The long-range, highly mobile Russian S-400 Triumf Air Defence surface-to-air missile, known as S-21 Growler in the West is a formidable weapon. Primarily developed for employment in aerial defence, its ability to engage hostile aerial targets at ranges in excess of 400 Kms gives it a potent offensive capability.
Asian News International published a report by Yuzhno Sakhalinsk on September 9, 2019, announcing the delivery of the Russian S-400 Triumf missile system to the Indian Air Force within 18-19 months. According to the report, “a USD 5.43-billion deal for the purchase of five S-400 systems has been signed between Russia and India during the 19th Russian Annual Bilateral Summit in New Delhi on October 5, 2018. The S-400 ‘is one of the most sophisticated surface-to-air-defense systems in the world, with a range of 400Kms (248 miles) and can shoot down up to 80 targets simultaneously, aiming two missiles at each one.”
Independent Assessment of the S-400 Performance Parameters
According to a study conducted by the Swedish Research Agency (FOI), the range of the Russian S-400 Triumf air defence system and its ability to counter counter-measures is overrated. In its report titled “Bursting the Bubble,” Russia’s A2/AD capabilities in the Baltic Sea Region even with the S-400 promoted as 400 Kms by the manufacturers is actually 150-200 Kms. A2/AD is the current military buzzword ‘for the ability to deter, at a distance, an enemy’s deployment in a geographic area” (Almaz Antley, Viswanathan Patil, March 5, 2019).
The impact of the Indian S-400 on Pakistan may be viewed on three distinct stages: during peace, post incursion similar to the Balakot raid and when war is declared
The technical experts of FOI ‘estimate the effective range against manoeuvring targets at low altitude is much less, even down to 20Kms for smaller targets hugging the terrain.’ The 40N6 missile purported range of 400 Kms is not yet operational and is plagued by multiple problems in the developing and testing stages. For the S-400 to engage targets at 400Kms even for large aircraft, it must be able to see over the radar horizon (OTH), because of the earth’s curvature.
OTH capability can be achieved through cooperative engagement capability (CEC) and for the S-400 system, it would involve using data from airborne early warning aircraft. Besides, the low-frequency radars can only pinpoint a target’s position to within 10,000 feet, which is not accurate enough to guide the missile. AWACS/AEWC platforms provide far more accurate tracks, but networking is required to send the data from the airborne early warning aircraft to the S-400 system, which is hard to get. Russia has neither discussed nor demonstrated this capability.
‘The S-400 can integrate and use a lower frequency radar system that can detect stealthy aircraft at long ranges. But, to be mobile, the VHF antenna just can’t be large enough for good resolution. For that, those REALLY big antennas, which are built in place.’ (Will Morgan, Computer Science graduate, Nov 14, 2019)
There are several measures for countering A2/AD systems. Some are passive, such as flying around the coverage area of sensors or stationing troops at a location in good time. Others are active countermeasures, both “soft,” in the form of electronic jamming or chaff dispersed from aircraft, and “hard,” where portions of overall capability are physically knocked out, the report stated.
“One can neutralise an entire system by knocking out just one link in a functional chain, for example, a data link or fire-control radar. And since seeing over the horizon requires airborne radar, it may then be enough to shoot down the radar aircraft,” says Robert Dalsjö.
Charlie Gao, a frequent commentator on defence and national issues, cautions the Swedish report, in his judgment, has overstated the case of knocking the S-400 system out. The S-400’s sophisticated inbuilt countermeasures against attacks would make any attempt to neutralise an active S-400 battalion challenging.
Impact of the Indian S-400 on Pakistan
Even if one was to agree with the Swedish Research Agencies report, the ability of the S-400 to engage hostile airborne platforms at a distance of up to 200 Kms makes it a formidable weapon system while its ability to engage adversary’s aircraft well inside their territory gives it a potent offensive option. The impact of the Indian S-400 on Pakistan may be viewed on three distinct stages: during peace, post incursion similar to the Balakot raid and when war is declared.
If Pakistan is unable to contain and repel Indian aggression through conventional means because of the S-400 defensive umbrella, the likelihood of the employment of nuclear weapons will rise exponentially
Even during peace, Pakistan will have to deal with the fallout of the Indian S-400 induction. When operationally deployed to defend along with the French Rafale and the support elements of AEWCs, aerial refuellers and spoofers, aerial raids by the PAF on Indian targets by manned aircraft would become very challenging and costly. Post Uri and Pulwama lessons indicate whenever the Indian government, particularly under Modi, came under domestic pressure due to poor governance, bashing Pakistan and feigning or conducting limited military aggression had domestically paid rich dividends in the past, despite the loss of face and prestige at the international level.
