by Jamal Hussain 13 February 2020
The long-range, highly mobile Russian S-400 Triumf Air Defence surface-to-air missile, known as the 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-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 per system, Patriot PAC-3 and THAAD cost $ 1 billion[ii]and $800 million per battery[iii] respectively. 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. (Madhusudhan Nanjappa, Quora, April 25, 2016).
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, and prohibits any country from signing defence deals with Russia, North Korea and Iran, in accordance with ‘The Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAASTA) (op. cit. Sakhalinsk). 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 CAASTA. A decision of a waiver 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. 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-400s.
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 US has said that going ahead with the deal would attract sanctions – but Delhi cannot be seen coming under pressure,” he told the BBC.[iv]
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 anti-aircraft weapon system. It represents the fourth generation of long-range Russian SAMs.[v] 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 (Adam Muspratt, 21 Nov 2018).
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.
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 agreements 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 centre, 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.[vi]India, on the other hand, has contracted for five systems at $ 5.43 billion.[vii] 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. 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 the Indian sales, respectively, probably reflects the cost of training and spare support for the entire programme.
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 manned 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.[viii] 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. 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 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 km. 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 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.’[ix] (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.[x]
“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.
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.
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. Top of FormIf 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.[xi] 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.
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.
[ii] James Bosbotinis, How capable is the S-400 missile system? 11/21/2018,