S-400 missile systems: A booster dose with side effects

It is within the US’ interests to not sanction India for the acquiring of the Russian missile system, considering both India and the US would like to deter China’s rise in the regin

In October 2018, the then Indian Air Force (IAF) chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, had called the procurement of S-400 missile systems from Russia “like a booster dose for the IAF”. Today, the term ‘booster dose’ may be associated with COVID-19 vaccines, but the Air Chief referred to it in a different context. The S-400 ‘Triumf’ missile systems he spoke of are universally considered as force multipliers and have withstood the test of time to be one of the most sophisticated platforms. Also, this missile system is in the news because the United States (US) has been coercing India to abort the Russian deal by threatening unilateral sanctions. It is doing this despite facing opposition from its own legislature and industry.

The S-400 is a mobile long-range surface-to-air missile (LR-SAM) system developed by Almaz-Antey, a Russian state-owned enterprise. It possesses the capability to take down multiple aerial targets including stealth fighter jets, bombers, cruise and ballistic missiles, and even unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). It possesses four different kinds of missiles that can engage beyond visual range (BVR) targets up to a range of 400 kilometres and it also carries two separate radar systems, which can detect aerial targets to a range of 600 kilometres and can simultaneously engage 80 aerial targets.

This missile system is in the news because the United States (US) has been coercing India to abort the Russian deal by threatening unilateral sanctions.

Procurement of the S-400s become important in the context of regional stability. In the aftermath of last year’s skirmishes between Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops in Ladakh, Beijing ordered for a buildup of armour and military infrastructure, including its own S-400 battalions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). This threatens IAF assets in conflict, thereby, causing a tactical mismatch.

India has also kept its Western neighbour in mind while purchasing these systems. Pakistan lacks ‘strategic depth’ considering the aerial distance between, say, Peshawar on its western  and Lahore on its eastern frontier is not more than 385 kilometres, well within S-400’s radar and firing range. IAF’s deployment of these systems could lead to simultaneously detecting and engaging aerial movements in Pakistan and China.

IAF’s deployment of the S-400 missile systems shall augment its existent indigenously developed Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD), and coupled with terrestrial, air and space-based sensors it will be able to second-guess military buildup and maintain strategic stability in the region.

What irks the US? All in all, the Russian S-400 is today the most sophisticated air defence platform and costs around half of its Western equivalents, for instance, Lockheed Martin’s Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) systems. Further, it has the wherewithal to detect NATO stealth fighters like F-22 and F-35 and fire missiles four metres above ground to destroy them even before they take-off. Perhaps, these are factors that are irking the United States, as S-400 operators include a NATO-ally Turkey and a rising hegemon, China, whose rise cannot be termed peaceful.

The Russian S-400 is today the most sophisticated air defence platform and costs around half of its Western equivalents, for instance, Lockheed Martin’s Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) systems.

The aforementioned factors along with ‘Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions’ Act (CAATSA) in the US have caused it to take stock of the events. CAATSA is a US federal law which sanctions Iran, North Korea and Russia, and any country engaging in bilateral trade with these countries on the two areas of intelligence and defence. Ever since talks between India and Russia have emerged on the issue of purchasing S-400 missile systems, US has expressed its intention to impose sanctions on India as well.

But what Washington DC disapproves of is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had begun bilateral discussions on S-400s with Russian President Vladimir Putin way back in 2016. Retrospective application of a domestic law, which was enacted in 2017, can only hamper friendly ties between India and the US, which are on the upswing.

But the US also faces domestic pressure. Members of the US Senate and US-India Business Council have urged President Biden to grant India a ‘national interest waiver’ as provided under CAATSA as this is in the US’ national security interest. The Senate Indian caucus for instance said, “We believe that the application of CAATSA sanctions could have a deleterious effect on a strategic partnership with India, while at the same time, not achieve the intended purpose of deterring Russian arms sales.”

India-US strategic ties have been on the rise for more than a decade, and their own bilateral trade has been worth around US $20 Billion and is only set to rise in the future.

Stimson Center, a leading US think tank in its report ‘Towards a Mature Defence Partnership’ argues that “CAATSA sanctions will trigger significant Indian political blowback, setting relations back a decade”. However, the White House is yet to decide on the sanctions waiver.

India-US strategic ties have been on the rise for more than a decade, and their own bilateral trade has been worth around US $20 Billion and is only set to rise in the future. Both countries today face a common threat, China, for which they require each other’s mutual assistance in ensuring a rules-based order.

For India, it is the need of the hour to maintain balance of power in the subcontinent. The S-400 platform shall ensure that Beijing realises the futility of keeping forward deployments along the LAC. It is of utmost importance to ensure a peaceful Indo-Pacific. Coincidentally, this also happens to be the way out for the US.

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