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The Real Reason NATO Should Fear Russia's S-400 Air Force Killer

June 18, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: S-400RussiaMilitaryTechnologyWorldNATO

The Real Reason NATO Should Fear Russia's S-400 Air Force Killer

Not what you think. 

The Russian S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile system has generated much media interest since its deployment within Russian borders and abroad. It boasts of an impressive capability against a range of aerial targets including aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles and has generated controversial international sales. Reputation notwithstanding, the S-400 has not yet been tested in combat. It has been deployed in Syria whose borders have been penetrated by aerial incursions, yet it has purportedly not fired a shot. What this says about the tactical effectiveness of the weapon system with a reported range of 400 km is debatable, but its use as an effective strategic weapon system is often overlooked.

Regardless of its untested combat capability, buyers and potential buyers include China, India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The use of the S-400 as an economic warfare tool cannot be underestimated and is a prime example of Russian Hybrid Warfare against the United States and its NATO allies. Before we look at Russia's Hybrid Warfare strategy, let's examine the strategic benefits of selling this advanced weapon system.

The first strategic benefit is obviously the income generated by arms sales. Russia’s economy has suffered through Putin’s mismanagement combined with sanctions implemented due to the invasion of Crimea, war in Ukraine and U.S. election tampering as well as significantly reduced oil prices. The sale of high-tech armaments acts to diversify the Russian economy away from the reliance on natural resource exports. These sales will assist Russia in weathering the negative forces impacting its economy and assist its expensive military modernization programs.

The second strategic benefit is the prestige and international status generated by the perception that Russia is still a force to reckoned with and capable of developing advanced offensive and defensive weapon systems. Soviet-built surface-to-air weapon systems were exported across the globe throughout the Cold War and are ubiquitous, much like the AK-47 assault rifle. Russia is demonstrating that, although it is no longer a superpower, it is still able to build sought after weapon systems that could potentially threaten the advanced aircraft deployed by the United States and its allies.

The third strategic benefit is the building and strengthening of ties with countries such as China which is currently in partnership with Russia in several areas, not to mention its competition with the United States and ambition to benefit from U.S. isolation, disarray and global retreat. Although Russia and China have had serious differences in the past and watch each other with suspicion, the purchasing of the S-400 weapon system by China will act to strengthen military ties between the two nations as the sale will require training of military personnel and ongoing maintenance and parts. The S-400 is a significant economic investment for any country and will require ongoing cooperation to ensure the system functions effectively.

The last strategic benefit I will mention is the use of the weapon system as a component of Russian Hybrid Warfare. This concept of Hybrid Warfare has been debated by academics and analysts significantly over the last ten years. While some argue that it's nothing new, others argue that it is and should be taken seriously. Regardless of which camp one falls into, it would be a disservice to strategic thought for the concept not be taken seriously and analyzed effectively. The fact remains that authoritarian powers such as Russia and China are utilizing strategies to increasingly combat the U.S. and its allies as well as nations that they can exploit for their own gain. These strategies involve diverse methodology including election tampering, cyber warfare, nuclear coercion, ambiguity of nuclear intent, economic warfare, use of organized crime, and military hard power.

The definition of Hybrid Warfare by those who do argue that it exists is also a contentious issue with many academics and analysts attempting to explain it. I am no exception to this as a strategic analyst, and I provide the following definition:

“Hybrid Warfare is a continuation of foreign policy, utilizing a combination of unconventional hard power and/or subversive instruments to achieve strategic objectives."

By selling the S-400 to NATO member, Turkey, the strategic benefits of this system as a Hybrid Warfare tool compliment its purported tactical ability without firing a shot. Although not yet delivered, this sale has contributed to a major rift within the NATO alliance. The concept of a Russian built system with its powerful radars being deployed within NATO territory will be a significant victory for Putin if it goes ahead. The U.S. has expressed its extreme displeasure at this sale with the Acting Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan sending a letter to the Turkish Minister of National Defense threatening sanctions against Turkey as well as its removal from the F-35 program.

The removal of Turkey from this program also significantly benefits Russia as Turkey had expressed interest in purchasing 100 F-35s from the U.S.. The sudden elimination of Turkey from this program will mitigate potential risk to Russian assets from NATO F-35 aircraft operating from Turkey. It may also cause Turkey to attempt to fill the gap by purchasing Russian fighter aircraft, thus further reinforcing the above strategic benefits to Russia.

Putin is determined to disrupt and hinder the cohesiveness of the NATO alliance. Turkey is an important strategic partner within this alliance due to its geographical location and military capabilities. It would be a great victory for Russia if it were able to pull Turkey even further from its NATO allies. The S-400 sale aims to do this, and it is succeeding.

The U.S. is right to threaten sanctions and removal of Turkey from the F-35 program if it goes ahead with the purchase, but it must recognize that this falls directly into Putin's hands in respect to Russia’s Hybrid Warfare strategy. In addition to the ‘sticks’ approach illustrated in Shanahan’s letter, the U.S. must provide a more attractive ‘carrots’ approach such as a good deal to provide Turkey with the Patriot surface-to-air missile system.  This, in addition to the 100 F-35 multirole combat aircraft will provide Turkey with a formidable air-defense capability.

Analysts, academics, and policymakers can't afford to be complacent and shrug off Russia's Hybrid Warfare strategy and its intention to create a serious wedge between the U.S. and its allies. Although it is a problematic partner, Turkey is an important one. Consequences are a useful technique to deter actions, but they can be coupled with positive incentives to provide an even higher chance of success. Members within the alliance will argue from time the time. This is nothing new, but the alliance must hold together to effectively counter aggression from authoritarian revisionist states.    

Adam Cabot has a Masters in International Relations and is currently researching Russian nuclear strategy.

This first appeared in RealClearDefense here