US calculated effort to sell F-21, F-15EX & F/A-18, ably assisted, no doubt, by the CAATSA gambit

Oblique references to CAATSA by senior US officials have surfaced periodically, in what many military planners in Delhi claim qualifies as a tactical ploy by Washington to 'nudge' Delhi into buying its materiel

by Rahul Bedi

Chandigarh: The US, it seems, is craftily leveraging its threat of sanctioning India over acquiring Russian defence equipment, particularly five Almaz-Antel S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, possibly as a force multiplication strategy to ‘persuade’ New Delhi into buying more of its materiel, especially combat aircraft.

Over the past few months, US officials in Delhi and Washington have slyly cautioned India against procuring Russian military kit-especially the S-400-as that could invite penalties under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) of 2017 while simultaneously hinting that the threat was negotiable.

The autarchic Act, that has no international or United Nations sanction was cleared by the US Congress in reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections. Thereafter, it has been invoked against China and Turkey for importing and inducting two S-400 systems each.

Speaking ahead of the recently concluded Aero-India 2021 defence exhibition in Bengaluru, where US aerospace companies were marketing assorted wares including fighters to meet urgent Indian defence needs, US embassy Charge d’Affaires in Delhi Don Heflin alluringly said that CAATSA included a provision for a ‘case-by-case’ waiver of sanctions. But significantly he added that India had, as yet, received no such disclaimer.

“We urge all our allies and partners to forgo (military) transactions with Russia at the risk of triggering sanctions under the CAATSA,” Heflin stated. “We have not made any waiver determinations with respect to Indian transactions with Russia,” he declared enigmatically leaving the entire issue of sanctions open-ended and seemingly subject to determination on US terms.

Such oblique references to CAATSA by senior and mid-level US officials have surfaced periodically over three years, in what many military planners in Delhi claim can only qualify as a tactical ploy by Washington to ‘nudge’ Delhi into buying its materiel. “As a country and a political system, the US is primarily motivated by the ubiquitous Deal” said a three-star IAF officer. And CAATSA is one such cog in its arsenal that it can deploy to secure more defence deals to add to India’s over $18-odd billion US defence equipment buys since 2002, he added, declining to be named.

To further their argument, senior Indian service officers and analysts maintain that other than employing CAATSA against Delhi as a ‘bargaining ship’ over the S-400 systems, it would be ‘illogical and irrational’ for Washington to invoke sanctions as Washington and the vast US military-industrial complex were both deeply invested in India strategically and commercially.

“In all likelihood, CAATSA is likely to be employed by the US as an impetus to influence its defence equipment sales to India,” said military analyst Air Marshal V.K. Jimmy Bhatia. It’s a useful cat’s paw for Washington in the competitive world of global arms trade to push its wares midst an economic and employment downturn, he presciently added.

Over two decades India had emerged as one of the principal markets for US defence equipment that includes P-8I Neptune long-range maritime multi-mission aircraft, AH-64E Apache Guardian attack and CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, C-17 Globemaster III and C -130J-30 military transport aircraft. Outside of the US military, India is presently the single largest operator of P-81s and C-17’s. Concurrently, India had also acquired M777 155mm/39 calibre lightweight howitzers and assault rifles and has additional Apache’s, 127mm Mk 45 naval gun systems and armed and unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), amongst sundry other equipment, currently under purchase from the US.

And with the rapid rise of a hegemonic, militarist, technologically advanced and wealthy China, India has, in recent years, replaced Pakistan as Washington’s ‘front-line state’ in the region. In his first conversation with PM Narendra Modi earlier this week, the US’ newly installed President Joe Biden highlighted both countries strategic convergence on a free and open Indo-Pacific.

In a measure aimed directly at Chinese assertiveness and land grabs, the two leaders also agreed on the principles of freedom of navigation, territorial integrity and building a strong regional security architecture through the Indian Navy (IN)-inspired Quadrilateral-inspired naval grouping, that includes Australia and Japan. The US military also annually conducts the maximum number of exercises with India than with any other country.

“Despite proliferating military commerce and strategic co-operation, Washington has still not indicated its willingness to provide India with a CAATSA waiver even though it repeatedly hints at doing so,” said Amit Cowshish, former Ministry of Defence (MoD) acquisitions advisor. CAATSA, he stated, remains the ‘hushed bugbear’ that is mentioned sotto voce by American officials and at bilateral India-US business conclaves. It appears to be little more a trading tactic to sell Delhi more military goods, Cowshish added.

Furthermore, the US had never ever clarified how sanctioning India over the S-400 would further their strategic goals in the region or alternately penalise Russia. Some IAF officers believe the threat of sanctions stems primarily from little more than ‘peeve’ over India opting for the S-400 over rival US air defence systems that were found operationally wanting in comparison in their evaluations.

Even senior Russian diplomats at their embassy in Delhi have questioned CAATSA’s international legality, declaring it to be an ‘illegal tool of unfair competition and pressure’. What is even more curious is that CAATSA is targeted exclusively against the S-400 purchase and not assorted other Russian buys like stealth frigates, fighters, helicopters, assault rifles and varied ammunition and ordnance as well as the lease of an attack nuclear-powered submarine. The latter find no mention by US officials mouthing CAATSA.

Senior Indian military officers believe that the CAATSA’s spectre would ‘abate’ or, at least be shelved – for possible invocation later – provided India, for starters, opts for one of three US-origin fighters to meet the IAFs long-deferred requirement for 114 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) for an estimated $18-20 billion.

The US fighters, amongst seven vying for the IAFs tender, include Lockheed Martin’s F-21 – a warmed up or re-branded F-16 ‘Fighting Falcon’ dating back to the early 1970’s – and Boeing’s two platforms: the F-15EX Advanced Eagle fighter aircraft and the F/A 18 Block III Super Hornet. If shortlisted, the latter, twin-engine multi-role platform would also meet the Indian Navy’s requirement for 57 Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters (MRCBFs) in fly-away condition.

There is recent precedence of the MoD coupling Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian Navy (IN) fighter requirements, which could well be initiated once again. Between 2004 and 2010 the IN had acquired 45 MiG-29K/KUB fighters for $ 2.29 billion for its carriers INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant, principally because of their ‘commonality’ with the IAFs 60-odd MiG-29 inducted into service from 1985, and currently undergoing an upgrade. “It makes eminent financial and logistical sense for the IN to link its MRCBF buy to the IAF’s procurements,” said a retired three-star Indian Navy fighter pilot. Simply acquiring 57 naval fighters off the shelf, he cautioned, would be prohibitively expensive, impractical and time-consuming.

The four other combat platforms competing for the IAF’s MMRCA contract are Dassault’s Rafale (France), Eurofighter’s Typhoon, MiG-35 ‘Fulcrum-F’ (Russia) and SAAB’s Gripen-E (Sweden).

For the moment, however, the focus for the potential MMRCA purchase, that featured prominently during Aero India 2021, is on Boeing’s twin-engine F-15EX, which recently received US government approval to sell it to the IAF. The fly-by-wire fighter that is the world’s fastest combat aircraft, capable of flying at Mach 2.5, or twice the speed of sound, is a variant of the F-15 fighter dating back to 1972. Weighing 36 tons the F-15EX is heavier and larger in size than the F-18’s and Rafales, 36 of which are presently under IAF induction, and is almost twice the size of the Gripen-E.

Boeing claims the F-15EX’s payload comprises over 13 tons of fuel and ordnance and its extended range and updated navigation systems enable it to execute low-level ground-attack missions. Furthermore, it can carry up to 22 air-to-air missiles (AAMs) and each F-15EX is priced at around $80 million, considerably less than the $110 million price of a Rafale.

The F/A-18, on the other hand, is even cheaper to buy and operate than the F-15EX, but was earlier rejected by the IAF during trials for the 2007 tender for 126 MMRCA, that was eventually shelved in favour of 36 Rafales acquired in 2016 for $9.57 billion. But the F 18s General Electric GE-414 turbofan engine is the one likely to power the under-development Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk2 variant and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft instead of the F-15EX’s F-110-GE-129 power pack, rendering a further ‘commonality’ factor for this fighter type other than its naval variant.

However, in what military circles regard as a ‘preparatory move’ in anticipation of India acquiring either of Boeing’s two fighters, the corporation inaugurated the Boeing India Repair Development and Sustainment (BIRDS) initiative at Aero India- 2021. This includes a network of domestic suppliers capable of providing competitive maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) support for Boeing defence and civil aircraft.

According to Boeing, the BIRDS project is part of its ‘commitment to supporting and strengthening’ India’s indigenous aerospace and defence capabilities, an objective that finds resonance with the MoD’s Atmanirbhar or goal of self-reliance in sourcing military equipment locally. Or, in short, it is a calculated effort at preparing the ground for the F-15EX/F/A 18, ably assisted, no doubt, by the CAATSA gambit.

Hawking the F-21, on the other hand, that was unveiled at Aero India 2019 makes excellent commercial sense for manufacturers Lockheed Martin and the US government, but little operational efficacy for the IAF, akin as it is to the glib deal-making salesman’s apocryphal ruse of making money from selling old rope.

With F-16’s being phased out of the US Air Force, and their plant at Fort Worth in Texas shutting down after over 40 years, shifting the ageing fighters manufacturing facility to India, would keep the ‘steroids-enabled’ fighter line going for several more years, besides providing much-needed employment in the US. The IAF, however, has been steadfast in quietly opposing the F-21s acquisition, but seems enthusiastic about the F-15EX in what will eventually be more a ‘political acquisition’ aided, in all probability, by the CAATSA stratagem.