India, eyeing the Russian S-400 Triumf long-range, anti-aircraft system since 2015, has finally signed a $5.4-billion deal for the system. The purchase has sharply increased the conventional military asymmetry in South Asia, and is a major threat to Pakistan.
With the deal inked during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to New Delhi last week, by most assessments, India should begin getting its S-400s from 2020, having ordered five squadrons of the export version.
The S-400 is capable of tracking and destroying aircraft, including drones, at long range, much before any hostile aircraft enter the user’s airspace and can also target incoming ballistic and cruise missiles.
According to data available through Russian open sources, picked up by military analysts, the S-400 integrates a multifunction radar with autonomous detection and targeting systems, four types of missiles, launchers and a command and control center.
It is also reportedly effective against aircraft and missiles flying “off the deck”.
Strangely, we have not heard anything from the government of Pakistan on the deal or its ramifications. The media in Pakistan has also remained silent for the most part.
Indian pre- and post-deal assertions that the system is meant for air defense against China are largely a red herring. While New Delhi will deploy the system to cover its airspace towards China, its primary, hot use would be against Pakistan.
Beijing already has the S-400, and while there are border tensions between India and China—they had a near-three-month standoff at Doklam in 2017—neither side showed any appetite for escalation.
This is not the case with Pakistan. India has long sought to punish Pakistan just short of Islamabad’s nuclear red lines, but has not been able to figure out how.
Since the Kargil conflict in 1999, India has been working on a limited war option. During the Twin Peaks crisis, generally referred to as the 2001-02 standoff, India also realized that its longer interior lines make mobilization cumbersome. Pakistan completed its mobilization much quicker, given its shorter lines.
The result: India began working on what came to be known as the Cold Start Doctrine (CSD).
The CSD envisaged forward-located Independent Battle Groups (IBGs), each with its offensive and support arms, integrating air and ground assets for a short, sharp strike against targets not too deep in Pakistan. Once again, the idea was premised on the assumption that Pakistan would not resort to using its nuclear option first and early into the conflict.
The doctrine has since been rechristened Pro-active Operations (POAs). It is generally accepted on both sides that a narrow band does exist for a limited conflict. On its part, Pakistan plugged the gap with the Nasr, a short-range missile which can carry nuclear warheads. Whether Nasr has been or can be effective is another debate and the putative arrival in South Asia of the S-400, makes that debate largely irrelevant.
So far India, despite conducting exercises to validate PAOs, has gaps in its capability to conduct operations with speed, coordination and accuracy. This is notwithstanding claims about having conducted a surgical strike along the Line of Control.
How does the S-400 fit into this scenario?
As noted, there’s no comparable system in the world right now. The U.S. Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) or the Patriot fall much short of what S-400 can deliver. Its efficacy against aircraft is proven.
The only warplane considered capable of surviving against the S-400 is the U.S. F-22 Raptor, and in an operational environment, even that aircraft has to use its full range of countermeasures to evade the S-400’s radar and missiles.
And while it is still dogged by problems, the F-35 is another aircraft whose stealth capabilities could possibly overwhelm the S-400.
Some experts, however, have assessed that the S-400s acquisition radars are designed to defeat modern stealth aircraft like the F-22 and F-35.
Other warplanes, going by what experts have determined, stand little chance against the Triumf.
There are ways to counter it, and the Pakistan Air Force is very likely going to work on what it can and must do, but one thing is obvious: the induction of the S-400 in the Indian arsenal will force the PAF to rethink its operational strategies in a major way: low flying, finding bands not covered by the S-400 radars, the possibility of jamming the radars, rethinking targeting strategies etc.
That could prove difficult, based on what Stephen Bryen wrote about one of the S-400’s missiles in The National Interest in January 2018:
“The 9M96E2 is one of the jewels of the S-400 system. It flies at Mach 15 (around 5,000 meters per second or 18,500 kph), it can engage targets as low as 5 meters off the ground, and it can maneuver pulling up to 20Gs.”
