Russian S-400 on display in Moscow (File image: Reuters)
India’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 (Triumf) mobile air defence missile system could not have happened sooner, given the cold peace prevailing in the region. Stuck in a not-so-friendly neighbourhood, India’s best bet to maintain strategic stability is to bulwark its defences — and a robust air defence system (ADS) is intrinsic to this.
Reports suggest that the first unit of the S-400 system will be delivered to India by the end of this year with four more units to arrive in batches later on. Developed by Russia’s Almaz Central Design Bureau, the S-400 is a long-range surface to air missile (SAM) system designed to engage both aerial and ballistic targets, including intruding aircraft, remotely piloted vehicle (RPVs), and cruise missiles. Each S-400 is actually a multi-platform complex with two batteries, independent command-and-control systems, a surveillance radar, an engagement radar, and up to four launch trucks that are used to transport, erect, and launch the SAMs.
The S-400’s advanced radar system and onboard sensors enable it to fire four different types of missiles: the 40 kilometre range 9M96E, the 120 kilometre range 9M96E2, the 250 kilometre range 48N6, and the 400 kilometre range 40N6E. Contrast this with the vaunted US Patriot system which has just one interceptor missile with a range of 96 km.
The S-400’s 9M96E2, for instance, can destroy cruise missiles, and zip at several times the speed of sound to engage RPVs and missiles flying as low as four meters above the ground. The system’s acquisition radars can even detect stealth-protected aircraft by operating in multiple frequency bands to ‘see’ them. No wonder the US is keen on preventing the S-400 from reaching other militaries in the world.
To expressly check the proliferation of the S-400, Washington enacted a law in 2017 which would deter countries from buying Russian military hardware. Called the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the legislation lists North Korea and Iran as adversaries along with Russia — apparently to censure Moscow for leaning on Ukraine and allegedly interfering in the 2016 US elections. Under the CAATSA, any country buying arms from these ‘blacklisted’ states run the risk of US sanctions. Earlier this year, Turkey felt the weight of US sanctions under the CAATSA after it bought the S-400 from Russia; Washington abruptly cancelled a deal to sell F-35 stealth fighter jets, one of the most advanced aircraft in the world, to Ankara.
In fact, since the S-400 entered service in the Russian military in 2007, it has only been sold to China, Turkey, Belarus, and now India, although Moscow is believed to be interested in marketing it elsewhere in eastern Europe and West Asia as well. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is in negotiations with Russia to buy the S-400 as Riyadh probably wants to scuttle Egyptian attempts to acquire the vaunted ADS. Egypt has already deployed the S-300, an earlier version of the ADS, and the acquisition of the latest S-400 would give Cairo an edge over Riyadh in the regional power play where they are vying with each other for leadership position in the Arab world.
Guarding The Skies
In India’s case, the S-400 is indispensable for the country’s Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) programme — an initiative to deploy a layered missile shield to protect the country from ballistic missile attacks. Launched in the late 1990s by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the BMD comprises two tiers: an endo-atmospheric layer, where incoming missiles are intercepted within the atmosphere, and an exo-atmospheric layer where missiles are targeted beyond the atmosphere.
Currently, the BMD depends on a Prithvi Air Defence missile for high altitude interception and an Advanced Air Defence missile for lower altitude interception. This two-tiered missile umbrella includes an overlapping network of early warning and tracking radars, and is capable of intercepting any incoming missile launched from up to 5,000 kilometres away. In 2019, an exo-atmospheric test — a key component of the BMD — was conducted when an anti-satellite missile successfully intercepted its target. This put the finishing touches to India’s home grown BMD.
Fortifying Border Defence
The S-400 is expected to be the BMD’s piece de resistance, representing an Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) asset of immense potential to raise the costs of aggression by any adversary. Once integrated with terrestrial, air and space based sensors, these A2/AD platforms will be able to second-guess any build-up of Chinese or Pakistani forces, and effectively deny their deployment across India’s land and maritime borders.
However, New Delhi will first have to stave off US attempts to stall the $5.5 billion Indo-Russian S-400 deal as Washington is reportedly waving the CAATSA in India’s face. National interests apart, New Delhi should not bow to US pressure for more than one reason. The contract with Russia was on before the CAATSA was legislated and, in any case, the CAATSA is an American law, and not an international law endorsed by the United Nations.
Bilateral ties between the US and India have matured into a strategic partnership that is enormously useful for Washington to check growing Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific. So it is unlikely that the Joe Biden Administration would give in to diplomatic pressures and fritter away these gains by trying to wreck the India-Russia deal.