Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher with Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's (SIPRI) arms transfers and military expenditure program while describing to Al Jazeera about the appeal of the S-400 system to the militaries who have it on their shopping list summarized it by describing it as “among the most advanced air defense systems available, on par with the best the West has to offer”.
So, what makes it so special to everyone?
Simply put, the reason is the multiple intercept missiles the S-400 system can fire. The S-400 supports four different missiles – the very long range 40N6E-series (400 km), the long range 48N6 (250 km), the 9M96e2 (120 km) and the short range 9m96e (40 km). By comparison the US Patriot system supports only one interceptor missile with a range of 96 km.
Then there is more. The 9M96E2 is one of the jewels of the S-400 system. It flies at Mach 15 (around 5,000 meters per second or 18,500 kph), it can engage targets as low as 5 meters off the ground, and it can maneuver pulling up to 20 Gs (a human can withstand no more than 9 Gs with special pressure suits and helmets and for only a few seconds). It is designed to knock out penetrating aircraft and missiles flying “off the deck” or just above ground and neutralize cruise missiles.
The S-400 also has optional acquisition radars designed to defeat modern stealth aircraft such as the F-22 and the F-35. They work by operating in multiple frequency bands including both VHF and L bands that can “see” stealth-protected fighters.
Stealth designs have been built on low-detection by X-band radars, the most common military and civilian radars (others such as C-band – now known as the G/H band – are less prevalent). The F-35 has stealth protection mainly in the front of the aircraft, meaning that when it turns away from its target it is vulnerable. In time, the entire air defense system of the US and its allies, all based primarily on X band, will become obsolete as China and Russia move toward stealth aircraft and missiles.
Along with the radar enhancements, Russia has a formidable integrated air defense system even though the size of its truly modern aircraft fleet is quite small compared to the United States and NATO. Russia lost a decade in the arms race when it had no money to develop and build new aircraft, and its economy today barely supports acquisition of effective numbers of new equipment. Indeed, one of the reasons Russia developed its air defenses along with wanting to counter US stealth aircraft and cruise missiles is because it could not afford a big fleet of modern fighter aircraft.
One use of the S-400 long-range missile is against stand-off systems including flying command posts and aircraft such as the E-3 Sentry AWACS. These aircraft, which are used by the US and its NATO allies with a squadron stationed in Japan at Kadena AFB and in the UAE at al-Dhafra, are vulnerable to S-400 interceptors and lose their stand-off range protection. Which basically spells doom and the end of the AWACS capability, which were originally envisioned and designed in the 1960s.
The S-400 also has capability against ballistic missiles, a feature that surely attracted Saudi Arabia’s interest, thanks to the threat emanating from the Iran’s Shiite arsenal of ballistic missiles and also to consider the Iranian Houthis proxies in Yemen slinging one or two of their age-old SCUDs in Riyadh’s way to wreak havoc in the Saudi capital. Regardless of the reasons that forces this decision, Saudi Arabia’s agreement to purchase the S-400 anti-aircraft Triumf anti-missile system from Russia is a major blow to the United States and its European allies, who were and still are its main weapon suppliers.
Turkey, having the second largest military outfit among NATO allies only after the United States, also has gone with a deal to buy the S-400. The reason is to enable building their own SAM capability based on the S-400 as building up the capabilities of its fast-growing indigenous defense industry has become a priority for President Erdogan. Two years ago, he declared that Turkey planned to “eliminate external dependency on defense equipment supply” by 2023, and that it wanted to be involved in the design and production of any new defense equipment before then.
NATO member Turkey has the alliance’s second-largest army and is in close proximity to Russia. NATO nuclear warheads are believed to be stockpiled at the Incirlik airbase. And Russia’s shipping access to the Mediterranean is through the Turkish straits. Turkey has always been NATO’s southern bulwark against Russia.
Moscow will consider it a victory even if the S-400 deal manages to only create turbulent times for the alliance and Turkey, especially given its own rapid downturn in ties with the United States.
As far as Ankara is concerned, such a deal would address what it sees as a primary and urgent security concern. A bonus result would be if it results in increased US willingness regarding weapons systems transfers to Turkey while the ultimate objective is for indigenous production through technology transfer (which wasn’t financially feasible for Turkey through its NATO allies), the S-400s will be fending off threats in the meantime.
Then to this ever-growing list of interested buys joins regional rivals China and India, of which India has been in the American bloc for quite sometime even though most of its hardware is still of Soviet/Russian origin.
China bought 10 of the formidable Sukhoi Su-35 multirole fighter jet, the current Queen of the Russian Air Force fighter fleet along with the S-400 for which the US went on to sanction a few Chinese officials for being part of the deal under its Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), passed in 2017 to provide the Trump administration with the necessary means to target Russia, Iran and North Korea with economic and political sanctions.
Therefore, when the Indian Defense Minister went to Moscow to finalize the deal on S-400, it was presumed that it also might be a victim of CAATSA but it for now has survived the stroke as there was none from the Americans.
What makes the US lawmakers in Washington tick is the fact that the S-400 is a rare example of a non-nuclear missile that is virtually a strategic weapon. Such mega deals bind the seller and buyer into a strategic relationship for the lifetime of the weapon. Considering the longevity of Russian air defense missiles (in the 1990s the Serbians shot down a US stealth fighter with a 30-year-old Russian SAM), the S-400 could remain at the heart of India's missile defense network for decades. Since the US is attempting to pry away India from its defense partnership with Russia, the S-400 is one of the top obstacles to the US plan.
Another reason which might have driven India is its ability to detect stealth aircrafts, in which sector regional rival China has an edge over India with its Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31.
Regardless of that S-400 will drastically reduce Pakistani capability to outmaneuver Indian air assets and establish air superiority in case of an all-out war due to the multi-layered defense that will be in effect after the integration of the S-400 along with the Akash and Israeli Barak systems.
While China may not fret over the S-400 system deal, it will have significant implications for Pakistan’s Air Force and missile program both. Highly advanced stealth aircrafts or faster low observables ones or stealth cruise missiles can only dodge the integrated defense system. In the wake of an all-out war, Pakistan can outnumber the Indian defense system by launching too many missile and fighter jet attacks, making it near impossible for the S-400s or Akash missiles to deny zero penetration in Indian airspace. Such an attack will come at a heavy price militarily and otherwise, with limited success. If the Pakistani economy performs as per potential, Pakistan could follow China’s suit and develop hypersonic multistage missiles to counter this menace.