Air Defense: For The Customer With Special Needs


December 1, 2018: In October Russia announced that the last component of the S-400 SAM (Surface to Air Missile) system, the 40N6 long range (400 kilometers) missile, had been accepted into service and that there are plans to build a thousand of them. Russia currently has 41 battalions/batteries (both terms are used) with at least 330 operational truck-mounted launchers. What makes a group of launchers (usually 4-8) a battery is the search radar and command center. After twenty years of development, all the initially specified components of the S-400 system are in service.

The S-400 is advertised as the most modern and cost-effective SAM system available. An S-400 battery sells for about half what a comparable American Patriot battery does. The major difference between Patriot and S-400 is not price (cheaper) or specifications (much more impressive) but combat experience. The S-400 has none and the Patriot has lots and is gaining more every month in Yemen and Israel. The S-400 is attractive to buyers because it looks good and costs a lot less than combat proven systems. Another major factor is the quality of the crews and the training they receive as well as the capabilities of air defense commanders who decide how the SAM systems are used and the ability of the commanders and their crews to quickly adapt to enemy capabilities and tactics. Patriot export customers get experienced and demanding instructors. If their students do not make an effort or are not trainable for one reason or another the Americans will make an issue of it because the performance of Patriot depends on crew effectiveness. Russia is more understanding of these problems. Russia can provide skilled and exacting instructors but will back off if the customer is not interested in paying for that degree of instruction. If crews end up poorly prepared to handle S-400 in action Russia will also quietly provide Russian crews who will be called something else (“maintenance advisors”) but stand ready to take charge of the S-400 has to perform well. Russia is also accommodating when it comes to paying large “sales commissions” (bribes) to get the sale and handle follow-up training and maintenance support. So for many reasons, few of which a buyer would want to be publicized, the S-400 is a more attractive purchase than Patriot. These sales tactics are nothing new for Russia and were common during the Cold War, especially when Russia was offering high tech weapons to corrupt dictatorships who appreciated a supplier who understood their needs.

Historically the most inept users of Russian SAMs have been (and apparently still are) the Syrians while the most effective users of similar Western systems are the Israelis and Americans. The Saudis are building quite a record with their use of Patriot systems against Iranian supplied ballistic missiles fired by Yemeni Shia rebels. The Saudi Patriots have shot down nearly all the 100 or so Iranian (and some older Russian) ballistic missiles fired at Saudi Arabia in the last three years. The only success the Syrians have had (using the older S-200 system) is to shoot down a slow, four-engine Russian maritime reconnaissance aircraft off the coast in September. The S-200 entered service in the 1960s and has been updated since. The S-300 entered service in 1978 and has had no combat kills. The S-400 entered service in 2007 and is also without any combat experience. The Syrians didn’t mean to shoot down the Russian aircraft. They were aiming at Israeli aircraft which were already back in Israel. Russia, to demonstrate how attentive it is to customer needs. Agreed with the Syrians and blamed Israel even though the Russians knew exactly what happened.

Syria also holds the dubious distinction of having their Russian air defense system wiped out in 1982 by the Israelis, who suffered no losses while doing so. Those Russian air defense weapons are not really that ineffective. In 1999 Serbian crews, using some of the same systems the Syrians had, managed to avoid destruction and even shoot down an F-117 stealth aircraft by being adaptive and more imaginative than the Syrians in 1982. Two other factors are important. After the Cold War ended in 1991 the United States was able to purchase some S-300 systems, tear down some of them and get others operational and actually use them in realistic testing. This data was shared with the Israelis. This showed that the S-300 was a potentially effective system, but a lot depended on the crews and their commanders.

The Russians have also learned from experience and because that the S-400 and later (post-Cold War) S-300 systems use a lot more automation for the operators making the systems less dependent on crew skill. But there is still the question of commander quality and the ability of the commanders to adapt to combat conditions. Finally, there is the fact (it is no secret) that post-Cold War Russian weapons suffer from serious quality control problems during manufacturing and several of the new Russian missile and electronic systems have suffered embarrassing failures when put to use. No wonder the S-400s are so cheap. They are priced to sell, not actually work in combat. But in the hands of competent and adaptive users, the S-400 and other Russian systems can be a lot more effective than those operated by poorly trained and led operators.

