On the one hand, she solidly affirmed India would go ahead and buy the Russian S-400 air defence missile system, despite Washington’s opposition. On the other hand, she officially confirmed the Indo-Russian proposal to co-develop the so-called fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) was dead.
“We are at the conclusive stage of negotiations for the S-400 now. When the deal will be ready for signing, I cannot say,” she said.
However, well-informed defence ministry sources say that a scheduled summit meeting in October between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin will see some form of announcement of the agreement to sell India five units of the S-400 missile system.
A key reason is because, with India pressing for delivery of the first S-400 units by 2020, the order must be placed at the latest in October.
Questioned about the time lines for supply of the S-400, Sitharaman stated: “The contract will be executed by Russia in 2½ to 4 years from signing”
Emphasising the need to announce the S-400 contract during the Modi-Putin summit, sources in Moscow explained: “Otherwise, delivery by 2020 will not be possible for Russia. There is a huge order book for the S-400 and deliveries have to be made to customers like Turkey and China. Those are pre-committed orders. A bunch of West Asian countries are also expressing interest.”
The defence minister dismissed the notion that US sanctions on Russia – as legislated through last year’s “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA) – forces India to choose between America and Russia.
CAATSA binds Washington to impose sanctions against countries that engage in “significant transactions” with Russian, Iranian and North Korean defence and intelligence entities. It is expected that the S-400 sale would fall in this category.
However, indicating a modus vivendi between New Delhi and Washington on CAATSA, Sitharaman stated: “CAATSA is an American legislation Both the US secretary of defence and secretary of state have displayed understanding [of Indian interests].”
There is particular concern in Washington, as visiting US Congressman and chairman of the US House Armed Services Committee William Thornberry said on a visit to New Delhi in May, that an Indian purchase of the S-400 system would complicate US-India interoperability.
Brushing aside those concerns, Sitharaman stated: “The S-400 procurement is not something that has come up today. It has been negotiated for several years. If the US has some objections on technical issues, we are willing to explain why those objections might not be relevant.”
The S-400 Triumf (NATO designation: SA-21 Growler) is a versatile missile defence system that can detect an incoming ballistic missile 600 kilometres away and shoot it down when it is still 230 km away, and 185 km above the earth. Enemy fighter aircraft can be shot down while they are still 400 km away.
In 2015, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) had cleared the purchase of five S-400 units for an indicative price of about Rs 30,000 crore ($4.5 billion). However, the ministry is silent on the price finally agreed.
On the fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA), Sitharaman has officially confirmed what Business Standard first reported (April 20, $8.63 billion advanced fighter aircraft project with Russia put on ice”): that the Indian Air Force was no longer interested in co-developing the fighter with Russia.
“In February, it was conveyed to the Russians that they could go ahead with developing the fighter without us. But the option remains and we could well go back at a later stage and ask to buy the fighter,” she said.