18 December 2015
By Bilal Khan
The Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD)’s Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) is in the process of approving a multi-billion dollar purchase of five S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems from Russia. In a deal worth at least $4.5 billion U.S the Indian Air Force (IAF) is looking to begin the development of a formidable air defence layer to its already capable set-up (involving land and sea-based assets).
This is not simply an issue regarding the S-400 Triumf (a very promising system in its own right), but to eventually expand the network coverage through the inevitable induction of the indigenously developed Prithvi-line of medium-to-long and short-range SAMs. That said, the S-400 – with its 400km range – is for India a welcoming layer, and for Pakistan, a challenge that can be described as another big pull (in India’s favour); in other words, the chilling strategic imbalance that concerns Pakistan’s security establishment.
The S-400 Triumf is a development of the venerable S-300 long-range SAM system. While commonly perceived as a long-range SAM system, the S-400 is in reality a multi-layered system. In other words, it is equipped to engage targets at varied medium to long-range brackets. This is done by equipping the S-400 with a series of different missiles, each missile focused on engaging from a specific range. For example, the 40N6 missile has a maximum range of 400km and the 48N6 missile has a maximum range of 250km, these are strategically-focused munitions meant to defend against ballistic missiles and/or long-range bombers. The 120km 9M96E2 and 40km 9M96E missiles are tactically-oriented, i.e. they were clearly designed to intercept enemy fighter aircraft.
While the 40N6 and 48N6 missiles were meant for strategic threats in the context of Russia’s requirements vis-à-vis Europe and the U.S, the probable presence of these missiles in South Asia is without doubt going to give the Pakistani military one of its toughest headaches to date. Whereas the counter to India’s acquisition of the R-77 active radar-guided beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) was had through the purchase of the AIM-120C5 and SD-10, the counter to the S-400 Triumf is not the acquisition of a long-range SAM, such as the Chinese HQ-9. The actual countermeasure would be to acquire capabilities that could stress, deprecate and – ideally – destroy India’s air defence capabilities.
Theoretically the solution to this problem is straightforward: The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) should prioritize the acquisition of low-observable (i.e. stealth) combat aircraft as well as longer-range anti-radiation air-to-surface missiles and sub-munition capable air launched cruise missiles (ALCM). In theory, these fighters would be difficult to detect and the munitions would threaten the S-400’s radar suite (which is necessary for detection and targeting).
The Pakistan Army (and military) as a whole would need to invest in multiple independently-guided re-entry vehicle (MIRV)-equipped ballistic missiles. These ballistic missiles would have multiple warheads, each primed for a specific target, and can be used to stress India’s air defence system. The Pakistan Navy would need assets capable of stand-off strike via surface and sub-surface assets. It would also be helpful if Pakistan had more geographical maneuvering space (i.e. strategic depth).
Unfortunately, in Pakistan’s case, the theory is severely difficult to implement. It is not simply a matter of being able to stress India’s air defence, but also being capable of withstanding an Indian conventional response (which is stronger than Pakistan’s on many of the counts that matter). This is where Pakistan’s own acquisition of a long-range SAM would come into play. However, to be frank, these ideas would not necessarily guarantee absolute success in a conflict, but would at least serve as a credible deterrence (on the grounds that Pakistan’s conventional response would be unfeasible for India). However, with $16 billion U.S spent in servicing debt in the previous fiscal year and $1.8 billion U.S spent on Zarb-e-Azb over the past year, it is a tough ask to expect Pakistan to reach the requisite deterrence level.
India’s pending S-400 acquisition demonstrates that for Pakistan, not every acquisition can be countered by a matching purchase of a similar solution. There are moments, such as the S-400, where a single imbalance mandates the acquisition of a complete multi-system counterstrategy. Within Pakistan’s current capacities, the purchase of one or two FC-31 squadrons may be possible, and if paired with the Mectron MAR-1 anti-radiation missile, would offer one system; but the remainder of the wider counterstrategy, especially on the side of the Army and Navy, will remain vacant.
With very limited financial resources, the focus on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and the underlying economic problems (i.e. the debt and the debt-servicing), it is difficult to expect a fully optimal response on Pakistan’s part to India’s S-400 acquisition.