The trouble with Russia’s S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missiles in the Ukraine war

Ukraine has destroyed more than five batteries of Almaz-Antey manufactured S-400 surface-to-air missiles in Donetsk Oblast, Kherson Oblast, Tokmak and Crimean peninsula using cheap kamikaze drones and American-made HIMARS artillery rockets.

Threat detection, tracking, and Targeting solutions are the first steps in Missile Defense. This is a big problem for any land-based ballistic missile defense system operating in an urban environment, not to mention if the country does not have flat terrain and produces lots of clutter. It doesn’t matter how good interceptor missiles are if a crappy radar system works as fire control and illumination radar.

Russia deployed S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile in the occupied Crimean Peninsula, Kherson and Donetsk region. The Ukrainian military has been launching a barrage of drones, HARM anti-radiation missiles, and Storm Shadow cruise missiles at the Russian position.

Contrary to Patriot missile successes in the Ukraine war, the S-400 surface-to-air missile systems repeatedly failed to intercept British-made Storm Shadow cruise missiles, drones, fighter jets, HARM anti-radiation missiles, and HIMARS artillery rockets in the Ukraine war. The S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missiles also had a checkered past in Syria.

According to manufacturer Almaz-Antey, the S-400 missile should have intercepted cruise missiles, drones and fighter jets.

Ukraine has destroyed more than five batteries of Almaz-Antey manufactured S-400 surface-to-air missiles in Donetsk Oblast, Kherson Oblast and Crimean peninsula using cheap kamikaze drones and American-made HIMARS artillery rockets.

What went wrong, and why did the S-400 Triumf fail so miserably?

India purchased the S-400 system worth $5.4 billion, Turkey spent $2.5 billion, and China spent $2.2 billion on the S-400 missile system. If you’re an Indian, Chinese, Algerian or Turkish national reading this article, I am sure you aren’t surprised that the S-400 is underperforming in the Ukraine war. It was expected because Russia has been working on backward compatible electronics and defense industries since the Soviet Union collapsed.

S-400 Surface-to-air missiles

The S-400 missile system integrates a fire control radar, illumination radar, VHF radar, interceptor missile, launchers, and command and control center. The S-400 SAM system has four missile variants: 40N6 missile (400 km), 48N6 missile (250 kilometers), 9M96E2 missile (120km) and 9M96E missile (40 km).

Based on the customer’s order, the S-400 system comes with the Gamma-C1E SHF, Nebo-M VHF and the Resonance-NE mobile radar station for early warning radars and high-altitude radar coverage. The Russian propagandists claim that these are AESA radar, but these high-frequency antennas were manufactured in the early 2000s. There is nothing solid-state electronics about Russia’s defence industries that would produce AESA radar.

Read this article for an in-depth article about ‘Why Russia cannot manufacture AESA radar?’.

The S-400’s large 92N6E X-band radar has trouble tracking an incoming missile. How well would the tiny seeker-head on 48N6E3 and 40N6 SAMs face? The most common type of missile, the 48N6E series, doesn’t even have active guidance and continues to rely on semi-active radar homing, which puts them at a distinct disadvantage against a ballistic missile (or Hypersonic target) compared to the likes of Patriot’s interceptor with active-guidance and a dual-mode seeker (combining active-homing with ground-based target illumination). None of the S-400’s missiles are known to have dual-mode seekers.

Israeli-made kamikaze drone destroyed Russian Nebo-M VHF radar in the Nagorno-Karabah conflict.

This Patriot’s missile has far greater maneuverability resulting in much better accuracy and greater acceleration, a fact also highlighted by 48N6E3 carrying a three times bigger warhead to compensate for its poor accuracy (180 kg versus 73 kg).

Destroyed Nebo-SVU radar. Screen capture from Ukrainian MoD video.

All long-range missiles of S-400 (48N6E & 40N6) suffer from the exact problem. A large warhead will not compensate for a missile detonating at significantly longer distances from a ballistic missile (poor accuracy) since the size of the shrapnel cloud doesn’t work well against an incoming ballistic target hardened to withstand re-entry into the atmosphere. It just makes reliably intercepting ballistic missiles far more complex.

Russian radar station 48Y6-K1 Podlet.

Almaz-Antey’s original brochure of S-400’s 92N6E radar has a 185 km tracking range against a 0.4 square meters RCS ballistic target and 340 km for aircraft. That gives an S-400 battery about 65 seconds to engage a Mach 8 class ballistic missile. Claiming S-400 can engage targets at 400 km is entirely misleading and Russian propaganda.

The caveat here is that 0.4 square meters RCS used by the manufacturer is an unrealistic RCS for ballistic targets or cruise missiles whose RCS ranges between 0.1 to 0.01 square meters RCS depending on the type. This suddenly changes as the 92N6E radar’s range decreases to 180 km and 73 km, respectively.

So now the S-400 system has between 46 seconds to 25 seconds to engage a short-range ballistic missile and cruise missiles, which, to put it, isn’t great at all.

The S-400’s real-world tracking range doesn’t quite live up to the brochure figure, as demonstrated in Ukraine with S-400’s inability to handle Mach 2.5 HIMARS rockets despite having more than 90 seconds engagement window on paper. If it has so much trouble handling Mach 2.5 HIMARS rockets which can be detected from boost-phase, how well do you think S-400 would fare against much faster ballistic targets with roughly similar RCS?

The S-400 can only integrate with Pantsir short-range anti-air missiles. Pantsir’s questionable anti-air missile failed in Syria, Libya, Armenia and Ukraine wars. The S-400 missile’s 180 kg blast fragmentation warhead compensates for inaccurate interceptor missiles. Still, if the radar does not provide accurate target and interceptor missiles independently and accurately home onto the target, then the S-400 interceptor will fail.

Russia may have launched multiple interceptor missiles at Storm Shadow. However, Storm Shadow is a stealth cruise missile with a small RCS travelling at Mach .95 speed; Russia’s S-400 radar does not know a low-altitude stealth object is flying towards the target. Hence, all missiles will fail regardless of how many interceptor missiles S-400 launches.

Like all other Russian military equipment, propaganda sold the Russian military equipment to China, India, Algeria, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Iran, Vietnam, and Egypt, but the Ukraine war exposed the actual combat records of Russian-origin military hardware.

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