Dead Stealth: Could Russia's S-500 Actually Threaten the F-22 or F-35?
It just might be.
Key point: The S-500 is formidable and could give the Air Force a run for its money.
A few years back, Russian state media began leaking some information about the country’s next-generation air and missile defense system, the S-500.
While maintaining that “most of the new system’s technical characteristics remain under wraps,” Sputnik began shedding some light on what those technical characteristics will be (although many of them have been previously reported elsewhere). According to the report, the S-500 “is expected to be able to engage targets at altitudes of over 60 miles,” which is higher than any existing missile defense systems. Sputnik went on to claim that “sixty miles and more is also the near space zone where the majority of foreign military satellites are now orbiting our planet.” While it is technically true that military satellites are flying at heights of sixty miles or more, most of them are much higher than sixty miles and thus likely outside the S-500’s range.
The Sputnik report went on to say that “the S-500 is expected to able to detect and simultaneously attack up to ten ballistic missile warheads flying at speeds of over 4 miles a second.” It will also have several distinct radar systems geared towards different targets. For example, the system will have different radars to detect planes, helicopters, drones and missiles. Earlier this month, Sputnik had reported on an all-altitude radar system that will be part of the S-500. According to that earlier report, “All that is known is that the Yenisei radar features a phased-array antenna to spot and track aerial targets across an entire range of altitudes, provide ‘friend or foe’ identification and determine priority targets.” Previous reports in the National Interest have noted that the S-500 “is expected to use the 91N6A(M) battle management radar, a modified 96L6-TsP acquisition radar, as well as the new 76T6 multimode engagement and 77T6 ABM engagement radars.”
Interestingly, the Sputnik article from this week spends considerable space detailing the capabilities of the 40N6 extended-range guided missile. As the article notes, the 40N6 missile has an enormous range of 400 kilometers (250 miles). Noting that “ground-based radar systems are useless in space,” the Sputnik article states that the “the 40N’s homing system will differ from what can be found on all other air defense missiles.” Specifically, its “one-of-a-kind self-homing warheads search for their targets and, finding them, switch to an automatic-homing mode.” It goes on to state that the 40N6 is a two-stage solid fuel missile that is capable of reaching speeds of nine times the speed of sound. The report also claims the thirty-foot long missile has a "blast-fragmentation warhead with a range of 310 miles and 95-percent accuracy."
What is notable about this, as regular readers of the National Interest know, is that the 40N6 missile has usually been discussed in reference to the existing S-400 air and missile defense system. There have been regular reports that imply that some of Russia’s existing S-400 systems already employ the 40N6 missile. These reports were almost certainly premature, although new reports this month said that the missile could enter service soon after undergoing another test in February of this year (and more tests scheduled this month or next). Thus, it seems the S-500’s main missile won’t be entirely new as it will first be integrated into at least some of Russia’s existing S-400 systems. Moscow does claim that this missile will be able to engage hypersonic missiles and could be modified to attack satellites. Russia appears to have agreed to sell India and China the 40N6 missile as part of their packages of S-400 missile defense systems.
As Dave Majumdar has previously noted, while most of Russia’s defense industry suffered following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has continued to churn out quality air and missile defense systems. This is evident from systems like the S-400, S-300VM4 and S-350. Once deployed, the S-500 is expected to be networked with these existing systems to provide an integrated defense system. According to Majumdar, some U.S. defense officials worry that this system will be so capable that it might pose issues for stealthy warplanes like the F-22, F-35 and B-2.
As to when the S-500 will first come online, Lt. Gen. Viktor Gumenny, the Deputy Commander of Russia’s Aerospace Forces, said last year that deliveries of the initial systems should occur sometime around 2020. This is likely to be a prototype system designed for testing. Some reports of unknown reliability have claimed the system has already entered into production phase.
Zachary Keck (@ZacharyKeck) is a former managing editor of The National Interest. This first appeared in April 2018.