When the first reliable news about the development of the fifth-generation air defense system surfaced in 2009, the S-500 Prometey was supposed to be introduced in 2012. The S-500 is under development by the Almaz-Antey Air Defence Concern, initially planned to be in production in 2014 it is currently targeting 2020 for deployment. With its characteristics it will be very similar to the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system.
In contrast to the S-400, whose primary purpose was air defense, the S-500 is intended to be a full-fledged anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. Rather than succeeding the S-400, it is intended to work in conjunction with it. While the S-400 is designed to defend against short- and medium-range missiles, the S-500 is designed to combat intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In 2012, the system had completed the technical design phase and the estimated timeframe for its deployment was reported to be 2019-20.
The exact specifications of the new airspace defense system remain classified, and the most detailed comment to date on the design philosophy and implementation have been observations made by Russian defense and industry officials in interviews. According to them, the S-500 is derived from the existing S-400 Triumf, but reduced in dimensions and more power-efficient. The choice of vehicles intended to carry the S-500 launchers, radars, command posts, and other electronic equipment suggests a highly mobile and survivable system, built for “hide, shoot and scoot” operations.
Designed to intercept ballistic missiles at a height of up to 200 kilometers and a maximum range of 600 kilometers, the system is expected to be able to shoot down up to ten incoming ballistic missiles simultaneously. It also has an extended radar range compared to the S-400. Russia’s Air Force Commander-in-Chief Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev claimed that the S-500 will also have a response time of about three to four seconds, which is considerably shorter than the S-400, which is rated at nine to ten seconds.
New S-500 Missiles.
What remains a source of speculation, however, is the kind of interception the S-500 missiles will use. One option is a nuclear blast because it can destroy “the entire cloud of incoming warheads with no need to determine true threats from dummies.” Most of the missiles in the S-300 and S-400 systems use high-explosive fragmentation warheads. Russia, however, is working on two new missiles that have been designed for the S-500 (and the S-400): the 77N6-N and the 77N6-N1. They will be the first Russian missiles with inert warheads, which can destroy nuclear warheads by hitting them with precision at hypersonic speed (7-km per second). This would far outmatch even the American SM-3 block IIA missile, which is also currently under development and is beingdeployed from 2018 onwards. The Block II has a projected maximum speed of roughly 4.5-km per second and enhanced capability to address intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and a limited capability to address ICBMs. However, it is not clear when the 77N6-N and the 77N6-N1 may enter service, given that facilities for their production are still in construction.
The main components of the S-500 will be:
- launch vehicle 77P6, based on the BAZ-69096 10×10 truck
- command posts 55K6MA and 85Zh6-2 on BAZ-69092-12 6×6
- acquisition and battle management radar 91N6A(M), a modification of the 91N6 (Big Bird) towed by the BAZ-6403.01 8×8 tractor
- 96L6-TsP acquisition radar, an upgraded version of the 96L6 (Cheese Board) on BAZ-69096 10×10
- multimode engagement radar 76T6 on BAZ-6909-022 8×8
- ABM engagement radar 77T6 on BAZ-69096 10×10
Initially, two large factories in Kirov and Nizhniy Novgorod, the cost of which was estimated at 81 billion rubles, were supposed to start production of 77N6N and 77N6-N1 missiles “at the beginning of 2014.” Latest reports suggest that the Kirov facility began production at the end of 2015, with full capacity utilization available in 2017. The Nizhniy Novgorod facility was finished in 2016 and employ 3,500 people.
The absence of more advanced missiles in general is one of the major obstacles to fully equipping the VKO with modern systems. The missile shortage worsened after the production of the old S-300 was stopped completely, even for exports. This has also reflected workforce aging and the low replacement rates of production equipment. In 2008, Almaz-Antey agreed with the Defense Ministry on a plan for the company’s modernization, but, due to the financial crisis, those intentions never materialized. It took an intensive campaign calling for overhaul and refurbishment to induce the presidential administration to act. In February 2012, President Putin signed a Federal Targeted Program for the development of the defense industry to 2020, under which three trillion rubles were promised to the military-industrial complex for the modernization of its production facilities.
