Russia's S-500: The Ultimate Weapon against American Missiles or Paper Tiger?
The S-500 marks a new Russian effort to develop its own defense “shield” against cruise and ballistic missile attack.
Moscow has long been preoccupied with the threat posed by NATO airpower, and has fielded a variety of potent long-range surface-to-air missile systems over the years to counter it, including at the high end the S-300 (SA-10 and SA-12) and S-400 (SA-21). But the primary role of its latest design, the Almaz-Antey S-500 “Triumfator,” isn’t taking potshots at frontline fighter planes. Rather, the S-500 marks a new Russian effort to develop its own defense “shield” against cruise and ballistic missile attack.
Moscow has claimed the S-500 will enter service in 2016 or 2017 and has offered an impressive-seeming list of its capabilities. Appropriately nicknamed “Prometey”—Prometheus—the S-500 supposedly will have a maximum vertical altitude of 185 to two hundred kilometers, permitting it to swat down incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and low-orbit satellites in space. The Triumfator would also have a maximum range of six hundred kilometers, even further than the four-hundred-kilometer range of the S-400. Russian Air Force Commander Colonel General Viktor Bondarev claimed the S-500 would be able to engage up to ten missiles at the same time, with a reaction speed of three to four seconds—compared to six missiles and nine-second reaction times for the S-400.
Like the United States’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), another long-range antiballistic missile weapon, the S-500’s upcoming 776N-N and 776N-N1 interceptor missiles are supposed to use hit-to-kill technology—that is, the missile destroys its target through physical impact, rather than relying on a fragmentation warhead. The 776Ns would travel at hypersonic speeds of five to seven kilometers per second, enabling them to intercept opposing hypersonic cruise missiles.
It’s very impressive-sounding—but Russian defense officials have been cagey about revealing the system’s actual performance specifications. While it is claimed testing has begun, the results of those tests remain unknown. Considering the American experience developing the THAAD system, which suffered numerous failures over more than a decade of testing, there’s good reason to believe designing an effective ABM system might take a little iteration.
Of course, Almaz-Antey’s engineers may have been more successful. But until testing data is available, there’s little way of knowing whether the S-500 can live up to the considerable hype.
There are some concrete details on the S-500, including the fact that unlike the older, larger 53T6 Anti-Ballistic Missiles deployed in fixed positions around Moscow, the S-500 will be a smaller, self-propelled system that can easily “shoot and scoot” to avoid attacks intended to suppress air defenses. In fact, the S-500 is supposed to be a smaller evolution of the S-400 design. Diagrams released by the vehicle manufacturer BZKT reveal that each S-500 battery would involve numerous support vehicles, including a Transport-Erector-Launcher (TEL) vehicle, four different radar vehicles (one of which is specifically optimized against ballistic missiles) and one or two command vehicles.
The Pentagon has had extensive experience dismantling air defense networks, so Russian media has emphasized how the S-500 will be difficult to detect. For example, it has showcased efforts to produce special “containers” that will shield the S-400 and S-500 from being spotted by satellites employing electromagnetic interference sensors. Another article highlights how the S-500 system will feature secured communication links on variable frequencies to shield them against electronic warfare.
There has also been some buzz that the S-500 will be more effective against stealth aircraft. However, most descriptions of the system do not list counter-stealth as a primary goal, and there is little concrete evidence suggesting that it possesses unique features in this regard compared to the preceding S-400. Of course, the S-500 will have low-bandwidth radar that can be used to detect stealth planes—but not to shoot at them at long range. This could still aid the air defense network in attempting to acquire a weapons-quality lock on stealth fighters at short ranges, but this is not a new capability. Overall, it seems the S-500 design really is focused on the missile-defense mission.
However, the S-500’s very long range makes it an ideal weapon for taking out the largest and least stealthy of targets. While a fighter plane would be harder to detect and to hit at extreme range, an airliner-style AWACS or electronic warfare plane would be in far greater peril, and would likely be forced to operate outside the S-500’s engagement radius.
Already, Russian S-300 and S-400 missiles deployed in Kaliningrad could interdict the airspace over the Baltic states as well as a large chunk of Poland. A forward-deployed S-500 could extend that no-fly zone even further. To be clear, NATO stealth fighters could still attack missile sites from standoff distances, but long-range SAMs could effectively shut down that airspace to most other air traffic unless dealt with.
Nonetheless, the first S-500 battery will deploy to Moscow and other parts of central Russia, reflecting the strategic defense role of the missile. A naval S-500F version for the upcoming Leader-class destroyer is also supposedly in the works for deployment around 2023–25.
The fielding of an effective antiballistic S-500 would complicate Putin’s objections to the U.S. deployment of THAADS systems near its territory. However, Moscow will doubtlessly maintain that operating the S-500 on its domestic territory is not equivalent to Washington deploying THAAD on the territory of an allied state, such as Poland or South Korea.
The S-500 is intended to replace the S-300 missile in Russia’s multilayered air-defense system and complement the S-400, which would handle more routine antiaircraft duties and intercepting short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Originally, ten battalions of S-500s were projected. However, a later statement instead claims five batteries will be operational by 2020—likely reflecting the difficulties encountered in producing the weapon.
Indeed, there’s substantial evidence that the S-500 program is behind schedule and will not be entering service any time soon. To begin with, the S-500’s most significant capabilities depend on the new N776 missiles—but of the two factories built to manufacture the missiles, one was not due to be fully operational until 2016 and the other is supposed to follow in 2017. Almaz-Antey reportedly remains behind in producing missiles for the preceding S-400!
Prometey’s deployment date has been repeatedly pushed back, and despite claims that it would enter service in 2016–17, analyst Paul Schwartz from the Center for Strategic and International Studies “sees no evidence” of their deployment, and is “skeptical” it will happen any time soon. A report from the Strategic Studies Institute estimates the system won’t be ready until 2020. Alexander Khramchikhin of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis likewise has stated, “The S-500s will at best be created in 2020—no earlier.”
Given the delays in producing the hypersonic missiles, it is possible the first Triumfators will deploy with the 40N6M missiles used by the S-400—leaving the S-500 without many of its more impressive claimed capabilities. However, doing so could maintain the appearance that the program is on track.
It is clear the S-500 is intended to serve as a high-altitude antiballistic missile system for home defense, and that its very long range could make it useful for anti-access/area denial and antisatellite tasks. It is also evident that it is designed to be mobile and hard to detect or hack into, so as to resist air-defense suppression strikes.
But it’s not certain whether the S-500 will live up to the capabilities claimed of it. Furthermore, despite frequent vague claims to the contrary, there’s good reason to believe it may not be operational at full capability anytime soon.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: 5T58-2 transport vehicle on the BAZ-6402-015 chassis for the S-400 system. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin