Indian Tryst with S-400 and Pakistan


Russo-Indian deal for sale of S-400 Triumf air defense systems was initially signed in an intergovernmental agreement reached during 17th Indo-Russian summit in October 2016. Later the deal was approved by Indian Committee on Security; the highest ranking Indian committee on defense matters and most recently the deal worth USD 5.5 bn, for purchase of five units was inked during Putin’s latest Indian yatra. This is a major game changer in South Asian strategic environment. It’s a strategic weapon with far reaching effects. A fourth generation robust anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) asset, designed to protect high-value military, political, and economic targets. S-400 is the state of the art, cutting edge technology; the system has been commissioned in Russian army since long with proven efficacy against aircraft.

Russian air defense systems are ‘supposedly’ the best in the world.

Indians have spent this whopping sum on Growlers (that’s how NATO names S-400; SA-21 Growler). Its acquisition and inclusion in Indian arsenal will significantly enhance Indian strategic reach and effectively take care of danger originating from Pakistan; specifically nuclear tipped long range, medium range as well as short range tactical nuclear missiles, and to a lesser degree from China as well. When commissioned into service, it will qualitatively alter South Asian strategic stability in India’s favor and may push the region into another arms race. 

S-400 is world’s most advanced interceptor based long range air defense system, capable of firing a variety of different missiles, including the 40N6 surface to air defense missile (SAM), the export variant of the missile is designated 40N6E, and is estimated to have an operational range of 400 kilometers (248.5 miles), capable of destroying targets at a phenomenal altitude of       30 kilometers. It is enabled against stealth fighters, flies at the remarkable speed of Mach 15 and can engage a target as low as 5 meters, system is capable of engaging ballistic missiles flying at 4800 meters/second.

The Triumf extended range air defense system has been designed to engage a wide spectrum of airborne threats at ranges of up to 400 kilometers including electronic warfare aircraft (EW), strategic bombers, tactical fighter aircraft, strike aircraft, cruise missiles, airborne early warning aircraft such as NATO's E-3 Sentry, tactical ballistic missiles, intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and other hypersonic threats projected up till at least 2030. To do so, it relies on the 48N6E2 missile introduced with the S-300PMU2 SAM system and the newest 48N6E3 missile featuring a range of 250 kilometers and enhanced capability against IRBM missiles. In its anti-ballistic missile (ABM) role, the 48N6E3 missile can engage ballistic missiles with a maximum range of 3,500 km at distances between 7 to 60 kilometers.

Its surveillance radar is capable of tracking hundreds of incoming targets simultaneously and destroying up to 36 inbound targets concurrently, depending upon the system configuration. The S-400 SAM system/battalion usually comprises a 55K6E command post; command and control system is based on mobile command post vehicle. The command post is equipped with LCD consoles to process the air space surveillance data of the individual batteries. It controls and monitors long-range surveillance radar, tracks airborne threats, prioritizes these threats, and coordinates with other batteries. The system is also capable of exchanging data with other defense systems. The system has eight to 12 5P85SE2 launch vehicles carrying either four 48N6E3 or 48N6E2 surface-to-air missiles; launchers are based on 6×6 tractor truck Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL) vehicle. The TEL vehicle can carry up to four launch tubes holding a mix of missiles (Moving onto the radars). 91N6E Surveillance and tracking radar system, 92N6E multi-role fire control radar system, the fire control and target tracking radar is mounted on 8×8 vehicle, the 96L6 Cheese Board 3D surveillance and tracking radar is optionally carried by the same vehicle when the S-400 battery is deployed autonomously. Radar can detect and track aircraft, rotorcraft, cruise missiles, guided missiles, drones and ballistic rockets within the distance of 600km. It can simultaneously track up to 300 targets, the S-400's radar systems features enhanced performance against small and stealth targets. The 96L6E and 40V6MR are two optional radar systems providing high altitude and low altitude surveillance capabilities respectively. Besides there are 5P85TE2 re-supply vehicles and several support vehicles. All the items are mounted on high mobility wheeled chassis with an average life cycle of 20 years. These vehicles can be transported using airlift aircraft, train and/or sea vessels. All in all the system integrates a multi-function radar, autonomous detection and targeting system and is capable of firing four types of missiles. This configuration allows the system to fire surface-to-air missiles and eliminate incoming missiles, aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, thus creating an air defense shield or an umbrella.

India is expected to receive the first S-400 regiment, two years after the signing date of the contract. Russian state-owned arms maker Almaz-Antey, expects a 15 percent down payment, upon the conclusion of the deal. According to a defense source, the contract will not contain an offset clause in order to expedite delivery of the S-400 air defense systems.

Though there could have been a downside, US govt expressed its discomfort on the deal and signaled slapping sanctions by invoking Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA,) which came into effect in January 2018. Nonetheless “apparently, the Indian defense establishment is convinced that S-400 Triumf system is ideally suited to fill a critical gap in their existing capabilities. That being the case, there is no reason for India to buckle under the US pressure to roll back procurement of hardware from Russia,” said, a former financial adviser on defense acquisition for the MoD. And therefore fearing the loss of key a strategic partner in South Asia, Washington decided not to slap India on the wrist. Interestingly, Chinese were promptly sanctioned in September 2018, for buying S-400. Although the United States Congress has passed the conference report on National Defense Authorization Act-2019 (NDAA-19), which provides for a modified waiver to section 231 of CAATSA. President Trump will need to grant approval for helping India dodge these sanctions. This is contrary to ‘America First’ policy of favouring US interests over global concerns. Plus prevailing South Asian strategic environment, specifically US and Pakistan, will also have to be factored in. A waiver will be tantamount to a direct move against Pakistan’s strategic interests. However extension of Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) to India and relative calm in US policy circles over the deal is indicative of tacit US approval, albeit quietly and the  fact that the US has little or no regard for growing South Asian strategic instability and imbalance; makes one wonder, if stable South Asia is in US interest at all?

India embarked upon its indigenous development of ballistic missile systems including air defense systems in 1990s. But having spent a monstrous 3600 crores, it appears that air defense component could not deliver as desired. Ever-since India has also acquired/is in the process of acquiring air defense systems from Israel and US. Nonetheless it seems that Chinese acquisition and deployment of S-400 systems from Russia may have intensified India’s quest for S-400, in order to match Chinese capability and to counter Pakistan’s ballistic missiles, MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Rentry Vehicles) and other strategic capabilities. Though the Chinese might have ‘prima facie’ hastened Indian acquisition of S-400 systems, both countries seem to have shown no desire to escalate tensions post Doklam.

However with Pakistan it’s not the same case. India has been overtly pursuing the option of a ‘limited war under nuclear overhang’ and is actively engaged in waging sub-conventional hybrid war to continuously bleed Pakistan.

Latent conflict between nuclear armed rivals India and Pakistan characterizes continued strategic stability in South Asia. Breakdown of deterrence between the two belligerents would have serious consequences, including the potential use of nuclear weapons. Limited war under nuclear overhang is not an entirely new construct; it existed as strategy in NATO thinking during the Cold War paradigm. The concept also existed in Indo-Pakistan war scenarios in 1980s and 1990s, but was strongly rejected by Pakistan.

Kargil was a watershed in recent South Asian history, Indians believe that Pakistan was trying to explore the limits of its nuclear deterrence. Post Kargil Indian policy makers have been deliberating upon a concept that allows future warfare with Pakistan i.e, space for limited war well below Pakistan’s perceived nuclear threshold. In year 2000 the then Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes publicly declared at a seminar organized by IDSA (Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis), that “Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons does not rule out possibility of a limited conventional war, that nuclear weapons only deter use of nuclear weapons, not all and any war. That war had not been rendered obsolete because of development of nuclear weapons; it remained a feasible option, though with definite limitations.” The same sentiment was also echoed by the then Indian Army Chief General        VP Singh, he declared that, “India would not hesitate to fight a limited conventional war with Pakistan, regardless of its nuclear weapons capability.” Resultantly India launched ‘Op Parakaram’ in late December2001, pitching Indian and Pakistani troops against each-other.

Unsuccessful prosecution of ‘Op Parakaram,’ precipitated a need in the Indian policy making hierarchy to come up with a new war fighting strategy; Cold Start seemed to have caught the imagination of Indian policy makers in 2004. This pre-emptive limited war doctrine has off late matured into Pro Active Operations Strategy (PAS) and is being sold to the West and rest of the world as a defensive measure. In pre 2004 era, India use to take over a month to moiblise its forces.

Utter failure of ‘Op Parakaram’ further pushed India to review its strategy. Year long standoff signaled Indian departure from its routine mobilization process. Op Parakarm concluded that SunderJi doctrine (ala Blitzkreig), which warranted complete mobilization of forces before the onset of a large scale strategic offensive, had outlived its utility. Indian offensive mobilization required its forces stationed in East and Central India to move to their strategic assembly areas, which took more than three weeks. This provided more than ample opportunity to Pakistani forces to complete strategic assembly, well before the Indian forces could complete theirs,  hence, precluding any chances of misadventure by the Indian forces. Finding no space for launching an offensive and having lost in relative TSR matrix (time, space and troops ratio), Indian forces remained eyeball to eyeball with Pakistani forces, without yielding any worthwhile on field results. This stalemate provoked a re-appraisal in Indian politico-military intelligentsia and hence a new war fighting concept; the birth of Cold Start Doctrine/PAS.  

