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Tuesday, 18 October 2016
The Russian S-400 Triumf system that India has bought is a game CHANGER
October 17, 2016
At one point in the Syrian conflict when it appeared a walk in the park for the Nato forces — when Turkish fighters were all over the Syrian airspace, when they even downed a Russian SU-24 fighter for alleged airspace violations — Russia decided to step in forcefully to alter equations. How? By deployed its latest S-400 Triumf air defence system.
There were a lot of other moves the Russians made, many in tandem with China at the political level. But the immediate game changer happened in the battlefield dynamics. Suddenly, the Turkish F-16s went miles out of Syrian airspace. They even stopped coming close to avoid an accidental provocation.
Instead, Ankara reversed its policy to invite Russia to bid in a tender to build an anti-missile defence system. The US and its Nato command were stunned at the Russian deployment.
With that one move, Moscow sent out the message that it wasn’t posturing, but digging its heels in nice and proper in Syria. A single weapons system had fundamentally altered the balance of power in the Syrian battlefield and outside.
It’s the same S-400 Triumf system on which Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin shook hands and firmed up a deal last week in Goa. India will buy five of them at an estimated deal price of Rs 30,000 crore.
It was the item with the biggest price tag on the defence bill. But it’s the one that fills up a critical missing piece in India’s air defence system. So why is the S-400 such a game changer? Put simply, it’s a mobile platform that can launch eight missiles at one go and at a speed faster than most fighter aircraft.
But the critical bit is its sophisticated jamming-resistant panoramic radar that can detect a plane as far as 600 km away. And its missiles can engage the target at a range of 400 km onwards.
Significantly, it can also zero in to a moving target much more accurately. There’s no other system with such range. The best US counter is the Patriot missile system with a range of about 100 km.
The S-400 would virtually cover most of Pakistan. Which means Pakistani fighters would become greatly vulnerable, tilting all battlefield equations against the Pakistan Air Force.
India plans to deploy three of these against Pakistan and two against China, one each on the western and eastern sectors of the Line of Actual Control (LoAC).
The calculus is that even the Chinese would have to depend largely on their aerial capabilities for any deep offensive into India. So, this acts as a major deterrent.
Interestingly, the Chinese are also buying six S-400s from Russia. But Beijing’s plans are to deploy them largely against any US-led thrust. In many ways, this system could end up reconfiguring the deterrent matrix in the region over a period of time.
But strictly from an Indian context, the spin-offs on strategic decisionmaking would be almost immediate: one that will provide more latitude and security to the political authority, at least on the volatile Pakistan front.
The first effect is on the roundingoff of India’s three-tier air defence loop. At the first level are short-range surface-to-air missiles, basically the indigenously-developed Akash with a 20-40 km range. Then, the mediumrange surface-to-air missile of about 70 km range. And now the S-400s.
Gunning for Triumf
Add to that the quick reaction surface-to-air missile India is developing with Israel, and Indian air defence preparedness looks quite solid. The next level could be the missile shield, whichis still technologically in the works. Missile-based air defence is more of an old Soviet concept.
The US dep ended on aircraft-based systems, the idea being that best air defence is possible by looking top-down, not down-up — a compelling logic that, however, works best when political authority has the flexibility to allow its air force to operate well beyond its own airspace. This is easier for the US or a military alliance like the Nato.
For India facing a volatile adversary like Pakistan, air space violations are at best adventurous; at worst, catastrophic. A slight movement of troops can lead to a scramble of jets. It happened in 2008 when an R&AW plane ran a reconnaissance sortie along the LoC after the Mumbai attacks. Even this time, air forces on both sides ran hectic exercises after the Uri attack.
The S-400 system increases risks for the Pakistan Air Force several times over. Also, the ‘keep-off limits’ message is a useful deterrent. It also helps isolate any rogue or terrorist controlled aircraft well before it reaches the Indian airspace providing crucial time to the political authority to reach a decision.
Which is why one of the main purposes of the S-400 is to be used for protection of vital installations like nuclear plants, communication hubs and cities. Russia has deployed one S-400 just for the air defence of Moscow.
India will still have its ‘top-down’ capabilities by way of a single-engine fighter fleet and Airborne Warning and Control Systems (Awacs).
But their future projections may need to be scaled down after this buy. As for India and Russia, the ‘old friend’ narrative has acquired a fresh new look. The odd military exercise with Pakistan is of little consequence