Air Defense: S-500 Is Dying From Brain Drain


February 23, 2012: It was recently announced that the new Russian anti-aircraft/anti-missile system, the S-500, will be further delayed. Apparently the S-500 won't enter service until the end of the decade. Last year it was admitted that the S-500 was a full two years behind schedule, with prototype testing not taking place until 2015 and deliveries in 2017. It was explained that much of the delay was due to the fact that this system uses a lot of new technology. There also seems to be a problem deciding exactly what the S-500 should do. Senior government officials are apparently demanding that the S-500 be able to intercept a wider range of ballistic missiles. This has complicated an already difficult development effort.

The S-500 is not an upgrade of the current S-400 but a new design. With a range of 600 kilometers the S-500 is designed to hit ballistic missile warheads at altitudes as high as 40 kilometers (124,000 feet). The S-500 can also go after AWACS aircraft. Russia plans to purchase ten S-500 battalions. These units are mobile, with all equipment carried in large trucks. The missiles, for example, are carried and launched from 10x10 trucks.

Then there are the personnel problems. When the Cold War era S-300 was designed the development team was drawn from the best engineers and scientists available in the Soviet Union. Now, there are more tempting jobs available to the best and the brightest. That explains many of the problems the S-500 is having.

Meanwhile, the new S-400 system (also known as the S-300PMU-3, SA-21 or Triumf) has been in service for two years, with four S-400 anti-aircraft missile battalions deployed. Each S-400 battalion has eight launchers, each with two missiles, plus a control center and radar. 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.

The S-400 is similar to the U.S. Patriot and is expensive. Russia is now offering to export the S-400, despite all the advanced technology in it. 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 32 kilometers (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). S-500 can handle faster, and longer range, ballistic missiles.

The S-400 system actually has two types of missiles, one of them being smaller, with a shorter range (120 kilometers). 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.

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. The S-500 is a break from that pattern.




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