On September 6, 2018, India and the US signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). The agreement happened during the much-touted 2+2 dialogue between India and the US — the simultaneous meeting of the Foreign and Defense ministers of the two countries. The COMCASA is one of the four foundational agreements that the US has signed with its allies and close partners. The joint statement issued by both sides after the 2+2 Ministerial dialogue said the COMCASA “will facilitate access to advanced defense systems and enable India to optimally utilize its existing US-origin platforms.”
Soon after the meeting, however, India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj travelled to Moscow. The immediate reason was to co-chair with Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov the 23rd India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Technical and Economic Cooperation, an annual affair between India and Russia. However, experts also believe that it was to reassure the Russians that India was not moving away from its traditional long-standing ally, and to “reassure Moscow that Russia remains pivotal to India’s defense and strategic interest despite New Delhi’s … [expanding] ties with Washington.” There had after all been much speculation in Moscow about the 2+2 dialogue and the signing of the COMCOSA just as there had been earlier in 2016 when India had signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) — the first of the four foundational agreements — with the US. In Moscow, Swaraj also discussed and finalized deliverables for the upcoming visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to New Delhi in October for the 19th annual India Russia summit.
Earlier, in July, Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced at a press conference that India was going ahead with the purchase of the S-400 Triumf missile shield from Russia. This is significant given that the US had on numerous occasions conveyed its discomfort with India’s decision to make this purchase. In August 2017, the US government signed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSA), which mandates the US to punish entities engaging in significant transactions with the defense or intelligence sectors of Russia, North Korea and Iran. India had been hoping for a waiver as it depends significantly on Russia for its military supplies. Most recently China, which has also entered into a deal with Russia for the purchase of the S-400 missile shield, called off the visit of its Navy commander to the US, protesting the sanctions that Washington has slapped it with because of the deal. Sitharaman, who had also participated in the 2+2 dialogue together with her US counterpart James Mattis, had forcefully articulated that “CAATSA is not a UN act, it’s a US act … we have spoken on the S-400 for years, not just today.” The agreement for the purchase is expected to be signed during the Modi-Putin bilateral summit. Interestingly, a US Congressional delegation that visited India earlier this year gave the impression that it would try to find ways to insulate India, given its defense imperatives, from the provisions of CATSA.
In an article on the eve of the 2+2 dialogue, Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and who holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs, outlined three choices for India, since “the S-400 poses a serious risk to the evolving US-India strategic relationship.” The options were: 1. scuttle the S-400 purchase in favor of other alternatives (like the US Patriot system); 2. defer payment for the S-400 until circumstances change; and 3. make a deal with Trump by moving forward on one of the several major defense acquisition programs India has discussed with the US over the years, thus enabling New Delhi to secure the capabilities it has always wanted while giving Trump an incentive to speedily issue the waiver that India needs. Soon after, the Pentagon’s Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver was quoted by the AFP as saying that the waiver is “misleading” and that Washington would have “significant concerns” if India purchased new platforms from Russia — Washington’s “strong preference … is (for India) to seek alternatives and see if we could be a partner to India in addressing those defense needs.”
Going ahead with the purchase even under US pressure would strongly reassure Moscow that India remains its close strategic partner.
A major worry in Washington is that the S-400 missile system may complicate “our ability to work towards interoperability together,” Chairman of the US Arms Service Committee Mac Thornberry told the media during his visit to New Delhi in May this year. However, Sitharaman has underscored that the US has been assured that there were no technical issues it needed to be concerned about because of the purchase.
Analysts also point out that “such mega deals bind the seller and buyer into a strategic embrace for the life of the weapon. Considering the longevity of Russian air defense missiles… the S-400 could remain at the heart of India’s missile defense network for decades.” The US, on the other hand, also wants to deepen defense ties with India, having emerged as India’s second largest arms supplier, closing USD 15 billion worth of deals in the past decade.
For India, the 2+2 dialogue was also important to explain to Washington the imperatives for India’s security in view of its longstanding defense partnership with Russia, in particular that it is impossible for India to abruptly end its defense agreements with Russia. This partnership dates back to the 1970s when, after India’s nuclear tests, no other country was willing to supply arms to it until the USSR stepped in. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India accounted for 39 percent of Russian arms exports in 2011-15.
Pegged at about USD 5.5 billion, the Triumf missile system is one of India’s costliest purchases. India’s interest in the system — it will be buying five of them — stems from the fact that it has the ability to locate and destroy targets within the range of 400 km and an altitude of 30 km, which would bring all of Pakistan’s airbases within range. Moreover, the system can be very easily deployed and can simultaneously engage 72 targets. Besides India and China, numerous countries have evinced interest in procuring the system, while the S-300 missile defense system that Russia will be supplying to Syria is a slightly older version of it.
Besides the military imperatives, the purchase also has diplomatic implications. Given the current geo-political dynamics in the region, India risks being alienated with an alliance of Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan — India’s arch rival — emerging, much of it animated by their increasing differences with the US. Russia and Pakistan in particular have been cozying up to each other, including in the military sphere. The situation in Afghanistan is also a cause for concern to India, with the Taliban emerging a major stakeholder in reinstating peace and stability there, and Moscow once again enjoys leverage with them. Maintaining good relations with Russia remains India’s best hedge under the circumstances. This was the message that Prime Minister Modi sought to convey to President Putin when the two met for an “informal summit” in Sochi in May. Going ahead with the purchase even under US pressure would strongly reassure Moscow that India remains its close strategic partner — and LEMOA and COMCASA notwithstanding — and that it will refuse to recognize unilateral sanctions against it. Some analysts feel that it is India’s increasing importance to the US that will allow it to get away with such a deal; others believe that it is India’s commitment to its policy of “multi-alignment.” Either ways the India-Russia partnership stands to gain.