Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) speaks during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing, June 8, 2022.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) speaks during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing, June 8, 2022. Getty Images / Andrew Harnik-Pool

US Lawmakers Want to Give India a Pass For Buying Russian Missiles

American officials have been urging allies to give up Russian-made weapons in favor of western arms.

Bipartisan lawmakers want to give India more leeway to buy Russian weapons in the short term to strengthen the security partnership between the United States and India in the long term. 

New Delhi buys the vast majority of its military equipment from Russia, which quickly became a global pariah following its invasion of Ukraine in February. Even as countries seek to cut ties with Moscow, lawmakers argue exempting India from secondary sanctions will give it time to end its dependency on Russia and strengthen the security partnership between Washington and New Delhi. 

“They have so much of a legacy that it will take time for them to move away,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., told Defense One. “Sanctions would really push India further into the arms of Russia and halt the efforts that are ongoing to get India to be more aligned with the United States.”

Khanna introduced a bipartisan amendment to the House’s fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act that would waive the sanctions on India’s purchase of Russian-built military equipment, a plan he developed after close consultation with former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis—who served in the Trump administration after more than four decades in the Marine Corps—as well as experts from multiple think tanks. 

In addition, the amendment urges the administration to “encourage” India to quickly end its use of Russian-made weapons, “while strongly supporting India’s immediate defense needs.”

“While India faces immediate needs to maintain its heavily Russian-built weapons systems, a waiver to sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act during this transition period is in the best interests of the United States and the United States-India defense partnership to deter aggressors in light of Russia and China’s close partnership,” the amendment says. 

Most recently, India purchased sophisticated S-400 missile interceptors—the same Russian-made weapons Turkey purchased that led to sanctions from the Trump administration.

Since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, U.S. officials have increased their calls for allies and partner nations to give up Soviet and Russian-made arms in favor of weapons made in the United States or Europe.

“A number of our allies and partners are also operating Russian systems, and I think many of them will have to reconcile whether or not they want to continue to be on Russian systems in the future,” Jed Royal, deputy director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the arm of the Pentagon that oversees foreign arms sales, said during a June 30 conference call with a small group of reporters.

“If they decide that they are totally wanting to be reliant on those Russian systems, we need to be able to demonstrate the reliability of the Western industrial base, the U.S. industrial base, and friendly industrial base, in order to be able to make sure that allies and partners globally can find an alternative to Russian systems in the future,” he said.

Eleven of NATO’s 30 members have Soviet or Russian-made weapons, according to Forecast International, a data analysis firm owned by Defense One parent company GovExec. India’s arsenal is made up of about 70 percent Russian and Soviet weapons.

The Trump administration in 2020 sanctioned Turkey, a NATO ally, for buying S-400 missile interceptors from Moscow. The U.S. canceled Ankara’s F-35 stealth fighters orders and removed hundreds of Turkish-made parts from the jet.

India is unique in that it shares a common adversary, China, with the United States. For more than a decade, the U.S. has courted India, wanting to deepen defense ties. Since 2017, the U.S. has approved more than $10 billion in arms sales for India, according to the Forum on the Arms Trade. Those deals include P-8 submarine-hunting planes, and MH-60 sub-hunting helicopters, Apache attack helicopters, and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Earlier, the Obama administration approved sales of C-17 and C-130 cargo planes to India.

India plans to buy more than 100 new fighter jets. U.S. defense firms Lockheed Martin and Boeing are both competing for the $15 billion deal. India also wants to co-produce many weapons and systems as part of its “Make in India” initiative.

Khanna’s proposal is one of the nearly 1,200 amendments that lawmakers have submitted to the House defense authorization bill, but only two of the proposals relate to America’s relationship with India. The other, an amendment from Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., orders the secretary of state to study how to boost energy cooperation with New Delhi, including how to reduce Indian reliance on Russian energy. 

The rules committee is expected to meet next week to decide which amendments the chamber will consider. 

Khanna said he is “cautiously optimistic” his amendment will get a vote, and, if he does, he’s “confident” it will pass, in part because it has bipartisan support. Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., is a co-sponsor of the proposal, and Khanna said he’s had “constructive conversations” with other Republicans.

“I believe we would get a number of Republican votes on the floor,” he said.