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S-400 - A Powerful Addition to India’s Defense Catalog and Diplomacy

Guest Opinion

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"New Delhi might like to keep options open, but it would ultimately need to make its choices". - Kenneth Juster

The above statement, made by the outgoing US ambassador, can be interpreted in the light of America's growing intolerance over the Indo-Russian defense & energy partnerships. The ties have ironically been steadily reducing, owing to New Delhi's strategic tilt towards Washington.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia accounted for 58 percent of total Indian arms imports from 2014 to 2018, as compared to 76 percent in the 2009-2013 period. That USA recorded over 550% growth from 2013 to 2017, and consequently became India’s second-largest weapons supplier, leaves no doubt that The States wish to wean India away from Russian military hardware, but given India’s historic dependence on it, this may just be impossible.

A recent contention revolves around India's acquisition of Russian made stealth S-400 missile systems, which are also considered as the strongest air defense system against any hostility.

India in October 2018 inked a $ 5.5 billion contract with the Almaz-Antey Corporation of Russia to deliver five S-400 surface-to-air missile defense systems by 2021. The deal was not favored by Washington, which initially warned New Delhi of consequences under its stringent CAATSA (Countering America's Adversary Through Sanctions Act) and further suggested to nix the contract, to maintain diplomatic sanity between the two nation-states.


CAATSA, framed and passed in 2017, mainly focuses upon major American arch-rivals like Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The act intends to restrict Washington's allies or any third party from making any significant deal/transactions with the mentioned states.

Recently, the act was invoked against the state of Turkey, a major NATO member and an important ally of the US. Washington maintained that Turkey's possession of S-400's posed a direct threat to NATO, and simultaneously helped its adversaries gain funds, in a series of transactions worth billions of dollars. The Russian-made surface-to-air missile S-400 has its specialty and popularity, such that, even after the USA's looming threat of sanctions, countries like Saudi Arabia are negotiating a deal with Russia, while Iraq and Qatar too have expressed interest.


The S-400 Triumf, 4th of its generation and successor of S-300p and S-200 air defense system, has been designed by Russia. It is a Surface-to-air missile system (SAM) and its features are far better than the US’s THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense). It comprises a multifunction radar, anti-aircraft missile system, launchers, autonomous detection, targeting systems, and command and controlling center. It can create a layered defense by firing three types of missiles and comes with an operational range of appx. 400 kms. The deployment is less than 5 minutes. Overall it is a very powerful missile that can destroy aircraft, ballistic missiles, cruise, ground targets, and can also intercept cruise missiles.


It is the China factor, which makes the S-400 acquisition so necessary for India. Beijing's increased hostility, and their unilateral territorial claims, have resulted in long frequent stand-offs and clashes, with casualties being reported on both sides. Now in the backdrop of the recent Galwan Valley situation, New Delhi has become more cautious than ever, foreseeing Beijing's increasing threat in the upper Indian region, where Indian and Chinese soldiers have been in a face-off situation for more than six months now, with no resolution in sight. The communist state, ramping up its defense assets, settling new villages, constructing bridges, railway lines, all very close to the Indian borders, and with their recent signing for six battalions of S-400s, puts the Indian state into alertness. Although, China has also signed a pact with Russia that the missile won’t be used against India, but that doesn’t assure Indians any kind of relief. Therefore, it becomes a necessity to acquire the missile from Russia.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, on his three-day trip to Washington DC, reiterated and defended India's right to acquire the S-400 missile defense system from Russia - "We would not like any state to tell us what to buy or not to buy from Russia any more than we would like any state to tell us to buy or not buy from America,” he said.


Over the years, the Indo-US relationship has not only become more strategic and involved, but also received a much-needed bounce aided by the Obama administration. With the renewal of the "Ten-Year US-India Defense Framework" in 2015, and India being elevated as a major defense partner in 2016 (a status held by no other country), the cooperation has only leveled up. New Delhi was further assured of Washington's comprehensive allegiance under the Trump administration, when the much-awaited “two-plus-two” dialogue resulted in the signing of a crucial Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). This gave India access to advanced communication technology used in the U.S as well as defense hardware. Apart from these advancements, a new strategic tilt between Washington and New Delhi can also be observed.

With the looming threats of China's expansionist behavior, the USA has termed the Indo-Pacific as the newest theater of strategic competition. Washington believes that New Delhi has a crucial role to play in this conflict, majorly owing to its geographical proximity to Beijing. And coincidentally, countering Beijing is what New Delhi wants too, which is why the relationship becomes mutually beneficial. Groupings like the Quad (also known as the Asian NATO), with successful Malabar exercises, further reaffirms the collective motive of restricting Beijing's growing interference in the South-China sea. Now, with all this in the backdrop, Washington may want to give New Delhi a waiver this once. And it is very much a possibility: recently the Senate and House Armed Services Committee provided a modified waiver to section 231 of CAATSA in a joint conference report to the National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA)-2019. The NDAA-2019 portion of the bill that amends CAATSA, does not mention any country, but the intended beneficiaries of the amended waiver are India, Vietnam, and Indonesia.


Since 1990, the bipolar world has rapidly shifted towards multi-polarity, and new world powers, capable of making their own independent decisions, have emerged. These changing dynamics have also resulted in the formation of new groupings, and recognition of new and unprecedented global threats. The rivalry between Washington and Beijing has reached a whole new level, with the former accusing the latter of unleashing the coronavirus pandemic upon the world, selling their manipulative spying applications, illegally detaining Uighur Muslims, and undermining Hong Kong's autonomy. Given all these reasons, the US can't afford to lose India's support, and will have to think twice before taking any major decision w.r.t the imposition of sanctions. At the same time, given the Indo-China history and the recent events of Beijing's hostility, New Delhi too wouldn't want to make Washington unhappy, over its excessive indulgence on the Russian hardware. As even after 30 years, the cold-war enmity remains between the US and Russia, with the former now accusing the latter of its Crimea annexation and interfering in the 2016 US general elections. Thus, whatever consensus Washington and New Delhi reach upon, the apex consideration would be given to the current geopolitical environment and national interest.


By Vivek Yadav & Akshaya Akriti (Guest Writers)

Vivek Yadav

Dayal Singh College, DU

Vivek Yadav is pursuing bachelors in English honours from University of delhi. He is an enthusiastic debater, and an avid marathoner. His interest lies in International relations and Climate change redressal/mitigation. He can be reached at

Akshaya Akriti

Indraprastha College for Women

Akshaya Akriti is pursuing Bachelors in Economics Honours from Delhi University. She is a recipient of Millennium Fellowship by United Nations Academic Impact and MCN. She has worked for SDG 4 and UNAI 9. Her interest lies in International Relations and History. She can be reached at