Russia's S-500: A Silver Bullet Against American Missiles and Fighters?

July 31, 2021 Topic: Russia Region: Russia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaUnited StatesS-500S-400Missile Defense

Russia's S-500: A Silver Bullet Against American Missiles and Fighters?

The manufacturer has called it a “blow against American prestige.”

Following years of anticipation, Moscow has reportedly signed a contract for the upcoming S-500 missile defense system.

A defense industry insider told TASS News that the first S-500 “Triumfator-M” units will enter service as early as next year. "The Russian Ministry of Defense signed a contract with VKO Almaz-Antey on shipment of over ten Prometey systems to the Aerospace forces,” the source said, adding that “serial shipments will begin in the first half of 2022.” The source clarified that the S-500 is currently in the midst of state trials at a proving grounds in southern Russia and that the tests are expected to conclude by the end of 2021.

The source reportedly noted that the “current [S-500] variant is ground-based,” adding that a naval version is also planned. This is a new but largely unsurprising development, as there have been ship-based variants of both the S-300 and S-400 systems.

The TASS report has not yet been corroborated by other sources, nor has it been publicly confirmed by Russian officials. The S-500 program has faced cyclical delays since the mid-2010s. The missile system’s first serial production run was slated to begin in 2014, but that date was later pushed back to 2017 and then again to 2020. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko said in December 2020 that the S-500 will be introduced into service in 2021, the latest in a long chain of overeager estimates.

Earlier this month, the Russian Defense Ministry released what was the first footage of an S-500 in action. The brief clip, reportedly filmed during state trials in the southern Astrakhan region, showed an S-500 installation launching a missile at a “high-speed ballistic target” from multiple angles. As noted by Jane’s, the missile seen in the clip may possibly be from the newer 77N6-N or 77N6-N-1 series that is being designed exclusively for the S-500.

The S-500 is Russia’s upcoming next-generation flagship missile system, promising across-the-board performance improvements over the already-formidable S-400 Triumf. The S-500 is reportedly capable of intercepting hypersonic cruise missiles and other aerial targets— including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and potentially even certain types of low-orbit satellites—flying at speeds of over Mach 5. The system has an operational range of 600 km against ballistic missiles and 500 km for area defense, a substantial improvement over the S-400.  It can track and target up to ten warheads flying at four miles per second, employing distinct radar systems optimized for different types of targets.

Aside from its purported ability to intercept hypersonic threats, the S-500’s other major contribution to Russian military capabilities is against stealth technology. Russian officials and defense experts have framed the S-500 as a “silver bullet” against next-generation stealth fighters like the Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II and the F-22 Raptor, with manufacturer Almaz-Antey calling it a “blow against American prestige.” Speaking of the S-500, Almaz-Antey head engineer Pavel Sozinov told reporters that “our system neutralizes American offensive weapons, and surpasses all of America’s much-hyped anti-air and anti-missile systems.”

It remains unclear how many S-500’s will enter service, and how quickly, beyond this initially reported shipment of ten systems.

Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.