Missiles still have a better chance of overwhelming the S-400 if the targeting strategy relies on greater numbers, including decoys. Similarly, the air-breathing cruise missiles are notoriously difficult to intercept because of their nape of the earth flight paths and terrain guidance, among other capabilities.
We don’t know exactly how watered down the export version is compared with the system operated by Russia. During the Soviet era, the practice was simple: even Warsaw Pact states were exported the less-capable versions of military systems and platforms. There is reason to believe that S-400’s export version will lack some cutting-edge features.
Even so, its presence next-door should begin to worry Pakistan’s military planners terribly.
The interesting bit, however, is the debate in the United States, which has been cleverly guided away from the consequences of the imbalance the deal has created and towards whether and how India could get an exemption from the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
According to a Washington Post report, the U.S. embassy in New Delhi has stated that the “intent of the U.S. sanctions law is ‘to impose costs on Russia for its malign behavior,’ not to ‘impose damage to the military capabilities of our allies or partners,’” going on to say that there are “‘strict criteria’ for receiving waivers from sanctions, and they will be considered on a ‘transaction-by-transaction basis’.”
When asked about whether the U.S. will punish India for the purchase through CAATSA, President Donald Trump—who has the power to grant India a sanctions waiver—did not offer much detail, saying: “India is going to find out. Sooner than you think.”
Some analysts, notably Ashley Tellis at the Carnegie Endowment, have pushed the line that while India and the U.S. are strategic partners, India “cannot be put in a position where, in effect, Washington decides what kind of relationship they have with these other countries [Iran, China].”
“That’s where Delhi will draw a bright red line.”
In other words, the U.S. will have to weigh the cost of sanctioning India against the benefits of having India in its camp against China, while New Delhi plays in the space it has because of Washington’s dilemma.
Smart move, for sure, but one that reduces space for U.S. brokering in a crisis. What is not being discussed is the imbalance the S-400’s induction will create and Pakistan’s possible responses.
The development of ballistic missiles with multiple independent warheads, or re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), will become imperative for Pakistan. Submarine-based assets will be another response, as well as the improvement of cruise missile capabilities.
In addition, and most importantly, Pakistan will have to rethink numbers to create redundancies. The current state of non-deployment of nuclear assets and keeping a distance between warheads and delivery systems will also have to be rethought.
South Asia, already crisis-prone, will get closer to the trigger, not away from it, with the arrival of the S-400. The nuclear threshold, already low, will drop even lower and this development will throw the region in a spiraling arms race. Result: increasing instability.
This is an issue on which Prime Minister Imran Khan needs to convene an urgent National Command Authority meeting to discuss the ramification and possible responses, diplomatic and military, the latter from Pakistan’s service chiefs and strategic commands.
The country’s economy is in bad shape and finding money for some of these responses will not be easy. It is precisely for this reason that the government needs to think hard and fast about measures to address this new threat. Non-military, non-kinetic responses are important and Pakistan should continue to pursue them, but they must be backed by robust kinetic capabilities.
Finally, here is a quick scenario with the S-400 deployed by India to give Islamabad some idea of the threat level. It may not come to pass, but it lays bare the threat Pakistan now faces:
India suffers what it claims is a militant attack on its soil and blames Pakistan. Jingoistic TV channels—the Studio Corps of the Indian army—rant and rage against Pakistan, and New Delhi promises a robust response, creating a commitment trap.
Before the S-400, it was enough to claim a surgical strike in Pakistani territory and back it with grainy, doctored footage. With the new system, there is an option to strike targets well inside Pakistan, not just across the Line of Control in Kashmir.
The Indian Air Force will look for air supremacy. With the S-400’s ability to take out early-warning and control platforms, it blinds the PAF. And its four different types of interceptor missiles take out Pakistani fighters. Indian warplanes hit their targets in Pakistan and return.
The decision to use nuclear weapons will be Pakistan’s but, as anyone who knows nuclear strategy 101, that is not a position a state wants to be in.
Haider is the executive editor at Indus News. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider