India’s S-400 Air Defence and balance of power in South Asia

The author, a retired Air Commodore, analyses the fallout of the Indian S-400 induction on Pakistan. When operationally deployed to defend along with the French Rafale, he argues, aerial raids by the PAF on Indian targets by human-crewed aircraft would become very challenging and costly.

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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 over 400 Kilometers 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 to 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-defence 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.”

The Russian S-400, the American Patriot PAC-3 and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence systems are currently the top of the line air defence systems operationally deployed. While the S-400 is priced at $500 million per system, Patriot PAC-3 and THAAD cost $1 billion and $800 million per battery, respectively.

The S-400 system, according to Dr. Nayan, will substantially boost its air defence to make up for the squadron shortage partially. Since India already operates defence systems of Russian origin, the calculated risk of upsetting the US administration for the purchase of the Russian S-400 makes sense

Both the American Patriot PAC-3 and the Russian S-400 are the most advanced multirole air defence systems currently in operation. The S-400 theoretically can engage aerial targets at longer ranges than the Patriot PAC-3 and is considered more flexible. Patriot-3, on the other hand, has been battle-tested and seen much more combat when compared to the S-400.

The US and Russian relations have taken a downturn since the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine by Moscow in 2014. Washington has imposed sanctions on several Russian firms. It prohibits any country from signing defence deals with Russia, North Korea and Iran, under the ‘The Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA)’.

The Indian S-400 deal with Russia has put both Washington and New Delhi on the spot, given the strategic relationship the two have developed in a bid to curtail the growing Chinese influence in the region.

The US President has the power to provide a waiver to some countries in violation of CAATSA. A decision of an exemption or imposition of sanctions on India by the US administration is still awaited. The Indians hope backroom negotiations with Washington would convince the US to grant a waiver for Delhi.

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But Dr. Rajiv Nayan, a senior research associate at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis New Delhi, thinks it may not be easy because the US has its own Catch-22 situations to deal with, particularly when it has been clear about sanctioning countries that sign defence deals with Russia and had sanctioned China for buying the S-400.

India justifies the purchase of the S-400 at the risk of upsetting its growing strategic relationship with the US-based on the severe shortages the IAF suffers from in the number of combat squadrons that has depleted to 31.

It would need an additional 11 squadrons in the event of war with both China and Pakistan, which appears unlikely in the coming decade. The S-400 system, according to Dr. Nayan, will substantially boost its air defence to make up for the squadron shortage partially.

Since India already operates defence systems of Russian origin, the calculated risk of upsetting the US administration for the purchase of the Russian S-400 makes sense. “India needs to look after its strategic interests. An air defence missile defence system was the need of the hour.

The S-400 Triumf is a mobile surface-to-air missile system capable of engaging aircraft, UAVs and cruise missiles and possesses a terminal ballistic missile defence capability

The US has said that going ahead with the deal would attract sanctions – but Delhi cannot be seen coming under pressure,” he told the BBC. Besides, according to Pratysuh Rao, an associate director for India and South Asia at Control Risks consultancy, the deal signals an attempt to inject a greater degree of balance in its foreign policy between Russia and the USA.

S-400 Development History

The S-400 Triumf (Growler) earlier christened as the S-300PMU-3 was developed in the 1990s by Russia’s Almaz Central Design Bureau as an upgrade of the S-300 series of the anti-aircraft weapon system. It represents the fourth generation of long-range Russian SAMs.

 

About 70-80% of the technology employed by the initial S-400 design was adapted from the S-300 series, including the missile storage container, launchers and radars, and is compatible with the S-300 interceptor variant.

Manufactured by Fakel Machine-Building Design Bureau, the weapon system has been in service with the Russian Armed Forces since 2007. Since achieving operational status, it has been observed at several military hot spots augmenting the S-300 capabilities.

The S-400 units are currently deployed in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, where it defends Russia’s significant military presence from aerial attacks. In addition, the system has been deployed in Crimea to strengthen Russia’s position on the recently annexed peninsula, and Taurus in Syria to guard Russian and Syrian naval and air assets.

