S-400 vs. Patriot: Who Has the World’s Best Air Defense System?

January 13, 2023 Topic: Air Defense Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: S-400Patriot Missile SystemAir DefenseRussia-Ukraine War

S-400 vs. Patriot: Who Has the World’s Best Air Defense System?

Directly comparing the Patriot system to the S-400 is sort of like comparing the transmissions in two different race cars.

And while CNN may have missed the mark in their 1991 coverage of what they believed to be the first Patriot intercept, another CNN crew found itself present for what really was a successful intercept in March of 2003… but they weren’t able to report on it.

“Had anyone reported this – had we reported it, or had it gotten out,” CNN national security analyst Ken Robinson later explained, “it would have enabled [Iraq] to know that they had the exact grid coordinate they needed” to target the headquarters of coalition ground forces. 

How governmental transparency affects perceptions of the Patriot air defense system, as well as its Russian peers

S-400 live fire testing (Russian Ministry of Defence)

When discussing the Patriot air defense system online, it’s impossible to avoid comparisons with its Soviet and Russian counterparts, systems like the S-300, S-400, and the latest S-500. Unlike the Patriot system, which tends to have a tarnished reputation in the minds of many, Russian systems are often highly touted as the best in the world. Of course, since the onset of fighting in Ukraine in February of 2022, Russia’s longstanding approach to conveying an unwarranted image of military prowess has finally become broadly recognized — and as we’ve discussed at length in our deep dive into the S-400, the air defense enterprise is no exception.

Russia’s air defense systems, like so many of the nation’s military endeavors, benefit from a very intentional perception-management campaign enacted by the Russian government and bolstered by countless Russian-state-backed media outlets operating all around the world. The myth of Russia’s impenetrable air defenses, it’s important to understand, is vital to Russia’s efforts to court foreign buyers for these systems, as the Russian military is reliant on foreign investment to fund its own advanced developmental weapons programs.

So why, then, is there such a disparity between popular perceptions of America’s Patriot air defense system and Russia’s S-400? A great deal of that comes down to something as simple as American transparency juxtaposed against Russian information operations, as well as the overall level of secrecy surrounding all air defense platforms regardless of national origin.

This point was made succinctly in a broader piece about the overall effectiveness of air defense systems published by the Nuclear Threat Initiative in September 2020:

“The United States is by far the most transparent of countries when it comes to missile defense tests, yet even reports from the United States provide only superficial details about most tests,” the report explains.

The Global Missile Defense Race: Strong Test Records and Poor Operational Performance” by Shae Cotton and Jeffrey Lewis for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Sept. 16, 2020

Americans are accustomed to a level of governmental transparency in which governmental bodies themselves will hold other governmental organizations accountable.

As the report states, American air defense systems of all kinds have consistently demonstrated a high degree of efficacy over time, despite some rocky starts. Between 1963 and 2020, the U.S. conducted a total of 121 disclosed test intercepts with various systems, with an overall success rate of a respectable 72 percent and generally high success rates once a program reaches maturity.

It goes on to compare American transparency to Israel and Japan, before questioning the transparency of Indian efforts, and finally highlighting Russia’s apparent tomfoolery. Americans, by and large, tend to assume all governments are similarly transparent about the successes and failures of their defense programs, but that’s far from the truth.

“Perhaps most questionable of all are Russian missile defense claims. Although it is not alone in so doing, Russia has made spectacular claims about the success of the S-400, yet there are few public reports about individual tests of the system.”

The Global Missile Defense Race: Strong Test Records and Poor Operational Performance” by Shae Cotton and Jeffrey Lewis for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Sept. 16, 2020

S-400 launchers (Russian Ministry of Defence)

According to NTI’s findings, Russia has only disclosed successful tests of the S-400 system, effectively suggesting that it required no development whatsoever and emerged fully formed and infallible. Russia has not disclosed the circumstances of the tests, the number of interceptors launched, the types of targets, or their level of capability… they’ve simply claimed 100% success rates and offered little more.

Of course, in real weapons development, that’s an extremely unlikely scenario — and following Russia’s performance in Ukraine, it seems even less likely.

“To date we have not been able to identify any reports of failed intercept tests involving the S-400. Like our hypothesis involving India, this suggests Russia is concealing most of its developmental tests or other failed intercepts. “

The Global Missile Defense Race: Strong Test Records and Poor Operational Performance” by Shae Cotton and Jeffrey Lewis for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Sept. 16, 2020

But while Russia’s claims of success with the S-400 (which have been clearly called into question by actual combat data) may not be trustworthy, it is nonetheless important to understand that the S-400, like most Russian air defenses, is likely a pretty capable system, as evidenced by the laundry list of foreign buyers.

The actual efficacy of the S-400 has been called into question many times, despite Russia’s claims of 100% success rates.

The plain fact of the matter is, however, no system is as good as Russia tells the world their systems are — but while many take their claims at face value, few recognize the disclosed progress made by the Patriot system since its rocky start.

“Now days, Patriot has right around a 95% hit ratio,” Long explained.

Related: The S-400 myth: Why Russia’s air defense prowess is exaggerated

The Patriot system isn’t meant to operate on its own (and neither is the S-400)

The U.S. Army’s “Defense in Depth” approach to air and missile defense (AMD). (U.S. Army)

Perhaps most important of all, directly comparing these systems is, in itself, a missed intercept. The Patriot air defense system, like Russia’s S-400, isn’t intended to serve as a stand-alone system. Both of these platforms are meant to play a role in a broader networked integrated air defense apparatus, and both can only see their best performance as a part of that larger network.

The United States, for example, leverages overlapping air defense systems of different sorts (an approach Long and the Army refer to as “defense in depth“). This approach means that as an inbound missile gets closer to your defended asset, it faces an increasing amount of defensive firepower.

In other words, directly comparing the Patriot system to the S-400 is sort of like comparing the transmissions in two different race cars. We can debate all day about which is better, and there is some value to that discussion, but what really matters is how well the whole car performs when assembled and in a race.

Today, the available data seems to suggest that America’s THAAD and Patriot air defense systems may be the most successful of any systems in actual combat environments — but importantly, that success is, in itself, relative.

Intercepting a wide variety of inbound missiles is an extremely difficult job, and the fact of the matter is, in a saturation attack, especially involving low-flying cruise missiles in contested airspace without AWACS support, just about any modern system is likely to fail.

Air defense intercepts are an unforgiving science, which lends itself to a lack of transparency even within more open governments like the United States. But it’s important to consider how America’s broader transparency can affect perceptions when juxtaposed against the objectively untrustworthy claims of the Russian government.

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University.

This article was first published by Sandboxx News.

Image: Shutterstock.