Russian S-400s ‘Fizzle Out’ Against US Patriots? None Of AD Systems As Effective As Claimed: OPED

OPED By Gp Cpt TP Srivastava (Retd)

The Russia-Ukraine war will be 700 days old on 24th January 2024. Israel has been struggling against a non-state actor, HAMAS, for more than 100 days.

While the Russia-Ukraine war has now become a war of attrition for both sides using all types of conventional weapons, the Israel-HAMAS war has assumed a hitherto unthinkable dimension of human catastrophe in the form of death and destruction. Neither war appears to be ending anytime soon.

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All wars throw up lessons not only for warring entities/nations but also for the rest of the globe watching death and destruction. These two wars are no different. Needless to say, there are multi-dimensional lessons. Examining and evaluating all lessons will be a time-consuming process and might actually be of academic interest.

However, one startling issue that has captured the attention of virtually every nation, every weapon manufacturer, and every military strategist is the (non) performance of much-touted Ballistic Missile Defence Systems being operationally deployed in both wars. For the sake of brevity only, the performance of Patriot, a US ABM system, and S-400, a Russian system, will be examined.

It would be appropriate to mention that there are other ABM systems deployed as well in the Russia-Ukraine theatre other than Patriot and S-400. Of these two, only the Patriot ABM system had seen operational use in the Gulf War, commonly known as Op Desert Storm, in 1991 against incoming SCUD missiles fired by Iraqi forces.

As per the Pentagon report on Patriot performance published nearly a decade ago, it was stated that the successful interception rate did not exceed 10%.

In spite of the rather poor performance of the Patriot ABM system, the US continued to modify/upgrade the system and provide it to friendly nations all over the world. Russia did not want to be found wanting and started developing S-300, 400, and 500 systems.

S-400 ABM system made news for two reasons in the 2018-20 period. Turkey acquired the S-400 system from Russia, as a result of which US-Turkey relations hit a new low.

The US expelled Turkey from its F-35 program. Although the USAF base at Incirlik in Turkey is still operational. At about the same time, India signed a mega deal with Russia worth INR 39,000 crore ($5B) for the purchase of five regiments of the S-400 system.

Claims and CounterClaims

Various claims have been made by weapon manufacturers of both systems. However, actual performance under operational conditions presents a totally different picture.

Ukraine based Patriot system did manage to cause substantive attrition to attacking Russian fighters/helicopters in the initial days. But the moment Russian fighters started using certain jamming pods, the kill rate of Patriot dropped sharply.

Likewise claimed operational capability of S-400 to engage targets viz aircraft, SSMs up to 400 km cannot be authenticated. Confirmed kills by the S-400 system have also not been publicized by Russians.

Both ABM systems have performed well below par from the claimed capability stated in glossies. However, going by the details available from open sources, it appears that the Patriot ABM system might have performed better than the S-400 under nearly identical conditions against similar targets.

Ukraine’s claim of downing nearly a dozen hypersonic Kinzhal missiles, supposedly by Patriot ABM system, if true, can be termed as commendable.

Both systems have been found to be susceptible to jamming. Ukraine has claimed confirmed successful strikes on S-400 batteries by using  Neptune missiles.

In all probability S-400 scores over Patriot ABM when viewed in the context of mobility as well as time required to deploy at new location.

S-400 also scores over Patriot ABM for successfully engaging multiple targets at different ranges simultaneously. If Russian claims are to be believed, the S-400 system has been successful in engaging low-level targets. Perhaps that has been the probable cause of Ukraine restricting the use of strike elements.

One of the USPs of the S-400 system was that the S-400 batteries were provided protection by short-range air defense by the SA-22 system (Pantsir). However, the radar of neither system picked up the incoming Neptune missile, which destroyed/damaged the S-400 launch vehicle.

The S-400 primarily uses the 48N6 missile series. These missiles allow it to hit aerial targets at ranges up to 250 km and are capable of intercepting ballistic missiles across a 60 km radius, using in both cases a 143 kg high explosive fragmentation warhead.

Neutralizing low-flying cruise missile threat, though claimed, remains a suspect because no ABM system has to date demonstrated an actual intercept of a low-flying cruise missile. The susceptibility of S-400 against ECM/ECCM is not known as of now.

From open source available data, Patriot appears to have scored more kills than S-400. But it might not be related to the better performance of the Patriot over the S-400. It might be due to more opportunities for engagement.

Patriot AD System

Overall neither system has performed anywhere near its stated operational capability. Neither system has proved to be capable of neutralizing simultaneous saturation strikes of guided/unguided rockets/missiles.

“According to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, its “mission set, and capabilities are roughly comparable to the US Patriot system,” but unlike some Patriot interceptors, “the S-400 does not currently employ hit-to-kill ballistic missile defense technology”.

Each ABM system missile costs more than USD one hundred thousand, possibly in excess of one million USD. It is being mentioned because warring nations will have to evaluate the cost factor against the adversary while engaging an unguided rocket/missile costing a few thousand USD with an interceptor missile costing over a million USD. It happened in Israel; It is happening in the Red Sea.

The Russia-Ukraine war will be recorded as the first full-fledged conflict between two nation-states employing and using ABM systems extensively. However, neither system (Patriot and S-400) could prevent strikes from drones, manned fighters, and SSMs.

  • Gp Cpt TP Srivastava (Retd) is an ex-NDA who flew MiG-21 and 29. He is a qualified flying instructor. He commanded the MiG-21 squadron. He is a directing staff at DSSC Wellington and chief instructor at the College of Air Warfare. VIEWS PERSONAL OF THE AUTHOR
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