S-400: A ‘JUNK’ Weapon Platform for India!

"The evaluation and need of S-400 for India has been done by accepting manufacturer specifications of system capability."

S-400: A ‘JUNK’ Weapon Platform for India!
“According to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, its “mission set and capabilities are roughly comparable to the US Patriot system” but unlike some Patriot interceptors, “the S-400 does not currently employ hit-to-kill ballistic missile defence technology”.

If the above conclusion of a prominent US think tank is to be taken on its face value, operational capability of the S-400 system will not/may not intercept the incoming ballistic missile, specially one which is following low trajectory thus reducing warning time for S-400 system. But as a pragmatic evaluator, one must consider the above comments as false propaganda by the US based think tank to dissuade prospective buyers from backing out.

Evaluation and need of S-400 for India has been done by accepting manufacturer specifications of system capability. Needless to mention that more often than not manufacturers inflate the capability figures to make the system attractive for prospective buyers.

Before continuing any further about S-400, it would be pertinent to mention that as yet not a single Anti Ballistic Missile system has been proven under actual operational conditions beginning with the famous US programme Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), which was nicknamed STAR WARS system. The US claimed operationalisation of the system during the Reagan era. The so-called ‘claimed’ successful STAR WARS intercept of an incoming ballistic missile was in fact an orchestrated and structured launch of a target and intercept missile.

Target ballistic missile carried a transmitter and the interceptor missile launched from Kwajellen island carried a receiver of the same frequency as transmitted by the target ICBM. No wonder they ‘kissed’ and exploded in outer space. The STAR WARS programme turned out to be more than a weapon system. It actually turned out to be an ‘economic weapon’, which drained out the erstwhile Soviet Union in trying to develop a matching weapon platform. ‘Successful’ trial report of STAR WARS claim was published in a US white paper. Excerpts from US white paper is posted below;

“After test failures with the first three flight tests because of guidance and sensor problems, the DOD reported that the fourth and final test on June 10, 1984 was successful, intercepting the Minuteman RV with a closing speed of about 6.1 km/s at an altitude of more than 160 km.

Although the fourth test was described as a success, the New York Times in August 1993 reported that the HOE4 test was rigged to increase the likelihood of a successful hit. At the urging of Senator David Pryor, the General Accounting Office investigated the claims and concluded that steps were taken to make it easier for the interceptor to find its target (including some of those alleged by the New York Times).”

Only war, when a limited ABM was used operationally, was during Op Desert Storm by Israel. It was literally a boon for nearly defunct and bankrupt PATRIOT manufacturers. Since Saddam Hussein had threatened to strike Israel with SCUDS, USA positioned the PATRIOT system by airlifting it within days. Recorded successful intercept rate was barely 10%. Incidentally SCUD is not an ICBM class.

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A typical ICBM intercept can be done in any of the four phases, which are;

  • Launch or boost phase. Heat signature during this phase is strongest, hence chances of intercept are highest but due to the missile being at relatively low altitude, the intercept missile radar is unable to pick up target missiles.Hence chances of intercept during boost phase is extremely low. An ICBM travels about 10% of its operational range during this phase.
  • Coasting/Cruise Phase. An ICBM having 5000km or more range remains in this phase for most of the flight at altitudes of a few hundred kilometers for nearly 65-70% of its operational range. Tracking an ICBM in cruise phase is difficult but not impossible. However intercept geometry depends entirely on interceptor range and available time of flight to target ICBM. With operational MIRV capability already existing an interceptor can intercept and destroy only one warhead. Remaining warheads will still be headed towards the target.
  • Descent Phase. An ICBM spends barely 10% of its operational range in the descent phase including terminal descent. A 5000 km range ICBM will thus be barely 500 km from the target. Most manoeuvres, if capable, are carried out in this phase including release of multiple warheads in case of MIRVed capable ICBM. A classic ICBM trajectory the descent phase is of barely few minute duration during which the ICBM could adopt manoeuvring making it difficult to track and target.
  • Terminal Descent. During this phase the war head/s are headed towards the target and are barely a few hundred kilometers from the intended point of impact.

An assessment of probable ballistic missile threat to India will be confined to nuclear tipped ballistic missiles only. Conventional warhead equipped ballistic missiles are a colossal waste of money. Launching a ballistic missile with a 1000 kg conventional warhead will amount to using the most expensive 1000 kg bomb and will be akin to launching Diwali crackers hence Ballistic Missile reference for acquiring an Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) system must be viewed as a requirement to intercept incoming nuclear tipped missile. Although few military strategists have considered a conventional warhead tipped ballistic missile as an effective means to strike enemy airfields and other VAs/VPs. Suffice to say that nothing could be farther from truth.

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In case of India a nuclear tipped ICBM/MRBM/SRBM attack can be expected either from Pakistan or China.

Any class of Ballistic Missile launched from Pakistan will strike the intended target on mainland India in about 500 seconds. In all likelihood all Pak Ballistic Missiles will follow a low/medium trajectory climbing to no more than 50-150 km (trajectory can vary). This will make detection by S-400 radar difficult until the missile is in or very close to Indian territory. Launch of an interceptor S-400 and a successful intercept of incoming Pak missile will, in all likelihood, be over Indian territory even if we grant S-400 ‘hit to kill’ capability. Hence the nuclear warhead will still explode over Indian territory.

