Russian President Vladimir Putin is arriving in India next week, and all eyes are on the S-400 air defence system. Putin is expected to hardsell it, and that is going to be like preaching to the converted. India wants it badly, but is still looking over the shoulder to see how the US would react.
The signs from Washington aren't good. The Donald Trump administration slapped sanctions on China only a week ago for buying S-400. Now Saudi Arabia, an old ally of the US, is worried. The Saudis too would like to get the missile, but are worried about what the US would think. “I hope nobody will impose any sanctions on us,” Saudi Ambassador to Russia, Raid bin Khalid Krimli, told journalists in Moscow. There are others too eyeing the missile system—NATO member Turkey, Egypt and Qatar. All of them want the air defence system, but are worried that the US would slap sanctions under the notorious CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) provisions.
But India is hopeful. “Negotiations on S-400 had happened over several years,” Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told THE WEEK correspondents in an exclusive interview is available in the latest issue of THE WEEK, dated October 7. “It has reached a stage where it can be concluded. We have expressed [to the US] the reality about Indian legacy particularly on army and air force equipment from Russia.”
Sitharaman's hopes are pinned on her counterpart, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis, who she had met early this month along with her colleague Sushma Swaraj in the two-plus-two dialogue. She thinks Mattis has understood India's dependence on Russia. “There is an understanding in the American mind. I have seen [the] defence secretary himself talk about it, that India has a legacy and, therefore, there is a need for certain waivers.”
Clearly, S-400 Triumf has become the most sought-after missile defence system today, as was the US's Patriot in the 1990s when George Bush Senior hardsold it as the best defence against Saddam Hussein's improvised Scuds. The Russians are deploying the system, which reputedly can shoot down anything that flies at a range of 400 kilometres, to impress friends and awe the rivals. India is eyeing at least five of them at a price of about Rs 39,000 crore.
The S-400, now increasingly being described as a game-changer in air defence, is an integrated, highly-mobile system of radars and missiles of different ranges to address multiple threats. Its biggest attraction is that it can spot and acquire 300 targets—both enemy aircraft and ballistic and cruise missiles—from 600 km.
India is eyeing the beauty for a marriage proposal—with the DRDO-developed, Prithvi-based missile defence system. India has been developing a robust integrated air defenced system. “Keeping in mind the indigenous technical prowess of the DRDO, the question of indigenous system versus ex-import was decided in favour of the former,” said V.K. Saraswat, former head of DRDO and father of the ballistic missile defence programme, while launching Lt.-Gen. V.K. Saxena's book Ground-Based Air Defence in India (Pentagon Press) on Thursday at the triservice United Service Institution. Codenamed Progamme AD, the defence system comprising several types of radars, command-control network and missiles is likely to be deployed around major cities and other strategic assets that the enemy is likely to target. This system “will find a connect with the S400 system...,” said Saraswat. “Besides air defence, S-400 is also an anti-missile system and will therefore complement the indigenous capability as contained in Programme AD.... The fire units of Programme AD system and S-400 system could be deployed complementing each other.”
In fact, a lot of brainstorming is currently going on in the strategic think tank circles about the air defence challenges that India faces. The fact that Saxena could gather three directors-general of the Army's air defence corps at his book launch, including the incumbent Lt.-Gen. A.P. Singh, in addition to Saraswat, itself is indicative of the seriousness with which the issue is being addressed.
“Keeping in mind the net ballistic missile threat in our neighbourhood..., the case for BMD (ballistic missile defence) for India cannot be overemphasised,” said Gen. Saxena. “The need of the hour is to move forward expeditiously towards realisation of Progamme AD systems as deployable firing units under the Strategic Forces Command.” According to him, both the S-400 and Progamme AD will have to have an integrated command and control and battle management system which will integrate multifarious sensors and shooters of air defence and anti-missiles system into one seamless loop.