Nirmala Sitharaman should explore American F35s, go beyond Russian S400 to bolster weak Indian Air Force

India and Russia are ready to close deal on the S400 Triumf advanced surface-to-air missile system (SAMs), and a commerical contract is most likely to be signed during Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's visit to Russia in April this year. But where Indian Air force muscle is concerned, the atrophy set in two decades ago and it does not matter what options are placed on the table.

If we were a more military savvy and aware nation we would have indicted two governments for letting things slide and leaving India vulnerable. As a matter of fact vulnerable is a gentle word. We are wide open and the amazing part is we either pretend this is not true or that so long as the Indian ostrich keeps its head stuck in the sand there is no problem.

Every now and then we spike interest with a supposed purchase that invariably ends up grounded in accusations of corruption and the need of the hour turns into the dismay of the year...and more.

 Nirmala Sitharaman should explore American F35s, go beyond Russian S400 to bolster weak Indian Air Force

File image of defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Reuters

The latest in this dismal deterioration of our skies is the move to buy the S400 system, the Russian answer to the Patriot ring of aerial security. No one can cavil over the effectiveness of this Russian hi-tech safeguard except to say that it is back to snuggling in the Russian lap again and waiting patiently like Oliver for more when it comes to spare parts and maintenance documentation.

For some reason, we always end up snarling the shopping for hardware net when we attempt to spread it beyond the conventional markets. The Russian influence on New Delhi survives and though the US (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) THAAD is far stronger, the basic SAMs in the S400 are capable of striking incoming missiles and enemy aircraft including mobile command posts in the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWAC) category.

Why we have reduced the original 12 system to 5 (at a cost of Rs 39,000 crores) is obviously financial. Although, to be fair, it has a performance envelope of 400 kilometres and its other three missiles can destroy hostiles at 120 klicks, 40 klicks, and an in-your-face 12 klicks strategic positioning, which would offer a canopy to most of the country. But even then if the incoming is multiple, it is a moot point if five such systems are adequate, or, simply window dressing.

And this is no guaranteed shield when you see that Moscow has 80 around the capital and plans 56 battalions with eight systems each. The only good point is that the system is already being packaged to the Chinese and would neutralise their edge if we had the same. But we are at the back of the queue as we dither and even Turkey has moved ahead of us.

A Russian S-400 surface to air missile system. Reuters

A Russian S-400 surface to air missile system. Reuters

If this deal is to go through, it will be dependent on the quantity of the missiles that we obtain. And the training. This will take two years for first delivery and two years to activate and that is a long time to be weak in the air. Which we are and are still doing precious little about it.

The Russians probably have upgraded the NATO codenamed Growler S400 system to tackle the fifth generation F35 joint strike fighter which is an integrated air system in itself and will make all other fighters obsolete despite its teething problems.

The Russians believe that the S400 makes the F35 obsolete and even its stealth properties will not make it invulnerable to the S400 firepower and advanced radar capability. That is still to be seen and the US must be working feverishly to combat the S400 threat basically by targeting its pods and discovering a way to kill the missiles mid-air like dispatching a barrage of Tomahawks in its path based on the 'I shot a thousand arrows in the air, so one will hit the target' premise.

For India, the purchase of five such systems is acceptable as a defence ring for our sensitive installations, but it does not compensate for a dwindling air force and India should seriously knock on the door for the F35 as a back up to the limited S400.

F-35A Lightning II aircraft

F-35A Lightning II aircraft. Reuters.

It does not matter whether an air force has a Rafale, an F16, a range of Sukhois, the Swedish Gripen, the Eurofighter or a Mirage, none of these fighters can even come close. In fact, after US President Donald Trump demanded a trimming of the cost of the F35 by 10 percent earlier this year and forced Lockheed Martin to redo its sums, the aircraft is coming in at $86 million per unit which is less than what is being paid for conventional fighters. And far less than the Rafale which is way north of the $100 million mark.

Its weapon systems can find targets 2,000 kilometres away.

It will not be easy to make this deal but it is worth pushing the envelope. Trump has been flexible about the talks between the UAE and Saudi Arabia for possible sales to offset Iran’s adventurism as Washington sees it.

The opening dialogue was conducted at the Dubai airshow in November despite a deal with Israel in which there has to be a five-year gap in hardware sold to that country before another in the region can get a look in.

However, after the Jerusalem decision, Trump would like to make overtures to the Middle East’s stable and much-needed allies and ignore Israel’s protest having already sold it 24 planes. The Republic of Korea has also been sold 40 aircraft as a deterrent to China and the other nation to have got 52 is Norway, a founder member of NATO.

If the US wants to exert a pincer pressure on Beijing and also help in tampering down Pakistan, then it might be open to at least beginning negotiations with New Delhi.

But if we don’t ask they won’t sell.

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Updated Date: Mar 25, 2018 16:52:22 IST