Read more: Post Pulwama: Revisiting ‘The Spy Chronicles’

Besides the deployment of S-400 to protect Russian forces, Peoples Republic of China (PRC) has signed an agreement with Russia to purchase six battalions in 2015. India and Turkey have similarly signed deals to purchase five and two systems in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The second battery of S-400 was delivered to Turkey on August 27, 2019. The Indians are likely to receive their consignment in the next one-and-a-half year.

Working of S-400 

The S-400 Triumf is a mobile surface-to-air missile system capable of engaging aircraft, UAVs and cruise missiles and possesses a terminal ballistic missile defence capability. One system of S-400 comprises up to eight divisions (battalions) controlling up to 72 launchers and a maximum of 384 missiles of different dimensions.

However, the number of battalions in each system can vary according to the purchase deal. Each S-400 battalion is equipped with eight launchers, a control center, radar, and 16 missiles for additional use. The projectiles travel towards the target at a blistering speed of 17,000kms an hour.

Turkey has purchased two systems/regiments of S-400, each consisting of two battalions at a total cost of $2.5 billion; thus, per regiment price comes to about $ 600 million.

India, on the other hand, has contracted for five systems at $ 5.43 billion. The Indian purchase of five systems/regiments would also contain two battalions per system/regiment, and for India, the price per battalion would come to a little over $500 million.

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

According to the Pravda.ru newspaper article, the unit cost of each S-400 battalion (about 7–8 launchers) is $300 million. The price tag of $600 and $500 for the Turkish and Indian sales, respectively, probably reflects the cost of training and spare support for the entire program.

The S-400 uses four different types of missiles, the 40 km-range 9M96, the 150 km-range 9M96E2, the 200-250 km-range 48N6, and the 400 km-range 40N6, along with a multi-layered radar tracking umbrella to cover its entire performance envelope. The system is intended to engage human-crewed aircraft and missile threats, including medium-range ballistic missiles.

 

When deployed along the border with Pakistan, the system will provide India with 600kms radar coverage and the option of shooting down a hostile aircraft or missile 400kms to 40kms outside its territory. The status of 40N6 is still unclear about the ability of the S-400 radar capability to allow the 40N6 to make full use of its maximum range.

Long-range surveillance radar, Command vehicle, Engagement radar and Launch vehicle are the four components of an S-400 battalion (battery in the US lexicon). Working in unison, the long-range surveillance radar tracks objects in the air and relays the information to the command vehicle.

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The command vehicle identifies the object as friend or foe and orders missile launch if determined as hostile. Launch data is passed on to the launch vehicle, which fires the appropriate surface-to-air missiles. The engagement radar helps guide the missile towards the target.

Independent Assessment of 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’.

The technical experts of FOI ‘estimate the effective range against maneuvering 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.

 

Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) and Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEWC) platforms provide far more accurate tracks, however, 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.’ 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 a 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.

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“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 counter-measures against attacks would make any attempt to neutralize 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.

In contrast, 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.

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 AEWC, aerial refuellers and spoofers, aerial raids by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) on Indian targets by human-crewed aircraft would become very challenging and costly.

The Indian BJP government under Prime Minister Modi has displayed glimpses of this behavior by the brazen aerial assault on Balakot on February 26, 2019

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.

Defence

In the nuclear environment prevalent between India and Pakistan, notwithstanding the protective shield, the S-400 could provide to India against any PAF strike in response to any Indian aggression, 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 that a modified version of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine exists between India and Pakistan.

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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 of the rationality of the irrational, for some, irrational acts are considered rational.

The Indian BJP government under Prime Minister Modi has displayed glimpses of this behavior by the brazen aerial assault on Balakot on February 26, 2019. If it was not for the restraint shown by Pakistan’s reprisal raid, and the world pressure on India to back off, the situation could have quickly spiraled to a level where a nuclear war would have become a distinct

possibility. Will the Indian leadership keeps the danger of the conflict escalating, where the only option for Pakistan to respond to the Indian aggression would be a nuclear exchange that would spell doom for both, is the million-dollar question.

Should India venture to conduct another aerial attack similar to the Balakot raid, and unlike the previous attack manages to cause severe 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 its aerial platforms, particularly the enablers like the AEWC, spoofers, refuellers and transport fleet.

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

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 Vulnerable Areas (VAs) and Vulnerable Points (VPs) in India, 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. Besides, 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 neutralize 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.

