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Buy F-16s to Avoid S-400 Sanctions US Tells India

New Delhi isn't keen on the fighter already in service with Pakistan

With India signing a pact with Russia to purchase the S-400 missile defence system, Washington has informally conveyed to Delhi that it could avoid sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) if India were to give an assurance that it would buy the F-16 fighter aircraft from the United States. Not keen on buying an aircraft already in service with Pakistan, India has refused to give any such assurance till date.

The fallout of the Trump administration’s reaction to the S-400 deal featured in the wide-ranging discussion between Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and US counterpart James Mattis in Singapore on Friday, but sources told The Indian Express that the offer of a CAATSA waiver in exchange for buying F-16 fighter jets was made earlier this month. Sitharaman and Mattis met on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus).

Sitharaman is also scheduled to make her first bilateral visit to the US as Defence Minister in mid-December but it is not clear if Mattis would still be a part of the Trump administration then. Mattis has been a vocal supporter of a CAATSA waiver for India, forcefully arguing for a waiver before the US Congress. But the three-step waiver process is to be decided by President Trump, who said last week that India “is going to find out” the answer “sooner than you think”. US State Department officials have said that “There are no blanket waivers that will be issued for any one country”, and any waiver under CAATSA “would require, among other things, countries to significantly reduce their reliance on Russian arms”. Sanctions under CAATSA would be triggered once Delhi makes a payment for the Russian equipment. India likely to make a part payment of the $4.5-billion deal with Russia this financial year.

US officials told The Indian Express that there is “support on both sides of the aisle” for “strong action against Russia”, and President Trump will need a good deal with India for granting a CAATSA waiver. Although US has offered both F-16 and F-18 fighter aircraft to India, it will be easier in Washington to make a case for moving the F-16 production line to India.

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Although US officials argue that the F-16 being offered to India is F-16 Block 70, far superior to Block 50/52 in Pakistan’s inventory, Delhi is not keen on buying a fighter aircraft which has been with Pakistan Air Force for nearly three decades. Besides ‘political’ reasons, Delhi also argues that F-16 would not be compatible with its indigenous Brahmos missiles.

The Indian Air Force has issued an RFI (request for information) for buying 114 fighter aircraft (single/double engine) under a competitive bidding process, which could feature F-16 and F-18. But that open competition will not include any assurance to Washington from Delhi about buying an American aircraft.

A specifically enacted legislation, CAATSA’s “ultimate goal”, in the words of a senior State Department official, “is to prevent revenue from flowing to the Russian Government.” It was enacted to punish Russia by sanctioning persons engaging in business transactions with the Russian defence sector. CAATSA provides President Trump two mechanisms to issue a waiver for India — Section 236(b) of CAATSA (“Waiver of Sanctions that are Imposed”) or Section 231(d) (“Modified Waiver Authority for Certain Sanctionable Transactions under Section 231 of CAATSA”).

It requires the President to certify that India: (i) is taking or will take steps to reduce its inventory of major defence equipment and advanced conventional weapons produced by the defence sector of the Russian Federation as a share of its total inventory of major defence equipment and advanced conventional weapons over a specified period; or (ii) is cooperating with the United States Government on other security matters that are critical to United States strategic interests.

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