them in conflict with the US Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which came into force in 2017. These third-country sanctions apply to any nation with ‘significant transactions’ with the Russian defence industry. US President Donald Trump signed it into legislation while expressing deep reservations, calling it ‘seriously flawed’. In 2018, at the request of then-US secretary of defence James Mattis, the US Congress enacted a waiver clause that can be used by the president. This waiver was generally viewed as a workaround to avoid making India suffer collateral damage from CAATSA sanctions. Following a meeting with Trump on the sideline of the G20 summit in Osaka in June, Turkey’s President Recep Erdog an claimed to have been assured by the US president that there will be no sanctions on Turkey for the purchase of S-400s. However, Trump is under bipartisan pressure from US lawmakers to move forward with sanctions. They feel that expelling Turkey from the F-35 program is not strong enough of a tactic.

The decision of whether Turkey gets the axe or a CAATSA waiver is being closely watched by the world, especially India. On the one hand, there is Turkey, a NATO ally, which has built a large NATO military and an entire ecosystem of aircraft manufacturing thanks to the US, and was never dependent on any Russian equipment until buying the Triumf. On the other hand, there is India, which, over the past few years, has reduced its reliance on Russian defence equipment, demonstrating intent to wean off further. By stopping any purchase of oil from US sanctions-hit Iran, India has shown its intent to build on newfound US-India relations.

India’s parliamentarians should remind the US administration and members of the US Congress that the commitment to ameliorate US-India defence and security ties are genuine, even when the two countries disagree. The last 20 years of engagement between the US and India have dulled the pain of the 1998 post-Pokhran sanctions. But any repetition of sanctions that ignores the progress that has been made to date would be catastrophic to a strategically vital friendship.

India should be ready to accept that it is unlikely to see a F-35 in its arsenal, given the S-400 in its armoury. The US, in turn, should view this as ‘sufficient consequence’ and continue cooperating with India to create the Indo-Pacific that both nations need.

The writer is director, Aerospace & Defence, India, US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF)