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Explained: S-400 purchase & implications

Russia has begun delivery of S-400 air defence system to India. What is this system, why are they important for India, and how can the purchase from Russia impact India’s relations with the US?

Written by Krishn Kaushik | New Delhi |
Updated: November 18, 2021 8:44:14 am
Explained: S-400 purchase & implicationsS-400 is considered one of the most advanced air defence systems in the world. (Express Archive)

A Russian official said in Dubai on Sunday that delivery of the S-400 air defence system, five of which were bought by India from Russia in 2018 for nearly US$5.5 billion, has begun, and is going on as per schedule. Sources in the establishment confirmed the development.

The first unit is expected to be operational by the end of the year. The acquisition has the potential to cause a diplomatic rupture between the US and India when the two countries are on a path to a tighter relationship.

What is S-400?

Considered one of the most advanced and potent air defence systems in the world, S-400 Triumf has the capability to protect against almost all sorts of aerial attacks, including drones, missiles, rockets and even fighter jets. The system, intended to act as a shield over a particular area, is a long-range surface-to-air missile system.

Named SA-21 Growler by NATO, and developed by Russia’s Almaz Central Design Bureau, S-400 can engage intruding aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles, a recent article in US Air Force’s Journal for Indo-Pacific Command stated. It has “surfaced as an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) asset designed to protect military, political, and economic assets from aerial attacks”.

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Each unit has two batteries, each of which has a command-and-control system, a surveillance radar, and engagement radar and four lunch trucks.

Russia has been developing S-400 since 1993. Testing began in 1999- 2000 and Russia deployed it in 2007.

According to Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, its “mission set and capabilities are roughly comparable to the US Patriot system” but unlike some Patriot interceptors, “the S-400 does not currently employ hit-to-kill ballistic missile defence technology”.

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The system comes equipped with four types of missiles: short- range up to 40 km; medium-range up to 120 km; long-range 48N6 going as far as 250 km, and very-long-range 40N6E up to 400 km and a flight altitude of 180 km. It can simultaneously track up to 160 objects in a 600 km range, and target 72 objects in a 400 km range, according to a study.

How does it work?

S-400 detects an aerial threat approaching the air defence bubble (the area it has to protect), calculates the trajectory of the threat, and fires missiles to counter it.

It has long-range surveillance radars that sends information to the command vehicle. On identifying the target, the command vehicle orders a missile launch.

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Think of the Iron Dome, recently used by Israel to protect against incoming rockets from Gaza May. Only, S-400 has the capacity to protect a much larger area from threats that are much farther.

Why has India bought them?

To protect against attacks by missiles, or fighter jets from China or Pakistan. A report in February by the think tank Observer Research Foundation mentioned that from the perspective of the Indian Air Force, “there is no alternative system capable of serving its long-range air defence requirements, from the standpoint of either capability or cost”. The S-400, it said, can “constrain the adversary’s air operations even within their own airspace” a capability “unmatched by typical Western systems offered up as analogues”.

The report compared S-400 with the American MIM-104 Patriot system, which it noted is “primarily oriented toward missile defence with less focus on the pure anti-aircraft role”. It said S-400 can be deployed within five minutes, compared to 25 minutes for Patriot (PAC-3). It has a speed of 4.8 km/s compared to 1.38 km/s. It is cheaper too, with a per-battery cost of approximately $500 million, compared to the Patriot’s $1 billion.

By when will they be delivered?

In Dubai, Director of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation Dmitry Shugaev said: “Russia has started supplying S-400 air defence system to India, and the first division will be delivered by the end of 2021”. India is slated to receive first of the five units it bought by end of the year.

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India has placed an order for five units in October 2018. Initially, the delivery was to begin within 24 months, but has been delayed for several reasons. The government told Parliament in July 2019, around the time when India paid Russia around $800 million as the first tranche, that the final deliveries of all units are likely to be done by April 2023.

Who all have it?

Several nations have been interested in it. Belarus requested it in 2007 and got the first delivery in 2016. Algeria bought it in 2014 and got the first unit in 2015. Turkey had placed an order with Russia in December 2017, and delivery began in July 2019. Egypt, Saudi Arabi and Qatar have also shown interest.

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What concerns India is that China placed an order in March 2014, and the delivery began in 2018. During the standoff in eastern Ladakh, which began in May 2020 and remains unresolved, China had reportedly deployed its S-400 along the Line of Actual Control.

Why is the US upset with it?

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There are several reasons. One is that the US wants India to wean off its traditional reliance on Russian defence systems. Russia has been the largest defence partner for India over the decades, a relationship that is changing as India inches closer to the US diplomatically and strategically; imports from the US have gone up, largely at the cost of Russian imports.

A report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute on the trends in international arms transfer, released in March, said that while arms imports by India decreased by 33% between 2011–15 and 2016–20, Russia remained the largest supplier to India in 2011-15 and in the next half decade from 2016 -20. “However, Russia’s deliveries dropped by 53 per cent between the two periods and its share of total Indian arms imports fell from 70 to 49 per cent. In 2011–15 the USA was the second largest arms supplier to India, but in 2016–20 India’s arms imports from the USA were 46 per cent lower than in the previous five-year period, making the USA the fourth largest supplier to India in 2016–20.” The report stated.

But the larger cause of concerns about the deal for Indo-American relationship lies in a 2017 law passed by the US named Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), whose objective is to counter American adversaries Iran, Russia and North Korea through punitive measures. Title II of the Act deals with sanctions in Russian interests, including its defence industry. The Act empowers the US President to impose at least five of the 12 listed sanctions mentioned in Section 235 on persons who engage in a “significant transaction” with Russian defence and intelligence sectors. The US imposed sanctions on Turkey, a longstanding NATO ally, in December 2020 over its purchase of the system.

In January, a US Congressional report warned that if India goes ahead with the purchase of the S-400 system, it may lead to sanctions. The report warned that “India’s multi-billion dollar deal to purchase the Russian-made S-400 air defence system may trigger US sanctions on India” under CAATSA. A few days later, the outgoing US Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster raised issues of “interoperability” between the forces of the two nations, which was viewed as a veiled reference to the S-400 deal.

India’s External Affairs Ministry responded that “India and the US have a comprehensive global strategic partnership” and “India has a special and privileged strategic partnership with Russia”. The ministry said “India has always pursued an independent foreign policy. This also applies to our defence acquisitions and supplies which are guided by our national security interests.”

The issue remains unresolved, though. Two US senators had reportedly written to President Joe Biden last month, urging his administration to waive any sanctions against India over the purchase.

Now that the delivery has begun, it remains to be seen what action, if any, the US is willing to take, especially as it has made the Indo-Pacific its main area of focus to counter China’s rise.

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First published on: 17-11-2021 at 03:37:36 am
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