Selling S-400s to India: The Military Relationship between India and Russia?

 He graduated from Malmö University (Sweden), where he studied Global Politics and Societal Change (2018-2020). He has experience being as a research assistant at Russia and the Caucasus Regional Research Center in Sweden (2019-2020). He speaks fluently Russian and English.

The Russian military experts claim that the modern and upgraded S-400 missile system can reach distances of up to 400 km. This new range signifies a major change in the rules of the game in Ladakh; it is a potential hot spot where India is actively involved.

The Russian military exports support the delivery of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to India. According to the Russian media, the governments started the dialogue about S-400 in 2013. The first contacts itself had likely been discussed even earlier. It is useful to keep this timeline in mind when estimating the date by which India obtained the missile systems—in November of 2021. It will take another few months to adopt the first S-400 divisions for real combat and to conduct live-fire exercises to test their readiness.

Concurrently with this deal, India itself has been more and more actively developing its own original long-range surface-to-air missile systems and Indians will try to combine both of them for their air defence. The US and China worry that India will borrow the Russian system and then becomes a serious competitor in the military market and on the other side, long-range surface-to-air missile is very strategic and lethal military tool.

India has a big experience in the copying of foreign weapons and they are capable of copying almost anything and establishing their own production at greatly reduced costs. Certainly, this may be partly true for specific types of consumer products but not for sophisticated armaments and military technology.

The exaggerations about Indian copying skills arise from the character of Indian-Chinese military confrontation, particularly from the risk in border zone. India’s development of systems that outwardly resemble Russian analogues is often too easily—and without fact-checking—attributed to copying. This connected with history because the Soviet Union helped India from its first days of independence from the British Empire. For that reason, in reality, in many cases, such military development is the result of the legal purchasing of licenses or R&D commissioned from Soviet and then Russian military-industrial enterprises. During the economic volatility of the 1990s and early 2000s, such commissions helped many Russian enterprises survive after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Prithvi complex, which many describe as the S-400 due to the outward resemblance between many of its elements and Russian analogues, makes for a great example of this phenomenon. The real cause of its resemblance lies in the fact that the elements of the Prithvi aero complex were developed and modified in Russia for the Indians as part of a common project. The rest of the complex is based on many years of Indian experimentation with medium-range solid-fuel surface-to-air missiles, which date back to the 1980s. The complex also relies on materials similar to those used in the Chinese HQ-16, which were obtained by Indians through special channels.

There are a number of other such examples. Certainly, there are also more than a few cases of successful adoption and integration. However, in contrast with the foreign acquired technologies, the Indians cannot achieve fast and operative success with the domestic technologies and they take much more time compared with the international one. Certain armaments of Post-Soviet military provenance that fell into the hands of the Indians during the 1990s were put into mass production only in the 2010s, after many years of effort.

Potential Confrontation

This would be naïve to guess that India can adopt and integrate the S-400 systems within such short period; such a task would require many years of preparation. Therefore, Almaz-Antey, the Russian producer of air defense systems, is already well on its way to developing the next-generation system the S-500, which is expected to go into mass production within the two years. Under such circumstances, a decision to cancel the sale of S-400s to India would merely eliminate a source of export profits—which are much needed at this time—and would sour the climate for the strategically important relations with India without providing any benefits in return.

The military-political consequences of the S-400 sale are no less interesting than the technological aspects of the project and compared with its predecessor, the new missile system has a greater range at which it can identify targets and a greater maximum firing range with the use of its recently tested long-range missile. Russian military establishment states that the missile system can reach distances of up to 400 km and it means that the missile systems will be capable of controlling the entire air space above mountainous border regions with China and Pakistan. For China, the issues of borders will become considerably more difficult. For Pakistan, the situation will begin to look pessimistic from the military perspective—India will be able to shoot down fighter planes from secure positions on the mainland as soon as they take off from the ground.

In concussion, the selling of this missile system to India has drawn intense attention from the United States and China. Although the deployment of S-400 systems in India will change the regional situation for the US, the S-400 itself is not a threat for Americans because of the geographical barriers. The USA supports the policy of division and management and it will try to provoke the tensions between India and China. Nonetheless, negotiations about the distribution of S-400 began several years ago before the current border crisis with China. Finally, S-400 will increase the cooperation between Russia and China on the development of other air defense systems and it proves that India follows the independent foreign policy.


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