Cold Start propounded multiple shallow thrusts in inside Pakistani territory by holding Corps, which were renamed pivot corps; the concept envisaged optimal utilization of offensive elements of defensive corps, wherein India could launch an offensive without any visible movement of offensive forces, thus catching Pakistan unaware.

Indian PAS postulates the notion of Hit and Mobilise; whilst exploiting mobilization differential between India and Pakistan, using air arm as the predominant tool/actor; resort to gradual  assembly; launch multiple thrusts with Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) ex pivot corps, suitably augmented by offensive elements ex strike corps; exploit success through application of ‘Theatre Reserve Forces’ (TFRs), at the same time achieving synergy between IBGs and TFRs; remaining well below Pakistan’s perceived nuclear threshold. PAS is a manifestation of Indian concept of Limited War. As of now, bulk of Indian offensive forces, are deployed close to Pakistan, in a ready-to-go mode. The leading assumption being, that operations would remain well below Pakistan’s nuclear threshold. This huge risk is supported by the bluster that India shall retaliate massively, should Pakistan choose a flexible and localized nuclear response against fallacious Indian use of force.

Indian propensity for war is a given factor and therefore the acquisition of S-400 will significantly embolden Indian pre-emptive PAS, its highly likely to provide momentum as well as encouragement to nuclear pre-emption. And with hawks at the helm of affairs in Indian polity, the risks of pre-emption and nuclear escalation are extremely high. Ballistic Missile Defense shield, has lulled Indians into believing that space for war exists – this is a dangerous lullaby indeed.

S-400 strengthens Indian limited war refrain, but historically wars are limited in definition of notion of victory and thereby limiting aim, scope and objectives of war, the means applied to achieve objectives, limited use of force and resources, limited in geography, limited time duration and keeping channels for communications opened for negotiating with adversaries. Unfortunately both India and Pakistan have not been communicating for good part of last four years, whilst a ‘peace of sorts’ prevails.

Given the fact that strategic stability in South Asia already favours India, ever-since signing of 123 agreement, the fact that unresolved Kashmir issue is a nuclear flash point and US is actively bidding on Indian behest for its membership in NSG, limited war in South Asia poses a serious risk of escalation based on a number of factors which are not necessarily under the control of policy makers or military leaders. A history of misperceptions, poor intelligence, and India’s awkward national security decision making suggests that a limited war could be a risky undertaking and could instill further instability in South Asia. 

Moreover besides other risks deployment of S-400 lends credibility to Indian sub tactical ‘surgical strike’ mantra and may turn this fiction into a reality. S-400 provides India with deep reach inside Pakistan. Though one wonders, if Indians have fully contemplated, deliberated and weighed the costs and benefits of this Herculean option. Likewise it’s difficult to digest that strategic arms suppliers have thrown ‘caution to wind,’ when it comes to strategic stability in South Asia and have chosen to engage in profitable business. Though one can understand how dependent Russian economy is on defense exports and how important is it for them to conclude huge deals like this. Nevertheless, Russian offer for S-400 is on the table for Pakistan as well, if and when we can manage cash transaction.

S-400 will afford India the luxury of striking deep in Pakistani territory forcing latter to re-think its strategies, redraw plans and revisit methodology to defeat this nascent threat. Nonetheless, Pakistan will not be drawn into an economically debilitating arms race, as it shall be detrimental to Pakistan’s overall national interests. However, Pakistan might have to review its recessed deterrence capability for launching a matching response. Besides a multitude of defensive measures, Pakistan’s offset strategy will be to build redundancy in numbers, enhanced cyber warfare capabilities to neutralize radars and weapon platforms, deployment of decoys en-masse, enhanced stand-off capability, suitably adapted cruise missiles and MIRV capabilities of its ballistic missile arsenal, PAF operating in bands not covered by S-400 SAMs, low altitude flying to evade detection, strategic targeting to take out Indian air defense systems, extensive use of submarine based munitions and SLCMs etc.

Rummaging the South Asian history book indicates that some powers will overlook Indian provocations and will focus on Pakistan’s minimal and restrained counter measures.  Moreover two years to delivery of first S-400 system, provides ample opportunity and time for addressing this seemingly bourgeoning imbalance. Pakistan will deal with this threat effectively and ensure credible deterrence, until Indian behavior stabilizes. Herein lie’s Pakistan’s redemption.  All is not lost.