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All beyond visual range engagement, weapons have to be able to differentiate between friend and foe clearly, 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.

Options for Pakistan & PAF

To begin with, when the S-400 air defence system and the French Rafale become operational with the IAF, the Indian air defence of its VAs and VPs will get a significant boost. However, it would not lead to a paralysis of the PAF’s ability to successfully hit targets deep inside India with conventional weapons.

First, Pakistan’s intelligence setup must keep track of the S-400 induction program in India. About five regiments, each with two battalions, are estimated to have been contracted. The first task of military intelligence at the strategic level would be to determine precisely how many battalions are eventually delivered.

The PAF Airpower Centre of Excellence must already be studying various contingency plans to both reduce the effectiveness of S-400 and take it out when considered essential

One can estimate at least two regiments consisting of four battalions are likely to be deployed along the land boundaries between India and Pakistan, but finding out their exact number, including the actual and alternate deployment sites, must be accorded the highest priority.

Given the availability of hyperspectral satellite imagery with Pakistan and its closest ally, it should be a relatively easy task. Operational and tactical level intelligence should keep a close watch on the training standard of the Indian S-400 air defence operators.

All efforts to determine the actual performance of the system once these are operationally deployed must be in place. Two regiments of the S-400 are being installed in Turkey, where the PAF and the Turkish Air Force regularly conduct joint air exercises.

Accurate figures of the S-400 detection and engagement ranges of various types of combat aircraft and missiles, including cruise missiles is an option that should be exercised with the consent of Turkey.

The Airpower Centre of Excellence of the PAF must already be seriously engaged in studying the impact of the S-400 system in India and determining the tactical option the service can adopt to negate the threat.

Triumf is not known to have the OTH capability; hence one should be able to theoretically calculate the ranges and altitudes where the earth’s curvature would shield an aircraft from detection by the S-400.

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Until an accurate assessment is available through intelligence, the theoretical figures should permit the PAF to determine the altitudes and ranges where the combat aircraft and the enablers can operate without fear of detection, particularly during a crisis, similar to post Pulwama and pre Balakot era.

Hypothesizing the distances, the IAF would deploy the S-400 battalions that could target Pakistan, a figure of at least 100 Kms inside would be a reasonably safe bet. Priced at over $500 million per battery, India would not risk placing them close to the border where a surprise PAF raid could damage it beyond repair.

The PAF Airpower Centre of Excellence must already be studying various contingency plans to both reduce the effectiveness of S-400 and take it out when considered essential. Operation ‘Swift Retort’ was brilliantly planned and executed, keeping the then IAF’s operational strengths and limitations in mind.

Given the very effective and lethal edge, the Indian S-400 and Rafale combine, a similar reprisal raid would require a very different approach. During Operation’ Swift Retort’, the strategy of launching standoff weapons from manned aircraft along with fighter escorts and enablers was successfully employed.

With the enhanced air defence capability that the S-400 would provide, a different attack approach would be necessary. Keeping in mind, the S-400 is deadly against large aerial platforms, against smaller terrain hugging fighters and cruise missiles, the engagement ranges are down to almost 20 Kms.

The chances of at least a dozen or more hitting the target are high, given the limitation of the S-400 engagement parameters where a maximum of sixty-four targets can be engaged before reloading of the launchers would become necessary

A mass raid by strike formations with inexpensive decoys to saturate the S-400 is an option that could be exercised. The S-400 has the capability to perform non-cooperative target recognition (NCTR), although there is little open data on this capability.

From this, it may be able to classify some oncoming targets as decoys to avoid wasting ammunition on them. While such an attack could knock out the S-400 battalion, it is likely to entail a heavy price in terms of loss of costly combat planes and precious pilots. A different approach to engage the S-400 is needed.

Cruise missile technology has improved to an extent they are gradually replacing human-crewed combat planes for strike missions. In 2017, the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Syrian Shayrat airbase by the US Navy caused a fair amount of damage to the aircraft and airbase infrastructure.

Syria is reportedly defended by the S-300, the immediate precursor to the S-400, which perhaps prompted the use of Tomahawk cruise missiles instead of the F-22 or F-35 class planes.