What then are we going to achieve by destroying an incoming nuclear tipped ballistic missile when a nuclear warhead will, always and every time, explode over Indian territory.

In case of China, the launch base of MRBM of around 4000 km range will be roughly due north. Presuming the target to be Delhi, an incoming MRBM will/may enter Indian territory around 1000km from Delhi. For the S-400 to intercept the incoming MRBM before the missile enters Indian territory, the S-400 battery will have to be located at the northernmost point of India. Then and only then S-400 will intercept and destroy the incoming missile before it reaches Indian territory. Can a S-400 battery be located in treacherous mountainous terrain of our nation?

Location of the S-400 battery will determine whether the incoming missile is intercepted and destroyed before reaching Indian territory. Locating S-400 in hilly terrain, north of Jammu and east of Bagdogra will severely impinge on radar performance resulting in marked reduction in pick up ranges and in worst case no pick up due to blind spots.

China, Russia and the USA have a different philosophy for intercepting incoming missiles. USA, in particular has developed/ is developing and locating systems viz THAAD etc at such locations, which will enable interception before a nuclear tipped missile reaches US mainland. In spite of various systems developed by the USA, White House is still scared of an impoverished nation, North Korea, because the USA knows that existing systems do not guarantee a successful intercept with 100% reliability.

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S-400 with maximum intercept range of merely 400 km cannot intercept an incoming nuclear tipped missile either from China or Pakistan outside Indian territory. In case of Pakistan it might be possible, if planners take the risk of positioning the S-400 battery close to western border, not forgetting that the S-400 battery itself will be a juicy target for Pak strike aircraft as well as conventional tipped SSMs. In case of China it will be well nigh impossible due to geography.

S-400 is actually a more sophisticated SAM system, which the manufacturer has called an ABM system. ABM capability of S-400 is extremely limited because of the limitation of its intercept range of barely 400 km, which does not meet the basic criteria of an incoming missile being destroyed before it crosses into Indian territory.

Above assumption is proven by the fact that China has deployed the first two batteries of S-400 in TAR. As per RAND corporation assessment one unit is at/near HOTAN (elevation 5000 ft) in Xinjiang region and the other one near Nyingchi (elevation 10000 ft), which is closer to Arunachal Pradesh. Obviously China has appreciated the threat from IAF strike elements and has deployed S-400 accordingly. In hilly terrain pick up ranges will be severely restricted.

The S-400 primarily uses the 48N6 missile series. These missiles allow it to hit aerial targets at ranges up to 250 km and are capable of intercepting ballistic missiles across a 60 km radius, using in both cases a 143 kg high explosive fragmentation warhead. Neutralizing low flying cruise missile threat, though claimed, but remains a suspect because no ABM system has till date demonstrated actual intercept of a low flying cruise missile. Susceptibility of S-400 against ECM/ECCM is not known as of now.

Keeping in view our shoe-string defence budget (less than 2% of GDP), every rupee must be spent in acquiring suitable military equipment. We must not forget that we are in a race for regional supremacy with China, whose claimed defence budget is at least seven times more than India. China can splurge on acquiring defence oriented systems. We need ‘STRIKE’ oriented systems viz Aircraft Carriers, Modern tanks, armoured vehicles in large numbers, strike aircraft and attack helicopters to mention a few.

Rs 39,000 crore could have purchased an aircraft carrier or 24 Rafales or nearly 750-1000 modern tanks, which would have been a formidable deterrent, both to China and Pakistan. With formidable nuclear deterrence in place and willingness to move away from stated ‘NO FIRST USE POLICY OF NUCLEAR WEAPON’, if the situation so demands, China and Pakistan are unlikely to consider a full scale war with India as an option. Border skirmishes will continue to keep the LC/LAC alive. It is for this reason that we need to spend defence budget allocation on OFFENSIVE WEAPONS.

No known ABM system can deter an adversary from launching a multiple ballistic missile strike. But formidable strike capability coupled with firm intent can and does deter misadventures.

We as a nation have a defensive mindset as was evident from recent views of CDS in reply to Chinese probable/possible misadventure. We need to change that at the national level.

I sincerely hope that during his forthcoming visit Mr Putin will not ‘GIFT’ India with the S-500 system. I am concerned after reading a statement made by the head of FMSTC, the Russian body responsible for weapon sales to foreign countries. His statement that we are offering it to China and India actually means “we are offering S-500 to China, you also better take it’. Russia has no choice but to offer S-500 and additional S-400 units to China because spares and electronics of these systems are being manufactured in China.

I maintain my stand that S-400/500 (or for that matter any other ABM system) is JUNK because it does not meet our basic operational requirement of intercepting a nuclear tipped ballistic missile either from China or Pakistan outside Indian territory.

About the Author

Gp Capt. Tej Prakash Srivastava has served in Iraq and is a graduate of both DSSC and AWC. He was Directing Staff at DSSC and Chief Instructor at College of Air Warfare. He Served at Air HQ, commanded a MiG-21 Sqn and headed the IAF establishment of Strike Corps during 'Operation Parakram'. He has authored a book titled 'Profligate Governance – Implications for National Security'. He has written extensively on international and strategic affairs and Defence Procurement Procedures. The IAF officer graduated from the NDA in June 1970 and trained at AFA with 107th Pilots Course. He can be reached at Email: [email protected]

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