A ma­jor ac­qui­si­tion of de­fence equip­ment from Rus­sia has de­liv­ered a clear mes­sage to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion on In­dia’s per­spec­tive of strate­gic au­ton­omy in mat­ters of na­tional se­cu­rity


The In­dian Air Force (IAF) will fi­nally get five squadrons of the S-400 Tri­umf long range, ad­vanced air de­fence mis­sile sys­tem from Rus­sia. The long-awaited his­toric deal for this highly po­tent weapon sys­tem val­ued at $5.43 bil­lion (`40,000 crore ap­prox­i­mately), was con­cluded on Oc­to­ber 5 this year at New Delhi dur­ing the visit to In­dia by Vladimir Putin, Pres­i­dent of Rus­sia. This land­mark agree­ment is for one amongst the largest deals for pro­cure­ment of de­fence hard­ware en­tered into by In­dia in the his­tory of mil­i­tary-tech­ni­cal co­op­er­a­tion with Rus­sia. It is also the largest in the coun­try’s as­so­ci­a­tion with Rosoboronex­port. The last ma­jor suc­cess­ful con­tract with Rus­sia for the IAF was for the pur­chase of Su-30 MKI fourth gen­er­a­tion com­bat air­craft. Hope­fully, this ini­tia­tive of the NDA gov­ern­ment for the S-400 will not go the way the con­tract for 36 Rafale jets ap­pears to be headed.

De­scribed as one of the best air de­fence mis­sile sys­tems in the world with an im­pres­sive ar­ray of highly ad­vanced tech­ni­cal fea­tures, devel­op­ment of the S-400 Tri­umf by Al­maz Cen­tral De­sign Bureau, com­menced in the late 1980s. Es­sen­tially an up­graded ver­sion of the S-300 air de­fence mis­sile sys­tem, its

devel­op­ment nev­er­the­less had its share of im­ped­i­ments and un­cer­tain­ties that had its ad­verse ef­fects lead­ing to con­sid­er­able de­lay in the pro­gramme. The S-400 air de­fence mis­sile sys­tem was fi­nally ready and ac­cepted for in­duc­tion into the Rus­sian Armed Forces in 2007, nearly two decades af­ter the launch of the pro­ject. When in­ducted into the IAF, the S-400 squadrons are planned to be de­ployed in the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Re­gion and the Mum­bai-Bar­oda In­dus­trial Cor­ri­dor.

Pro­cure­ment of the S-400 Tri­umf will be a prover­bial shot in the arm for the IAF es­pe­cially as the strength of its com­bat fleet had dwin­dled to just 31 squadrons or around 600 air­craft as against the au­tho­rised level of 42 or over 800 air­craft. Apart from the fourth gen­er­a­tion Su-30 MKI, the com­bat fleet of the IAF has only third gen­er­a­tion air­craft that have been up­graded and their life ex­tended to be in ser­vice for an­other decade or so. In the ab­sence any def­i­nite or cred­i­ble plan for large scale in­duc­tion of com­bat air­craft in the near fu­ture, the strength of fighter squadrons in the IAF in all like­li­hood, will only go down fur­ther. In­duc­tion in the next few years of a few light com­bat air­craft Te­jas Mk IA man­u­fac­tured by Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited (HAL) as also two squadrons of the Rafale jets pro­cured off the shelf from Das­sault Avi­a­tion of France - pro­vided the pro­ject sur­vives the on­go­ing tur­bu­lence, would not be enough to re­store the op­er­a­tional edge of the IAF over its two ad­ver­saries.

