The acquisition of the S-400 air defence system by India from Russia is more strategically significant than the Modi government intends to publicly convey. It signifies a likely change in Indian strategy from the defence to the offensive.
For all the talk beforehand of falling squadron strength in the Indian Air Force, which is a legitimate concern for the Indians (they are down to 31 squadrons of aircraft and urgently need at least 42 for a two-front war with China and Pakistan), the raw capability of the new Russian system completely justifies the term ‘game changer’. The sheer range and power of the new generation active array radar at the heart of the system enables the Indian military to shut down Pakistani airspace at will. Any fighter jet inside an arc of approximately 400km can now be detected by the Indians.
While the exact type and number of missiles that India has purchased is unclear, the near hypersonic velocity of the missiles means that they can shoot down many aircraft as soon as they take off, within seconds if close to the border. Similar advantages hold for the Indian military in the Tibet theatre, where Chinese aircraft are already at a disadvantage in terms of payload and range because of the higher altitude that they will have to operate from. It is important to be clear that the S-400 is an air defence system with at most a secondary missile defence role. That role will be taken by an indigenous Indian ballistic missile defence program. The Chinese also operate the S-400 but they have to contend with the powerful Japanese and American air/naval forces, as well as evolving Taiwanese defences in the Far East.
While the Indian Air Force will talk with some justification of how this system is designed to augment it in the face of a bad shortage of aircraft, what will go unsaid at least publicly, is how dramatically the strategic situation in the Indian subcontinent has been changed, possibly with geopolitical implications that reach into central Asia. By developing the capability to shut down airspace in Pakistan to Pakistan’s own Air Force, Narendra Modi’s government has developed the strategic capability of escalation dominance. In effect, the ability of the Pakistanis to escalate in response to an Indian air strike or incursion will be severely curtailed. The thinly veiled threat behind such an escalation would be to take the situation to the brink of a catastrophic nuclear exchange, thereby deterring the Indians from striking at all. If India can use the S-400 to prevent Pakistan from launching any sort of response it can strike almost at will.
Politically the situation has changed dramatically now. The Modi government has conducted at least one surgical strike into Pakistan in response to cross border terrorism. Now India has the option of striking even deeper into Pakistan in response to future terrorist outrages, knowing that the S-400 shield will dramatically reduce the capability of the Pakistani state to respond, or the Chinese state to intervene on its Pakistani proxy’s behalf for that matter.
When the S-400 arrives in India in October 2020, it will herald likely herald the beginning of a new proactive and potentially very aggressive strategy from the new Modi government. The Indian subcontinent is in for some very interesting times.