The Indian civilian and military leadership might conclude the S-400 battalions would now make it almost impossible for the PAF to respond to an Indian aerial assault in the manner it had accomplished post-Balakot raid. It would embolden them further to conduct another military assault on Pakistan on a limited scale, following a real or false flag attack in India. Pakistan will have to be ready to counter and respond to this looming threat.
Notwithstanding the protective shield the S-400 could provide to India against any PAF strike in response to any Indian aggression, in the prevailing nuclear environment, the Indian military planners would have to keep the nuclear deterrence theory in mind. Pakistan has successfully established the full-spectrum credible nuclear deterrence capability and can inflict unacceptable damage to India if it threatens the country’s core interest in any form.
If Pakistan is unable to contain and repel Indian aggression through conventional means because of the S-400 defensive umbrella, the likelihood of the employment of nuclear weapons will rise exponentially. Experts agree a modified version of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine exists between India and Pakistan.
Deterrence, particularly nuclear deterrence, is based on the rationality of one’s opponent, and the credibility of the threat being made. According to the theory rationality of the irrational, for some, irrational acts are considered rational. The Indian BJP government under Prime Minister Modi has displayed glimpses of this behaviour by the brazen aerial assault on Balakot on February 26 2019.
But for the restraint shown by Pakistan’s reprisal raid, and the world pressure on India to back off, the situation could have easily spiralled to a level where a nuclear war would have become a distinct possibility. Will the Indian leadership keep the danger of the conflict escalating where a nuclear exchange that would spell doom for both becomes the only option for Pakistan to respond to the Indian aggression, is the million-dollar question.
For the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan Navy, the situation would assume dire proportions if the S-400 system helps the IAF establish a high degree of control of the air on the battlefields, and over the sea.
Should India venture to conduct another aerial attack similar to the Balakot raid and unlike Balakot, manages to cause serious casualties, the PAF’s ability to respond initially following its quid pro quo policy would have to cater for the Indian defensive shield provided by the S-400 and Rafale combine. Answers to overcome the challenge and respond in kind without resorting to the nuclear options have to be found.
In the event of an all-out war between India and Pakistan, the S-400 system would limit the freedom of action of the PAF’s employment of it aerial platforms, particularly the enablers like the AEWC, spoofers, refuellers and transport fleet. Their employment would have to be judiciously planned to keep them out of the S-400 lethal ranges and yet be able to perform their operational tasks.
An all-out war between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan is not likely but cannot be ruled out. In such a scenario, the Indian S-400 system, besides providing a strong defensive shield to the majority of the Indian Vulnerable Areas (VAs) and Vulnerable Points (VPs), can also shoot down PAF combat planes and support platforms well inside Pakistan. The freedom of operation for the PAF even inside its territory would be limited during the conflict. In addition, the S-400 employed judiciously along with the Indian AWAC platforms can target the PAF interceptors deployed to counter the IAF raids on its VAs and VPs. The PAF would have to come up with options to neutralise the threat to its air defence fighters.
For the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan Navy, the situation would assume dire proportions if the S-400 system helps the IAF establish a high degree of control of the air on the battlefields, and over the sea. While the S-400 might theoretically have the capability of targeting PAF aircraft flying in support of the Army over the battle zone, in reality, it would be far more complicated. All beyond visual range engagement weapons have to be able to differentiate between friend and foe and in the melee where both the PAF and the IAF aircraft would be operating, avoiding fratricide is a major challenge.
Electronic means of identifying friendly platforms is far from perfect, and even the mighty USAF equipped with the latest electronic sensors and devices have stringent rules of engagement over airspaces, where friendly and hostile aircraft are present. Avoidance of fratricide would limit the free use of the S-400 long-range targeting capability over the battlefields.
Option for Pakistan
That the S-400 is a formidable weapon must not be overlooked. The PAF has a number of options to counter the threat posed by its presence and still be able to respond to any level of aerial aggression by the IAF. These have not been included in the edited text as some aspects may be classified.
Air Cdre (Retd) Jamal Hussain has served in Pakistan Air Force from 1966 to 1997. He was awarded Sitara-e-Basalat for his services in the year 1982. He regularly contributes articles on defense issues in the Defence Journal from Pakistan, Probe Magazine (Dhaka – Bangladesh) and Dawn, The News, and The Nation English Dailies from Pakistan. He is the author of two books on ‘Air Power in South Asia’ and ‘Dynamics of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia’. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.