As India plans to acquire the S-400 missile system from Russia, the Trump administration has said New Delhi needs to tighten up its procurement and protection processes of defence technology to be a “tighter and closer partner” of the US.
Acknowledging India’s reliance on Russian military hardware for its defence needs, a senior State Department official on Thursday reiterated that there was no blanket waiver for the punitive sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) on countries buying major weapons from Russia.
“What’s the message that’s going to India, and where do you see them now, particularly with the potential purchase of a major system like the S-400?” the official was asked.
It is the significant acquisitions that put at risk inter-operability, the official said.
India announced its intention to acquire S-400 ‘Triumf’ surface-to-air missile systems from Russia in 2015. The contract worth $5.43 billion was signed during the visit of President Vladimir Putin to India last year.
The US has opposed the S-400 deal with Russia with the Trump administration threatening to impose sanctions on the states that are acquiring weapons and military hardware from Russia.
The official acknowledged India’s purchases of military hardware from Russia but underlined that the Trump administration was not seeking to punish a country with a long sustainment line.
“So the Indians, while very interested – as they should be – in co-research, co-development, and co-production – which we are interested in, and our industry’s interested in – we don’t want it exposed because some Russians walking the shop floor decide to go walk away and put it in their handbag or knapsack and take it back to Moscow,” said the official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity.
“We’re not going to allow that. So what we have pushed with Indians is: tighten up your procurement processes, tighten up your defence technology security processes and protocols, and then you’re putting yourselves in a much more mature space to be a tighter, closer partner,” said the State Department official.
The official pointed out that by defence technology, “we’re looking at unique technology that is either developed in the United States or we’ve co-developed with other partners, we don’t want it stolen and we don’t want it exploited”.
It is not just to India, but also to other partners that are aspirant to doing more co-research, co-development, co-production, the official said.
It is possible, industry is interested, the US is interested, but the administration cannot do it in a fashion that will expose it and its industry, the official added.
Observing that the US recognises how India suffered at the fall of the Soviet Union, the official said a lot of those who were closely aligned with the Soviet Union when those lines essentially got turned off it was catastrophic if one was serving in the Ministry of Defence in India in the early 1990s.
“So we get that,” the official said.
“It’s incumbent upon not just the State Department to advocate upon defence trade, it’s incumbent upon us to protect our technology and protect what is unique about American systems and defence technology. If we don’t do that, we’re abdicating our duty and we’re exposing not only our industry, we’re also exposing our own national security,” the official said.
“So for India, yes, there’s opportunity, but they have got to address their protocols and their processes on protecting defence technology and procurement processes,” the official.
Responding to a question, the official said that if a country has a long sustainment line on, say, the Kalashnikov, the AK-47, the US will not sanction it because that is the rifle of choice for their army.
“That would be ridiculous. We certainly don’t want to put at risk their self-defence and their sovereignty, and so that is a legitimate concern when I hear from ambassadors here and their defence attaches and when I go abroad and hear from ministers and chiefs of defence. We’re not looking to take a light switch and turn off their ability to defend themselves, and that is a legitimate concern they have,” the official said.
“What we are being very clear about, what Secretary Pompeo has been very clear about on the road, is don’t get cute with CAATSA. So just because you have some old sustainment lines, don’t think that you can then go acquire a significant system like an S-400 or Su-35 and be like, ‘Hey, doesn’t really count because we have some earlier sustainment lines that predate 2017’,” the official said.
“So it is a matter of having a very transparent conversation with them, face to face and in open fora, to say there are certainly considerations of your historic sustainment lines, but do not seek new significant acquisitions that will put you at risk not just with us but with other partner states that you aspire to work with,” the State Department official said.