India signed a £4bn deal with Russia on October 5, 2018, to buy five regiments of the S-400 Triumf missile system. A payment of £700mn has already been made to Russia in 2019. India will get one of such systems at the end of this year as Russia will expedite the delivery due to its long-standing defence partners request, and the US may unilaterally sanction India over it. So why India is still going ahead with the deal? There are several reasons behind this deal, and frankly speaking, we do not even know the details of all the conversations that happened behind closed doors. We have summarised some information for the readers but before we go into all those details, let’s look at some facts about the S-400 system.
S-400 Triumf system
S-400 Triumf missile system is known as one of the most advanced long-range strategic air defence systems in operation today. The development of the S-400 started in the late ’80s based on the S-300 P series SAM (Surface-to-air missile system)system. The experts believe it could very well be the upgraded version of S-300 PMU2. This system was created by Dr Alexander Lemanskiy, Igor Ashurbeili,Nikolai Nenartovich. It comprises Long-range surveillance radar, Command vehicle, Engagement radar and Launch vehicle. S-400’s Radar detection range is 600 km. It can simultaneously track 160 targets and engage 72 other targets, between the range of 40km and 400 km, and neutralise the target at the height of 30 km to 60 km with the suitable missile. The system is highly mobile and jam-resistant. Each system is capable of controlling up to 72 launchers. Each launcher has four tubes and can fire four different types of missiles with ranges of 40km, 120 km, 250 km and 400 km at the same time if needed. Now let’s look at the issues IAF is facing and the reason behind S-400’s deal.
The vast border and current air assets
India is the only country in the world with the misfortune of having two nuclear weapons state as neighbours. India fought four wars with Pakistan and fought a war and various battles with China. The border stretches from Arunachal Pradesh in the east and the Arabian ocean in the west, a total of over 4200 miles. Indian army’s almost 50% strength is deployed to the FOB’s and border areas, but it lacks adequate air cover.
India is probably the only democracy in the world where compromising national security is tolerated. Indian airforce’s sanctioned strength is 42 squadrons. Some say an extra few would not hurt. India has always been blessed with brave personals, but lack of political willpower, corruption and carrier loving bureaucrat led criminally slow military hardware acquisition process has reduced the once-mightiest airforce of Asia to barely 31 squadrons. Some of these squadrons are also equipped with the upgraded version of the Soviet-era Mig21 interceptors, which does the job but is also a risk to pilots’ lives. IAF ordered 100+ indigenous HAL-Tejas; some are in service already; experts believe these jets are close to what China and Pakistan may throw at India should there be a war. However, these jets are not battle-tested and won’t be fully inducted till 2030. The situation was so frightening that the Modi government had to spend £6.5bn to purchase just two squadrons of highly advance 4.5+ gen Rafael jets(The jets are stationed on strategic airbases such as Ambala in the west and Hashimara in the east) with Meteor BVR missiles from France.
Two front war
Can this happen? The answer is, It is very much possible. Old Generals and defence experts predicted this a long time ago, and the current geopolitical situation makes it very plausible. Now the question is when? And how much time India has to prepare itself?
The two-front war scenario makes things difficult for IAF. Due to the lack of transparency, the actual numbers are unknown; however, it is estimated that the Pakistani airforce has 18 squadrons, and China may have close to 70 in operation. There was a time when IAF enjoyed qualitative superiority over the Chinese airforce and a whopping 3:1 ratio in number against PAF. Even if IAF gets its sanctioned strength, that is 42, which may not happen till 2035; still, it would be probably 2:1 or 1.8:1 or less than that as Pakistan is also rapidly acquiring modern Chinese made 4.5 gen aircraft to replace its F-16, F-7PG’s squadrons. Pakistan is also making 3rd gen JF-17 in scores to get a quantitative advantage over IAF. The IAF squadron strength could go down well below 25 unless emergency off the shelf purchases is made in the foreseeable future. India has an ambitious anti-ballistic missile defence programme. However, it is still in its infancy, and the first phase may not even be ready till 2024.
So why India is purchasing S-400 from Russia and not any other missile defence system?
First of all, S-400 is not a plug and play system like many in India believes. It’s a costly and complicated system. India is also not getting all components for one system this year as Russia can not divert its existing stocks to India, so this will be phase by phase integration. However, India can embed this system with its existing defence architecture relatively quick than any other system because the Indian airforce is using Soviet military hardware since the 1960s. Yes, this system is relatively new and advanced, but it is the upgraded version of the S-300 SAM system, which India already uses. Soviet-made Mig’s, Sukhoi’s, SAM’s are the backbone of the Indian airforce. India’s HAL builds these aircraft under the license. Indian airforce pilots and technicians go to Russia from time to time for training. Yes, there is that issue with the post-sale service, but that is similar to any foreign hardware purchases. Russia has also agreed to transfer the technology related to the S-400 system, and it is much cheaper than the American made THAAD and PAC3 missile system. Some experts believe that a missile from S-400 can hit a golf ball size target at a considerable distance.
Western missile defence system
THAAD or Patriot PAC 3 missile system also does not meet the requirement of Indian armed forces, which is to detect the threat from a long distance and provide multi-layer protection. Most air defence systems such as THAAD, Aster, Arrow, Iron dome etc. are designed to track and eliminate ballistic missiles, drones in short ranges, but the S-400 is designed for long-range and in such a way that it can not only neutralise PGM’s(Precision-guided munitions) such as cruise and ballistic missiles etc. but also aircraft, including Stealth aircraft, Electronic-warfare aircraft, AWACS, Reconnaissance aircraft, Bombers, Drones at very low altitudes as well as high altitudes. It can also be used against ground targets.
Current Indian defence architecture
There are hundreds of soviet origin radars, EW systems in India embedded with IACCS (Integrated Air Command and Control System) and AFNET(Air Force Network). S-400 would be relatively easy to integrate with the existing system, and once incorporated, IAF can spread the launchers all over India. So if a launcher is loaded with four different types of missiles, with ranges like 40 km, 120 km, 250 km and 400 km, IAF does not need to set up different defensive assets for different types of threats. Now imagine how much area one system with eight or twelve launchers and multiple radars can cover. IAF won’t even need to place them near the border areas to stop the incoming threats as they can stay beyond the range of the Pakistani or Chinese airforces BVR missiles.
Russian armed forces are already using the system in various parts of Russia, also stationed one system in recently-annexed Crimea. If the rumours are true, they have fielded one such system in Syria to test the capability of American made jets. India needs a reliable, time-tested system that can withstand a two-front war as the situation on both fronts is deteriorating day by day.
Events that could have influenced the decision
We also need to look at and understand some of the historical events which may have influenced the politicians and armed forces to go ahead with the deals. In 1971 during the Bangladesh Liberation war, the US, the oldest democracy, sided with a genocidal regime of West Pakistan and threatened the fellow democracy India with the world’s largest naval armada, Task force74 spearheaded by nuclear-powered aircraft career USS Enterprise. Then blank cheques and advance military hardware exports to Pakistan during the late 70s and 80s created a massive insurgency headache for India in the 90s in Kashmir.
Then, after the 1998 nuclear test, India was sanctioned by the US. In 1999, when the Kargil war started, the US refused to share GPS data for the region to India when it needed the most. India has stopped buying Iranian and Venezuelan oil due to the US threat of sanctions, resulting in significant losses for India. And now the US wants India to abandon six decades-old major defence partner for some goodwill or factories. The US also has this system monitoring program, which allows them to monitor the use of the system even after the sale is concluded. They may have valid reasons for that, but it also makes the buyer nervous for obvious reasons. India’s sixty to seventy per cent weapons are of Soviet origin, which is another reason India will never buy the mainstay of her defence architecture from the US. Besides, in the last 50 years, India and Russia have worked together, understand each other’s foreign policy to some extent. Given the amount of Russian help India received or vice-versa, it is hard to see India scraping the deal. India has compromised a lot, but now we do not see India compromising its defence needs or bow down to become America’s global lieutenant.
Now the question remains, Can the BidenHaris administration risk a growing bilateral relationship with India by sanctioning S-400?
Russia is by far the biggest target of US CAATSA sanctions, others Iran and North Korea. There are many reasons behind this; however, the reason which is always more shoved down the throat of the public is its alleged role in the 2016 US election hijacking. Nevertheless, could these so-called CAATSA sanctions be sprinkled over India to buy the S-400 missile defence system. The answer is more Yes and less No.
Yes because it has previously sanctioned China and Turkey for buying the S-400 missile system, and Turkey even got kicked out of the Joint Stealth fighter program. US is expected to take a tough stand on India as there are many potential buyers, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar of the S-400 missile system. Any waiver to India will seriously angry its NATO ally Turkey and open Pandora’s box. Also, after the ‘let’s get out of here’ type withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is causing massive civilian and military casualties at the hand of the Taliban, has raised more than a few eyebrows at home and around the world. The billions of dollars program to find the ‘root causes of irregular migration instead of beefing up adequate security at the border has also made the administration less popular at home in the last months. It is an open secret that Democrats are not delighted with the current Indian government either due to the Indian Prime Ministers bonhomie with former Republican President Donald Trump. The administration needs a massive victory so President and the democrats may push for sanctions, but it would depend on congress.
No, because in the last twenty years, India and US bilateral relations grew rapidly. Various efforts were started by the Bajpayee government. Later on, the Manmohan Singh government and the Modi government subsequently carried on the excellent work with the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations. During former President Trump’s administration, the bilateral trade went upwards trajectory. In 2019-20, the bilateral trade between India and the US stood at £70bn. There is a prospect of £400bn bilateral trade in the near future. The defence export to India jumped to £2.5 bn from a meagre £5mn yearly. Regardless of whataboutery from its media and arms lobby, the US knows that only one country in Asia can take on China economically and militarily, and that is India.
The US very much knows that sanctions over a missile system crucial to India’s defence will put India in a very tight spot and the populist government run by BJP will never compromise one and half billion people’s security over some American goodwill, especially when it is already made very uncomfortable with the whole oil situation with Iran. If India is pushed more to the corner, it may have no option but to say proverbial ‘Vaffanculo’ diplomatically and change its course towards Russia for the next twenty years. Any sanctions on India will be the end of its coveted Indo-pacific strategy and kiss goodbye to the biggest free market in the world.
So what can the US do when India gets its S-400 system?
India has been eyeing armed Predators drones for some time now; the US may block the export. It may also shut down the prospect of setting up joint defence manufacturing projects, plants for the next few years. It can pressure allies such as Israel and France to stop exporting weapons to India. It can also block the export of GE F414 engines used in Hal Tejas. The US may also put more tariffs on Indian goods to reduce the trade surplus currently India enjoys. These are just speculations; only time will tell how the BidenHaris administration would maintain the relation with the world’s largest democracy India. Also, it is possible that President Biden who has been a great friend to India as a senator may grant a waiver, which India repeatedly requests.
So, after all of this, is India going to be missile proof because of S-400?
S-400 is not a miracle weapon, and India is only buying five systems that will be placed across India. Even though it is being considered a force multiplier, it can become a game-changer in the hands of well-trained crews. In the long run, it will also cover India’s lethargic decision-making mistakes, especially missing production lines of aircraft.
Image courtesy: Соколрус
This article is not written to glorify Russia or claim superiority of Russian weapons over Western military hardware but written from an Indian point of view.