Air Defense: Keeping S-300 Alive


December 15, 2010: The recent cancellation of a billion dollars worth of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran has left the manufacturer with lots of unsold gear. So now Russia is hustling to find new customers, offering attractive prices. Venezuela was given a $4 billion line of credit, part of it going to pay for S-300 systems. Now Kazakhstan has been persuaded to make a purchase (for $150 million). Kazakhstan has oil and gas, and can be expected to pay cash. Despite all that, about a third (the older models) of the S-300 systems used by Russia are in storage. Russia currently has about 100 S-300 battalions in service.

Russia has to sell lots of S-300 launchers, radars and missiles to pay for developing the system, and keeping it competitive. The S-300 has been much modified, thus there are many variants on the basic S-300 (which arrived in the late 1970s as the SA-10). Earlier this year, Russia activated its first S-400 (also known as the S-300PMU-3, SA-21 or Triumf) anti-aircraft missile system, around Moscow. This new version of the S-300 pays particular attention to electronic countermeasures that the Americans might have, or be developing. The missiles are also physically larger and have longer range. Two years ago, Russia announced that the first S-400 had entered service around Moscow. But that didn't actually happen, and development work continued. Recent test firings of the missiles were successful. Each S-400 battalion has eight launchers, each with two missiles, plus a control center and radar. The two year delay allowed more system components to be built, so two more battalions were in place around Moscow by the end of the year.

The S-400 is similar to the U.S. Patriot, and is expensive. Russia is unsure if they want to export S-400 right away, because of the advanced technology. Meanwhile, work is underway on the S-500, which is scheduled for deployment within five years. The S-400 missiles weigh 1.8 tons each and are 8.4 meters (26 feet) long and about 50cm (20 inches) in diameter. The missiles have a range of some 400 kilometers, and can hit targets as high as 100,000 feet. The missile has a 145.5 kg (320 pound) warhead. The target acquisition radar has a range of 700 kilometers.

The S-400 has over five times the range of the U.S. Patriot, weighs twice as much and claims the ability to detect stealthy aircraft. The S-400 also has an anti-missile capability, which is limited to shorter range (3,500 kilometers) ballistic missiles. That would mean a warhead coming in at about 5,000 meters a second (the longer the range of a ballistic missile, the higher its re-entry speed.)

The S-400 system actually has two types of missiles, one of them being a smaller, shorter range (120 kilometers) one. These are deployed four to a launcher, like all other S-300 systems. The S-400 has no combat experience, but U.S. intelligence believes that the tests these systems have undergone indicate it is a capable air defense weapon. Just how capable won't be known until it actually gets used in combat.

Russia plans to buy up to 200 S-400 launchers (each with two or four missiles) by 2015, and phase out the older S-300 and S-200 systems. This would mean deploying at least 18 battalions in the next six years, and perhaps more than twenty. The S-400 is sometimes described as an improved version of the S-300. Basically, it is. This is how Russia prefers to develop weapons, making incremental improvements on a basic design, and doing so for decades if the system continues to be successful. Actually, the S-300 has no combat experience, while Patriot has a lot. In the past, Russian anti-aircraft missile systems were effective if the target aircraft had no defenses. But when electronic countermeasures were employed, the Russian missiles became nearly useless. The Russians insist this will not happen again, but most potential buyers want to be sure.





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