Mr. Umair ul Haq is a graduate of the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad.
Technology has played an important role in shaping international politics. During the Cold War, both superpowers, that is, the Soviet Union and the United States were involved in the strategic rivalry and the arms race, with both trying to undermine the other’s defense capabilities. The Soviet Union built many surface-to-air batteries and has now developed highly advanced missile defense systems such as the Russian S-400.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the US as the sole superpower, it was clear that the successor state Russia had to maintain its defense to compete in the ‘New World Order’ – and thus kept on improving its defense capabilities. In line with this strategy, Russia modernized its S-300 missile system and developed the advanced S-400 missile defense system which was manufactured by the arms manufacture Almaz-Antey.
The S-400 can shoot down any incoming ballistic or cruise missiles and can take down all aircraft. During the 2018 summit in New Delhi, India signed a deal with Russia for 5 units of the S-400 defense system which can negatively affect the strategic stability of South Asia. India had planned to deploy three units along the border of Pakistan, and two along the Chinese border.
In case of any threat (within the 400 km range), the use of this system can neutralize any incoming aircraft or missile. Pakistan began looking for options to counter this seemingly effective system.
India signed a deal for the Russian S-400 missile defense system in October 2018. According to this deal, India was to acquire 5 units of the S-400 missile defense system and planned to deploy three units along the Pakistani border, and two along the Chinese border. Only a few countries in the world possess the Russian S-400 missile defense system, and with this deal, India was added to the list.
However, what makes the Russian S-400 very lethal are the offensive and defensive capabilities. Its long-range and multilayered radar surveillance can track anything that comes within the 400km range. This system uses missiles that travel at the speed of Mach 17 (17000 km/hr). It has three types of interceptors – 80km, 240km, and 400 km – that can intercept any incoming object and destroy it within the air.
After the 1998 nuclear tests, the threat of an all-out war between India and Pakistan was minimized because both states had acquired nuclear capabilities – thus creating a balance of terror in the region.1 In recent years, India has upgraded its defense arsenal and added a new array of advanced conventional weapons to its conventional capabilities.
Having acquired advanced weapons, India is maintaining superiority in the ‘unconventional’ domain while continuing to have ‘conventional superiority’ over Pakistan since the 1960s. Deployment of these sophisticated weapons can lead the region towards all-out war, and can also lower the threshold of nuclear deterrence in South Asia. This situation could lead to a new arms race in the region.
Journey of Defense System and Development of the Russian S-400
During the Cold War, the United States sent many reconnaissance planes to the Soviet Union for surveillance and to collect information on missile sites and military bases for its long-term plans. The US assumed that data obtained by spying will give it an upper hand in its conflict with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union shot down almost 200 airplanes, and the most famous kill was the U-2 incident.2
During the 1950s, Joseph Stalin ordered the urgent development of surface-to-air missile defense systems. Soviet MiGs were able to intercept US spy planes and aircraft, but with the addition of US B-29 bombers and U-2 Spy planes into the service, the MiGs were unable to intercept them due to their ability to fly at high altitudes.
Soviets started working on several systems and they went about acquiring advanced weapons systems. These surface-to-air missiles were greatly used by the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War and posed a real threat to the US air force. During the Vietnam war, North Vietnam used them successfully against the US air force.
Moreover, during the 1973 Arab-Israel war, the Egyptian army used these systems to shoot down many Israeli airplanes that were trying to attack invading troops. Iraq, Libya, and Syria also had a large arsenal of these SAM batteries.3 The first most impressive USSR SAM was the V-750 Dvina which shot down the famous U-2 flight of Major Garry Powers in 1960, and Major Rudolph in Cuba during the peak of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
Both these events were very surprising for the CIA, as these were their best reconnaissance planes, and yet, were vulnerable to attacks from the Soviet Union. With these amazing capabilities, NATO named it the SA-2 system as it was a complete system that was effectively used by the North Vietnamese army against US aircraft.4
During the initial years of the Cold War, there was an increased focus on the development of defense systems, and thus the S-300 defense system by the Soviet Union was born – one that underwent tests during the 1980s. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited these systems. In 1993, the development of the Russian S-400 was due to start, but because of budgetary issues, they could not completely design a new system. Consequently, the design of the S-300 was modernized to create a ‘new’ defense system.5
Russia has deployed 20 units of its S-400 defense system in Moscow, Vladivostok, and Saint Petersburg, and has deployed around 700 batteries of the S-300 air defense system in various cities. Russia aims to protect all its majorly populated areas and strategic assets against any airborne threats. It has also deployed the Russian S-400 along its Arctic border to protect the resource-rich area.
