S-500 AD System: China, India Eye Russia’s Powerful AD System That Could “Kill” Stealth Fighters, Satellites & ICBMs

Russia reportedly moved some elements of its formidable S-500 air defense system to Crimea. After successful Ukrainian attacks on the S-400 missile system, questions are being raised about whether Russia is exposing its still combat-untested, cutting-edge resource by putting it in the possible range of Ukrainian strikes.

Russia is known to have just one active S-500 regiment, comprising just two battalions with two air-defense batteries each. Details of what elements have been moved are not clear. Air-defense systems of this type have several operational components, including command posts, radars, and launchers.

Has the system been deployed to protect the vital Kerch Bridge in Crimea? Were there no alternative choices? Is this just a narrative building by either side? The S-500 is still at the experimental stage, and Moscow has indicated it expects to serially produce the system by 2025. However, Russian media reported in 2021 that the first S-500 had already been deployed around Moscow.

Ukraine Regularly Targeting Crimea

Ukraine is making it increasingly difficult for Russia to sustain Crimea through attacks on air defenses, connecting bridges, rail links, and power supply and water connections.

Ukraine has damaged Russian oil storage. The Tuapse refinery in Krasnodar Krai, southern Russia, was damaged and required several months of repairs. A joint Ukrainian navy and army operation also damaged a ferry crossing and oil terminal at the port of Kavkaz, located on the Russian side of the Kerch Strait that divides Crimea from Russia.

Earlier, they hit the Crimean side of the Kerch ferry crossing, damaging two rail ferries that are crucial to Russia’s ability to keep Crimea supplied.

The Kerch Strait Bridge was significantly damaged after the Ukrainian attacks in 2022 and 2023, impacting the ability to take heavy train traffic such as military logistics, heavily armored vehicles, etc.

Russia was thus forced to use Ukrainian mainland occupied territory for its road and rail connection, which was in the much easier range of Ukrainian attack. The sea-based logistics was also affected after Ukraine destroyed four and damaged five Russian landing ships. Ukraine has used drones and missiles to destroy or damage at least 27 Russian warships and one submarine. The peninsula’s air defenses have also been degraded by constant attacks.

AD capability against drones and missiles has been under test elsewhere, including in the Red Sea crisis and the Israel-Hamas conflict.

S-500 Prometheus Air Defence System

The S-500 Prometheus is a Russian surface-to-air missile/anti-ballistic missile system that supplements the S-400 and the A-235 ABM missile systems. This air defense system is a cutting-edge advancement in Russian military technology designed to address the evolving threats posed by modern aerial warfare. It is a theatre ballistic missile defense system.

Like its predecessors, the S-500’s adaptability is its core feature. The system can launch various types of missiles tailored to specific threats and operational requirements, enhancing its versatility and efficacy in countering evolving airborne dangers.

The S-500’s radar and targeting systems are among the most advanced in the world, providing engagement ranges of up to 600 kilometers. One of its most notable features is its ability to engage a wide variety of targets, including stealth aircraft, hypersonic missiles, and low-orbit satellites, significantly enhancing Russia’s defensive posture.

The sophisticated radar complex consists of four radar vehicles per battery. These include the 91N6E(M) S-band acquisition radar, the 96L6-TsP C-band acquisition radar, the 76T6 multi-mode engagement radar, and the 77T6 anti-ballistic missile engagement radar.

By using multiple radar frequencies and sophisticated signal processing, the S-500 can identify and track stealth aircraft, reducing their effectiveness in penetrating defended airspace. Thus, the S-500 poses a potential threat to American F-22 Raptor and F-35 stealth fighter aircraft.

The system can engage 10 targets simultaneously and has a response time of three to four seconds, shorter than the S-400. The more powerful jam-proof radar can detect “near space” targets.

These cutting-edge radar systems enable the S-500 to detect both ballistic and airborne targets at remarkable distances, with capabilities extending up to 2,000 kilometers for ballistic targets and 800 kilometers for airborne threats.

This long-range capability allows the system to identify and track targets well before they enter its engagement zone, providing a significant tactical advantage. The radar can operate in multiple modes, including tracking and engagement simultaneously, ensuring continuous coverage and rapid response to emerging threats.

The S-500 has several types of missiles tailored for different targets and engagement ranges. These missiles can reach altitudes of up to 200 kilometers, enabling the S-500 to intercept ballistic missiles during their mid-course phase and engage low-orbit satellites.

The S-500 comprises four 40N6M long-range surface-to-air missiles or two 77N6 interceptors mounted on a launch vehicle. The 40N6M long-range missiles have a reach of up to 400 kilometers, while the 77N6 series interceptors are capable of reaching approximately 600 kilometers. The altitude of a target engaged is claimed to be as high as 180–200 km.

