How capable is the S-400 missile system?

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What is the S-400?

Manufactured by Russian state-owned defence company, Almaz-Antey, the S-400 Triumf (also knows as the SA-21 Growler by NATO nations) is one of the most advanced missile defence systems on the market, designed to engage targets at ranges of up to 400 km, in an intensive jamming environment, says James Bosbotinis, a UK-based defence specialist and Defence iQ contributor.

Not only is it highly advanced, but it costs a fraction of its counterparts. Whilst the S-400 system costs around $500 million, the U.S. Patriot Pac-2 comes in at around $1 billion. Such a significant price difference is generally due to the lack of maintenance support attached to Russian-made arms, whereas purchasing from the U.S. comes with significant perks.

As Andrew Hunter, Director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNBC, "When foreign militaries buy American, above and beyond the purchase, they are buying a partnership with the U.S. military."

Who is buying the S-400? 

The S-400 has so far been exported to China, and Turkey conducted its first tests with the system in November 2019. This has, unsurprisingly, caused a significant rift with Turkey's NATO partners. It was reported in November, too, that India had made an advaned payment of $800 million for the S-400. Head of Russian conglomerate Rostec, Sergey Chemezov, told reporters that negotiations with India were under way and a contract with India will be completed in 2025.

S-400 on parade. Source: Shutterstock

In the case of India, the U.S. has threatened to impose sanctions under Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) legislation. China has already had similar sanctions imposed.

In India’s case, Bosbotinis explains, such sanctions could threaten growing defence cooperation between the U.S. and India, which, ironically, is intended in part to counter China. Similarly, the U.S. has already suspended the sale of the F-35 to Turkey due to its pursuit of the Russian-made system.

"Sanctions could threaten growing defence cooperation between the US and India"

What are the strategic implications for NATO?

The potential proliferation of the system to nations such as India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey isn’t particularly surprising, but it has created political tensions inside of NATO. Besides being problematic given Russia is seen as the major existential threat to NATO, the system is also not interopeable with NATO platforms so contributes little Alliance security.

The SA-21 at its current position near Hmeimim Air Base near Latakia provides coverage over most points in Syria. In addition, various NATO assets that are engaged in the region against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL) would be in the range of the S-400.

In the European theatre, from launch positions in north-western Russia and Kaliningrad respectively, 40N6-equipped S-400s could cover much of Finnish and Polish airspace, says Bosbotinis

Turkey’s decision to purchase S-400 systems holds greater political implications for NATO and the F-35 project. Not only does it signal a strengthened Russia on the global stage, but it also shows how the reluctance of the US - to sell their own missile defence systems - can be leveraged by rival nations. 

Vulnerable? F-35. Source: Shutterstock

In Turkey's case, the system would be a huge leap for Ankara’s anti-air capabilities, but it may not be in the best interests of NATO to have a Russian anti-air system integrate with NATO systems and architecture. NATO air defence relies on several systems working together, and the inclusion of the S-400 might complicate matters.

For an in-depth look at Turkey and the S-400: Why did Turkey Choose the S-400?

It is highly likely that Russian technicians and engineers will maintain the S-400s in Tukey in some capacity, which ultimately means NATO data will be at risk.

How effective is the S-400?

There is a reason why every country that shows interest in the system is threatened with diplomatic retaliation from the US and NATO.

Dr Bosbotinis explains that the S-400, together with systems such as the Nebo-M (Russian state of the art radar complex), may pose a threat to fifth-generation air systems, especially in the context of ‘night one’ operations against an intact integrated air defence system.

"Multi-axis (kinetic and non-kinetic) attacks against such a system and the adversary’s command, control, and communications infrastructure will be critical to degrading the threat posed by advanced air defence systems," he explains. 

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In addition, Siemon Wezman, senior researcher with Stockholm International Research Institute (SIRI) recently stated that the S-400 is on par with anything the West has to offer.

Key advantages of the system include its ability to track a high number of stealth targets, high modularity, and high mobility, ensuring that the system can be deployed and engaging targets within a matter of minutes.

Overall, the S-400 – which has been in use since 2007 – is a huge step up from the S-300, and utilises a full suite of targeting apparatus, such as multifunction radar, command and control and autonomous detection, ensuring that the system is capable of providing a layered defence. While largely untested in an operational environment, the S-400 is potentially twice as effective in comparison to the capable S-300 system.

S-400 munition breakdown 

The S-400 is precise and it manages to track a very large number of potential targets, including stealth targets. The modular nature of the S-400 ensures that the system can adapt to face the most pressing threats, be set up, fired and moved within minutes. It can be outfitted with long-range, medium-range and short-range munitions depending on the scenario.

Bosbotinis provides an explanation of the S-400 missile types:

“The S-400 can be equipped with four missile types: the 40 km-range 9M96; the 150 km-range 9M96E2; the 200-250 km-range 48N6; and the 400 km-range 40N6. The system is intended to engage manned aircraft and missile threats, including medium-range ballistic missiles.”

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“The 40N6 missile particularly is primarily intended to target high-value assets such as airborne intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) platforms and electronic warfare aircraft.”

In addition, the 40N6, which completed state trials in July 2018 and may enter service before the end of 2018, arguably sets the S-400 apart from Western long-range surface-to-air missile systems, such as the Patriot PAC-3 MSE and Aster 30 SAMP/T which can engage targets at ranges in excess of 100 km.

Patriot Missile System. Source: Shutterstock

How many S-400s does Russia have? 

Russia operates, as of August 2018, 25 S-400 regiments (consisting of two battalions each) and plans to field 28 regiments by 2020.

Although a highly capable system, the S-400 does not, by itself, form an impenetrable dome, says Bosbotinis. Rather, the S-400, in Russian service at least, forms one component of a layered integrated air defence system, including short-range air defence systems (such as the SA-22 Greyhound), medium-range systems such as the SA-17, electronic warfare assets (for example, the Krasukha-4), airborne early warning systems, fighter aircraft, and ground-based radars.

For more on Russia's air capabilities: Is there a future for the SU-57?

"The latter include systems with a potential counter-stealth capability such as the Nebo-M. This layered integrated air defence system is intended to form an entity stronger than the sum of its parts, and counter the threat posed by superior Western airpower."

Overall, the S-400 is a key component of this system, in particular, due to its ability with the 48N6 and 40N6 missiles to engage targets at long-range, including within an adversary’s airspace. In this regard, the range of the 40N6 SAM would be sufficient from launch sites in mainland Russia and the exclave of Kaliningrad to cover the entirety of the three Baltic republics, Bosbotinis concludes.