Weapons as Tools of Geopolitical Strategy
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and with the Russian emergence as its successor state, there were assurances from the US that it will cooperate with Russia over various matters, take care of Russian interests, and that Russia’s influence in Europe will not be challenged – but these were false assurances. Western interests remained dominant, NATO was not dissolved, and the US did not work with Russia to address Russian concerns.
Russia felt disgraced as its ‘historical’ area of influence was being exploited by the Western ‘allies’. Eventually, Vladimir Putin rose to power to recover Russian influence. To ‘break’ US power, Russia adopted various strategies in the different regions – especially in Europe and the Middle East – which are challenging for NATO and the US. Weapon systems like the S-400 will give Russia a stronger influence in the Middle East and Asia.
Many US allies in the region are showing interest in buying the Russian-manufactured S-400. Even the close allies of the US (e.g. Saudi Arabia and Iraq) are considering acquiring this weapon. Iran, North Korea, Bahrain, Vietnam, and Algeria could also be potential future buyers.
The US interests are in danger due to the competition Russia is posing in the arms market – because the dependence on Russian weapon systems will reduce US arms sales, and may also decrease its influence across the globe. America’s long-term plans to isolate Russia are seemingly failing. An example of this is the fact that NATO member Turkey signed a deal with Russia, and purchased the S-400 weapon.
Comparison of Defense Systems: Russian S-400 vs. American THAAD
Russian S-400, Israeli SAM, French-Italian SAMP-T complex (Eurosam), Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), and the MIM-104 Patriot are considered the best air defense systems in the world. The THAAD and Patriot are developed by the US, and the Israeli SAM was jointly developed by the US and Israel. When we compare the Russian and the US-made systems, they are different in terms of range, technology, and effectiveness.
Capacity-wise, the THAAD has an altitude up to 150 km, and a range up to 200 km to intercept rockets. The S-400 is more capable and modern as compared to THAAD, has better capabilities, and can engage UAVs, aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles, to intercept and destroy them. It uses four different layers to destroy incoming aircraft and weapons. THAAD is less effective against aircraft and is more vulnerable when compared to the Russian S-400.
Russia-Turkey S-400 Deal and its Impact on Geopolitics
Before the Russia-Turkey deal for the S-400 defense system, Turkey had used a series of BMD systems during the first Gulf War, and it had used the US Patriot system to protect against the Iraqi Scuds (which could potentially hit the Eastern side of Turkey during the US strikes against Iraq).
In 2013, the United States and its allies deployed batteries to protect northern Turkey, but in 2015, many countries removed their batteries, and only Spain and Italy had limited air protection. To ensure safety, Turkey considered purchasing the US Patriot, and then later tried to acquire the Chinese CPMIEC, but the deal did not materialize.
In 2017, Turkey again started focusing on its defense systems and signed an agreement with Russia for the S-400. This deal gave Turkey different strategic advantages. The Russian air force presence in Syria on its base and this deal will deescalate tensions between Russia and Turkey. With this capability at hand, Turkey will be one of the very few countries that possess highly advanced air defense systems.6
Indo-Russia Strategic Partnership
Russia and India both have enjoyed very close relations since Indian independence in 1947 and India was supported by the Soviet Union during difficult times, especially in times of war. The Soviet Union favored India by exercising veto power for India to block security council resolutions on Kashmir.
During the 1965 war, Soviet Union supplied India with its conventional weapons and in the 1971 war, USSR sent its nuclear submarines to the Indian Ocean to stop any US intervention in East Pakistan. Even after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the successor state Russia continued to be a supporter of India and a large supplier of India for its conventional capabilities.7
BMDS and Shift in Indian Policy
India at first opposed the adoption of ballistic missile defense systems (BMDS) and it opposed the United States and Soviet efforts to build BMDS. However, with the changing international environment, India started to develop its own BMDS. India has started to change its policy with the changing patterns of world politics, and its emerging threats made it clear that it must acquire or develop this capability.
India developed its base for developing its missile capabilities but also increased its cooperation in defense with the US and Russia. Different ranges of Pakistani delivery systems especially missiles became a major threat to India.8 India wanted to neutralize that threat and it tried to achieve superiority to deter the threats emerging from Pakistan.
With the acquisition of the BMDS, India will acquire the status of being technologically superior and also dominant in the region in terms of military status and among the few countries that possess the BMDS. The transfer was a major problem in the deal as Almaz-Antey was sanctioned by the US under its CAATSA and transfer with international banks would have resulted in the freezing of assets.
