While the West has been focusing on the power of advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles such as the S-400, it should have been watching China.
China is pulling ahead of Russia, especially in terms of sophisticated radars and sensors, according to a British expert.
“I’d say we should have been paying more attention to Chinese systems alongside the Russian ones,” Justin Bronk, a researcher at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, told the National Interest. “Not because the latter aren’t still superior, but because of the threat trajectory of the former. China will eventually catch up to and then surpass Russian missile and sensor technologies; and with a much more capable air force and economy than Russia.”
Bronk recently authored a RUSI analysis of Russian and Chinese integrated air defense systems (IAD), those multilayered networks of surface-to-air missiles [SAM] and radars that give Western air forces nightmares. While Russia anti-aircraft weapons such as the S-400 (NATO code name: SA-21 Growler) are more capable than China’s HQ-9 missiles, China has more resources for developing even more advanced systems.
“Despite slightly inferior SAM technology compared to the latest Russian SA-21, the Chinese are now pulling ahead in terms of radar and sensor technology,” Bronk writes. “They are also better placed to pursue true multi-spectral sensor fusion than Russia due to a much larger and more advanced domestic electronics industry. Advances in sensor technology are being supported by a creative and wide-ranging approach to new platform applications including fighter aircraft, AWACS [airborne early aircraft], high-altitude UAVs and space-based systems.”
Bronk believes that U.S. airpower will soon be inhibited by improvements in China’s air defenses, which will extend across coastal SAM sites on the Chinese mainland, missile batteries on artificial islands in the South China Sea, and better anti-aircraft weapons on Chinese warships. “Coupled with the rapid modernization and professionalization of the PLAAF [People’s Liberation Army Air Force], the ability for the U.S. and its allies to project airpower within 1,000 kilometers [621 miles] of China's mainland shore in a conflict will shrink dramatically on current trends through the 2020s.”
Not that’s Russia’s air defenses should be underestimated. The latest missiles for the S-400 and S-300VM (NATO code name: SA-23 Gladiator) have a range of 400 kilometers (249 miles). The S-400 and S-300VM can also fire medium- and short-range missiles, allowing them to engage at multiple ranges. These weapons are integrated with a plethora of mobile medium- and short-range SAMs such as the SA-15, SA-17 and SA-22, as well as man-portable launchers such as the SA-25. In addition, Russia has multiple digital air defense radars operating across multiple frequencies, in the hopes that this will operators to detect stealth aircraft.
“In broad strategic terms, this means that Russia can present a sufficiently dense and sophisticated IADS to make sustained NATO air operations over the Baltic states and significant parts of Poland prohibitively costly during the first phases of any military clash in the region. NATO relies very heavily on traditional fast jets such as the F-16, the Typhoon and the Rafale for much of its rapidly deployable firepower,” Bronk writes. “This is a major regional advantage for Russian forces which rely on ground-based artillery and heavily armored formations for the bulk of their firepower. The IADS coverage would also provide a buffer area of relatively safe airspace for Russian Aerospace Forces' fighters to operate against enemy ground forces during the first phases of any clash, despite said fighters being significantly technically and operationally outmatched by the leading NATO air forces in a head-to-head clash.”
On the positive side for the U.S. and NATO, integrated air defense networks can be neutralized – but not easily. “When employed correctly, stealth aircraft, standoff munitions and electronic attacks can suppress and degrade an IADS for a finite period of time in a limited area to enable strike packages to get through to their targets,” Bronk writes.
For NATO, the problem is that it depends on airpower, rather than numerous artillery batteries and multiple rocket launchers that provide the bulk of the Russian army’s firepower. Fears that NATO doesn’t have a large enough stockpile of smart bombs, and the prospect that Russian air defenses might keep strike aircraft at bay, has spurred calls for Britain to bring back cluster bombs barred by international treaty.
“Completely rolling back an IADS the size, depth and complexity of those of Russia or China would most likely take weeks and possibly months of full-scale warfighting,” Bronk warns.