Can Pakistan Counter India’s New S-400 Air Defense System?

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ISLAMABAD — Overconfidence in its newly acquired S-400 air defense system may give India a false sense of invulnerability and increase the likelihood of a military miscalculation involving its arch-rival Pakistan, warn analysts.

“The Indian rhetoric seems to suggest a belief that the S-400 effectively renders its airspace impenetrable and its forces invulnerable,” said Mansoor Ahmed, senior fellow at the Pakistan-based think tank Center for International Strategic Studies, which studies the the country’s nuclear program and its delivery. systems, Defense News told.

Therefore, it is feared that “India is being encouraged to resort to military adventurism, believing that its ‘cold start’ doctrine to punish strikes and destabilize incursions into Pakistan” is a sure hit, it said. -he says.

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Deliveries of India’s five S-400 regiments began in December 2021, with initial deployments along the Indo-Pakistan border.

On paper, the S-400’s defensive – and potentially offensive – anti-access and area-denial capabilities sound formidable. The system would be effective against aircraft, UAVs and ballistic and cruise missiles, with the latter capability potentially neutralizing Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent.

Its layered coverage is provided by a combination of the 9M96E 40 kilometer range, 9M96E2 120 kilometer range, 48N6 250 kilometer range and 40N6E 400 kilometer range missiles, enabling it to protect large, high-value areas. targets and itself from an attack.

It is also very mobile, can be made operational 5 minutes after arriving in a new location, and can therefore be moved regularly to avoid detection.

However, aerospace expert Douglas Barrie of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, told Defense News that the S-400 “should not be underestimated, nor overestimated”.

A claimed notable feature of the S-400 is its potential offensive capability which would restrict an adversary’s use of their own airspace. For Pakistan, due to its geography and the long border it shares with India, the weapons system would cover most of the country.

However, Barrie is not convinced. “Its vaunted maximum engagement range depends on the surface-to-air missile variant deployed, the acquisition ranges of associated radars in the operational area, the ability of personnel to effectively operate the system, and the stages and counter -measures that any adversary could take.

India plans to integrate the S-400 into its existing air defense network, which consists of indigenous and Indo-Israeli systems.

Therefore, Barrie said, India could “use the system more often to defend high-value targets or critical national infrastructure from air attack, rather than deploying forward to impede its use.” ‘Pakistani Air Force from its own airspace’. [thereby] exposing systems to greater risk of attack.

“By itself, I see that the acquisition of the S-400 has little or no impact on Pakistan’s overall credibility. [nuclear] deterrent,” he added.

Similarly, Ahmed believes that “its effectiveness against ballistic or cruise missiles is questionable and will depend on various factors”, such as effective engagement range. This specific factor takes into account the curvature of the Earth, the nature of the nearby terrain and the location from which the system was deployed.

If deployed too far forward, an S-400 – or at least elements of the system, such as the launcher – could be in danger of direct targeting. Ahmed specifically singled out the Fatah-1, Pakistan’s 150-kilometer guided tour for China’s A-100 multiple rocket launcher system, as a weapon that could compromise the S-400. The Fatah-1 cartridge was successfully tested in August 2021.

Moreover, the suppression or even destruction of the S-400 could be facilitated by effective electronic warfare measures – a capability that Pakistan demonstrated when its air force launched successful retaliatory strikes on held territory. by India during an outbreak in February 2019.

Pakistan’s Strategic Planning Division, or SPD, develops and protects all aspects of the country’s nuclear deterrent, and it’s likely the organization will be tasked with determining the threat posed by the S-400 and how to respond to it.

Defense News attempted to contact the SPD through the Army’s Interservice Public Relations media arm, but received no response.

However, Ahmed highlighted the improvements Pakistan is making to its existing arsenal to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent.

“Pakistan’s missile testing over the past few years appears to demonstrate increased accuracy and penetrating capability given India’s growing investment in missile defences. He also introduced the [multiple independent reentry vehicle]Ababaeel ballistic missile system, designed to defeat any dedicated Indian anti-missile system,” he said. “While the S-400 remains a very capable air defense system at best, its usefulness against missiles has yet to be proven in real time.”

Nevertheless, the S-400 poses a considerable threat to Pakistan’s conventional deterrence.

“Suppressing or destroying enemy air defense (SEAD/DEAD) will likely have taken on a higher priority for the Pakistan Air Force in response to the acquisition of the S-400,” Barrie said. “Options include acquiring more capable anti-radiation missiles, improved electronic countermeasures, and aircraft self-protection.”

Outsmart the system

Pakistan potentially has something in development that could be used against the S-400.

A stealth combat drone design, the ZF1 was specifically created to attack heavily defended targets. It was promoted at the biennial Pakistan arms expo IDEAS in 2018 by UAS Global, whose CEO Rafay Shaik told Defense News as the plane would soon make its first flight.

The concept is not new to South Asia. India has its own stealth UCAV program, the Ghatak, run by the Defense Research and Development Organization.

Despite requests for information on the status of the program sent to UAS Global, there has been no news regarding its development since early 2019, and it is unclear if work on ZF1 is even underway.

Pakistan could also benefit from military exercises “with friendly countries that operate the S-400, such as China and Turkey, which can at least indirectly help identify its strengths and weaknesses to explore possibilities for suppressing and defeat the Indian S-400 systems”, Ahmed mentioned.

For its part, China has “multiple options” for Pakistan, according to Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia.

“It is very likely that to the extent that China has helped North Korea’s new hypersonic missile (HGV) warhead, it has helped or will similarly help a Pakistani heavyweight, or will simply sell the DF- 17,” he said, referring to a heavyweight-equipped medium-range missile system. “Or Beijing now has the option to allow North Korea to sell its heavyweight to Pakistan.”

China could also help Pakistan restore balance with a similar air defense system, Fisher added, and its ability to do so “can be expected soon”.

“Contrary to China’s blatant abuse of intellectual property [Russia’s] Sukhoi Corporation, the maker of S-300 and S-400 Almaz-Antey in the 1990s agreed to sell China the means to manufacture their own fourth-generation SAMs [surface-to-air missiles] as well as the sales of their SAMs,” he explained.

Fisher noted that Pakistan’s recently acquired Chinese-made HQ-9B missile – which is said to have a range of 240 kilometers and is locally called HQ-9/P – is based on Almaz-Antey technology. He said this transfer of advanced Russian technology enabled China to develop the first ground-based HQ-9 and HHQ-9 airborne systems, which have a range of 125 kilometers and entered service in the mid-2000s.

These Chinese systems are quite advanced, Fisher added. “Like later S-300 family variants acquired by China, the HQ-9 featured a hard-to-jamme phased array guidance and tracking radar, and its missile uses active radar for terminal guidance.”

The longer-range HQ-9B would have a dual semi-active radar seeker/passive infrared seeker, while the HQ-9C, which is under development, would feature active homing.

Citing the recent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia as well as the civil wars in Libya and Syria, Ahmed noted that “increasingly powerful and sophisticated” air defense systems are “combined with systems and technologies designed to defeat them, such as ranged weapons, anti-radiation missiles, electronic countermeasures, UCAVs and drone swarms, and low-flying cruise missiles.

“The race for attacking-defensive dominance therefore increasingly favors the offense,” he said.

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