S-400 vs F-35: Can The Russian S-400 Missiles Really Take Down American F-35 Jets?

Russian S-400 Missiles vs US’ F-35 fighter jets is one of the most contested debates on the social media platforms. The Russian S-400 is by far the world’s most advanced air defence systems while America F-35 jet is a 5th generation stealthy aircraft that is considered far superior to any of its nearest rivals. 

F-35 Jets vs S-400 Missiles

The F-35, an American 5th Generation fighter with advanced stealth, fighter speed and agility is “designed to overwhelm today’s most advanced threat systems both in the air and on the ground, as well as those expected to emerge in the decades to come,” mentions the F-35 website.

Tod Wolters, the commander of U.S. European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Europe explains – “You cannot operate an F-35 in the vicinity of an S-400. They won’t talk to each other, and what the two military devices will aim to do, certainly the S-400s against the F-35s, is to exploit the F-35’s capabilities.”

Ever since the deployment of Russia’s S-400 Triumph (NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler) within Russian borders in 2007, it has garnered an impression of being one of the most lethal air defence systems in the world and purchase orders from China, Turkey and India only added to its reputation.

“The S-400 is among the most advanced air defence systems available, on par with the best the West has to offer,” according to Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher with Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) arms transfers and military expenditure programme.

The US Officials have repeatedly expressed apprehensions that the Russian S-400 could potentially weaken the American F-35 fighter aircraft by gathering critical information on its stealth capabilities since, the fighter jet’s external shape, internal carriage of weapons and fuel, and embedded sensors, all have been designed to maximize its stealth performance.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter originally branded as the ‘future of Stealth Technology’, has often been within the radar of questioning for its primal feature. The stealth coating that has to be reapplied each time after a flight becomes a painstaking process combined with about the requirement of about 41.75 and 50.1 maintenance man-hours per flight hour which is about 3 times more than the other similar fighter aircraft.

Nitin J Ticku, a MARCOM specialist and defence analyst with the EurAsian Times points out – the fact that the US tried to make the plane invisible does not mean that it really is. And it’s not for nothing that the Pentagon abruptly announced the need for the additional testing in late 2018 before handing it over to the Israel defence forces operating in Syria (for a possible encounter with S-300s).

That was one obvious indication that the US themselves were uncertain about the competence of F-35 against the S-300 air defence systems.

The US, Israel Study S-300 Capabilities

Nitin J Ticku further writes – The S-300s were put into service way back in 1978. During that time, the air defence systems were analysed by Western experts only twice. Once – when the Greek Cypriots due to political hurdles agreed to install the complexes on the Greek island of Crete. Iran reportedly began to negotiate with Russia on buying the S-300 for its defence, Israel paid Greece a lot of money to lay their hands on the Russian systems.

The second time when western experts got access to Russian missile defence technology was when the US bought parts of the complex through Belarus. However, it should be noted that those were early versions of the S-300s and the difference between early versions of S-300s and modern versions of S-400’s have enormous differences, warns Nitin J Ticku.

S-400 vs F-35: What Do Experts Say?

Despite the evident drawbacks that might need more speculation, the price of the F-35 Jets is worth a king’s ransom. Rakesh Krishnan writes “The F-35 has become the fighter that is more expensive than Australia. This is because the programme will eventually cost more than $1,500 billion – a sum greater than Australia’s GDP.

At the same time, it is an aircraft that has been critiqued by global aviation experts as overpriced, overweight and under-armed. One report has claimed the only thing stealthy about the F-35 is its price”

The S-400, on the other hand, is an upgrade of the S-300 series of surface-to-air missile systems and is believed to be twice as efficient as the previous defence system. “Deploying one S-400 system allows you to cover an entire spectrum of aerial threats,” according to Nitin J Ticku.

Along with autonomous detection and targeting systems, multifunction radar, launchers, command and control centre, the S-400 is equipped with anti-aircraft missile systems which are intelligently designed to create a layered defence by firing four different types of missiles.

James Bosbotinis, a UK-based freelance defence analyst says – The S-400s can be equipped with four missile types: the 40 km-range 9M96; the 150 km-range 9M96E2; the 200-250 km-range 48N6; and the 400 km-range 40N6.

The system is intended to engage manned aircraft and missile threats, including medium-range ballistic missiles. The high modularity and mobility of the system to engage with its targets within a matter of minutes.

S-400 Batteries Could Expose The F-35s?

The Americans believe that the S-400 could expose sensitive information about the F-35s, a fighter jet that was meant to serve as the backbone of the US Airpower. However in 2018, when the previous version of S-400 which is the S-300 was deployed in Syria, Israeli media reported that the Russia-backed Syrian forces failed to detect Israeli F-35 jets flying over Damascus.

On the flip side, some experts rather question the accuracy of the Russian S-400 system. Mike Kofman, a research scientist specializing in Russian military affairs at CNA Corporation said: “Russia has invested in low-band early warning radars, with some great variants out there, but can it use these to put a good picture together, and process it to develop a track against low-observation aircraft?”

“It’s great being able to see an aircraft or parts of it, but getting accuracy such that you can confidently get a missile near the target is the primary challenge,” Kofman adds.

Nonetheless, the United States has been constantly making efforts to preserve the F-35 data. Recently in 2019, the diplomatic spat between Turkey and US over the buying of S-400 by Turkey, a NATO member, led Washington to kick out Ankara from the F-35 program, halting all the training and planned delivery processes of the fighter jets.

Clearly, the US does not want to expose the F-35s to Russian S-400s. Forget shooting down an F-35, a mere detection of so-called ‘invisible’ F-35 jets by the Russian air defence systems could crash the sales Lockheed Martin and dent the great American pride, concludes Nitin J Ticku.