Russia has started deliveries of the powerful S-400 air defence system to India, and the first battalion will be deployed in Adampur, near the western border. The second battalion will also be Pakistan focused and be based in Rajasthan. Both battalions will be fully operational by mid- 2022. The remaining three S-400s will be deployed in Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh and southern India.
The S-400 (codenamed SA-21 Growler by NATO) has a tracking range of 600 km and a kill range of 400 km – that is, it is can detect threats that are up to 600 km away and is designed to intercept and destroy airborne targets at distances of up to 400 km. According to Russian sources, a regular S-400 battalion comprises at least eight launchers with 32 missiles and a mobile command post.
The question arises why India is deploying three of these battalions on the western border when it has a much longer border with China? Also, if the dragon is India’s primary adversary, it can be argued there should be more systems on the Chinese border.
China may be India’s biggest enemy, but Chinese incursions have been on land – not air, and the S-400 is an air defence missile. China has been nibbling away – also called salami slicing – at the land borders of each of its neighbours except Russia. Salami slicing doesn’t work against the Russians because they are too strong for the Hans. In their last military clash, the Russians killed thousands of PLA soldiers and were on the verge of using nuclear weapons against China.
China’s PLA Air Force is not a big threat to India. It is a poorly trained service whose fighter pilots have zero combat experience. More importantly, the PLA Air Force is primarily focused on the eastern seaboard where it faces the combined forces of the US, Japan and Taiwan. Plus, the British and French navies have a more or less permanent presence in the South China Sea. Australia has also designated China as its prime enemy and is building a powerful new navy to take on the PLA Navy.
China therefore cannot deploy too many fighters against India. Also, Chinese aircraft are based out of Tibet where the rarefied air doesn’t allow aircraft to take off with their full complement of weapons or fuel capacity, thereby limiting their range and effectiveness. India, therefore, isn’t too worried about the PLA Air Force.
Pakistani Air Threat
The Pakistan Air Force threat is more immediate because Srinagar is just 15 minutes and Adampur 20 minutes from the main PAF airbase at Sargodha. The moment the S-400 becomes operational, it will neutralise this threat. Adampur is India’s frontline base in Punjab where the IAF’s top strike aircraft are based. It is a measure of Adampur’s strategic importance that Pakistan had bombed it in both the 1965 and 1971 wars.
Also, the S-400’s tracking range of 600 km and kill range of 400 km means it can cover Delhi too. Therefore, Adampur is an ideal location for the first of these systems.
Force Multiplier: Why India Acquired The S-400
Air defence is a critical aspect of war. If the enemy is able to penetrate your airspace, his first targets are high value military assets like airfields and ordnance factories as well as high-value industrial establishments such as power plants, oil refineries and transport networks.
Because it has a limited number of squadrons, the Indian Air Force cannot be at all places at all times. The long range of the S-400’s powerful AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar that can look over the horizon fills these gaps. The S-400 missile system can even take out aircraft with low-observable technology. “For the S-400 there is no such thing as ‘stealth’ aircraft; the system will see it and will shoot it down,” an S-400 battery commander was quoted as saying in the Russian media.
The S-400 can “see” everything, both in the air and on the ground, and can easily discern even a tiny aircraft from, say, a truck moving on the ground, the commander added. “Even if a plane is flying low and with the same speed as a vehicle moving on the ground, the radar will show it on the screen.”
The S-400 is a modern iteration of the S-75 missile that famously shot down the American U-2 spy plane over Russia in 1960. The U-2, which was being flown by Captain Gary Powers, was downed while it was flying at an extreme altitude of 70,000 feet. That was nearly 60 years ago; due to incremental improvements in Russian missile defence capability, today’s S-400 can hit targets at altitudes up to 607,000 feet. This exo-atmospheric capability allows the system to potentially intercept intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase.
Unlike the overhyped US Patriot missile that turned out to be a massive failure, the S-400 was designed to create an A2/AD (anti-access/area-denial) umbrella over the battle space. Its tremendous reach means that this envelope can extend over enemy territory, complicating his defences.
“Given its extremely long range and effective electronic warfare capabilities, the S-400 is a game-changing system that challenges current military capabilities at the operational level of war,” Paul Giarra, president, Global Strategies and Transformation, told Defense News. In other words, the S-400 will have the “effect of turning a defensive system into an offensive system”.
