India’s ruling party Member of Parliament (MP) has questioned the wisdom behind buying the Russian S-400 air defense system following reports of Chinese cyberattacks on the country’s power grids in the financial capital Mumbai.
“After getting a taste of the damage China can do by cyberwar, can we rely on S-400 anti-aircraft weapon? China can make it fizzle,” Subramaniam Swamy tweeted.
The US-based internet security company, Recorded Future, on February 28 claimed that Chinese malware was inserted into the control systems that manage electric supply across India last year.
The power outage that occurred on October 13 in Mumbai in 2020 was “meant as a message from Beijing about what might happen if India pushed its border claims too vigorously,” concluded The New York Times in its report.
“Since early 2020, Recorded Future’s Insikt Group observed a large increase in suspected targeted intrusion activity against Indian organizations from Chinese state-sponsored groups,” Recorded Group concluded in its findings.
“10 distinct Indian power sector organizations, including 4 of the 5 Regional Load Despatch Centres (RLDC) responsible for the operation of the power grid through balancing electricity supply and demand, have been identified as targets in a concerted campaign against India’s critical infrastructure,” the report added.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Subramanian Swamy, who has been a vocal critic of India’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missiles, has once highlighted the “futility” of an air defense system that has already been bought by the Chinese.
“China can make it fizzle”, he said, pointing to the obvious possibility of the Chinese state-sponsored groups trying to hack into the S-400 system to render it useless in war.
After getting a taste of the damage China can do by cyber war, can we rely on S-400 anti aircraft weapon? China can make it fizzle.
— Subramanian Swamy (@Swamy39) March 3, 2021
The deal for the purchase of S-400 was signed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018, worth over $5 billion, dodging US concerns over the country’s dealing with the Russians.
The S-400 is touted as the most advanced air defense system which consists of radars, control equipment, and multiple types of SAM missiles to confront and destroy almost all kinds of aerial targets — aircraft, drones, bombs, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles.
China purchased the system in 2018 and according to Swamy, the system contains parts that are procured from Chinese companies, and therefore, the weapon is highly vulnerable to Chinese hackers.
In June 2020, Swamy had warned the Modi government against going ahead with purchasing the weapon, saying it “would be well-advised not to use S-400 in a possible battle with China. This is because S-400 is made with Chinese electronics.”
The belief that S-400 contains Chinese parts has been around for a considerable time, although there is no concrete proof that it is true. China supplied a wide range of electronic components for aerospace companies worldwide, which has led to increased fears that the Russian weapon systems might contain such parts.
According to Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) — the world’s oldest independent think tank on international defense and security — the S-400s could be “spoofed”. India should keep in mind that the same system was also being used by China, he told the Sunday Guardian.
“With a view to China as a potential military threat for India, they have also purchased the S-400. This means that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) will understand the S-400 very well and can train against it in depth, meaning that it may not be a long-term credible deterrent for India against the PLAAF,” Bronk told the newspaper.
He believes that the system is over-hyped, and just like a SAM system, “the S-400 can be swamped by massed incoming missiles simultaneously and its engagement capabilities disrupted to an extent by (an) electronic attack.”
Other military researchers also believe that with such a system, India was unlikely to confront all missile types possessed by Pakistan. And in the eventuality of a two-front war, the S-400 is unlikely to become an ultimate savior of the Indian defenses, the experts contend.
The reports of the Chinese cyberattack on the Mumbai power grid also highlight India’s vulnerability with experts saying India has done little capability enhancement to prevent such incidents.
The Chinese cyberattacks are tools of first resort in a non-military conflict, which would become routine, says Pravin Sawhney, India-based strategic affairs analyst, who has been warning of the growing Chinese cyber capabilities and PLA’s whole-of-nation-war strategy for long.
He adds that these attacks are meant to keep the Modi government under pressure to implement Sept. 10 Moscow agreement on China’s terms.
The Indian security experts contend that India needs to boost its cyber capabilities and build a credible cyber army, which can protect the Indian sovereign interests. China considers its cybersecurity as its national security, and India needs to take this new and evolving domain of war more seriously.
It’s also important that India should discontinue allowing Chinese investments in the power and telecom sectors, said another cyber expert. “Our dependence on Chinese equipment used in power and telecom sector is highly worrying,” he told a news channel.