By now it is difficult for the reader to not have heard about India's latest addition to its armoury.
The Indian government has purchased five S-400 Triumf missile systems from Russia at a cost of almost $5.5 billion in the deal that was initially finalised in October 2018.
The delivery of the systems was supposed to commence by the end of 2020.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic, delayed payments, and a possibility of India being sanctioned by the United States (US) under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) pushed the delivery by a year.
Social media and TV news channels have exploded in excitement about the S-400 air defence missile systems, and experts like former Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa (whose opinions shall be subsequently described) have referred to them as 'game-changers'.
Therefore, this article tries to answer three questions in simple, non-military language.
What are the capabilities of the S-400? How does it fit into India's defence capabilities? Why is the US upset over the deal, and what legal instrument does it have to sanction India over the latter's purchase?
How Capable Is the S-400?
Referred to by NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) as the SA-21 Growler and operational since 2007, the S-400 Triumf, according to Center for Strategic and International Studies, is a "mobile, surface-to-air missile system" (SAM).
In simpler words, it is an anti-missile and anti-aircraft missile system whose primary job is to intercept and destroy missiles and aircrafts of the rival belligerent(s) by tracking their trajectories in the air.
The S-400 is capable of engaging with aircraft, drones, and cruise missiles, and has a what is known as "terminal defense capability", which basically means that it can destroy the aerial vehicle it is targeting during the final (terminal) phase of its flight.
The successor to the S-200 and S-300, the S-400 has a radar system that can automatically track as many as 300 targets up to 600 km.
The variety of ranges and differing altitudes at which it can track aerial objects leads to the establishment of a much superior air-defence net, according to an analysis in The Hindu.
Similarly, according to Army Technology, a website that extensively covers advancements in military technology, the S400 "is capable of firing three types of missiles to create a layered defence."
The report also says that it is doubly effective as compared to older Russian air defence systems and takes no more than five minutes to set into motion, and can be easily "integrated into the existing and future air defence units of the airforce, army and navy."
While it is comparable to the US military's Patriot Missile Long-Range Air-Defence System, or the MIM-104, the S-400 does not yet have the hit-to-kill technology that MIM-104 possesses.
In military terms, the term "hit-to-kill" is used to refer to those weapons that have the capability to hit and destroy the target with such high velocity that it does not need to contain an explosive warhead to do the job.
Russia, however, is developing new intercepting equipment that would use hit-to-kill technology, the CSIS report added.
Another US system that is comparable to the Russian S-400 is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD.
According to GlobalSecurity.org (an American non-profit website), THAAD is an inferior defence system compared to the S-400, having much lesser range and lacking the capability to hit targets over a long distance.
Filling a Void in India's Defence System?
"Give it another six months, S-400 will come. So, the story is going to be very lot different."
These are the words of Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, who served as the 25th Chief of the Air Staff of the Indian Air Force, according to a report published by Business Standard.
The S-400, according to experts, will provide a much-needed advancement to India's ballistic missile system, thereby strengthening its national air defence network by creating a multi-tier air defence, according to Dinakar Peri, the current Defence Correspondent of The Hindu.
Air Force officers have also mentioned how the newly purchased missile system would be easily fused with India's current missile system, as the Army Technology report had described (mentioned above).
Due to its tracking capabilities and long range, the S-400 will ensure that India "dominate[s] the enemy's airspace," Air Chief Marshal added.
"Normally all air defence weapons help you to dominate your airspace but this is one weapon that will help you dominate enemy's airspace. That is a game-changing capability."
Additionally, according to a report by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Indian Air Force has no choice but to acquire the S-400 because it is lacking the alternatives that could serve its air defence requirements.
The report further says that both capability and costs are being factored in the S-400 equation, arguing that 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."
And finally, about the cost factor, the price of S-400 configurations are approximately half of its western counterparts.
What Is America's Problem?
The S-400 has now become a serious source of tensions between Washington and Moscow.
The US government has even conveyed to India that it is not happy about the missile systems deal and has requested the latter to back out of it, offering advanced air defence systems of their own in compensation.
India, however, has refused to budge.
But that stance has put India in a situation where it risks being sanctioned by one its important allies.
At the centre of this controversy is an act of the US government passed in 2017 known as CAATSA.
The CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), as the name suggests, seeks to take punitive measures against any nation that gets involved in weapons trade with Russia (because Russia is considered an adversary).
While it is anticipated that New Delhi and Washington will discuss the CAATSA issue during the 2+2 ministerial meeting that shall take place next month, as of today, the threat of sanctions remain.
Some Republican senators have even urged President Joe Biden to exempt India from sanctions, arguing that the "CAATSA sanctions could have a deleterious effect on a strategic partnership with India," and have instead requested that his administration "continue supporting alternatives to their purchasing Russian equipment."
President Biden, therefore, is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
On the one hand, his country's key ally in the Indo-Pacific and in Southeast Asia, is purchasing what Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R Sherman has called "dangerous" missile systems from an American adversary.
Moreover, there is clear legislation that requires any country doing what India is doing to be sanctioned.
On the other hand, however, the Biden government will have to sooner or later accept the fact that India's decision to do business with Russia is not to antagonise the US but to modernise its own military and serve its own defence requirements.
After all, according to Congressional Research Service (CRS), which is a think tank within the US Congress, "the Indian military cannot operate effectively without Russian-supplied equipment and will continue to rely on Russian weapons systems in the near and middle terms."
Therefore, sanctioning India for prioritising its security concerns would risk a rupture in the strong Indo-American relations that exist today.
Additionally, many Asian countries rely on this partnership to counter China's rise in the Pacific.
The US must understand that it cannot have it both ways, that is, sanction India for military objectives that can hardly be called selfish, and expect India to follow its lead in future projects in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific.
(With inputs from The Hindu, Business Standard, Army Technology, CSIS, ORF, and GlobalSecurity.org.)