On July 14, the United States (US) House of Representatives passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would strengthen the US-India “defense partnership” and proposed waiving any sanctions against India triggered under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) which penalises countries that engage in significant defence transactions with Russia, Iran or North Korea.
This amendment was authored by Ro Khanna, an Indian-American progressive Democrat from California. If the NDAA includes the Khanna amendment when it becomes law — it needs to clear the Senate and be signed by President Joe Biden — India will avoid US sanctions for a “transitional period ‘’ for its weapons systems relationship with Russia. This period is pivotal because it recognises and addresses India’s growing alliance with the US and its current and future needs in this changing and contentious world order.
CAATSA was signed into law in 2017 by then President Donald Trump. Around the same time, CAATSA was being discussed in the US Congress, India was negotiating a $5.4-billion deal to procure five S-400 Triumf air defence systems. The Russia and India deal was inked in October 2018. But the Trump and the Biden administration have, to date, made a CAATSA exception for India, conceding the historical nature of India’s ties with Russia.
In spite of this, India’s defence relationship with Russia has been a cause for concern in Washington. India-Russia military ties have been subjected to even greater scrutiny since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. India’s stance evoked criticism from many in the US, including Khanna. Just four months later, his amendment highlights that, in the near-term, the prudent course is for India to be able to buy weapons from both the US and Russia and to migrate to a strengthened reliance on the former over time.
As this column has argued in the past, India’s heavy dependence on Russia for the bulk of its military needs poses a national and international security challenge. With much of the western world shunning Russia, Moscow has drawn even closer to Beijing. It is doubtful Russia will intervene on behalf of India in the event of an Indo-China conflict.
Although Indian dependence on Russian weapons has been reduced over the years, New Delhi still puts most of its eggs in one basket when it comes to arms procurement. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India imported weapons worth nearly $23 billion from Russia between 2011 and 2022, which accounted for roughly 60% of all its defence acquisitions. In the decade from 2001 to 2011, almost 75% of India’s defence imports were from Russia, according to SIPRI.
For a major democracy and an emerging world leader such as India, continued reliance on a non-democratic nation for the bulk of its security needs is not a wise move. More importantly, while the Russian weapons have proved useful in the past, there is belief that they are technologically no match for American and other western defence systems. In the same time frame that India has reduced its defence trade with Russia, it has increased its trade with the US. From 2011 to 2022, India imported defence equipment from the US worth $4.6 billion — up from $436 million in the previous decade — making Washington the second largest exporter of weapons to India.
There have also been a number of defence-related joint initiatives between the two countries lately. The US granted India “Strategic Trade Authorization tier 1” status in 2018, allowing the country to acquire a number of military and dual-use technologies. The Khanna amendment also acknowledged the US-India “Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies” (iCET) as an “essential step” to “foster innovation and facilitate technological advances which continue to far outpace Russian and Chinese technology.”
In conclusion, the India-US defence partnership is indeed strengthening. The Khanna amendment provides an excellent platform to make that partnership even stronger. It will accomplish this by enabling India to buy the time necessary to diversify its defence acquisitions, without compromising the country’s immediate security needs. It represents a win-win for both the US and India. One hopes the NDAA is signed soon so that India and the US can come together to make their defence partnership even stronger.