Pit­ted against the IAF on the North­ern front is the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Air Force (PLAAF) of China that has on its in­ven­tory, over 1,700 com­bat plat­forms which in­clude around 800 fourth gen­er­a­tion fighter air­craft. The PLAAF is also in the process of mov­ing into fifth gen­er­a­tion as well for which in­duc­tion of plat­forms has al­ready be­gun. On the Western front, the Pak­istan Air Force (PAF) has over 20 fighter squadrons with up­graded F-16 Block 50/52. Also, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Chi­nese aero­space in­dus­try, Pak­istan is man­u­fac­tur­ing within the coun­try, the J-17 Thun­der for in­duc­tion into the PAF in large num­bers. Nearly 100 of these are al­ready in ser­vice with the PAF. Apart from these, the PAF is slated to re­ceive fourth gen­er­a­tion plat­forms from China. In the long term, it should only be ex­pected that with as­sis­tance from China, the PAF will foray into fifth gen­er­a­tion as well, the in­duc­tion be­gin­ning in not too dis­tant a fu­ture. The de­bil­i­tat­ing short­fall of air­craft cur­rently af­flict­ing the com­bat fleet of the IAF, has un­doubt­edly af­fected the ca­pa­bil­ity of the force to be a de­ter­rent or to pose a chal­lenge to the two ad­ver­saries China and Pak­istan es­pe­cially if they opt to act in col­lu­sion. It is in this sce­nario that the S-400 Tri­umf long range air de­fence mis­sile sys­tem with the ca­pa­bil­ity of in­ter­cept­ing tar­gets at ranges up to 400 km, to­gether with the two squadrons of Rafale jets as and when in ser­vice with the IAF, will prove to be a real force mul­ti­plier in re­spect of the na­tion’s ca­pa­bil­ity to wield air power. This ca­pa­bil­ity will be of sig­nif­i­cance es­pe­cially in the event of a two-front war sce­nario, the pos­si­bil­ity of which is only grow­ing with the in­creas­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the two ad­ver­saries and the es­ca­lat­ing ten­sion with both in their re­la­tion­ship with In­dia.

Although the S-400 deal has been con­cluded, there is still a shadow of un­cer­tainty on ac­count of the pol­icy of the United States (US) of Coun­ter­ing Amer­ica’s Ad­ver­saries Through Sanc­tions Act (CAATSA). This law re­stricts de­fence pur­chase of mil­i­tary hard­ware from Rus­sia, Iran and North Korea and ren­ders na­tions do­ing so, vul­ner­a­ble to sanc­tions by the US. The re­lated is­sue is that the US has de­clared In­dia to be a Ma­jor De­fence Part­ner” and one would tend to con­clude that In­dia can­not ig­nore the dik­tat from the US. How­ever, it is im­por­tant to un­der­stand that while In­dia has been de­clared by the US as a “Ma­jor De­fence Part­ner”, it is not an “Ally” or crony of the US. De­spite the spe­cial sta­tus ac­corded to In­dia by the US, the na­tion will con­tinue to re­tain its in­de­pen­dence in for­eign pol­icy and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions. While af­ter the emer­gence of a uni-po­lar world, the IAF that had been teth­ered ini­tially to the Soviet Union and later to the Rus­sian fed­er­a­tion, opened up ac­qui­si­tion of de­fence equip­ment to the Western world in­clud­ing the US from where the IAF pro­cured the C-17 Globe­mas­ter III strate­gic air­lift air­craft, the C-130J Su­per Her­cules tac­ti­cal trans­port air­craft and Boe­ing Busi­ness Jets. In ad­di­tion, cur­rently, 22 AH-64E Apache at­tack heli­copters as also 15 CH-47F Chi­nook heavy lift heli­copters, both from the US aero­space ma­jor Boe­ing, are on or­der. Be­sides, the IAF is seek­ing to pro­cure Un­manned Com­bat Aerial Ve­hi­cles (UCAV) from US man­u­fac­tur­ers. What the US needs to un­der­stand that over 70 per cent of mil­i­tary hard­ware with the In­dian Armed Forces is of Rus­sian ori­gin. In any case, In­dia is now of much greater strate­gic im­por­tance for the US in the Indo-Pa­cific re­gion to counter the grow­ing in­flu­ence of China. Log­i­cally, a mil­i­tar­ily strong In­dia ought to be in the US in­ter­est.

De­spite veiled threats by the US of sanc­tions, In­dia has gone ahead to make a ma­jor ac­qui­si­tion of de­fence equip­ment from Rus­sia, de­liv­er­ing a clear mes­sage to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion on In­dia’s per­spec­tive of strate­gic au­ton­omy in mat­ters of na­tional se­cu­rity.

The S-400 to­gether with the two squadrons of Rafale jets as and when in ser­vice with the IAF, will prove to be a real force mul­ti­plier


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