Priced at a million US dollar apiece, the Tomahawk raid cost about $ 59 million, without putting the costly planes and precious pilots at risk. Cruise missiles are increasingly becoming the weapons of the first choice for interdiction and deep strike missions.

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An S-400 battalion can engage between sixteen and sixty-four targets before having to reload, depending on the mix of medium-range and long-range missiles loaded into the launcher.

A saturation attack with “dozens” of precision-guided standoff weapons and decoys could take out the S-400’s engagement radar. The S-400 also has the capability to perform non-cooperative target recognition (NCTR), although there is little open data on this capability.

From this, it may be able to classify some oncoming targets as decoys to avoid wasting ammunition on them. As a result, it may require a swarm attack to knock out an S-400’s engagement radar that would effectively render the entire battalion ineffective.

 

The Pakistani version of the US Tomahawk is the Babar (HatfVII) air-launched and Raad (HatfVIII) ground/underwater launched cruise missiles. Babar and Raad are indigenously produced, and each cost about $100,000, one-tenth the price of the Tomahawk.

Swarm attack by small, inexpensive Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWs) is the latest strategy being advocated by defence experts.

While Babar and RAAD do not fall under the LAWs category, they are much cheaper than similar cruise missiles of foreign origin. Imagine if it becomes imperative to destroy an Indian S-400 battalion, Pakistan launches around 50 or even 100 Babars/Raads.

Post Operation ‘Swift Retort’ India was suspected of preparing a massive Brahmos supersonic cruise missile attack on Pakistan to avenge the humiliation suffered at the hands of the PAF

The chances of at least a dozen or more hitting the target are high, given the limitation of the S-400 engagement parameters where a maximum of sixty-four targets can be engaged before reloading of the launchers would become necessary.

The engagement range of terrain hugging cruise missiles of the S-400 is around 20 Kms only. Even if a very high percentage of the S-400 missiles can destroy the incoming raid of cruise missiles, at speeds approaching the sound, the remainder should be able to slam into their targets before the reloading of the S-400 launchers can be accomplished.

If at the cost of a million US dollar a $500 adversary’s system can be neutralized and no aircrew or expensive planes are put at risk, it would be a very fair bargain.

Assuming a future post-Balakot strike situation where Pakistan would prefer to strike back, keeping the quid pro quo philosophy in mind to prevent escalation and if neutralizing the S-400 battalion would be considered escalatory, other options can be exercised.

The four S-400 Indian battalions are unlikely to cover the entire length and breadth of the India-Pakistan border. The place and timing of the reprisal attack would rest with Pakistan, and it can select targets not covered by the S-400 system.

 

In the worst-case scenario, if the Indians deploy additional battalions of S-400 to cover the full length of the border, the Indian targets in its western coast would still be devoid of the S-400 cover. Raad missiles launched underwater by the submarines are an option that would always be available.

In conclusion, the induction of the S-400 system by India will negatively impact Pakistan’s conventional deterrence but not to an extent where Pakistan’s ability to respond to Indian mischief of the Balakot type cannot be responded to. And in the worst-case situation, the nuclear factor would come to play.

During the Cold War era, the US and Soviet leadership were solely responsible for starting a nuclear war while the rest of the world were silent spectators.

In the Indo-Pak scenario, the world body plays a significant role in preventing an Indo-Pak crisis escalating to a level where a nuclear exchange becomes very likely. The world pressure to deescalate came on the side considered the aggressor by the world body.

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In the Kargil Conflict, Pakistan was seen as the aggressor and forced to back off. In the 2002 crisis, it was India that was threatening to launch a full-scale war on Pakistan. Eventually, a combination of factors that included world pressure forced it to withdraw.

Post Operation ‘Swift Retort’ India was suspected of preparing a massive Brahmos supersonic cruise missile attack on Pakistan to avenge the humiliation suffered at the hands of the PAF. Since India had initiated the conflict by their aerial raid on Balakot, eventually, the covert diplomacy and threat forced India to abandon the hair-brained scheme.

While Pakistan is fully capable of handling the Indian S-400 threat, the inevitable arms race that is likely to buy the S-400 induction at the cost of the impoverished masses on both sides of the divide is the real tragedy.

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 national newspapers including Dawn, The News, and The Nation. 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.

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