It was, however, reported later that India paid 800 million advances and Putin confirmed at BRICS that the deal would go as planned: the system will be timely delivered and the amount will be transferred through the change of finance into euros to avoid sanctions.9
The US and Indo-Russian Deal
In recent years, the United States has improved its relations with India, becoming strategic partners in the Indian Ocean Region. The United States wants to counter Russian influence in Europe and Eurasia by imposing a number of sanctions on Moscow on issues related to the use of chemical weapons due to the Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict and other transnational issues.
Russia has also imposed sanctions on the US in counter to CAATSA by banning the export of beef and other goods.10 Based on CAATSA, any contract over 15 million US dollars with Russian defense firms would come under sanctions, but the president of the United States has the authority to give a waiver to the countries of its choosing and it seems that United States has given a waiver to India on the Russian S-400 defense system deal in countering the Chinese increasing influence.
The United States went against the Turkish deal with Russia, but it has not done much to show its objection to the Indo-Russian deal where a presidential amendment into section 231 of CAATSA was used to give India a waiver from sanctions, as America sees India as its strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific region.
So far, there are three countries from NATO that have used the Russian S-300 defense system. In 1994, Greece purchased the system to balance Turkish forces in Cyprus, but due to pressure from Turkey, it could not deploy it rather it was deployed on another island near Greece.11
India plays very smartly in its relations with major powers and has managed its relations with the US regarding the deal of S-400, but the US has made it very clear that with the acquisition of S-400 by India, it will not be able to get the F-35 aircraft. Despite hurdles with trade issues, India has kept its balance with the US and has always welcomed US presence in the Indo-Pacific region.12
Historical Rivalry and the Struggle for Defense System and Technological Superiority
India is a bigger economy that is also many times the size of Pakistan and it also has clear conventional superiority.13 India has a large arsenal of T-90 Russian tanks, self-propelled artillery, as well as towed artillery pieces and its forces, are thrice the size of that of Pakistani. Its ground forces give it a greater operational capability as well as a capability to wage a full-scale war.
Due to its great geopolitical status and economy, India has access to almost all the universal modern warfighting technologies of the world.14 The conventional imbalance between India and Pakistan greatly affects the consequences. During the 1970s, although PAF was able to shot 26 Indian aircraft without losing any, as the war progressed it was outnumbered by the Indian army which resulted in Pakistan’s disintegration.
Strategic Stability in South Asia
Strategic stability in the South Asia case can be defined as a balance between India and Pakistan. The idea of strategic stability has prevailed for the last two decades but this strategic stability between India and Pakistan is now challenged by a number of factors and one of them is the Indian acquisition and modernization of its sophisticated weapon systems such as the Russian S-400 and other missile defense systems which will change the balance of power in the region.15
There is a long-standing Kashmir conflict that is unresolved between India and Pakistan and the tension between states is increasing. The role of major powers like the US has remained dominant in maintaining strategic stability in South Asia. In the past, during conflicts, the United States had been very influential in crises especially in the Mumbai attacks (2008), Kargil war (1998), and the Parliament attack.
The US has even declared India as its regional partner and is conducting its operational capabilities with the Indian forces. The strengthening of the Indo-US alliance to counter China’s influence while also increasing Indian capabilities are directly affecting the status quo in the region which will affect the balance between India and Pakistan.16
India’s BMDS which it considers to be a game-changer can be neutralized through MIRVs and Pakistan’s latest advanced and sophisticated cruise and ballistic missiles. To counter Indian BMDS, Pakistan is trying to increase its arsenal.17 Pakistan would look for its options to maintain the status quo.18
Russian S-400 is a very capable weapon and even stealth aircraft will find it hard to get through this system. Pakistan has fewer options to counter the system and can move will towards the vertical proliferation of arms in the region.19 India has tested its system interceptors many times, but the success rate has not been very high. BMDS affects deterrence stability and increases arms control in the region.
The acquisition of the Russian S-400 will give India a strategic advantage and it will pose challenges to the stability in the region.20 Pakistan deployed medium-range LY-80/HQ-16 in Kashmir and showed interest in purchasing Russian S-300 SAM batteries but has not yet moved on the deal with Russia. Pakistan can also consider purchasing the Chinese HQ-9 which is a Chinese variant of the S-300 system.
Recently, there was a statement from DG ISPR that Pakistan was interested in purchasing Russian defense equipment which includes air defense and anti-tank weapons. It was also reported that Pakistan was seeking to purchase the FD-2000 air defense system with a maximum range of 125km.21
Pakistan has already tested Nasr, a tactical ballistic missile, which could get a strategic advantage over Indian advancing conventional forces. India has tried to conduct operations against Pakistan without crossing the nuclear threshold level as it had a cold start doctrine to punish Pakistan but Pakistan’s countermeasures have restored the strategic balance.22
Limitations of the Russian S-400 Defense System
Despite all its sophistication, the Russian S-400 inherits some vulnerabilities like any other weapon and one of them is that this weapon has not been tested in actual war yet. Russia deployed S-400 in Syria but never used it against Israeli jets, while its older version shot down two Israeli F-16 jets, but due to retaliation by Israeli warplanes, one of its systems was neutralized.23
Still, there is a question mark on its capability to intercept ballistic missiles if fired from a specific trajectory. India will have to deploy these systems very near the Pakistani border to get better results. These systems will be very vulnerable to ground raids by Pakistani troops. India is also acquiring Rafale Jets from France.24 These technologies will give India an edge even with respect to limited operations and Pakistan will have to revise its policy and posture regarding nuclear and conventional forces.
India and Pakistan after the 1998 nuclear test were able to maintain a semblance of balance in their relations and it resulted in strategic stability for two decades. Both states avoided engaging in any major conventional or nuclear war. Although there was the Kargil conflict and the 2002 military standoff between Indian and Pakistan, due to the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons, both states were able to restore nuclear deterrence.
The United States has strongly sided with India on global affairs. The S-400 deal with Russia will affect the strategic stability of South Asia and having the Russian S-400 and other offensive capabilities, India will be able to neutralize Pakistan’s nuclear capability.
Russia has inherited a lot of air defense systems development programs from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Russia is using the S-400 as a geopolitical tool to achieve its policy objectives. There are certain limitations with this system as with any weapon, but once it is fully deployed, it will affect the stability in the region.
1 Salma Malik, “How nuclear weapons changed the face of conflict in South Asia,” Friday Times, August 17, 2018
2 “Secret Casualties of the Cold War,” Air and Space, n.d.
3 Mark Wade, https://www.astronautix.com/r/russiansamsandabms.html.
4 National Museum of Unites States https://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/Home/About-Us/.
5 Missile Threat. https://missilethreat.csis.org/defsys/s-400-triumf/.
6 Abdullah Keşvelioğlu, “Turkey’s Procurement of the S-400 System: An Explainer.” TRT research center, 2019: 19.
7 Sahar Anwar Khan, Uroosa Ishaq , Muhammad Usman Ullah. “Indo-Russian Missile Defense Deal: Re-Calibration of Ties.” Global Regional Review, October 2018: 155-165.
8 Gopalan, De. Rajesh Pillai Raja. “Strategic Implications of India’s Ballistic Missile Defense.” Federation mof Atomic Scientists, May 8, 2017: 7.
9 Franz-Stefan Gady,“India Makes $800 Million Advance Payment for Russian S-400 Air Defense Systems.” The DIPLOMAT, 2019.
10 Dr. THEODORE KARASIK, “America’s double standards on S-400 missile system sanctions.” 8 31, 2019.
11 Mehmat Alaca, “Russian S-300s used by 3 NATO member countries. Ankara”, 4 11, 2019.
12 Haris Bilal Malik, “India’s Balanced Missile Defense corporation with US and Russia.” Strategic Vision Institute, June 2019.
13 Masood ur Rehman Khattak, “Conventional Asymmetries between India and Pakistan.” A threat to Deterrence stability of South Asia, 2019: 71-94.
14 Tugral Yamin, “The evolution of Nuclear Deterrence in South Asia.” Rawalpindi: Defense works press, 2007.
15 Sayed Riffat Hussain, “Stretgic Stability Challenges in South Asia.” Pakistan Politico, 2018.
16 P I Cheema, “Stretgic Stability Challenges in South Asia; Role of USA.” Journal of Contemporary Studies, 2018: 16.
17 Sadia Tasleem. “No Indian BMD No Pakistani Mirvs.” Stimson Center, 2017: 7.
18 Moiz Khan, “Impact of Ballistic Missile Defence System on the Strategic Stability in South Asia.” Journal of Strategic Affairs, 2017: 83-107.
19 Masood ur Rehman Khattak, “Conventional Asymmetries between India and Pakistan.” A threat to Deterrence stability of South Asia, 2019: 71-94.
20 Dr.Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, “Countering Indian Ballistic Missile Defense & Strategic Stability in South Asia .” Margalla Papers, 2018: 23.
21 Usman Ansari, “What does Pakistan need to close its air defense gaps?” 4 6, 2019.
22 Naeem Salik, “Learning To Live with Bomb. Islamabad: Oxford University Press Islamabad,” 2017.
23 Alex lockie, “Russia Aid defense cannot stop Israel in Syria.” Business Insider, 2019.
24 Muhammad shakir Bacha, “Indo-French Defense Cooperation and South Asian Instability – Strafasia” | Strategy, analysis, News and insight of Emerging Asia.” Strategic Foresight For Asia, 2019
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