NEW DELHI—China has deployed the Russian S-400 air-defence system in its airbases in Xinjiang and Nyingchi in Tibet. Both these air bases are just across the de facto border with India in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, two Indian territories that China claims. Experts said this deployment is to intercept India’s maneuvers and to keep India under check.
“China’s deployment of the S-400, which is built for intercepting missiles or even aircraft, seems to be geared towards preventing any bold moves by India—probably like New Delhi’s surgical strike in Balakot [in February 2019] whereby Indian planes briefly entered Pakistani airspace [to attack militant camps],” Kashish Parpiani, a fellow at Mumbai based Observer’s Research Foundation told The Epoch Times over the phone.
Procurement of the S-400 system is liable to American sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) that has already been applied against Turkey and China.
Yet, India is determined to proceed with a $5.2 billion deal with Russia of the same, and the deliveries are set to start in September. Experts said China’s deployment ahead of the procurement of the same sanction-prone defense system by India is also to pressurize India to expedite the procurement, thereby inviting sanctions.
It would thus possibly create enduring friction between India and the United States as it did between Turkey and the United States, which would be in China’s interest.
“But it is credible to assume that the Chinese calculation may be to have India fast-track procurement of S-400 from Russia—which could in turn only exacerbate tensions in the bilateral dynamic between India and the U.S.,” said Parpiani whose expertise includes U.S.-India bilateral ties, U.S. grand strategy, and U.S. foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific.
S. Chandrashekhar, a former scientist with the Indian Space Research Organization whose work covered all parts of the program—satellites and rockets, as well as the applications of space technology, including especially remote sensing, told The Epoch Times in an email that China’s deployment of S-400 can also be seen as defensive.
“Though of course if you have a good defense you can also launch an attack against a weaker opponent—India would appear weaker—so in a sense, it is a warning to India to back off against any aggressive action it might take at the LAC (Line of Actual Control or the de facto border between India and China),” said Chandrashekhar.
Parpiani said that one of the reasons why there’s no complete cessation of tensions between India and China since the past two years, particularly since the bloody conflict of Galwan in Ladakh in June 2020 is because “both sides are looking to establish an acceptable equilibrium. For India particularly, the motivation is also to not let the LAC become another LOC.”
The LOC or the Line of Control is the highly volatile military control line between India and Pakistan and Parpiani meant India won’t want the LAC to be militarized the way the LOC is.
While India’s first military team visited Russia in January this year to train on S-400 defense systems, Parpiani said that the Chinese deployment of the same on the Indian border indicates that China wants India to keep its security calculus more northward and continental.
“Army based—rather than India expanding its role southward or a southeastward, with a Navy-focused security calculus,” he said adding that an India investing its defense resources on its navy would be a big threat to China’s designs in the Indian ocean.
Geopolitics Around S-400
Satoru Nagao, Ph.D., a non-resident fellow with the Washington DC-based Hudson Institute told The Epoch Times that India has an older version, the S-300, and India wants to upgrade its air defense system to a more capable one.
“S-300 is very old now. In 1990, there was the Gulf War. The U.S. used Patriot Missile PAC-2. Indeed Russian version of this PAC-2 is S-300. Now the U.S. has PAC-3 but it’s a completely different system,” said Nagao. The evolution of S-300 and S-400 is completely different, he said, and India owning an older version is no advantage.
“S-400 can attack 6 targets at the same time. S-400 has 400 kilometers of range, and it can detect old-type stealth jets. Compare this with S-300 which can’t deal with so many targets. S-300 range is 100-150 kilometers,” he said.
India needs a surface-to-air missile defense system like S-400 but the United States hasn’t prepared one and India decided to buy S-400 from Russia, said Nagao. Russia is currently developing the S-500 which the Chinese are waiting to buy, as per media reports.
“S-400 can deal with planes and cruise missiles but their capability to deal with ballistic missiles is limited. PAC-3 is developed against ballistic missiles. If India needs to buy U.S. missile [defense system] instead of S-400, STANDARD missile is proper but very expensive,” said Nagao. The United States is suggesting India buy the STANDARD missile, Nagao said, which is anti-ballistic and also has anti-satellite capacity.
“This is not a bad idea. But for India, the cost of S-400 is attractive,” said Nagao. The S-400 can be mobilized on cars, but STANDARD is bulky and can’t be operated on cars, he said.
Chandrashekhar said in the past century the military aircraft and the missile technology targeting them have evolved together—and when the air attack technology becomes very advanced, the defense also becomes complicated.
“So these missile and air defense systems today like the S-400 are mobile, after firing a salvo they move so that they cannot be targeted. Their range have [sic] increased so that they can reach and destroy the target far away,” said Chandrashekhar who’s currently a visiting professor at India’s National Institute of Advanced Studies.
“S-400 is an advanced air and missile defense system that can defend high-value installations,” he said.
In a special report titled “India’s Purchase of S-400: Understanding the CAATSA Conundrum” published on Feb. 25, Parpiani along with Nivedita Kapoor and Angad Singh said there’s no alternative to the S-400 that can serve India’s needs.
“From the Indian Air Force perspective, there is no alternative system capable of serving its long-range air defense requirements, from the standpoint of either capability or cost. The ability of the S-400 to constrain the adversary’s air operations even within their own airspace is unmatched by typical Western systems offered up as analogues,” the trio said adding that the low-cost factor also matters because the Indian air force has limited modernization funding.
The concerns of the United States go beyond the CAATSA and Russian arms sales, according to Parpiani, Kapoor, and Singh.
“The presence of advanced systems such as the S-400 among U.S. allies will clearly impede certain technology transfers and joint operations, as evidenced by the immediate suspension of F-35 deliveries to NATO ally Turkey, even before sanctions under CAATSA came into force. Turkey has also been removed from the multinational F-35 development and production program,” they said.
“In the U.S.-India case, where the countries are not formal allies, the S-400 will nevertheless place constraints on some contours of what the U.S. envisions for the future of the U.S.-India defense relationship. ”
Will India Get CAATSA Waiver?
Parpiani said till date the United States has not imposed any CAATSA sanctions against India for the procurement of S-400 and there’s a strong possibility that India will get a waiver.
“As per waiver provisions under Section 231 of CAATSA, if the country in question, chiefly India, Vietnam, or Indonesia, holds high significance in America’s foreign and security policy goals in the Indo-Pacific, a waiver may be granted,” said Parpiani.
“There is a strong case for India to receive a waiver on account of its significance in the Indo-Pacific calculus and a gradual reduction in India’s import of Russian weapons.”
Though President Joe Biden has yet to make a statement on the issue, there are two grounds on which India deserves a CAATSA waiver, according to Parpiani.
“First, India has a good record with respect to reducing its dependence on Russian arms. Comparing Indian procurements in the two periods of 2009-2013 and 2013-2017, India’s import of Russian arms has declined. Whereas import of American arms has increased by over five hundred percent,” he said.
A waiver for India under CAATSA however will not go well with China because it has been subjected to sanctions for buying the same air defense.
“This issue can prove to be a major impediment in India-U.S. defense trade and interoperability if the U.S. imposes sanctions on India,” he said.