Russia’s fearsome new S-500 air and missile defence system has apparently entered production—and is setting new records for missile engagement range.
The next generation weapon is designed to supplement Moscow’s already potent S-400 and replace the A-135 anti-ballistic missile system. Not only does the weapon have unprecedented capability to hit high altitude targets—including ballistic missiles and satellites—at extremely long ranges, there have been some claims—usually from the media—that the system could target stealth aircraft. However, while some analysts believe that might be theoretically possible, there has been nothing to substantiate that claim.
Indeed, according to U.S. defense sources, Moscow recently conducted a record-breaking test of the S-500 system at ranges that were previously thought to be impossible. According to a CNBC report citing U.S. intelligence officials, “the S-500 surface-to-air missile system successfully struck a target 299 miles away, which the U.S. assessed is 50 miles further than any known test.”
Related Article: F-35 vs S-400
S-500 can engage stealth aircraft
There are some reports that the S-500 can engage stealth aircraft including the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or any other low observable platform for that matter. The Russians claim that the system can engage over the horizon and can be plugged into an air defense network—to include satellites.
Given the S-500’s advanced networking capabilities, some military analysts have suggested that the Russians might genuinely be able to engage stealth aircraft. Indeed, by networking multiple high-speed long wave radars such as the RLS Voronezh-DM and 1L119 Nebo SVU, it might be possible to generate a weapons quality track on an aircraft such as the F-22 or F-35. Sensor fusion has afforded militaries many capabilities that are greater than the sum of their part.
Obsolescence of Stealth
S-500 might not make the Stealth aircraft “obsolete”. It merely extends the Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) bubble outward and makes operating within it much more dangerous. The stealth aircraft could be “seen” from a long distance by using ultra-high frequency (UHF) radars, but they are unlikely to have any degree of reliability on locking onto a target. This is what the S-band or X-band targeting radars are meant to do. However, they have two significant handicaps.
- First, USAF stealth aircraft are optimized to deal specifically with these particular wavelengths, shortening their effective range. (Stealth is not an invisibility cloak). The B-21 is expected to improve greatly over the old B-2, so the cat-and-mouse game continues strongly. As can be seen with the downing of the F-117 in the Balkans using an S-100, it’s possible to defeat stealth if they get too close and your radars get a lock on them.
- Second, these radars are very “noisy” and easy to detect. The USAF places a high importance on the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD), and these bright, noisy radars will draw anti-radiation missiles to them like moths to a flame.
- Most modern SAMs have pop-up radars that only activate when firing and then go “dark” again to preserve them. Unfortunately, the latest generation anti-rad missiles have memory in them and can remember the coordinates of a radar even after it does “dark” again. The Russians have placed a penchant on mobility with the S-500 for this precise reason. It’s meant to “shoot and scoot”.
The USAF will most likely operate under a standoff stance when dealing with these SAMs, attempting to destroy them from standoff range where it cannot engage the USAF assets, but the USAF can engage it.
The S-500 batteries will also likely be under be under nearly constant satellite surveillance which will be easier, as the great expense of these systems and Russia’s meagre budget will curtail the procurement of huge numbers.
Another point of consideration is the role of Electronic Warfare (EW) and Electronic Countermeasures and Electronic Counter-countermeasures (ECM/ECCM). The United States places a high priority on EW expertise. These capabilities which include anything from radio frequency jamming, noise generation, and communications suppression will further degrade the S-500’s capabilities during the actual war, and should not be discounted.
While each of these methods has counters (e.g. automated frequency hopping, increased filtering through better processing, and alternate forms of communication, respectively), it is not clear-cut, and one can expect a certain level of degradation during combat (perhaps 20% reduced effectiveness at best). US EW capabilities are certainly in the top 3 of the world if not the best, the Chinese and Russians are aware of this and have been making strides to defend against this, but the gap remains.
It’s a deterrence weapon, nothing more. It will be highly useful in ABM operations, and its usefulness in anti-hypersonic missile operations remains to be seen. USAF warfighters will need to be even more careful when operating in these environs.
S-500 Might Detect F-35 and F-22 as it’s possible to defeat stealth if they get too close and radars might get a lock on them but S-500 might not make the Stealth aircraft “obsolete”