India’s Deployment of Russian S-400 Strengthens its Defenses But Places the Country in Awkward Spot With the U.S.
- However, Washington must not force New Delhi to choose sides but understand the strategic imperatives that India is faced with in its neighborhood.
The deployment of S-400 missiles along the Punjab border has caused quite the stir as India seeks to strengthen its security along its borders. In late 2018, the Indian military signed a $5.5 billion deal with the Russian Defense Ministry for the acquisition of five S-400 missile systems. However, this acquisition has implications for India’s bilateral ties with the United States.
What is the S-400?
The S-400 is a mobile missile defense system that can successfully protect an area from a large aerial attack. As one defense expert said, “The S-400 acts like a protective shield over a given area or bubble.” It is considered by many to be the best air-defense system in the world. The system consists of a command vehicle, radar outpost, and missile launcher. The radar outpost detects a target approaching its area and sends details to the mobile command post. The mobile command post then fires the missiles from the canisters at the incoming target. (See Figure 1 for more details)
Its missiles have a maximum range of 250 miles and can simultaneously engage up to 36 targets all at once. So far, the S-400 has proved fruitful for Russia as its deployment in Syria has kept American fighter jets at bay. U.S. officials are “wary” of the S-400 given its efficacy in detecting advanced stealth fighters such as the renowned F-35.
Why Does India Want Them?
Put simply, India is surrounded by hostility, and it needs the best technology to defend itself. India has an assertive China seeking to take control of its territorial claims in Arunachal Pradesh. With China’s recent incursions in Doklam and most recently in Ladakh, India needs to contain China’s aggression. On the other hand, the dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir has always been a tense flashpoint.
With the S-400, things will change. As seen in Figure 1, the proposed deployments of the S-400 units give India proper control over its skies in and around Pakistan. Indian government officials believe that the S-400 has the potential to “ground the entire Pakistani Air Force deployed within 400 km of the border.” They see this as a “gamechanger.”
What Lies Ahead?
This may be a political victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he seeks to modernize India’s aging arsenal. However, watching this all with a wary eye is Washington. For years, the U.S. has tried to sanction Russia’s defense industry after the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Washington even threatens to penalize countries that purchase Russian equipment. For example, Turkey was removed from the F-35 program after it purchased the S-400.
It’s highly unlikely the Biden administration will sanction India for its purchase. However, India risks getting caught in a diplomatic tug of war between the U.S. and Russia especially as tensions rise over Ukraine. Instead, India will need to successfully balance its relations with Moscow and Washington. Both sides will pressure India to pick a side, but India will be reluctant to do so.
From India’s perspective, both Russia and the U.S. are vital to its foreign and defense policy. Russian defense firms have supplied the Indian military for decades and have been instrumental in helping India develop its own defense sector. India can use Russia’s partnership with China as a way to limit Beijing’s ambitions and as a potential backchannel when things go awry.
Ties with the United States have improved significantly in the past few years. India’s participation in the QUAD (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the United States, India, Japan and Australia), as well as relations with American defense contractors, has helped beef up India’s capabilities against China. In the event of a conflict with China, India will most likely rely on U.S. support to contain any expansion.
The U.S. will continue to pressure India to lessen its reliance on Russian arms. However, this will be counterintuitive. India and Russia’s friendship goes back to the Cold War. If the U.S. continues to bicker, India may be unwilling to partner in the strategic partnership. Instead, the U.S. should let India’s reliance on Russian arms continue. For one thing, it is in America’s best interest that the Indian military is armed with the best equipment. In a potential war with China, a force with a wide array of weapons will be very beneficial. Secondly, it is best for India to realize on its own that Russian weapons are not as lethal and precise as American weapons. Once India comes to this realization it will slowly start to use more American weapons.
Put simply, the U.S. should let India make decisions on its own and not force them to pick any sides.
Rohan Kumar is a senior at UC Riverside studying International Affairs. His focus is on Russian foreign policy and South Asian security affairs. He aspires to join the U.S. State Department. In his free time, he watches European soccer (football) and reads the Economist.