Pakistan’s Cold War Technology shrinks the effectiveness of India’s S – 400 ABM System

By Akash S Muhammad

In March 2017, General David Perkins of the U.S army bragged in a military symposium about the success which one of the “close U.S. ally” had in shooting down a $200 dollar, purportedly hostile, quad copter with the U.S. made PATRIOT missile defense system. He did not name the particular country nor went into further specifics of the incident.

But the mention itself, that a $200 worth toy grade drone was shot with a $3 million missile, was enough to raise a key question about the economic exchange disparity, which apparently provided a solution to penetrate through the highly-sophisticated Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense Systems such as the PATRIOT PAC-3 itself.

During Cold War, when both the United States of America and the Soviet Union possessed the megaton yielding Nuclear weapons, to inhibit the threat of a nuclear war, “The Doctrine of Mutual Annihilation” was agreed upon by both the countries. Under this doctrine, an Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense treaty was signed between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Leonid Brezhnev of Soviet Union which allowed only two sites in each country to have the cover from incoming ballistic missiles.

But neither of them halted the testing of the better versions of anti-ballistic missile defense systems which is the reason why today the United States of America and Russia possess and sell the best available umbrella from the incoming ballistic missiles and enemy aircraft.

Terminal High Altitude Air Defense System (THAAD), PATRIOT PAC-3 and Aegis Naval System are the high-tech sophisticated systems which have a great success rate of intercepting a short-to-intermediate range projectile while on the other hand, Russia has S-400 and S-500 systems, as competitive as the U.S. Ones.

The balance in South Asia was disturbed when India announced last month that it was going ahead to buy S-400 defense system in a deal worth $5 billion USD, despite the threat of U.S. sanctions. The development was particularly worrisome for Pakistan, a country which always has to follow the lead toward aggressive military ambitions of its foe India. Consequently, the opportunity cost is the economic and social growth of its people. Pakistan has never had the hostile or aggressive military policy to instigate the arms race with India for one simple reason; it cannot afford to do so by any means.

Why is Indian S-400 such a big deal? Russian made S-400 system like any other ballistic missile defense system consists of a tracking, guidance and interception mechanism. A radar, which is the part of the assembly, tracks the incoming object which could either be a missile or an enemy aircraft within a range of 400 km and an altitude of 36 km, making it an endothermic defense module. After the flight path is analyzed, it fires its own missile which works on kinetic kill mechanism and neutralizes the incoming threat by colliding with it.

These specs make the system capable enough of intercepting Pakistan’s elite fighter jet F-16 which has a ceiling height of 50,000 ft. or 15 km and any missile in the arsenal. Since Pakistan is a smaller country, in size and resources, as compared to its adversary India, it has to take measures to match the Indian superiority in terms of military hardware to ensure its safety.

The cost of an anti-ballistic system, ignoring the fact that first Pakistan has to find a potential supplier, which could most likely be Russia offering the same S-400 system, and then coping with subsequent sanctions, is too high especially in the state country’s economy is in.

When Indian procurement of S-400 is juxtaposed with the 4++ generation Rafale jets it has ordered from France, it gives the country absolute air superiority over Pakistan. But Pakistan seems to have developed an economical response to India’s air cover which is most likely to make its impermeable airspace more penetrable even with such a high-end protective system.

MIRV  Pakistan’s Counter The key technology which both USA and Russia were able to attain during the Cold War that ultimately forced them to sign an Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty was Multiple Independently Targetable Re entry Vehicle or MIRV system. MIRV is basically a missile which has multiple missiles encapsulated in its pointed tip and upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere during its flight course, each missile leaves the body of the main frame and approaches its own target independently.

The ABM defense systems detect the incoming missile, which carries more missiles in its body, as a single target and launches a single interceptor to destroy it in the terminal phase of flight. With the ability to launch multiple warhead projectiles, MIRV drastically reduces the effectiveness of an Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense system.

In January 2017, Pakistan became the first country to successfully test a Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle system, ABABEEL, in South Asia. A feat which was confirmed by the Defense Intelligence Agency of the U.S. military makes Pakistan the only state in South Asia so far to have this technology. An ABM radar assembly can detect the income hostile object violating the airspace of the country, but it cannot simply tell the type and nature of the incoming threat.

To reduce the risk of interception for the actual warhead, ABABEEL can successfully be used as a decoy to engage as many missiles S-400 shoots as possible. The exact statistics to depict the cost of each missile are not available, but a unit is expected to be around $0.8-1 million dollars. In this way, Pakistan can use its low yielding, low-cost conventional missiles to devour expensive S-400 interceptor missiles.

If not anything, it at least creates a doubt, effectively barring India’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities, for their usage since the operation is economically too risky unless it is taking down a serious target, say an F-16 or a nuclear missile coming its way. But it is obviously not a long-term solution as it does not provides the shelter from incoming missiles flying their way in toward Pakistan.

Recently Pakistan has deployed Chinese made Low-to-medium Altitude Defense system, LOMADS LY-80, which has the interception range and altitude of 40 km and 18 km respectively. The specifications of the system are certainly a no-match for S400 system and it is hardly able to meet requisite needs. Therefore, sooner or later, Pakistan has to go for a more sophisticated, at the same time more expensive, system.

As the cooperation between Pakistan and Russia is stretching across new dimensions and the relations with the United States are deteriorating, former makes a more viable option when Pakistan decides to induct a new ABM system. Apparently, India has also realized that a system which will soon be integrated into the defense of the country after spending $5 billion dollars is not expendable on just about anything which violates its airspace.

The example at the start, of the quadcopter – PATRIOT standoff, is the perfect illustration of why it is economically inefficient or even counterproductive. It is probably the reason why India recently tested the first indigenously made medium range Air Defense System for the purpose of using against the decoys. Soon India will also be reaching the feat of acquiring MIRV technology.

Hence Pakistan should pro-actively channel the resources for a locally manufactured defense system, on top of acquiring a high-end foreign one later on. Pakistan is relying heavily on the tactical nuclear weapons which have a limited yield to respond to the “Cold Start Doctrine”, The Indian Army’s New Limited War Doctrine.

But the use of tactical nuclear weapons is hindered in practicality by one of the crucial clauses of India’s Nuclear Doctrine which advocates “massive, broad scale and terrible” nuclear response in case of a nuclear attack. So far the possession of nuclear weapons has been a major deterrent to a large spectrum conflict between two countries but the induction of S-400 system has initiated yet another race to achieve ultimate superiority which could be used for coercion.

“The Doctrine of Mutual Annihilation”, which prevented a nuclear escalation for decades during the cold war, could serve as the illustration for both India and Pakistan leading to 1972 like American-Soviet ABM treaty. However, it is only possible if Pakistan inducts an Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense System of its own which could match the sophistication of S-400, or else India will always have, at least, the psychological superiority of imperviousness.

Akash Shah is pursuing his degree in Social Sciences at SZABIST Islamabad and has a keen interest in international relations. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Interaction

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