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The S-400 is Air Force’s answer to depleting fighter strength. It’s time to seal the deal

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Air defence system will be a high priority on minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Russia visit; delay in finalising the deal may cost India dear.

The Russian S-400 missile system is the Indian Air Force’s answer to its depleting fighter strength. The air defence system, according to the government’s understanding, has the capability of grounding the entire Pakistani Air Force, given that it can take down targets at a range of up to 400 km, covering all major air bases across the border.

Over the next five to ten years, the Air Force’s strength will dip further as older generation combat aircraft retire. And the time to seal the deal for the S-400 is now, with Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Moscow visit next month likely to give it an impetus.

The system has already been tested and an Indian team that oversaw summer field trials in Russia in 2017 gave it a thumbs up. Delays in the taking the final step – a problem that has hit most Indian defence deals – can result in the S-400 opportunity slipping away for the next several years.

The background

In late 2015, a rare exercise was undertaken within the defence ministry — an exercise so different that in the beginning, the Air Force found it difficult to find its way through the unique request placed before it.

The French Rafale jet deal had just been finalised – for a mere 36 aircraft as against the requirement of 126 – with the realisation that fighter jet strength would dip considerably as older generation MiG aircraft retired over the next decade.

On the other hand, India had a game changer on offer – the S-400, latest in a series of Russian air defence systems that, according to the understanding in South Block, had the capability to ground the Pakistani Air Force entirely.

The problem was that the S-400, with its price tag of Rs 39,500 crore for the five regiments that India required, was simply unaffordable, given clear signs that the defence budget would not see any significant rise in the foreseeable future.

The way out was the unique exercise — ordered by then defence minister Manohar Parrikar — to review the entire air defence plans of the Air Force, from acquisitions to deployment plans and tactics. The detailed exercise, overseen by Parrikar himself, involved probing discussions into what kind of air defence missile units would be needed in the next 15 years.

Cost saver

The review concluded two things – one, that the Russian S-400 was the cheapest air defence system in the world, when compared to global products in terms of cost per square kilometre covered. And two, that the acquisition of the S-400 would actually end up saving Rs 49,300 crore in the 2012-2027 planning period, because with its extraordinary range and capability to target stealth aircraft, India would no longer need a bulk of the 100-plus each Medium and Short Range missile systems (mostly of Israeli origin) that had been planned for induction.

The recommendation approved by the high powered Defence Acquisition Council was to move for the immediate purchase of the S-400, even waiving the stringent offsets clause, given the unique technology the system brought in. An inter-governmental agreement was signed in 2016.

Pushing deadlines

While the system has been tested and approved, delays in sealing the final cost negotiations can push back deliveries of the S-400, leaving gaps in defences, given the retiring MiG series of aircraft. China is getting deliveries of its first S-400 firing units, and Russian forces have already deployed them in Syria.

Other nations in talks include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Morocco. If India has decided that S-400 is the cutting edge system it needs to maintain a conventional edge, the time to act is now. Delays may end up tying down the production line to possibly 2025, a gap too long to leave for shoring up air defences on both the eastern and western borders.

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