The deployment follows rigorous testing. The S-500 features rapid launch capabilities and a high rate of fire, allowing it to engage multiple targets simultaneously. This makes it highly effective in a saturated threat environment, where numerous incoming threats must be addressed quickly and efficiently.

The system is claimed to be highly resilient to electronic interference and can ensure effectiveness even in the face of sophisticated electronic warfare attacks.

On paper, an S-500 battery includes three radars—two of which are identical to the radars that cue an S-400. The third radar, the 77T6 ABM engagement radar, is optimized for detecting fast-moving ballistic missiles and rockets. The 77N6 was originally meant to be a “hit to kill” missile which is without a warhead. It destroys its target by literally running into it. By removing the warhead, the missile becomes lighter, more maneuverable, and more accurate. Details of the system are still shrouded in mystery.

The Kremlin claims that the S-500 is the sole weapon capable of intercepting Russia’s air-launched Kinzhal “hypersonic” ballistic missile. Russian reports indicate that the S-500 successfully tracked and intercepted hypersonic targets in early 2024.

The S-500 system may be delivered in two separate AD complexes: the long-range air defense missile system and the anti-missile defense complex. The timeline for S-400 system operationalisation has kept getting extended. The S-500 has been in development for more than a decade. Full-scale deployments are currently planned for 2025.

As per the original plan, ten S-500 battalions were to be purchased for the Russian Aerospace Defence (VKO). The series production is around five years behind schedule. A naval version is the likely armament for the new Lider-class destroyer is also under development.

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S-500

S-500 In Crimea

The S-500 had been reportedly deployed to protect the Russian-built Kerch Bridge, which President Vladimir Putin unveiled in 2018. The 20-kilometre-long link connects Crimea with the Russian mainland. It is crucial for keeping Russian troops on the peninsula and in Russian-controlled mainland Ukraine supplied. Ukraine has repeatedly targeted the bridge. Protecting the bridge is a priority for Russia.

The S-500 air defense missile system considered a significant upgrade from its predecessor, the S-400, has been positioned in a critical strategic location.

This move comes after Russia lost parts of S-300 and S-400 air-defense batteries to Ukraine’s American-made Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) rockets, highlighting vulnerabilities in its existing air defense infrastructure. The S-500 is now operational, protecting the Kerch Strait from a site in Russian-occupied Crimea, reports indicate.

Russia has just one S-500 air defense system. The fact that some parts of the full system have been deployed in combat underscores the importance of safeguarding Crimea. It could also be to operationally test those sub-parts. Yet risking the sole system to an artillery or cruise missile attack is questionable.

Conclusion

The S-500’s capabilities are attributed to its powerful radars, potent ballistic computer, and highly maneuverable interceptors. This Almaz-Antey-designed and produced system reportedly has a unit cost of around $2.5 billion.

Ukraine is concerned about Russia’s air defense assets and wants to degrade the forward-deployed ones before it inducts its fleet of F-16 fighter jets.

Defense against a large coordinated rocket attack backed by drones is not easy. The S-500 is a modest improvement over the older S-400. Ukrainian rocket attacks have already been degrading the S-300 and S-400 AD batteries.

The 1,500 Kg precision-guided ATACMS rocket can scatter hundreds of lethal sub-munitions over a wide area. Hitting any delicate part of the S-500 elements could render the system sub-optimal in performance. This is a reality all AD operators have to factor in and contend with.

While the Crimean deployment marks the S-500’s first known combat role, Russia’s ultimate plan is to fully ring the Moscow region with these formidable systems by 2025. As tensions with the West escalate, Russia is busy perfecting its “doomsday” missile defense system.

Typically designed to ‘kill’ stealth fighters, missiles, and satellites, the S-500’s ability to live up to its game-changing defensive powerhouse expectations remains in question.

In September 2021, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov said that India could be a prospective and probably the first S-500 customer. Even China could be interested in the system. Earlier, China was the first customer of the S-400 and acquired six batteries. India has received three batteries, and two more will be inducted by 2026.

China will support significant coverage in the East and South China Seas and take on threats emanating from Japan, Taiwan, and US aircraft carriers. It will also release more S-400s for the Himalayan border with India.

Similarly, if India were to acquire the S-500, it would keep the PLA Air Force further away from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and supplement the ABM system. Clearly, it is a wait-and-see time for both and evaluate how the S-500 performs against unconventional attacks.

India will draw lessons from the Ukrainian attacks on the S-400 and plan appropriate dispersion and camouflage. Active defense against drones and small high-speed projectiles must be factored in, and redundant systems must be built.

Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retired) is an Indian Air Force veteran fighter test pilot and is the former Director-General of the Center for Air Power Studies in New Delhi. He has been decorated with gallantry and distinguished service medals while serving in the IAF for 40 years. He tweets @Chopsyturvey