India will become vulnerable to CAATSA, which applies to all Russian military and defence-related entities, later this year when deliveries of the S-400 missiles to the Indian Air Force begin

by Rahul Bedi

New Delhi: When US Defence Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III visits India next week, he will need to confront the awkward issue of Washington sanctioning New Delhi – or not – over its import of five Russian Almaz-Antel S-400 Triumf air defence systems in his deliberations, aimed primarily at furthering bilateral military and strategic ties to counter China’s hegemonic ambitions.

Ever since India formally signed up for the $5.5 billion S-400 purchase in October 2018, it has been under the incipient threat of being penalised under the US’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

This Act, which has neither international legitimacy nor sanction from the United Nations (UN), applies to all Russian military and defence-related entities. It became law in 2017 after being passed by the US Congress in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections. It is also applicable to Iran and North Korea, albeit for different reasons.

The Act, which also covers other Russian sectors like data processing, petroleum and crude oil, has so far been invoked against China, and more recently Turkey, for receiving two S-400 systems each, similar to the five ordered by India. CAATSA, however, does not incorporate provisions for sanctioning any country simply for ordering the S-400s; it embargoes them once system deliveries begin, going by the Chinese and Turkish instances.

Hence, by this yardstick, India too will become correspondingly vulnerable to CAATSA later this year when S-400 deliveries to the Indian Air Force (IAF) begin. Russian and Indian officials confirmed as much last April, stating that the global spread of the coronavirus would not impact the timely delivery of either the S-400 or other Russian materiel on order from Delhi.

“I don’t think there will be any impact [of the virus on Russia’s S-400 delivery schedules],” India’s ambassador to Russia Bala Venkatesh Varma told TASS news agency in Moscow. He said that although there had been a ‘slight dislocation’ of a couple of weeks due to the pandemic, all major contracts for India would be completed on schedule, which included the air defence systems.

Two months earlier in February, Deputy Director of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC) Vladimir Drozhzhov too had declared that Moscow would begin delivering the S-400 SAM systems to the IAF on schedule by end of 2021. “We will fulfil our delivery commitments” he had categorically declared at the time.

In keeping with this timetable, the first IAF team of specialists and technicians left recently for Khimki near Moscow, where the S-400’s are integrated, to be trained on the operation and maintenance of the advanced air defence system. Hosting this squad at the Russian embassy in Delhi before their departure in January, the Russian Ambassador Nikolay Kudashev had, in an indirect reference to CAATSA, declared that India’s S-400 purchase was within the tenets of international law and the UN charter and hence un-sanctionable. Over the past two years, India has also inked deals for four Russian stealth frigates, varied ammunition, missiles and ordnance and leased an attack nuclear-powered submarine. It is also in advanced negotiations for 33 combat aircraft, 200 light utility helicopters and over 700,000 assault rifles, all of which have mysteriously evoked not even a casual mention from the US with regard to CAATSA. Some analysts take this to indicate that the threat of CAATSA emanates principally from Washington’s ‘pique’ over the IAF opting for the S-400 instead of rival systems like Lockheed Martin’s Patriot Advanced Capability PAC-3 or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system,

“In talks with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and other security officials, Austin needs to clearly indicate whether CAATSA is likely or unlikely to be invoked against India over the S-400s,” said Amit Cowshish, former Ministry of Defence (MoD) acquisitions advisor. Leaving matters in the twilight zone is troubling and unsettling, as the US sanctioning India will prove to be disastrous, not only for Delhi but equally for the US, he warned.

Over the past two years, public debate over CAATSA has been at best sketchy, ambiguous and woolly.

While India has maintained a studied silence over it, US officials in Washington and at their embassy in Delhi, have resorted to doublespeak on this delicate issue, primarily dancing nebulously around the subject, almost to the point of incomprehensibility.

“We have not made any waiver determination with respect to Indian transactions with Russia,” US Embassy charge d’affaires in Delhi Don Heflin declared recently, ahead of the Aero India 2021 defence exhibition in Bangalore, in early February. He was referring to a provision CAATSA incorporates for a case-by-case waiver of sanctions, and one that can only be determined by the US President. Amongst other assorted considerations, such a provision is largely predicated on whether a waiver for a specific country buying Russian materiel furthers – or not – Washington’s national security interests.

Earlier, outgoing US ambassador Kenneth Juster also bafflingly stated in his farewell address in early January that CAATSA sanctions were ‘never designed to harm friends and allies’ of which India was definitely one. But in the same breath, he issued a veiled warning by ‘advising’ India to determine how much it wanted to diversify its sources of materiel procurement. In short, Juster too cautioned Delhi over its S-400 acquisition, but without elaboration.

Meanwhile, Indian military officers and defence analysts believe that CAATSA is being ‘leveraged’ by Washington to sell Delhi additional US weaponry to swell the $18 billion worth of materiel it has already supplied since 2001. In February 2021, analysts the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF) had claimed that the ousted Trump administration had reportedly proposed a CAATSA waiver in 2018 in exchange for the IAF acquiring F-16’s, but the offer never progressed and the sanctions bogey endured. And, in yet another placatory gesture the same year, the MoD, approved the $1 billion import from the US of an upgraded version of Raytheon’s National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System-2 (NASAMS-2) for the IAF, to fortify the missile defence shield over Delhi. This too remains still born.

