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India Inks Contract for S-400 Long-Range Air Defence System

On 05 October, New Delhi inked a $5.5 billion US contract with Russia’s Rosoboronexport for the purchase of Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. The purchase comes in the midst of Washington passing the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), new legislation aimed at curbing Russia by restricting US allies from purchasing major Russian goods, notably armaments and natural resources.[1] Nonetheless, citing its strategic interests New Delhi greenlit the deal.

There are at least three major issues to consider when examining this purchase. First, the impact of the S-400 on Pakistan, especially in terms of how it will influence (and, in all likelihood, constrain) its offensive capabilities. Second, how Washington will navigate its bilateral relations with India in light of New Delhi’s long-established, and strategically important, relationship with Moscow. Third, the S-400’s emergence as a popular big-ticket export item for Moscow, one that is seeing countries – which would otherwise adhere to CAATSA – pursue the system, despite its high price tag and the risk of repercussions from the US.

In October 2016, India and Russia signed an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) to finalize the S-400. The deal, once finalized, would see India begin receiving the S-400 from 2020. India joins China and Turkey as a forthcoming S-400 user. Deliveries to China had begun in January 2018.[2] Turkey is preparing a site for a S-400 system, which it expects to begin receiving in 2019 (with operational readiness by 2020).[3]

The Impact of the Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf in South Asia

Though known for its marquee, 400 km-range missile – the 40N6 – the S-400 is actually multi-layered, i.e. it covers short-to-medium and medium-to-long-range envelopes as well. This is done through the 250 km 48NG, 120 km 9M96E2 and 40 km 9M96E. In effect, the S-400 is a full-spectrum system, which is not only a versatile system, but it equips the S-400 to defend itself from low-level threats. These low-level threats will leverage coverage gaps resulting from the Earth’s curvature. However, the S-400 will cover these gaps through its low-level sensors and short and short-medium-range SAMs (e.g. 9M96E/E2).

Thus, not only is the S-400 a potentially effective system for its intended purpose (long-range air defence), but it is difficult to displace, much less neutralize, due to its multi-layered coverage. In addition, the S-400 can be shifted between sites by land thanks to truck-mounted launchers, radars/sensors and command, control and communication (C3) centres. This enables the S-400 user to shift and re-deploy the S-400 with relative ease, though the actual transport and re-activation process would mean a downtime.

It would be disingenuous to believe that the S-400 is not a game-changer of sorts in the region, especially when taken in collection with some of India’s other defence programs. The most obvious point is that with the S-400, India has the option of imposing a constraint on high-altitude flights on Pakistan.

By placing S-400 systems in proximity to the Pakistani border, India could extend its air defence umbrella into Pakistan by a factor of several hundred kilometres. Yes, by virtue of the Earth’s curvature, the S-400’s restrictions would be on high-altitude flights; the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) combat aircraft can still fly low in Pakistani territory. However, special mission aircraft – e.g. airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft – could be at risk when operating near the Indian border.

How Can Pakistan Mitigate the Effects of the S-400?

Besides the potential of India imposing an aerial exclusion zone on Pakistan, the S-400 will also limit the PAF’s ability to undertake offensive counter-air (OCA) and deep-strike missions. In tandem with the S-400 and its long-range coverage, India will also place an array of short-and-medium-range air defence systems – such as its SPYDER and MR-SAM — to plug low-level gaps in front of its S-400 launch and sensor systems.

Thus, having aircraft fly into India will become prohibitively high-risk without sufficient SEAD (suppression of enemy air defence) or DEAD (destruction of enemy air defence) operations. However, SEAD and DEAD operations in India would not be trivial given the level of air defence capacity India has constructed thus far, and will continue to do so in the coming years. Moreover, the Tejas equips the Indian Air Force (IAF) with an advanced, lightweight multi-role fighter to provide credible air-to-air coverage.

If there is a starting point for Pakistan, it would be in terms of building an expansive SEAD/DEAD capability. In one sense, it is simple thanks to the availability of the JF-17. In theory, the PAF can field many of these aircraft thanks to their relative affordability, which at least provides the PAF with many platforms through which it can undertake operations. The JF-17’s inherent range limitations can be offset through stand-off range air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) and other munitions (e.g. glide bombs).

Fundamentally, the delivery of SEAD/DEAD rests on an abundant number of launch platforms and stand-off weapons (SOW). If launched in high-quantity, the latter can serve as clutter against India’s air defence systems, thus stressing them (by emptying standby launches) and/or resulting in successful strikes. But to achieve credible effect, Pakistan would need to invest in extending the range of its SOW. Moreover, work must be done to further reducing SOW observability by radar and infrared sensors.

However, solely relying on airborne launch would not be prudent. Pakistan has fiscal constraints that will limit the number of launch platforms – including JF-17s – it can procure. Moreover, not every JF-17 (much less F-16 and/or another high-tech fighter, such as Project Azm) is available for SEAD/DEAD (many must be available for countering aerial threats and providing close air support to the Army and Navy). Thus, Pakistan would have to examine other deployment options, especially from land and sea.

By using ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCM), Pakistan can vastly expand its ability to undertake SEAD or DEAD as well as other long-range strikes. Not only is it cheaper to deploy SOWs from land, but it would also be more difficult for India to interdict that capability (as Pakistan can use the expansiveness of its own territory to hide and deploy SOWs). In terms of SEAD/DEAD, land-launched SOWs must be paired with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) measures, namely electronic intelligence (ELINT).

ELINT systems could be sought from Aselsan in Turkey and Elettronica in Italy. By building out sizable ELINT capabilities – i.e. through sensors deployed from land, air and sea – Pakistan can potentially build a picture of India’s nearby air defence coverage. If this is actionable intelligence, then pairing it with a credible SOW capability – including land and sea-based launch – could spur India to move its air defence assets, including the S-400. This would force a downtime in the S-400, else India must tolerate the risk of loss.

However, a re-deployed S-400 would eventually become a threat again. Thus, Pakistan will need to widely deploy its ELINT-based ISR, but ensure that it is persistent such that any change in electronic activity in an area is immediately recognized and, in turn, SOWs can be deployed. Such ELINT coverage will not be cost-effective if Pakistan is only relying on high-cost platforms – e.g. JF-17 – to do it. Besides unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) capable of carrying ELINT, Pakistan will need mobile land-based ELINT assets as well.

In theory, Pakistan can also look to intersect its ALCM and UAV programs to develop low-observable, jet-powered one-way attack drones and decoys. Initially, these can be relatively simple by using the Ra’ad or Ra’ad II. The idea is not to have a traditional missile, but an aircraft that can (via remote piloting) fly over an area while causing an effect, e.g. collect ELINT data, try to jam radars via electronic warfare (EW), attack a dispersed set of targets (e.g. an entire air defence system) or to serve as a decoy.

The ideal in that scenario would be to equip a decoy Ra’ad with autonomous flight, i.e. omit the remote, human operator. However, this requires domestic advances in automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Interestingly, a cursory look at the National University of Sciences and Technology’s (NUST) website shows that research in the aforementioned areas (and that too in relation to drones) is underway, but these are unlikely to be mature enough where Pakistan can utilize them before the S-400 is a factor.[4]

Critical Needs: Holistic Strategy & Domestic Development

The aforementioned makes it clear that Pakistan requires a combination of domestic development – e.g. drones, autonomous flight and long-range munitions – with a holistic deployment strategy.

Neutralizing the S-400 (or at least mitigating its effect) cannot be left to only the PAF, the Army and Navy will need to play a role as well. Moreover, neutralizing the S-400 is not as simple as just having JF-17s fire ALCMs and SOWs, but involves an intricate process of ISR, i.e. using land, air and sea-based ELINT with human intelligence (HUMINT) and satellite-based image intelligence (IMINT).

In truth, dealing with the S-400 cannot be reduced to one or several steps. Rather, Pakistan must consider dealing with the S-400 – and India’s air defence network at-large – as a ‘war within a war’. Pakistan must raise dedicated assets with specific processes (e.g. defining how to look for the S-400 and first responses for dealing with it) and tested procedures. Finally, some of the critical inputs – e.g. autonomous drones – cannot be had except through domestic development.

[1] Pranab Dhal Samanta. “S-400 deal gives US a unique chance to spell out special relations with India.” Economic Times. 08 October 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 08 October 2018).

[2] Special Briefing. “Previewing Sanctions Under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA).” US Department of State. 20 September 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 09 October 2018).

[3] Amanda Macias. “Turkey begins constructing site for Russian missile system — despite US warnings.” CNBC. 06 September 2018. URL: (Last Accessed: 09 October 2018).

[4] National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST). URL: (Last Accessed: 08 October 2018).

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