Vulnerable From All Angles
The most devastating impact of India acquiring the S-400 Triumf will be on the Pakistani militar’s psyche. The air defence system will increase the vulnerability of all Pakistani air assets, especially fighter aircraft, missiles and drones, by several orders of magnitude. Its 600 km tracking range will allow just three S-400 battalions located on the border to cover all of Pakistan, except the western extremity of Balochistan. With Afghanistan having turned hostile and upending Pakistan’s grandiose plans of acquiring strategic depth, the S-400 will squeeze the operational capabilities of both Pakistan’s offensive and defensive assets.
Because of its blistering speed of 17,000 kmph (versus the F-16’s 2,175 kmph), an S-400 missile fired from Adampur Air Force Base, Punjab, will take just 65 seconds to hit a PAF F-16 flying over Sargodha. Ejection – rather than evasive action – would be the sensible option against a missile coming at you at that speed.
Bilal Khan writes in Quwa: “One would assume that India has every incentive to station a number of S-400 systems – potentially up to three – in fairly close proximity to Pakistan. Grounding the missile in the heart of Indian Punjab would enable India to stifle the PAF from flying in key areas in its Central Command theatre which is responsible for protecting Lahore, the country’s inland economic hub and second largest city.”
The S-400’s deployment will widen the window of vulnerability of Pakistan’s air force, army and strategic missile forces:
- First up, PAF jets will be forced to operate far west of the Indian border.
- Secondly, they will not be able to come to the defence of their armour and troop concentrations that would be taking a pounding from Indian artillery and the IAF.
- The system also has the capability to hunt and kill cruise missiles, which will increase the vulnerability of Pakistan’s newly acquired Nasr and Babur missiles.
A single system can engage up to 36 targets simultaneously, so a string of three such air defence regiments stationed on the western border will allow India to monitor all Pakistani aerial activity on a constant basis. Pakistan will lose the ability to launch surprise pre-emptive airstrikes against India. The S-400’s offensive-defence capability means IAF aircraft won’t have to undertake risky missions until the enemy airspace is sanitised.
Because the PAF’s offensive and defensive assets are stretched thin, the entry of the S-400 will force Pakistan to spend heavily on increased numbers of aircraft and missiles needed to neutralise the huge Indian advantage. Given the Pakistani military’s obsessive desire to achieve parity with India, it may even acquire Chinese knockoffs of the older Russian S-300 system.
With the Pakistani economy not exactly in the pink of health, the additional spending will come at the expense of economic growth needed to employ, feed and house its growing population. Disenchantment with the government’s policies will set in motion the kind of disaffection that led to the country’s breakup in 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh.
India could place the S-400 further east – at Hindon, near Delhi. But placing it in Adampur could have the effect of scaring the hell out of the PAF. Being so close to the border, the system can scan virtually all of Pakistan in its radar sweep. Pakistani aircraft can be painted by the S-400’s radars the moment they take off. It’s not a great feeling if you are in the S-400’s crosshairs; especially if you are a PAF pilot.
Working In Sync: Enhanced Firepower
While the S-400 is clearly a capable long-range weapon, air defence works best when all its components operate in sync. In fact, the system becomes deadlier if it is used alongside short and medium range missiles, anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and fighter aircraft. By dominating high altitude air space, the S-400 can drive enemy aircraft down into a “flak trap” where AAA batteries and air defence fighters await them. If the IAF can successfully integrate the S-400 into its multi-tier air defence system, it can significantly increase the costs for attacking air forces.
The system can also function as a ballistic missile killer until India’s indigenous Prithvi Defence Vehicle comes online in the decade ahead.
Flip Side: We Don’t Know The Full Picture
While the S-400 will definitely enhance India’s war fighting capabilities, it remains to be seen whether the Russians are willing to supply the full-on system or a stripped down export version. The S-400 uses four missiles to fill its performance envelope:
- Very-long-range 40N6 (400 km)
- Long-range 48N6 (250 km)
- Medium-range 9M96E2 (120 km)
- Short-range 9M96E (40 km)
The 40N6 missile with its high explosive warhead is what gives the system its edge. For reasons of secrecy we may never know which of these missiles have been contracted for. However, if Indian negotiators have succeeded in persuading the Russians to supply the 40N6, it would allow the IAF to deploy the system at its most lethal level.
–The writer is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by leading think tanks, and quoted extensively in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare and economic development. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda