The proposed acquisition of the S-400 Triumf will undoubtedly impact capability of the adversary in conducting air operations and will be a valuable constituent of the Indian air defence architecture. It is expected to enter service by 2020 and may complete induction in five to six years. The system has a place in the architecture along with other systems required to safeguard the Indian air space. This system will create the desired advantage only as part of the architecture.
The S-400 is expected to cost $6.1 billion for five systems – the most expensive air defence system ever bought by India…
A news item in the Economic Times of March 12, 2016 read, “In a rare exercise, India’s air defence plans have been altered after intervention by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar that may have saved the taxpayer Rs 49,300 crore in acquisitions over the next decade. Faced with the high cost of acquiring the Russian S-400 long range missile shield – the cutting edge system that can bring down incoming stealth fighters and missiles at a range of 380 km – the minister ordered a review of the 15-year long term plan to purchase new air defence systems up to 2027. The study found that India will require a much lesser number of the shorter range systems. Minister Parrikar convinced the Indian Air Force (IAF) that according to its layered defence plan, the long range S-400 system would make the larger number of MR-SAM and SR-SAM redundant. The S-400 is expected to cost $6.1 billion for five systems – the most expensive air defence system ever bought by India. But, on a per square km covered basis, it is the cheapest of known systems available”1
An Unexplained Revaluation
The foregoing news item speaks of two issues. Firstly, the possibility of India acquiring the S-400 Triumph, an ultra-modern ground-based Russian air defence weapon system and secondly, about a revaluation done to establish afresh, a reduced long term requirement of ground-based air defence weapons for the armed forces. The report credits the Defence Minister with a massive saving in defence expenditure by deleting some proposed acquisitions of ground-based air defence weapon systems.
Some disquieting questions raised by this news item will be identified and elaborated in the following text, but first an important and a novel aspect must be highlighted. We have a never ending acquisition process. While there is a running argument between the bureaucrats who never understand the technology or the urgency for acquiring a weapon system, but control the purse strings and the process of acquisition. The users on the other hand, constantly and indefatigably press for early acquisition. It is possibly the first time in the history of modernisation of the armed forces that a political authority has, based on some unknown parameters, reportedly convinced professionals, who have spent a lifetime studying air defence, to delete planned acquisitions for an arm which needs a whole new inventory because we ‘may’ acquire a very potent weapon. If indeed true, this could be a perilous precedence for the future. The fact that such an action has been started with the IAF acquisition plans may very well affect other services.
There is still a need to acknowledge the exceptional nature of the weapon system proposed to be acquired and its impact on air defence preparedness…
Before identifying the impact of the reported ‘revaluation’, saving money, which was not even on the verge of being spent and a fundamental deviation in the process of deleting approved items from a long term acquisition plan; especially items meant for a grossly under-equipped area of defence preparedness, there is still a need to acknowledge the exceptional nature of the weapon system proposed to be acquired and its impact on air defence preparedness.
S-400 on the World Stage
The S-400 Triumf is an anti-aircraft weapon system developed in the 1990s by Russia’s Almaz Central Design Bureau as an upgrade of the S-300 family. It has been in service with the Russian Armed Forces since 2007. The S-400 uses four missiles to fill its performance envelope: the very-long-range 40N6 (400 km), the long-range 48N6 (250 km), the medium-range 9M96E2 (120 km) and the short-range 9M96E (40 km) On May 21, 2007, the Russian Air Force announced that S-400 would be put on combat duty around Moscow and Central Russia by July 01, 2007. The S-400 was also deployed near the town of Elektrostal.2
This celebrated ground-based air defence system, deployed in 2007, suddenly appeared on the world stage because of an event which took place in Turkey. The Russian S-400 came into the global media spotlight late in 2015 when Moscow deployed the system after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 Fencer near the Syria border on Thanksgiving Day. The Russian deployment compelled Turkey to pause air operations thus impacting US and coalition air operations in the region, demonstrating the considerable reach and influence of this advanced air defence system. This episode demonstrated the S-400’s potential as a weapon with strategic effects, a role that China, the first export recipient of the system, may seek to exploit in any future crises. In April 2015, Russia announced the sale of four to six S-400 battalions to China. It remains unclear where China will deploy these assets. However, deployment of the system could influence the regional security order and dramatically impact the ability of the US and its allies to respond to crises related to Taiwan, the Koreas, and the East and South China Seas3.
Widely acknowledged as the world’s most powerful anti-aircraft and anti-missile system, the S-400 has impressive DNA…
More About the S-400
Widely acknowledged as the world’s most powerful anti-aircraft and anti-missile system, the S-400 has impressive DNA. It is a development of the S-75 missile that shot down the American U-2 spy plane over Russia in 1960. Missiles of the S-400 class are a cornerstone of Russian military prowess. According to military commentator John Greesham, “This mandates that military forces operate whenever possible, under a 24/7 integrated air defence umbrella anchored primarily by Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs). Russian experts claim that the S-400 can blow stealth fighters like the American F-35 and F-22 out of the sky. It can also destroy aircraft or missiles flying five metres above ground level by targeting them from above. Because the missiles can travel at speeds of up to Mach 14 or 17,000 kmph, the system can literally take the war into the enemy’s airspace. For instance, an S-400 based at Halwara air base, can bring down an F-16 flying over Lahore in just 34 seconds, giving the Pakistani pilot no time to say his prayers. The S-400 can not only block enemy aircraft from providing support to their army during a conventional war, it can provide an umbrella against Pakistani or Chinese missiles in case of a nuclear war. The missile system is, therefore, a force multiplier that can dramatically influence the outcome of a war4.
The S-400 is the most dangerous operationally deployed modern long-range SAM in the world. Its maximum effective range is 400km. The system reportedly can simultaneously track 100 airborne targets and engage six of them. It reportedly has the capability to counter low-observable aircraft and precision-guided munitions and is also extremely mobile.5
A Relatively Inexpensive Weapon System
Besides being a formidable weapon, the S-400 is relatively an inexpensive ground-based air defence option in comparison to the cost of the threat that it can destroy. “It’s not often that a relatively inexpensive air defence weapon is able to make a trillion dollar fighter programme obsolete. But the $500-million S-400 missile system has done precisely that to America’s brand new F-35 stealth fighter. With a tracking range of 600 km and the ability to hit targets 400 km away at a blistering speed of 17,000 km an hour – faster than any existing aircraft, the S-400 is a truly scary weapon if you are facing its business end. Each S-400 battalion has eight launchers, a control centre, radar and 16 missiles available as reloads.
Besides being a formidable weapon, the S-400 is relatively an inexpensive ground-based air defence option in comparison to the cost of the threat that it can destroy…
Unlike the over-hyped US Patriot missile that turned out to be a dud in battle, the S-400 was designed to create the ‘daddy of Iron Domes’. “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. The S-400 will have the “effect of turning a defensive system into an offensive system and extend China’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) umbrella over the territory of American allies and the high seas.”6
Having sufficiently established the pre-eminent position of S-400, let us see the chronology of known events and their analyses, which finally resulted in India and Russia signing the contract for India getting this system:
• Defence Acquisition Council Clears Acquisition of S-400 on December 17, 2015. The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar cleared the purchase of five S-400 Triumf long-range air defence systems from Russia. This issue is likely to be discussed during Prime Minister Modi’s talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.7
• This approval of the acquisition by the DAC was a prelude to the PM’s visit to Russia. This issue is (was) likely to be discussed during Prime Minister Modi’s talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin8.
This action of the Indian Ministry of Defence (MOD) was obviously intended as a legal pre-cursor of an officially sanctioned request for the weapon system, to visit of the Indian Prime Minister to Moscow to discuss amongst other things, the issue of sale of S-400 to India. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the “partnership” between their two nations as they oversaw the signing of energy and other deals. However, no progress was announced on an anticipated purchase of S-400 missiles, Russia’s top-of-the-line anti-aircraft defence systems.9
There was a deluge of comments globally, apparently from very knowledgeable commentators, analysing the absence of any mention of S-400 in Modi–Putin interaction signifying the possibility of India being denied this system. Linking the deal to FGFA, submarines and of course a detailed analysis of Indo-Russian relations vis-à-vis Sino-Russian relations. This kind of analysis, which may be based on some very authentic insider information, sometimes displays ignorance about how the system works when deals are made between Russia and India. Also, to expect any unnecessary noises from two very circumspect leaders would have been out of place. Relations between two very friendly countries can be summed as “The Indo-Russian relationship is independent of the relationship with other countries,” Kadakin said, and added, “We do not feel jealous when India acquires military hardware from other countries for its strategic needs…Please name a country that can lease a nuclear submarine.”10