India Deploys First S-400 Battalion to Pakistani Borders: How Will Hypersonic Air Defences Impact the Power Balance?

India has deployed its first battalion of S-400 air defence systems near the country’s borders with Pakistan in the Punjab sector, according to local media reports. The system revolutionises India’s air defence capabilities, which had previously relied overwhelmingly on fighter aviation but had no modern long range ground based capabilities. India became the largest export client for the S-400 in October 2018 after signing a contract valued at over $5 billion for five battalions, with the first deliveries confirmed in early December. It is expected that three regiments will be deployed near the Pakistani border and the remaining two near China. The S-400 first entered service in the Russian armed forces in 2007 and has since seen the scale of production expanded rapidly as Russia purchases unprecedented numbers for its own defence needs and as the system continues to see considerable foreign interest, most recently from Belarus which is reported to have signed a contract for acquisitions in September. The S-400 is expected to have a particularly strong impact on the balance of power on India's western borders due to Pakistan's lack of stealth aircraft or large numbers of standoff or anti-radiation weapons. This ensures system will have few challenges to its dominance of the skies as it was designed to engage much higher end hardware than that fielded by the Pakistani fleet.

The S-400 is prized for a number of advanced capabilities including a very high mobility and response time, high situational awareness provided by multiple radars operating simultaneously in different wavelengths, and a multilayered defence capability provided by several complimentary types of surface to air missiles. The system can according to some reports engage up to 80 targets simultaneously, and its two longest range missiles are able to engage hypersonic targets travelling at over Mach 8 with respective maximum ranges of 400km and 250km. This allows systems deployed near India's borders to shoot down Pakistani aircraft deep into the country's airspace. India is expected to receive five regiments of S-400s by the end of 2025, although they will face much greater challenges on the country's northern borders with China. The Chinese People's Liberation Army fields multiple squadrons of fifth generation stealth aircraft with the country being the only one to do so using domestically developed fifth generation technologies other than the Untied States. China is also the only country to field hypersonic stealth aircraft, which are among many assets that can seriously challenge the S-400. India is expected to consider investing in complimentary systems including shorter ranged S-350 systems to defend its S-400 batteries, and possibly S-500 systems which can engage targets in space, at much longer ranges and were designed to shoot down faster hypersonic targets as well as satellites.

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