Why S-400 Will Make Sense Despite (Un)Likelihood of US Sanctions
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM

The open source is abuzz with the news that India and Russia are close to finalising the deal for the purchase of S-400 System despite the threat of US sanctions1.

Making it a central issue during the visit of Defence Minister, Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman to Russia from 3-5 Apr 18 for participating in the VII Moscow Conference on International Security, it was stated in the press, that the deal will get its finality besides likely progress on several other issues related to military technical cooperation, such as Kamov helicopter deal, fifth generation fighter aircraft, ammunition for Russian made defence systems, maintenance and up-gradation issues related to existing Russian inventory and more2,3.

On the other hand, taking note of the report in the New York Times stating that the deal comes at a time when US President Donald Trump is "both weighing more extensive sanctions against Russia and trying to forge a military alliance with India" experts have largely opined that the sanctions are unlikely keeping in mind the large stakes involved in growing defence ties between US and India. The case in this article is to establish why going ahead with S-400 is in our best interest, sanctions or no sanctions.

Some Facts about the System

S-400 has evolved over a period of about 30 years, starting 1978-79 when the then Soviet Union deployed its first long range Surface-to-Air (SAM) system as a part of its area air defence capability for the defence of large sized Vulnerable Areas (VAs) . This system was called S-300 (NATO SA 10 Grumble). The objective of this type of a weapon system was to provide area air defence cover to large swaths of area which may contain multiple assets and vulnerabilities. To start with, S-300 was targeted against adversary's aircrafts and cruise missiles (the main components of the air threat in late seventies). The basic design philosophy and the building blocks of the above series of systems (like S-300/S-400) has almost remained unchanged over the years. It is anchored on four different component verticals which are as under:-

1. Detection of the incoming threat as early as possible. For this the system is equipped with Long Range Surveillance Radars, in short LRSR.

2. As the threat draws in, tracking the target with such precision as to enable the launch of interceptor for destroying it. This function is performed by an array of Multi-function Radars (MFRs).

3. A variety of interceptor arsenal covering various ranges and altitudes both in the endo, as well as, exo-atmospheric regions to destroy the target.

4. An associated command, control and battle management system to optimally manage such a complex system (which is actually a system of systems).

Nearly 30 years of technological refinement building over the basic S -300 System launched in 1978-79, has enabled the S-400 System to carry many a cutting edge features in its latest version. Seen across the four verticals enumerated above, some of these features are stated below:-

1. The LRSRs of this System have been refined over time. In that, instead of the practice of fielding different radars optimised for different height bands, the LRSRs of this System are all altitude detection radars configured on single platform.

2. The interceptors of the System cover a wide range spectrum from 40-400 km. In addition, the longest range missile can independently engage targets out of the ground radar range by virtue of the fact that it carries its own radar on board for the end game.

3. The associated command control and battle management system is fully automated.

As to the experience of our defence forces to handle a system of this complexity the following is stated:-

1. The Corps of Army Air Defence in the Indian Army (Army AD) as well as the Air Force and the Navy have decades of experience in handling Russian Air Defence SAM Systems, albeit of much shorter ranges and altitude capabilities but belonging to the overall superset of Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) Weapon System.

2. Actually very similar in genre and equipment philosophy to S-400 in its capacity as a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) System is the Programme AD System. All the three Services, as also, the personal of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) have had an exposure to the Programme AD System throughout its growth journey that included live firings .

3. While the S-400 induction and the operationalisation process will involve detailed and comprehensive training packages for the users, as well as, the maintainers of the System, it is possible that the Indian defence forces will be able to adapt and graduate to the System in a phased and a professional manner. Finding the manpower is an internal Service matter which will be addressed in consultation and approval of the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

4. While the prime operator of the System will be Air Force, the above points are stated keeping in mind that S-400 being a strategic System will get connected and inter phased with all the three Services.

A schematic diagram of S-400, showing the two LRSRs (96L6E and 91N6E), an MFR, missiles loaded on a launcher, a mobile command post and a mobile mast system to hoist the missiles on the launchers is placed below:-

A schematic diagram showing some components of S-400 System


The impact of a possible induction of S-400 will be very huge. Some salient points are covered below:-

1. With a range bracket of 40-400 km, it is a way up capability from the existing range capability of 70-100 km.

2. The System can cover huge swaths of area providing a degree of air defence cover to all the vulnerabilities located therein.

3. S-400 is not only an AD system, it is also an anti-missile system capable of providing effective defence against adversary's ballistic missiles. In this role, it will compliment the indigenous BMD system (Programme AD) where its Fire Units (FUs) can be deployed to cover such areas which are out of the envelope of Programme AD FUs.

With nearly 76 percent of all GBAD arsenal currently of the Russian origin, the possibility and ease of such an integration is a strong point with S-400 System.
Reality Check

1. The System will not come overnight. At fastest pace, a possible induction is 4-5 years away and operationalisation, a minimum 7-8 years away.

2. The associated requirement of missiles testing and storage infrastructure, training equipment, simulators, authorisation codes and more, as also, the huge challenge of backward integration of the System with the existing regime of GBAD are difficult issues to be addressed.

3. In aspects of transfer of technology and proprietary issues , the experience with Russians has been far from satisfactory. It is hoped that the story does not repeat itself.

4. And finally, though the Russians have recommended waiver of offset clause being a strategic system, it is to be seen whether the same happens or not. If not, then it is hoped that the offset Contract does not become a show-stopper.

Keeping in mind the huge obsolescence in the GBAD arsenal, current quantum deficiencies in the resources to provide acceptable air defence cover to our critical vulnerabilities, as also, the reality of the slow pace of operationalisation of the indigenous BMD capability (minimum 2-3 years away), a possible induction of S-400 makes imminent sense, sanctions or no sanctions.
It is besides the point that the so called threat of sanctions is illusory at best keeping in mind the realities of geo-politics in the Asia-Pacific (or Indo-Pacific) Region.


1. https://www.zeenewsindia.com>india-russia-set-to-seal-S-400 -triumph-missile-deal-despite-the-threat-of-us-sanctions. Accessed on 08 Apr 18
2. https://www.timesofindia.indiatimes.com. Accessed on 08 Apr 18
3. https://www. economictimes.indiatimes.com>s-400 defence system india russia close to the deal. Accessed on 08 Apr 18

(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the VIF)

Image Source: http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/are-russias-lethal-s-400-sams-equipped-the-latest-long-range-19115

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