Can an essentially defensive system replace the offensive potential of fighter aircraft even where deployed in the air defence role?
India and Russia have signed a contract for supply of the Russian manufactured S-400 Triumf (NATO SA-21 Growler) during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India in October 2018.
The S 400 is regarded as the most advanced air and missile defence system in the World with a range of 400 kms and has a low comparative cost, thus despite the threat of sanctions by the United States under Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), India has opted for the Triumf.
Importantly China and Turkey have already ordered the S 400 Triumf even though the latter is a NATO member and the former has been sanctioned under CAATSA.
The S 400 has the potential to identify fifth-generation aircraft which have a high degree of stealth including the F 35 and thus the potential against other developing fighters such as China’s J 20 may be even greater leading India to opt for the system.
The multifunction radar, command and control and autonomous detection, ensures that the system is capable of providing a layered defence and is claimed to be as effective in comparison to the capable S-300 system.
More over as per Army Technology, it can engage multiple targets to include, “aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and ballistic and cruise missiles within the range of 400km, at an altitude of up to 30km. The system can simultaneously engage 36 targets,” and is said to be two times more effective than the S 300 which preceded it.
Recently Israel Air Force F 35 the United States supplied fifth generation fighter had penetrated the S 300 which has been deployed in Syria and now Russia is planning to send an advanced version to the country. The S 400 has far superior detection capabilities than the predecessor S 300 system.
The electronic warfare capability of the S 400 is regarded to be very effective thus the system can operate in a dense jamming environment given that the attacking aircraft or missiles will be carrying out extensive electronic attacks in and around the deployment zone.
Integration of the S 400 in the national air defense system will facilitate India in scaling down the procurement of air defence resources and in anticipation of the induction from Russia thus denoting effectiveness of the air defence system a review is in progress.
Whether it can be a replacement for the rapidly depleting Indian Air Force squadron strength down to 31 in a two front war scenario remains to be seen?
As combat air power has a strike and deterrence potential with surprise and stealth, there will be a need for continued induction of fighters by the Indian Air Force.
At the same time there could be multiple challenges that may impact the S 400 sales given that the United States has threatened to impose sanctions on India under the CAATSA.
However it is envisaged that the contract will go through but the S 400 cannot make up for the deficit of the fighters in the Indian Air Force (IAF) and varied programmes that have been adopted by the IAF to make up the combat strength will need a boost.