A game changer for India

Modi-Putin Summit

Russian servicemen drive S-400 missile air defence systems during the Victory Day parade at Red Square in Moscow, Russia. REUTERS File Photo

India and Russia recently signed a $5-billion deal for New Delhi to buy the Russian S-400 Triumf missile defence system to bolster its shield against possible air attacks by Pakistan and China. They also signed eight other pacts, including cooperation on India’s ambitious human space mission, Gaganyaan. The signing of the S-400 deal came amidst the US warning India against it.

The Russian-built S-400 Triumf is the world’s most advanced operationally-deployed long-range surface-to-air missile system, considered much more effective than the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system.

India’s move to ink the $5.43 billion (Rs 40,000 crore) deal for five S-400 missile squadrons from Russia, despite the looming threat of US sanctions, underlines Delhi’s resolve to bolster India’s air defence coverage.

The resolve became stronger after China inducted six S-400 batteries in January under a $3 billion deal with Russia in 2014. The US last month imposed financial sanctions on China for its S-400 deal, but India is hopeful of getting a waiver from the Trump administration, being its close strategic partner. The US also depends on India to counter China in its strategic manoeuvers in South China Sea and other areas.

The S-400 system is critical for India’s national security. In terms of configuration, India’s S-400 are better than what China is getting. The highly automated and mobile S-400 systems, with four different kinds of missiles with interception ranges of 150-380 km, will change the dynamics of air defence in the region. China is getting the older version of S-400.

India will pay 15% (Rs 6,000 crore) to Russia as the first instalment, with the rest being linked to deliveries. The air force is slated to get the first S-400 missile squadron in 24 months, with its associated battle management system of command post and launchers, long-range acquisition and engagement radars, and all terrain transport-erector-launcher vehicles. All five squadrons, with two firing units each, will arrive in 54 months.

The S-400, with their huge ‘area denial capabilities’ are a game changer. The combination of the 36 Rafale fighters that India is buying from France for Rs 59,000 crore and the S-400 missile systems is a force to reckon with, even in case of a two-pronged offensive by China and Pakistan.

When deployed near the border with Pakistan, the S-400 missile system can shoot down a hostile F-16 fighter or cruise missile much before they come anywhere near Indian air space during hostilities. It can even take out intermediate range ballistic missiles. It will be crucial in providing multilayer defence to cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.

The issue of India disregarding the US threat of sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) had dominated during the Narendra Modi-Vladimir Putin summit. Though the US had earlier cautioned countries against helping the Russian economy by buying weapon systems from it, India went ahead with the S-400 deal in view of its urgent national security needs.

American lawmakers, however, have allowed the possibility of a presidential waiver. Hopefully, the Trump administration will give a waiver to India. India has mounted a major diplomatic-military campaign to convince the US to do so and has assured the US that it will not “compromise the operational secrecy” of the weapon systems it has purchased or will buy from the US. It has conveyed that India maintains robust technical firewalls and does not pass on sensitive information to a third party. India respects IPR and meticulously adheres to contracts linked with other countries.

National security requirement

America’s worry is that the S-400 systems are capable of “mapping or recording” data of other platforms like aircraft or radars. The stealth characteristics, electronic warfare and other capabilities of US F-35 fighters can be recorded by S-400 missile systems. Moscow would then be able to access data recorded by S-400 systems if leaked by India or any other country.

Hopefully, Trump will understand India’s urgent national security requirement, especially when it is surrounded by two colluding, nuclear powers. If sanctions are imposed on India, the US will suffer more than India. Moreover, Russia is the major country that has been supporting India at the UN on the Kashmir issue, even using its veto during adverse verdicts against India. Indo-Russian joint military exercises are being carried out regularly for planning joint strategies.

Speaking on India-Russia bilateral trade ties, Prime Minister Modi said that Russia could become our partner in the new and renewable energy sector. He said that the world had changed but the relationship between India and Russia had remained the same and that trade between the two countries had risen 20% in 2017-18.

Pacts were also inked in the fields of space, nuclear energy, railways and space. A crucial MoU was signed between Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Federal Space Agency of Russia ‘ROSCOSMOS’ on joint activities in India’s human spaceflight programme, Gaganyaan. India is planning to send astronauts into space by 2022, for which Russia is going to be a great help.

President Putin said the two countries have agreed to step up cooperation in combating terrorism and drug trafficking — the two most important worries for India. Russia has pitched for Indian energy companies to invest in its ventures. Putin said he and Modi had discussed in detail the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu – where Russia is building the third and fourth reactors and will next build the fifth and sixth units.

The Modi-Putin summit is likely to prove to be a game changer when it comes to settling the international disputes of the region.

(The writer is a defence analyst and commentator)

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