Business & Defence

Is THAAD Right For India? Is American Air Defense System Capable of Replacing Russia’s S-400?

Story Highlights
  • The US has recently targeted Indian plans to acquire the Russian S-400 long-range air defence platform as part of a broader policy of targeting Russian arms exports and security ties around the world.
  • While THAAD is more expensive than the Russian system, the weapons system's feasibility as a substitute for the S-400 is critical to the success of the new US strategy.

The US has been pressuring India to downgrade its defence ties with Moscow as part of a broader policy of targeting Russian arms exports and security ties around the world. The US has recently targeted Indian plans to acquire the Russian S-400 long-range air defence platform as part of a broader policy of targeting Russian arms exports and security ties around the world.

Apart from imposing economic sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries via Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the US has also stated that if India purchases the S-400, it will stop receiving a variety of defence goods, including Predator drones. According to Indian sources, the United States has contemplated offering India its own long-range air defence platform, the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system, if Delhi abandons its ambitions to purchase the S-400.

While THAAD is more expensive than the Russian system, the weapons system’s feasibility as a substitute for the S-400 is critical to the success of the new US strategy. A comparison of the capabilities of the two systems indicates the strategy’s potential.

One of the main reasons India wanted the Russian S-400, a platform with superior anti-stealth capabilities built to battle American planes like the F-22 Raptor, was to safeguard its airspace from China’s rapidly developing fleet of stealth assets. China is building the H-20 stealth bomber and has many cutting-edge stealth drones in addition to the J-20 air superiority fighter and an anticipated medium fighter under the FC-31 programme.

Furthermore, China is apparently assisting Pakistan in developing its own lightweight stealth jet as part of a collaborative fifth-generation fighter programme to replace the JF-17, which was created cooperatively. THAAD, unlike the S-400, lacks not only anti-stealth capabilities, but also anti-meaningful aircraft capabilities, and is primarily meant to intercept enemy ballistic missiles. This severely restricts its utility for India.

While the S-400 can carry a variety of missiles, ranging from the 40-kilometer-range 9M96E specialised counter-stealth platform to the 400-kilometer-range 40N6 that can target enemy aircraft with pinpoint accuracy at hypersonic speeds, THAAD only has one missile type.

This means that, unlike the S-400, the American system is unable to provide India with multi-layered air defence. Furthermore, while the S-400 is extremely compatible with existing Indian air defence equipment such as the S-125 and aircraft such as the Su-30MKI, THAAD has difficulty integrating into a network with these Russian and Soviet-made systems. The THAAD system’s missiles, for example, have no warheads and have a range of about 200 kilometres. This means that a single THAAD system can only cover about a fourth of the area that an S-400 armed with the 40N6 can cover.

As a result, not only will the guns be more expensive, but more batteries will be required to protect India’s border territory. Due to its shorter range than the S-400, THAAD will be unable to engage hostile targets deep within enemy airspace, whereas the S-400 can engage hostile targets over Pakistan and most of China.

According to a review of THAAD’s capabilities, the system is unlikely to be suitable for India’s defence needs and is unlikely to be a viable replacement for the S-400. The missile system, as its name implies, is meant to intercept missiles at high altitudes, which, while useful for defending the US mainland from long-range ballistic missiles, will have limited utility against China and Pakistan’s short-range missiles.

Their short-range low-altitude missiles will be able to fly through a THAAD defensive shield unhindered, alongside Chinese and Pakistani fighter and bomber aircraft. THAAD, unlike the very adaptable S-400, is limited to targeting enemy missiles at altitudes of 40-160km, rendering it worthless against short and medium missiles like the Pakistani Ghauri and Chinese DF-12.

Several experts, including former US Chief of Naval Operations science advisor Theodore Postol, agreed, stating that “the THAAD defence may be expected to give… no practical defence capabilities” against such missiles. Another thing to consider is the historically poor performance of US-made air defence systems in both testing and combat against very simple pre-Vietnam War era missiles, indicating that THAAD’s reliability may also be in doubt.

When tested abroad, the S-400, on the other hand, proved capable of intercepting even hypersonic missiles travelling at speeds of above Mach 8. This capability is especially valuable because China is the only country with hypersonic aircraft and hypersonic tactical medium-range glide vehicles.

THAAD is incapable of replacing the S-400 not only in its capacity to target sophisticated stealth aircraft, but also in its ability to provide any effective defence against adversary fighters, bombers, and short and medium range ballistic missiles, according to an examination of its capabilities.

In the event of a war, these platforms will be used to launch the vast majority of attacks on Indian soil. Given the low danger posed by high altitude intermediate and intercontinental range ballistic missiles to India, and the country’s close proximity to its adversaries, the THAAD system’s applications are limited.

In the end, India requires the S-400 to maintain parity with its neighbours, given the increasing sophistication of their aerial warfare and missile capabilities, with China being the only country in the world to both field and produce heavyweight fifth generation fighter aircraft, as well as one of only two countries to field any domestically developed stealth fighters alongside the US.

The United States and its Western allies’ inability to provide a comparable air defence system is largely due to their relatively low investments in the field compared to Russia and the Soviet Union, with NATO emphasising target neutralisation from the air rather than surface-to-air munitions for a long time.

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