An S-400 battalion/battery has eight launchers, each with two or four missiles, plus a control center and radar and 16 missiles available as reloads. All equipment is mobile. S-400 was originally known as the S-300PMU3, SA-21 or Triumf and was renamed S-400 because it turned out to be far more than just another upgrade of the S-300 and was considered sufficiently different to warrant a name upgrade.

The S-400 entered service in 2007 when the first units were deployed around Moscow. Russia claimed the S-400 could detect stealth aircraft, implying that the hypothetical enemy was the United States. Russia also claims the S-400 can knock down short range ballistic missiles (those with a reentry speed of up to 5,000 meters a second, in the same way the similar U.S. Patriot system does.) Russia immediately offered the S-400 for export, an effort that is hampered by a lack of combat experience for the system. Patriot has knocked down aircraft and ballistic missiles, S-400 has not. Moreover, Russia anti-aircraft missile systems have a spotty history (especially when confronted by Western electronic countermeasures.) The first S-400s were based around Moscow as part of a project to rebuild the Soviet-era air defense system, which has fallen apart since the early 1990s.

During the first six years of use, Russia put 12 S-400 battalions into service. Before the crash in oil prices and sanctions (over attacking Ukraine) hit in 2014 Russia was planning to have 56 S-400 battalions in service by 2020. That was not hurt much by budget cuts as there are about 40 battalions in service by mid-2017. Even before that crises, the Defense Ministry ordered more of the older S-300V (SA-12) system in 2012. This seems to indicate that the S-400 was having problems (it has certainly encountered many delays so far) but these were apparently cleared up. The S-400 appears to have not only matured technically but has undergone frequent upgrades and modifications. Nevertheless, the S-400 has not yet experienced any actual combat although it has performed well in tests.

The S-400 claims to be superior to the U.S. Patriot and is expensive by Russian standards. By 2012 Russia was pushing the S-400 as an export item, despite all the advanced technology in it. Most S-400 missiles weigh 1.8 tons each, are 8.4 meters (26 feet) long, and about 50cm (20 inches) in diameter. There are actually four different missiles, each with a different range (9M96E is 40 kilometers, the 9M96E2 is 120 kilometers, 48N6 is 250 kilometers and 40N6 is 400 kilometers). All missiles can reach targets as high as 30 kilometers (93,000 feet). The missile has a 145.5 kg (320 pound) warhead. The target acquisition radar has a range of 700 kilometers. S-400 missiles can hit short range ballistic missiles up to 60 kilometers away. Belarus and Algeria already have some S-400 equipment delivered and active. China has ordered six battalions, India five and Turkey four. Several other countries (Armenia, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam) have been negotiating purchase deals.

The S-400 has more range than the 160 kilometers of the American, weighs twice as much, and claims far more capabilities. The S-400 anti-missile capability is limited to shorter range (under 3,500 kilometers) ballistic missiles. That would mean a warhead coming in at about 5,000 meters a second (the longer the range of a ballistic missile, the higher its re-entry speed).

The S-400 system actually has two types of missiles, one of them being smaller with a shorter range (40 and 120 kilometers) and two larger missiles with much more range (250 and 400 kilometers). The 40/120 kilometers range missile are deployed four to a launcher, like S-300 systems. The S-400 has no experience against Western countermeasures but U.S. intelligence believes that tests these systems have undergone indicate it is a capable air defense weapon. Just how capable won't be known until it actually gets used in combat. None of the S-300 series systems have any combat experience either but some models have performed well in tests.

The S-400 is to be complemented and eventually replaced by the S-500. This system, while still in development, has also had several embarrassing delays announced. In 2009 S-500 was declared on track to enter service in 2012. That deadline was missed and the service date was moved to 2014, then 2015 and currently 2020 or “the early 2020s”. The original S-300 was known to NATO, during the Cold War, as the SA-10. This system entered service in the late 1970s and was subsequently upgraded several times. One major upgrade came to be called the SA-12 and it entered service in the late 1980s.




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