S-400 Missile: Why Is India Deploying Powerful Air Defense System Near Pakistan Border & Not Against China?

Russia has started delivering the S-400 ‘Triumf’ missile defense system to India, a top Russian official has recently disclosed. Indian military experts confirmed to The EurAsian Times that there is a strong possibility of India deploying the lethal air defense system along its western border with Pakistan, and not the LAC with China.

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According to military experts, each of the five squadrons that India is receiving will likely have seven to eight launchers and the delivery of the S-400 will be completed by the end of 2023. India is likely to get an enhanced version of the recently-unveiled S-500 system as well.

The phased induction of the S-400 system is believed to have begun. “The supplies of the S-400 air defense system to India have started and are proceeding on schedule,” Dmitry Shugaev, Director of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC), told Sputnik ahead of the Dubai Air Show.

Why Western Sector?

Former Vice Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Bhushan Gokhale, told The EurAsian Times: “It is not purely Pakistan centric. Depending on the number of [S-400] systems we will receive, we may deploy them along the Northeast as well.

But yes, what happens in the case of Pakistan is great depth. At the moment their depth has increased because of Afghanistan. However, it is still debatable if Afghanistan will allow them to use their area for flying fighter aircraft or any other kind of aerial assets.

So, their depth is really less, say from Lahore to Peshawar, one can literally take their aircraft out even when they are within their own country once a war starts. The S-400 gives us the tremendous advantage of not just countering enemy aircraft but other aerial threats as well. So, there is a fair amount of enhancement in our offensive air defense capability. That way it is a potent weapons system.

File:S-400 Triumf.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
The S-400 Triumf. (Wikipedia)

When asked about its potential deployment along the Pakistan border, he explained: “I would not say it is not necessarily aimed towards Pakistan. These are all mobile systems. Furthermore, they will all be depending on the numbers we can buy and deploy. They will be deployed in such a way that they can cater to all our threats. These air defense platforms are not static, they give us tremendous flexibility of deployment.

One advantage we have by deploying the S-400s to the Pakistan side is that there are no radar blanks that take place because the terrain is pretty flat. The terrain along the Chinese side is mountainous, these sometimes lead to issues like losing radar contact among other technical issues which may arise.

However, nowadays there are many systems, for instance, anti-clutter which mitigate these challenges. Maybe they will also have a collaborative system, which gives an early warning to the partnered S-400s which may serve to decide the course of action.

There are radars that work quite well in mountainous areas, they paint a composite picture by compiling data from different radar pictures gathered over the years. This will help. Lastly, there is no hard and fast rule that the S-400s will be deployed exclusively on the western sector.

When asked about the S-400’s potential use in a two-front conflict, Air Mshl Gokhale said: “One front we would shorter, on the second front we will have a certain amount of deterrence as some of the targets are on the plains and for the mountains there will be allied systems which will aid in terrain navigation.

After all, we operate on a concept known as layered defense. There are various systems in use, the idea [behind air defense] at the end of the day is to take out an enemy aircraft or incoming aerial threat at the earliest opportunity.

An ‘Erratic Neighbor’

Author and military analyst Colonel Rajinder Kushwaha shared his assessment: “There are many reasons for giving priority to the western border, varying from geographical proximity to strategic necessity, availability, and an erratic opponent. Pakistan’s geographical proximity to India and being its immediate neighbor on the western flank, particularly Kashmir, needs to be deterred from launching a surprise air attack.

This could happen as a response to India’s surgical strike to knock out Pakistan’s terror hubs in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or anywhere else in Pakistan as it happened in February 2019, when Pakistan had scrambled F-16 fighter aircraft on 27 February 2019. The deployment of S-400 would give the flexibility to India to strike at will on targets within Pakistan and at the same time deter Pakistan from retaliatory action. It could thus raise the cost of terrorist misadventure for Pakistan.

“The geographical profile of the Chinese border does not allow the People’s Liberation Army Air Force to strike at will in India. It has to use long-range missiles. If China does so, it can also expect India to retaliate with an adequate punch. The Chinese border, though it is desirable to give an effective air defense system, yet the geographical proximity of Pakistan places the Chinese border at a reduced priority.

“Pakistan gets priority because of its severe hostility towards India. The current priority to the western border is due to lesser availability. The choice is to be made between a demon and a thief. No prize for guessing as to who was the demon.

Political turmoil in Pakistan suggests that religious groups might siege power sooner or later and they would certainly indulge in another round of military conflict with India. It is a circumstantial necessity to be operationally ready for any misadventure by erratic Pakistani leadership. S-400 can ensure the neutralization of such an air adventure by Pakistan.

The deployment of the S-400 air defense missile system is also a strategic necessity in a two-front war with China and Pakistan. China’s military objective might seem to be eastern Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh. But the terrain restricts China’s air maneuverability due to mountainous and high-altitude environments. In the case of Pakistan, it is not so, and Kashmir is its primary objective, which is the fulcrum of India’s secular nationhood. Therefore, it ought to be safe at all costs.

It is obvious that while India might like to provide effective air defense along both western and northern/eastern borders, it has to work out its priorities, based upon availability and necessity. While China is Number One enemy, Pakistan is more dangerous and crazier. Therefore, our priority ought to be the western sector till an adequate weapon system is made available,” Kushwaha added.

File:S-400 Triumf (27102989027).jpg - Wikimedia Commons
S-400 Triumf – Wikimedia Commons

Military author and analyst, Joseph P Chacko shared his take: “If S-400 deployment takes care of both Pakistan and China, which is as per an unnamed source to a newspaper, then it is being deployed in Kashmir. Another scenario is that the missiles will be deployed against Pakistan and the radar which can detect up to 1000 km can be used to detect incoming (threats) from both Pakistan and China.”

When asked how an ‘Operation Swift Retort’ (February 2019) could have panned out had the S-400s been inducted, Chacko opined: “Operation Swift Retort would have been carried out irrespective of the S-400 deployment as we have radars capable of looking deep into Pakistan and it has not prevented the move.”

Speaking about why the S-400s are likely to be deployed along India’s boundary with Pakistan as opposed to China, the analyst said, “Pakistan Air Force is a more credible threat than China. India has air dominance on LAC with China due to terrain advantage.”

S-400 To Pose A Big Hurdle For PAF

Group Captain Badal Debnath (Retd) shared his views: “The Deployment of S-400 near Pakistan border will make it more difficult for the PAF (Pakistan Air Force) to operate its air assets near the International Border and Line of Control. The surveillance radar of S-400 can look 600 km towards Pakistan air space.

S-400 missiles can shoot down any PAF aircraft, drone, cruise missile, Airborne Warning And Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft up to 400 km. This capability of S-400 will severely restrict and limit the operational flexibility and freedom of PAF to launch an ‘Operation Swift Retort’ type of misadventure against India.”

According to Gp. Capt. Johnson Chacko (Retd), who had commanded a surface-to-air guided weapons squadron in the past, said: “The deployment plan would have been studied to arrive at the number of units needed. This plan would definitely be classified. Since they are transportable, the flexibility of deployment will be great. It is an area defense weapon and should protect our vital areas.”

File:S-400 Triumf-35.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
S-400 Triumf- Wikimedia Commons

Philippines-based South Asian military analyst Miguel Miranda opined: “I cannot validate these claims of the S-400 batteries along the border with Pakistan. However, keep in mind Russia promotes and even hypes the S-400 as a best-in-class air defense system that can be deployed against ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.

The threat of either is severe along the Line of Control because Pakistan’s arsenal of road-mobile SRBMs keeps growing. There are also recent advances with the Babur land-attack cruise missile, the Nasr SRBM, and the Fateh long-range multiple rocket launcher. Of course, Pakistan’s air force is also a formidable adversary.

Now if S-400 batteries are set up along the LoC, this forms an effective deterrent against any incursions by Pakistani fighter aircraft, looking back at past conflicts — whether 1965 or 1971. Without an ability to strike across the LoC, the Pakistanis have fewer options should hostilities escalate in the future.

This plays to the Indian army’s strengths since its numerical advantage is preserved and threatens the Pakistani army with either persistent battles across the border or a monumental rout if a limited conventional war takes place. The IAF also stands to gain since the immense coverage of S-400 and other road-mobile air defenses discourages interceptions and retaliatory airstrikes from Pakistan. So, India’s commanders definitely understand how to use the S-400 and gain leverage over Pakistan.

However, it must be added India’s anti-aircraft defenses are robust on paper even without the S-400. The combination of the S-300, Kub, Spyder, Osa, and Akash SAMs represent some of the best road-mobile air defenses used anywhere. An onerous burden is now on Pakistan if it ever entertains ideas of a small-scale engagement with India – it’s best to fuel a proxy war rather than tangle with a rival’s overwhelming advantages in numbers and technology,” Miranda concluded.