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Indian acquisition of S-400 missile system: should it worry us?

  • Pakistan has had the time and opportunity to study the S-400 system, and is fully aware that even the most advanced BMD systems are not impregnable
Published June 28, 2022

Despite severe western sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine and the promulgation of US federal law CAATSA, Indian acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile system is continuing. Russia had started the delivery of the first regiment of the S-400 in December 2021 while it began supplying the second one in April 2022.

Turkey faced the impact of sanctions under CAATSA for its acquisition of the S-400 Missile System from Russia. As a punitive measure, the US discontinued Turkey’s participation in the development of the F-35 advanced fighter jet programme.

This castigatory action came about though Turkey is a valued ally and an important regional security partner for the United States, yet it faced economic sanctions for accepting the Kremlin’s missile system.

The US Congress had passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in 2017 stipulating the imposition of sanctions on any country that purchases military equipment from Russia or conducts transactions with Iran or North Korea.

Ignoring a warning from the Donald Trump administration that going ahead with the contract may invite US sanctions, in October 2018, India signed a $5 billion deal with Russia to buy five units of the S-400 air defence missile systems.

Following the delivery of the first two batches, India has deployed the missile system in such a way that it can cover parts of the border with China in the northern sector as well as the frontier with Pakistan.

There were apprehensions that owing to the Russia-Ukraine war, the delivery of the remaining part of the deal may be delayed but Russia has announced that there will be no impact of the western sanctions against it on the supply of the S-400 to India.

India, which is adept at the art of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, has persisted with retaining Russia as a major supplier of military hardware while it continues to receive weapon systems from the US and other western sources.

India realises that the US needs it not only for its vast market but also in building a bulwark against China; hence it has not paid much heed to warnings emanating from Washington DC.

The caveat that the US faces is that India is the cornerstone of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy and a founding member of the Quad established to counterbalance Chinese influence in the region.

In January 2021, the US had expressed its displeasure at the S-400 deal and had issued a warning, voicing its concerns again during the US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin’s, visit to New Delhi in March 2021, yet the April 2022 delivery of the second tranche evoked little or no reaction from the US.

Before embarking upon a discussion on India’s acquisition of the S-400 Missile System and whether it is causing ripples in Pakistan’s defence planning, let us briefly touch upon the threat potential of the weapon.

The S-400 Triumf is an advanced missile defence system, which comprises an array of radar systems and missile pads.

The long-range surveillance radar tracks objects and relays information to the command vehicle, which assesses potential targets. After identification of the target as a hostile intruder, the command vehicle orders missile launch. The data for the launch is sent to the best placed launch vehicle, which releases surface-to-air missiles. The engagement radar helps guide missiles towards the target.

The Missile Defence System has a 400-km range and can engage and shoot 80 targets simultaneously. It can detect and destroy incoming bombers, airplanes and ballistic missiles. Apparently, induction of the S-400 systems would tremendously boost India’s air defence, as well as its missile defence capability.

Indian official sources and experts opine that deployment of all five systems would be completed by the end of 2022 to defend New Delhi, Mumbai and other major assets. Indian defence planners claim that the S-400 will play an essential role in their ambitious Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system, comprising an outer layer based on the indigenous Prithvi Aerial Defence (PAD) for tackling high altitude threats combined with an Advanced Aerial Defence (AAD) for meeting lower altitude assaults.

The S-400, the keystone of India’s BMD system forms the second layer. The third layer comprises the Israeli origin Barak-8 missiles while another indigenous area defence missile the Aakash provides the fourth layer. To deal with any ambitious attacker who has evaded the first four layers, it will be met head on by the National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS-II) establishing the innermost fifth layer.

Prima facie this is a very formidable air defence system and likely to have a direct effect on the nuclear deterrence equation between India and Pakistan.

The resulting imbalance is theoretically going to render India invulnerable to incoming missile attacks, which may embolden the Indian defence planners to indulge in adventurism against Pakistan like it did on February 26, 2019, which had backfired for India in the geo-military sense but Narendra Modi’s team of spin doctors had spun it around with a web of lies and false claims, earning a political victory for him in the 2019 polls.

Privately, after the debacle India had faced in the February 27, 2019 showdown with Pakistan, Narendra Modi had rued the absence of the Russian S-400 Missile defence system and French Rafael fighter aircraft. Now that the attainment process of both weapons systems – the former defensive and the latter offensive – is ongoing, India is feeling comfortable in tackling possible threats from China as well as Pakistan.

Unable to curb its mindset of chest thumping and jingoism, some Indian political leaders, backed by xenophobic defence analysts, are calling the S-400 a “game changer”, claiming that India now possesses the capacity of intercepting Pakistani Air Force (PAF) aircraft within Pakistani airspace thus decapacitating PAF even before it launches assaults against Indian targets.

Some Indian armchair pundits boast that the BMD air defence system makes India “impregnable” as well as provides it the capability of launching a preemptive first strike capability against Pakistan, rendering its nuclear arsenal and delivery capability kaput.

The question now arises, how serious is the threat potential of India after the full induction of the S-400 system and offensive weapons?

To start with, India claims that the S-400 is to meet a two front-threat scenario. From China and Pakistan.

Let us take China first; India will never take the risk of undertaking a full-fledged war with China. It has not forgotten the debacle of the 1962 Sino-Indian War in the Himalayan region in which India got a bloody nose and even in recent skirmishes. It continues to provoke China but India is fully cognizant of the efficacy of modern China’s military capability and it will have a lot to lose in a full-fledged war with China, despite the urging of the Occident or the Sino-Indian rivalry.

The S-400 system is meant to brow-beat Pakistan and force its hand in an arms race to match India, which given Pakistan’s fragile economy, would become suicidal.

Pakistan has had the time and opportunity to study the S-400 system, and is fully aware that, despite Indian brags of heraldry, even the most advanced BMD systems possessed by the USA, Russia or any other advanced nation are not impregnable.

There are various means of penetrating the system; the full spectrum of presenting them here is beyond the scope of this article. Without divulging the parameters of Pakistan’s electronic warfare capability, which is both indigenous, effective and tested, suffice to mention that some of the basic tactics and implements to achieve a breakthrough would comprise the use of low-flying supersonic offensive air attack platforms, terrain hugging cruise missiles, UAVs, hypersonic missiles, stealth aircraft, Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicles (MIRV)s and deploying swarms of drones and decoys; all of which form part of Pakistan’s wide ranging arsenal.

Belligerent Indian planners must certainly be aware of the fact that the S-400, like numerous other air defence systems, suffers from the inadequacy of its range being reduced to about 40 kilometers in mountainous terrain.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) may rate the S-400 as a highly effective system but even a number of sane Indian analysts have rubbished the claims of impregnability in light of recent conflicts. During the Azerbaijan-Armenia war of 2020, Russian origin defence systems provided to Armenia proved vulnerable against hordes of Azeri drones. Israeli air attacks on numerous occasions, managed to penetrate Russian supplied air defence systems in Syria.

Another nightmare for Indian defence planners will be the integration of Israeli, Russian and Indian indigenous systems in its BMD shield of defence. The chaos and confusion in the Indian side witnessed in the February 27, 2019 melee between PAF and its adversary should be a stark reminder.

Conclusively, Pakistani defence planners must maintain their cool. They should avoid getting into the trap of keeping up with the Joneses but be mindful that India is currently ruled by a very belligerent and chauvinistic leadership, which can test Pakistan through its jingoism. Nor should Pakistan’s leadership let its defence planners rest on their laurels or let the economic conditions slide since weakness invites aggression.

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

S. M. Hali

The writer is a retired Group Captain of PAF, and now a security analyst

Comments

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Tariq Jun 29, 2022 01:25pm
A balanced analysis ! Indian jingoism is not supported by the various counter measures already available. In any case, toying with Pak nuke capabilities would be dangerous and reckless, to say the least !
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