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Policy | India must move out of the crossfire between Russia’s S-400 and US’ THAAD

India’s rationale for buying the S-400 is solid, however, it is imperative that New Delhi reaches out to Washington and clarifies its position.

May 22, 2019 / 11:41 AM IST

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra

In response to India’s purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia, the United States has counter-offered the Theatre High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) missile to India. On the face of it this would seem like a simple commercial counter, but a deep dive shows the US is misreading Indian intentions very badly, something that does not bode well for the bilateral relationship as it reflects a severe communication gap, as well as a lack of analytical rigour in Washington.

The S-400 is formidable. Its long range (up-to 400 Km depending on the missile chosen) means that even when stationed a 100 km inside Indian territory, it can take down planes up to 300 Km in Pakistani territory. Due to this the Indian Air Force believes that the S-400 is the most potent system it can buy against the F-16 and other US fighters — especially given its stellar role in Syria, where after the initial shoot down of Russian fighters by Turkey, the deployment of the S-400 deterred any further Turkish misadventures.

Sadly that is only half the story, with the other half being, the ability of NATO aircraft and cruise missiles to infiltrate Syrian airspace at will, fooling the S-400. Moreover, it cannot integrate comprehensively into India’s mix of western and eastern equipment. Clearly, then the F-16 deterrence story isn’t the full picture.

What the US fails to understand is that the deal has been signed under duress, the duress of not buying enough from Russia, after India cancelled its participation in the ill-fated (and atrociously designed and built) Su-57 programme. This was a major blow to Russian industry, given that it was counting on India to buttress its flagging sales, but on the other hand India could simply not digest a badly designed product that would have been obsolete even before it entered production.


Consequently, the only solution was the buy a product that was deemed suitable to the Indian military. However, as discussed above, the S-400 has at best a mixed record in Syria. So why was it considered suitable when the Su-57 fighter was not?

This brings us to the third and only plausible explanation. The purchase was not done entirely to use the missile against adversaries, but rather to understand its capabilities thoroughly, simulate how to go up against it, how to jam it and to understand what its limitations are. As such its main use will be testing the Rafale’s ability to penetrate Chinese airspace guarded by the system. In this, it is money well spent as it fulfils our quota with Russia, and indirectly meets our requirements, as it prevents several billions of dollars’ worth of our aircraft and missiles being shot down by the Chinese.

It is in understanding this complex and multi-causal problem that the THAAD offer seems off mark. For starters, THAAD is an anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) system that the S-400 is not optimised for (despite what its sales brochure says). Second, the Americans failed to understand Indian political compulsions regarding the purchase. Third, they seem to have missed the opportunity for using the purchase as an excuse to supply complementary systems that will help India deal with the Chinese S-400 menace, instead offering us a competing system that leads to duplication, and answers a requirement that India has not put out.

It is imperative then that India reaches out to the US and clarifies its position in a spirit of cooperation rather than the usual diffidence that much of our JNU-trained bureaucracy display towards ‘western imperialists’.

What has to be kept in mind here is that the S-400 is a potent enough system to significantly sour bilateral ties with the US. After all the S-400 is one of the reasons that Turkey’s participation in the F-35 programme has been halted; and Turkey, unlike India, is a privileged NATO ally.

India’s rationale for buying the S-400 is solid, however, diplomatic diffidence cannot be allowed to poison the well. The ball, therefore, lies in India’s court to explain how the S-400 purchase serves common goals, and suggest avenues of cooperation complementary to the S-400, rather than competing with it.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a defence economist and senior fellow at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Twitter: @iyervval. Views are personal.

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first published: May 22, 2019 11:19 am
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