“Russia has started supplying S-400 air defence system to India , and the first division will be delivered by the end of 2021,” Director of Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation Dmitry Shugaev recently announced, confirming the beginning of the much-awaited delivery of the long-range air defence system.
What is the status of the deal?
India has contracted five S-400 Triumf (NATO designation SA-21 Growler) regiments from Russia under a $5.43 billion deal signed in October 2018. Delivery was originally slated to begin in 24 months by the end of 2020 but was slightly delayed due to late payments as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eventually, both sides worked out a Rupee-Rouble exchange for payments, following which India paid 15% advance amount, triggering the delivery cycle. The delivery is likely to be completed by April 2023, as informed by the Government in Parliament in July 2019. The final timeline has not been stated.
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Addressing the media in October, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) V.R. Chaudhari said that the “first regiment would be inducted within this year.”
What is the S-400 system?
S-400 Triumf is considered one of the world’s most advanced air defence systems that can simultaneously track and neutralise a range of incoming objects spanning aircraft, missiles and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) over very long ranges.
As per the manufacturer Almaz-Antey State Corporation of Russia, the system can provide air interception against early warning aircraft, airborne missile strategic carriers, tactical and theatre ballistic missiles, medium-range ballistic missiles, among others, in a dense radio countermeasure scenario. Given their capabilities, the S-400 has emerged as one of the most controversial arms exports of Russia and a major point of contention between Washington and Moscow.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) missile defence project, development of the S-400 began in 1993 but was delayed due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Eventually, testing of the system began in 1999 and early 2000. Designed by Almaz-Antey Central Design Bureau, the S-400 is a successor to the S-300 system and entered operational service in 2007. In 2015, it was deployed in Syria by Russia to protect its military assets and has also been deployed in Crimea.
The S-400 is fully mobile and each system has a 3D phased array acquisition radar that can track around 300 targets up to 600 km, command and control centre, automatic tracking and targeting systems, launchers and support vehicles. Each system has four different types to missiles for up to 40 km, 120 km, 250 km and maximum range of 400 km and up to 30 km altitude. The different ranges and varying altitudes create a layered air defence net. An S-400 battalion has eight missile launchers, typically with four missiles each. The 30K6E Command and Control elements include the 55K6E combat control post.
Why is the S-400 important for India?
The S-400 fills important gaps in India’s national air defence network and would complement India’s indigenous Ballistic Missile Defence system developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation and create a multi-tier air defence over the country.
Air Force officials have stated that the S-400 would be seamlessly integrated into the country’s existing air defence network. Given its long range, it means that if deployed towards the Western borders, the system can track movements of Pakistan Air Force aircraft as soon as they take off from their bases.
For the Indian Air Force (IAF), the high-end technology S-400 would give a fillip and make up for its falling fighter aircraft squadrons in the medium term. Former IAF chief ACM B.S. Dhanoa had on several occasions termed the S-400 air defence systems and Rafale fighter jets as “game-changers” for the IAF and said they were like a “booster dose” to the force.
What is the way forward?
The S-400 has emerged as a major flashpoint between Russia and the U.S., and Washington has repeatedly conveyed its displeasure to New Delhi and on several occasions asked India to cancel it, offering advanced U.S. air defence systems instead.
With delivery beginning, India faces the prospect of U.S. sanctions under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), on which the Biden administration has not conveyed a clear signal that it would give a waiver. The issue is expected to top discussions at the India-U.S. 2+2 ministerial dialogue scheduled to be held in early December.
India has a series of big-ticket high-tech deals lined up with both Russia and the U.S. and it will be a tightrope walk for New Delhi in balancing the two.
Defence trade between India and Russia was $15 billion in the last three years because of several big-ticket deals, and deals related to Ka-226T utility helicopters, AK-203 assault rifles and Igla-S Very Short Range Air Defence (VSHORAD) systems are in advanced stages of being concluded, in addition to other major hardware that is under discussion.
With the U.S., India is in the process of procuring additional P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft, AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, among others, while negotiations are in advanced stages for armed drones and Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft.
Last month, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman warned of a hard decision in case India took delivery of the S-400. Referring to the S-400 as “dangerous”, Ms. Sherman indicated that a decision on imposing sanctions under CAATSA would be taken by Mr. Biden. However, later three Republican Senators have already moved a Bill to exempt India from possible sanctions.
Defence trade apart, India and U.S. are members of the Quad grouping and regional efforts, which would also weigh in on any decision to impose sanctions.
In another development, Russia is also developing a more capable S-500 air defence system, and Russian officials have stated that it would be offered to India.