S-400 Triumf Missile system – Explained, pointwise

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Deliveries of S-400 Triumf Missile defence system to India have been commenced by Russia. Five of such systems were bought by India from Russia in 2018 for nearly US$5.5 billion.

The delivery is likely to be completed by April 2023. Both India and Russia have worked out a Rupee-Rouble exchange agreement for settlement of payments.

On the other hand, the US govt has expressed its concern over the issue and still remains undecided on how to deal with the situation.

Let us understand the entire issue in detail.

What is the S-400 Triumf missile system?

S-400 Triumf Missile System (Named SA-21 Growler by NATO) is a long range, mobile & surface-to-air missile system (SAM) having an operational range of over 400 km.

– It is considered one of the world’s most advanced air defence systems that can engage all types of aerial targets such as aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

– Can track 100 airborne targets including super fighters such as the American built F-35 and engage six of them simultaneously.

– It is a successor to the S-300 system and entered operational service in 2007. In 2015, it was deployed in Syria by Russia to protect its military assets and has also been deployed in Crimea.

– The system comes equipped with four types of missiles: i). Short- range up to 40 km, ii). Medium-range up to 120 km, iii). Long-range, going as far as 250 km, iv). Very-long-range up to 400 km

Due to its highly advanced features and capabilities, the S-400 has emerged as one of the most controversial arms exports of Russia and a major point of contention between Washington and Moscow.

Why India purchased the S-400 missile system?

The S-400 fills important gaps in India’s national air defence network.

– It would complement India’s indigenous Ballistic Missile Defence system developed by the DRDO and create a multi-tier air defence over the country.

– Given its long range, it means that if deployed towards the Western borders, the system can track movements of Pakistan Air Force aircraft as soon as they take off from their bases.

– It would make up for the falling fighter aircraft squadrons of the Indian Air Force (IAF), in the medium term.

Former IAF chief B.S. Dhanoa had on several occasions termed the S-400 air defence systems and Rafale fighter jets as “game-changers” for the IAF and said they were like a “booster dose” to the force.

The S-400, can constrain the enemy’s air operations even within their own airspace, a capability unmatched by typical Western systems offered up as alternatives.

What are the issues associated with India’s S-400 purchase?

i). US displeasure: U.S. has repeatedly conveyed its displeasure to New Delhi on various occasions, asking India to cancel the purchase and has offered advanced U.S. air defence systems instead. India also faces the prospect of U.S. sanctions under CAATSA. Moreover, the present US administration has not conveyed a clear signal on CAATSA waiver to India.

– US wants India to reduce its traditional reliance on Russian defence systems. Russia has been the largest defence partner for India over the decades. This relationship is changing as India inches closer to the US diplomatically and strategically. Imports from the US have gone up, largely at the cost of Russian imports.

ii). Balancing US and Russia: India has a series of high-tech deals lined up with both Russia and the USA. Hence, New Delhi will be facing tremendous pressure while balancing the two. Some upcoming deals:

– Russia: Ka-226T utility helicopters, AK-203 assault rifles and Igla-S Very Short Range Air Defence (VSHORAD) systems.

– USA: Additional P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft, AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, armed drones and Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft.

iii). Increasing dependence and use of Russian equipment might become a concern owing to the interoperability problems vis-à-vis US military systems.

iv). Another concern is of US and Russian weapon systems operating in proximity, since India has both. Secrets may be compromised because of hacking and stealing.

Can India face sanctions under CAATSA?

CAATSA empowers the US President to impose sanctions on persons who engage in a “significant transaction” with American adversaries, including Russian defence and intelligence sectors. US has cautioned that the delivery of the five S-400 systems is a significant transaction under the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) of 2017 which can trigger sanctions against Indian officials & the Government.

The US imposed sanctions on Turkey, a longstanding NATO ally, in December 2020 over its purchase of the system.

– In January 2021, a US Congressional report warned that if India goes ahead with the purchase of the S-400 system, it may lead to sanctions.

– In February 2021, US openly declared that a blanket waiver was not a possibility for India.

– In October 2021, two US senators wrote to President Joe Biden, urging for a CAATSA waiver to India.

Sanctioning India will erode the bilateral relationship of India and US at a time when Washington needs New Delhi in its larger objective of containing China. This is especially relevant since India is the only QUAD member which shares a border with China.

Therefore, imposing sanctions on India is not in American interest taking into account the current geopolitical situation.

Hence, it is likely that India may be sanctioned under CAATSA, but the sanctions will largely be symbolic with little long-term implications.

What is the way forward?

India’s consistent stand has been that the process for acquisition of the system began prior to CAATSA being introduced in 2017 by the Trump administration. It was in 2016 that India and Russia had signed an agreement on the Triumf interceptor-based missile system.

Moreover, penalising India for serving a part of its military modernisation needs through Russia would put at risk ongoing and potential India-US defence business worth several billion dollars. While India has begun a gradual process of diversifying its arms imports, this process can only take place incrementally

All eyes would now be set on India’s upcoming 2+2 dialogue with the USA.

Finding a mutually acceptable solution to the S-400 conundrum will be a major point on the agenda.

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