Russia Announces Sale of S-400 to China

In April, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly approved in principle the sale of the S-400 air defense system to China. The S-400 (NATO codename SA-21 Growler) is currently Russia’s most advanced air defense platform, and thus far has been reserved exclusively for the Russian military. The S-400 is the successor to the Soviet-era S-300, which has been deployed worldwide in many variations. Although it is a derivative of the S-300, the S-400 represents a significant upgrade in nearly all respects. Should the sale be completed, China would be the first foreign customer to receive the new system. This is by no means certain, since previous weapons sales have been announced but later canceled. Still, if purchased in sufficient numbers, the S-400 would represent a substantial upgrade for China’s integrated air defense system.

The S-400 – A System with Advanced Capabilities

Reports indicate that China would initially receive between two and four battalions of the S-400. A battalion includes an integrated command post, associated radar systems, and up to twelve launchers, each equipped with four launch tubes. The S-400 can reportedly track up to 100 targets and engage up to twelve of them simultaneously. Launchers are deployed on highly mobile platforms, enabling them to “shoot and scoot” typically within a five minute window, making them difficult to counter-attack before they have relocated. The S-400 is designed to engage a variety of aerial targets, including combat aircraft, theater ballistic and cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and even precision-guided munitions at ranges of up to 400km and altitudes of up to 30km, depending on target.

To accomplish this, it employs three distinct surface-to-air missiles, each of which is assigned a specific mission. The 40N6 is an extremely long-range missile, designed to strike a wide range of aerial targets operating at distances of up to 400km. The 48N6E3/DM is a long-range missile, with a range of 250km, and can target a variety of aircraft, missiles and penetrating intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms. The 9N96E is a short- to medium-range missile, designed to strike a wide range of aerial targets at up to 120km. It is a highly maneuverable hit-to-kill missile designed especially to destroy high-speed aerial targets at relatively close range with great accuracy. It also operates as a point defense system to defeat incoming anti-radiation missiles and precision-guided munitions. While the 48N6 is fully deployed and the 9M96 is very close to being deployed, the 40N6 missile is still in development, although it apparently passed state trials in 2012.

The S-400 – A Closer Look 

To fully appreciate the implications of this sale, one must first recognize that the S-400 constitutes Russia’s most advanced air defense system. It builds on the capabilities of its predecessor, the S-300, which is itself a highly-regarded air defense system. While the S-300 boasts a powerful radar suite and can likewise strike a variety of aerial targets, its range is more limited than the S-400’s, to just 200km. It thus remains vulnerable to counter-measures from standoff platforms that operate outside this range. It also lacks the kind of point defense capability that could protect it against saturation attacks from precision-guided weapons, such as the small-diameter bomb, which can be released in large numbers from platforms such as the B-2 bomber.  

The S-400 was designed with these limitations in mind. It was also designed specifically to contest U.S. air superiority, which has enabled the U.S to defeat every conventional adversary it has faced since the end of the Cold War. Thus far, the U.S. has maintained such capability by retaining its decisive advantage in stealth technology, electronic warfare, precision strike, and standoff ISR. The S-400 employs several features designed specifically to neutralize these advantages, and thus represents the most serious challenge to U.S. air superiority to date.  

The S-400’s 40N6 missile is designed specifically to strike stand-off ISR platforms, such as AWACs, JSTARS and stand-off jammers, which up to now have been able to operate effectively just outside the perimeter of legacy air defense systems. Long-range precision strike weapons, such as cruise and ballistic missiles, which have largely been able to operate unimpeded, will now have to penetrate all three layers of the S-400’s missile defense shield to reach their targets. So will conventional (non-stealthy) strike aircraft, and even if they succeed in getting close enough to release their payloads of precision-guided weapons, the S-400’s 9M96 missile, which can be fired in large numbers, is designed specifically to counter such weapons.  

Jamming of the S-400’s acquisition and engagement radars will also prove challenging, because they employ counter-measures such as rapid frequency-hopping and agile beam-steering. Finally, and most importantly, the S-400 employs new methods that have reportedly shown some ability to detect stealth aircraft. Among the most worrisome is the development of new radar systems such as the Nebo-M, which employ a combination of VHF, L-band and S-band radar systems designed to track and engage stealth aircraft at tactically meaningful distances.

Of course, the U.S. is not going to yield its advantages easily. In fact, U.S. weapons designers have taken a number of measures to defeat the various capabilities of systems such as the S-400. For example, the F-35 has been designed with sufficient stealth and electronic warfare capability to operate effectively in air space contested by the S-400. It will employ an integrated combination of stealth technologies to give it a very small radar cross section, especially in attack profile. Moreover, it will utilize an advanced electronic warfare suite that includes sophisticated on-board emitter detection, advanced signal processing, and high transmission power to make it feasible to jam or deceive the kind of agile radar systems used by the S-400.

Regional Implications

Given that Russia had previously announced its intent to withhold foreign sales of the S-400 system until the Russian military’s requirements had been satisfied, the announcement of the sale at this time is interesting. As of 2012, the Russian military has reportedly only received eight out of a total of 56 battalions to be delivered by 2020. Moreover, Almaz-Antey, the manufacturer is struggling to keep up with domestic demand. To alleviate the problem, it is in the process of building three additional manufacturing facilities. As a result, even if the sale goes through, China may not take actual delivery of the S-400 until sometime in the 2016-2017 time-frame, giving those states most affected a temporary reprieve in which to develop appropriate counter-measures.

Nevertheless, were China to deploy the S-400, it would have important implications for regional security. Taiwan would be most affected.  China’s existing air defense system can only cover a portion of Taiwanese territory. With the S-400’s longer range (assuming the 40N6 is deployed), China’s air defense system will be able to cover Taiwan in its entirety. This would make it harder for Taiwan’s air force to operate within its own airspace. The Senkaku islands also fall within the effective range of the S-400. Consequently, its deployment would give China increased leverage in its ongoing dispute with Japan over control of those islands. Finally, deployment of the S-400 near the border with India could threaten India’s land-based, second-strike ballistic missile capability, which would have significant implications for the overall strategic balance in South Asia. In response, India might have to develop a more robust strategic deterrent, speeding up deployment of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, for example. Thus, the sale would have significant consequences for regional security, extending well beyond what would normally be expected from the transfer of a purely “defensive” weapon system.