Just not de­fence, new im­proved S- 400s can hit back

The Asian Age - - 360 - ( The writer is a Dis­tin­guished Fel­low, Ob­server Re­search Foun­da­tion, New Delhi)

MANOJ JOSHI

The pur­chase of the S- 400 mis­sile sys­tem has be­come a point of con­tention be­tween var­i­ous coun­tries and the United States. Through its Coun­ter­ing Amer­ica's Ad­ver­saries Through Sanc­tions Act ( CAASTA), the US has threat­ened sanc­tions on coun­tries seek­ing to buy this or any other sig­nif­i­cant Rus­sian- built mil­i­tary sys­tem.

Even a coun­try like In­dia, which sees it­self as be­ing close to the US, has come un­der the cross- hairs of Un­cle Sam. US of­fi­cials have re­peat­edly warned New Delhi that it will face sanc­tions for its pur­chase which was fi­nalised dur­ing the re­cent visit of Pres­i­dent Putin to New Delhi. Pres­i­dent Trump's com­ment that In­dia will find out about the US re­ac­tion to the pur­chase "sooner than you think" has a dan­ger­ous tone to it.

As for China, last month it was placed un­der CAATSA sanc­tions for its pur­chase of Su- 35 fighters and the S- 400 sys­tem. The third coun­try that is buy­ing the sys­tem is Tur­key, a mem­ber of NATO. Tur­key has made it clear that it's a done deal and there is no turn­ing back on it. Tur­key is also seek­ing to ac­quire the top- of- the- line US fighter F- 35 for whose devel­op­ment it con­trib­uted $ 1 bil­lion.

In ad­di­tion, Saudi Ara­bia and Qatar have also ex­pressed an in­ter­est in the sys­tem. So why do these coun­tries want to buy the sys­tem ?

For one, it is a very ver­sa­tile and lethal. It is a mas­sive up­grade of the older S- 300 and is con­sid­ered one of the most ad­vanced sys­tems in the world. Its radar and other sen­sors cover an ex­ten­sive area. The radar can cover over 600 kms for sur­veil­lance and its mis­siles have a reach of nearly 400 kms. Fur­ther, it can track a very large num­ber of tar­gets, in­clud­ing stealth air­craft and take out the most threat­en­ing 6 tar­gets.

The whole sys­tem is highly mo­bile and built on ve­hi­cles that can move very quickly from place to place. The S- 400 is very ver­sa­tile. It has four dif­fer­ent mis­siles, the very long range 40 N6 ( 400 km) se­ries, which is ready for de­ploy­ment. The 48N6 ( 250 km), the 9M96 ( 120 km) and the short range 9M96E ( 40 km). The 9M96E flies at very high speeds and can en­gage very- low level tar­gets and ma­noeu­vre very sharply. It is ca­pa­ble of tak­ing out air­craft, as well as mis­siles, es­pe­cially cruise mis­siles. In ad­di­tion, it has "plug on" radar sys­tems which can be used to de­feat stealth air­craft. But in the com­ing years, the Rus­sians could up­grade to the long range 77N6- N and the 77N6- NI mis­siles which are in­ert "hit to kill" in­ter­cep­tors op­ti­mised for both an­ti­air­craft and bal­lis­tic mis­sile war­heads.

In­dia has an old his­tory with Soviet/ Rus­sian anti- air­craft mis­siles and their as­so­ci­ated radar sys­tems. The first ac­qui­si­tion in 1964 was the SA- 2 ( Guide­line), a two- stage mis­sile with a range of 7 to 40 kms and a ceil­ing of nearly 90,000 ft. They were de­ployed in fixed sites around the ma­jor cities like Delhi, Mum­bai, Kolkata and at sev­eral lo­ca­tions in Pun­jab and Ra­jasthan. Bar­oda served as a train­ing cen­tre.

Af­ter these were phased out in the 1980s, In­dia re­lied on the SA- 3 Pe­chora sys­tem that it had be­gun ac­quir­ing from the Soviet Union in the mid- 1970s. These sys­tems are still around and have since been up­graded. The mis­siles have a range of some 25 kms and a ceil­ing of 18 kms. For shorter ranges the SA- 8B mis­siles are used. In­creas­ingly, some of these tasks are now be­ing done by the Akash mis­sile which was de­vel­oped from the Soviet- era SA- 6 mis­sile.

SA- 2 en­gines, one with solid pro­pel­lent and the other with liq­uid pro­pel­lent en­gine were the ba­sis of In­dia's mil­i­tary mis­siles pro­gramme. In the 1970s In­dia sought to re­verse en­gi­neer them and de­velop larger mis­siles, but failed. How­ever, they did ac­cu­mu­late con­sid­er­able knowl­edge of liq­uid pro­pel­lent en­gines and used this to de­velop the Prithvi, which, in turn, formed the ba­sis of the first Agni mis­sile.

Even though the sys­tem will only be de­ployed be­gin­ning 2020, the new sys­tem is a bless­ing for the In­dian Air Force. Over the years, the num­bers of its fighters have been de­clin­ing. Bun­gled ac­qui­si­tion pro­cesses and gov­ern­ment's nig­gardly ways have pre­vented their re­place­ment. This has meant that the IAF has had to look care­fully at its air de­fence re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and tasks.

Such a mis­sile which can take care of in­trud­ing en­emy fighters over a vast range is a boon since it will re­duce the ef­fort the IAF fighters have to make to guard the na­tional skies and en­able them to fo­cus on at­tack­ing en­emy tar­gets. But its prin­ci­pal task would be to de­fend key cities like Delhi, Mum­bai, and the im­por­tant eco­nomic ar­eas of Gu­jarat/ Ma­ha­rash­tra. But its high mo­bil­ity gives it the abil­ity of be­ing used in dif­fer­ent modes and roles as well.

So though it is likely to be used for air de­fence, the S- 400 can also be used for of­fen­sive tasks like tar­get­ing the early warn­ing and elec­tron­ics in­tel­li­gence air­craft of ad­ver­saries. In this sense the sys­tem could be a ma­jor headache for Pak­istan be­cause of its ge­og­ra­phy. Even sys­tems based 150- 200 kms for the bor­der will be able to cover the trans- In­dus air space of Pak­istan.

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