One three-star IAF officer told The Wire that the US’s typical ‘transactional’ approach towards all its allies and strategic partners could well determine CAATSA’s future with regard to India. “[Washington’s] attitude is dictated by the characteristic American aphorism that ‘There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch’ or TANSTAFL,” he said, declining to be named. Eventually, the officer who had dealt with the Pentagon previously, believes it will be a trade-off of some kind for CAATSA not being imposed on India for the S-400s.

Consequently, one recent rear-guard appeasement by Delhi to assuage the TANSTAFL syndrome head of Austin’s arrival, appears to be its decision to proceed with the $3 billion import of 30 armed MQ-9 Reaper or Predator-B UAVs) that are eventually to divided equally amongst the three services.

Official sources said these intended UAV purchases are likely to be imminently approved by the MoD’s Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) and formally announced Austin’s two-day Delhi visit till March 21.

On hold for over two years due to its ‘astronomical’ cost, the projected Predator buy follows the leasing in September 2020 of two non-weaponised General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-SAI) MQ-9 SeaGuardian medium altitude, long endurance UAVs by the Indian Navy (IN) initially for 12 months, to monitor the Indian Ocean Region. Despite the flurry of indigenous UAV programmes and the governments focus on ‘Atmanirbharta‘ or self-sufficiency, the IN is also fast-tracking a proposal to acquire 10 shipborne unmanned aerial systems (UAS) from Boeing for over Rs 1,024 crores that will further swell the US’ materiel kitty.

US vendors are also frontrunners to supply 114 medium multi-role combat aircraft to the IAF for an estimated $18-20 billion. Industry sources in Delhi maintain that this could extend to a possible ‘associated’ order for 57 Multi-Role Carrier Borne Fighters for the IN worth another $10-12 billion.

“Other than using CAATSA as leverage over the S-400 purchase, it would be illogical and absurd and for the US to take matters further and sanction Indian entities, given its burgeoning strategic and commercial military ties with Delhi,” said Brigadier Rahul Bhonsle of the Delhi-based Security Risks Asia defence management consultancy. Besides India emerging as a frontline state for Washington in its bid to contain Chinese militarism, he declared, Delhi is also one of the principal buyers of American defence equipment. “Jeopardising this entire edifice through CAATSA would be imprudent and in no way further Washington’s aim of beggaring Moscow via sanctions,” Bhonsle added.

After all, it’s no secret that a majority, over 65%, of Indian military platforms in all three services, are of Russian origin. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute or SIPRI estimates that Russia has supplied India with materiel worth over $40 billion since 1991, while other senior Indian military planners said military hardware worth an analogous amount had been provided by Moscow in the preceding decades from the mid-1960’s.

Meanwhile, some analysts said that the US could resort to one of CAATSAs provisions to provide it with a tactical reprieve and face-saving withdrawal from imposing sanctions on Delhi for the S-400s. The Acts Section 231 states that a sanctions waiver can be granted if the concerned country – in this case India – is ‘taking or will take steps to reduce its inventory of major defence equipment and advanced conventional weapons produced by the defence sector of the Russian Federation…over a specified period’ A follow-on clause requires that particular country to cooperate with the US on other security matters critical to its interests.

India qualifies on both counts.

According to SIPRI, India’s share of Russian materiel buys had declined from 70% in 2010-2014 to 58% in 2014-2018 while conversely, between 2008-2017 Indian military platforms and defence kit procurements from the US had increased a whopping 557%. Additionally, India had substantially increased defence procurements from the US’s strategic partners France and Israel.

And on the related parameter, there is little room for reservation or misgivings regarding India’s collaboration with the US on multiple strategic, military, diplomatic, political and commercial fronts, thereby combining hypothetically to fortify Washington’s alibi to hand Delhi a CAATSA waiver.

CAATSA, however, has not entirely been without consequences elsewhere with other US allies.

It is believed to have been instrumental in ‘dissuading’ Washington’s close affiliate Indonesia from buying 11 Sukhoi-35 Su-35 ‘Flanker-E’ combat aircraft from Moscow in 2018 for $1.1 billion, under a barter deal. A host of news reports and think tank analyses have revealed that CAATSA was unsubtly employed to ‘persuade’ Jakarta to buy Lockheed Martin F-16 Viper fighters instead of the Su-35’s.

Indonesia scrapped the Su-35 deal and instead expressed interest in acquiring Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II fighter, but the US appears to have turned down its request. Alternately, Indonesia has opted for 36 Dassault Rafale fighters and eight Boeing F-15EX Advanced Eagle fighter which, ironically, are also on offer to the IAF and under serious consideration by it.

“The aim is clear – to make these countries (like Indonesia) refuse to get arms from Russia and turn to Washington instead,” Russia’s ambassador to Indonesia Lyudmila Vorobieve told Bloomberg. “It’s unfair competition that violates rules and norms of transparent and legitimate business,” he added.

Bloomberg further quoted an unnamed official who declared that Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s government ‘risked being penalised for purchasing Sukhoi fighters under the CAATSA. It also cited a US State Department official declaring that it was a ‘goal of American policy to deny Russia the revenue it needs (through arms sales) to continue its malign influence.

Austin’s visit could well decide CAATSAs eventual outcome for India, and whether it too risks being penalised at its peril by President Joe Biden’s new administration.