Russia's S-500: The Ultimate Weapon against American Missiles or Paper Tiger?
Moscow has long been preoccupied with the threat posed by NATO airpower, and has fielded a variety of potent long-range surface-to-air missile systems over the years to counter it, including at the high end the S-300 (SA-10 and SA-12) and S-400 (SA-21). But the primary role of its latest design, the Almaz-Antey S-500 “Triumfator,” isn’t taking potshots at frontline fighter planes. Rather, the S-500 marks a new Russian effort to develop its own defense “shield” against cruise and ballistic missile attack.
Moscow has claimed the S-500 will enter service in 2016 or 2017 and has offered an impressive-seeming list of its capabilities. Appropriately nicknamed “Prometey”—Prometheus—the S-500 supposedly will have a maximum vertical altitude of 185 to two hundred kilometers, permitting it to swat down incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and low-orbit satellites in space. The Triumfator would also have a maximum range of six hundred kilometers, even further than the four-hundred-kilometer range of the S-400. Russian Air Force Commander Colonel General Viktor Bondarev claimed the S-500 would be able to engage up to ten missiles at the same time, with a reaction speed of three to four seconds—compared to six missiles and nine-second reaction times for the S-400.
Like the United States’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), another long-range antiballistic missile weapon, the S-500’s upcoming 776N-N and 776N-N1 interceptor missiles are supposed to use hit-to-kill technology—that is, the missile destroys its target through physical impact, rather than relying on a fragmentation warhead. The 776Ns would travel at hypersonic speeds of five to seven kilometers per second, enabling them to intercept opposing hypersonic cruise missiles.
It’s very impressive-sounding—but Russian defense officials have been cagey about revealing the system’s actual performance specifications. While it is claimed testing has begun, the results of those tests remain unknown. Considering the American experience developing the THAAD system, which suffered numerous failures over more than a decade of testing, there’s good reason to believe designing an effective ABM system might take a little iteration.
Of course, Almaz-Antey’s engineers may have been more successful. But until testing data is available, there’s little way of knowing whether the S-500 can live up to the considerable hype.
There are some concrete details on the S-500, including the fact that unlike the older, larger 53T6 Anti-Ballistic Missiles deployed in fixed positions around Moscow, the S-500 will be a smaller, self-propelled system that can easily “shoot and scoot” to avoid attacks intended to suppress air defenses. In fact, the S-500 is supposed to be a smaller evolution of the S-400 design. Diagrams released by the vehicle manufacturer BZKT reveal that each S-500 battery would involve numerous support vehicles, including a Transport-Erector-Launcher (TEL) vehicle, four different radar vehicles (one of which is specifically optimized against ballistic missiles) and one or two command vehicles.
The Pentagon has had extensive experience dismantling air defense networks, so Russian media has emphasized how the S-500 will be difficult to detect. For example, it has showcased efforts to produce special “containers” that will shield the S-400 and S-500 from being spotted by satellites employing electromagnetic interference sensors. Another article highlights how the S-500 system will feature secured communication links on variable frequencies to shield them against electronic warfare.
There has also been some buzz that the S-500 will be more effective against stealth aircraft. However, most descriptions of the system do not list counter-stealth as a primary goal, and there is little concrete evidence suggesting that it possesses unique features in this regard compared to the preceding S-400. Of course, the S-500 will have low-bandwidth radar that can be used to detect stealth planes—but not to shoot at them at long range. This could still aid the air defense network in attempting to acquire a weapons-quality lock on stealth fighters at short ranges, but this is not a new capability. Overall, it seems the S-500 design really is focused on the missile-defense mission.
However, the S-500’s very long range makes it an ideal weapon for taking out the largest and least stealthy of targets. While a fighter plane would be harder to detect and to hit at extreme range, an airliner-style AWACS or electronic warfare plane would be in far greater peril, and would likely be forced to operate outside the S-500’s engagement radius.
Already, Russian S-300 and S-400 missiles deployed in Kaliningrad could interdict the airspace over the Baltic states as well as a large chunk of Poland. A forward-deployed S-500 could extend that no-fly zone even further. To be clear, NATO stealth fighters could still attack missile sites from standoff distances, but long-range SAMs could effectively shut down that airspace to most other air traffic unless dealt with.