Bottlenecks in missile production could cause further delay in the introduction of the S-500. The S-400 is already in operation and, therefore, any further delays in 40N6 missile production will set upgrades back still further. Unlike the S-400, the S-500 cannot employ missiles used in the S-300 family, which means that the range of the missiles suitable for the system is severely limited. There are already signs that additional delays are to be expected. At first, the State Armament Program 2011-20 projected purchases of 10 battalions of the S-500.
At the end of 2013, the Commander of the VKO expected five batteries to be delivered by 2020, with first batches arriving in “several years.”
The results of throwing more money at the defense industry remain to be seen. As defense analyst Aleksandr Konovalov put it:
The country’s leadership looks at the defense sector like a Coke machine. Put money in and get a bottle. Nothing is that simple with the domestic military-industrial complex, and investing a lot of money doesn’t guarantee getting production precisely on time. And the discussion about the S-500 is questionable; it’s possible it doesn’t even exist in drawings.
Whether or not the system really exists and regardless of what its real capabilities are if it does, Russian senior officers are publicly confident about its performance, especially vis-a-vis American competitors. Thus, the former Commander of the VKO, Colonel General Oleg Ostapenko, claimed in 2012 that “the S-500 will be better than any similar U. S. system. The Americans have so far only hyped them up in the electronic media, but we already in effect have a real missile.” Declining to give the specifications and performance characteristics of the missile for the S-500, he said “until it flies, we do not talk about these things.”
Russia is also working on naval versions of the S-400 and S-500, but their deployment seems also to be unlikely in the near future. According to a source from the military-industrial complex, the S-400F, the naval version of the S-400, was “practically ready” in 2012, but no information about its commissioning has yet appeared in open sources. The carriers of the systems were supposed to be the three mothballed nuclear-powered Kirov-class missile cruisers (the Admiral Nakhimov, Admiral Lazarev, and Admiral Ushakov), with 2020 given as the year of their reintroduction into service. The naval version is the likely armament for the new Lider-class air-defense destroyers due to enter service in 2023–25
After years of delays, the refit of the Admiral Nakhimov finally began at the beginning of 2014. The cruiser will be equipped with P-800 Oniks (SS-N-26) supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, and the S-400 Triumf, along with other weapon systems designed to shoot down missiles and aircraft approaching the ship. The refit should be completed in 2018. The other missile cruisers, including the Pyotr Velikiy, the only Kirov-class ship active in service, are expected to be modernized as well, but no timeframes have been announced.
In March 2013, the Navy reportedly decided to heavily modernize antisubmarine ships of the Project 1155 Fregat (NATO codename Udaloy) class and equip them with the Redut air defense system with interceptors from the S-400. A representative from the Northern Shipyards design bureau, which built the Project 1155 vessels and is among the front runners in the competition for modernization of Project 1155, said that:
the first modernized big antisubmarine ship will appear not earlier than in 2016: development of the lead project will take about 18 months. After that the technical project of modernization will be retrofitted for 2 to 4 years more.
In February 2013, the Russian Navy approved a preliminary design for the largest naval ship to be built since 1989. According to the newspaper, Izvestia, the new ship will be armed with anti-ship missiles, cruise missiles, air defense and ballistic defense systems, including the S-500. However, no final decision about its construction has been made, and it will take 2 to 3 years just to prepare technical documentation. Finally, the official designation for the naval version of the S-500 does not appear to have been made known publicly.
Over the last 8 years, Russia has significantly modernized its air defense systems, expanding them geographically and making them more versatile, mobile, and effective. The interceptors introduced in this period, mainly on the S-400 platform, give Russia the capability to counter a wide range of missile threats up to and including IRBMs in some of the most important and/or vulnerable parts of its territory.
Further improvement and geographical expansion of air defense capabilities will depend on the ability of arms manufacturers to deal with increased demands of the State Armament Program. One of the main bottlenecks-the design, production, and troubleshooting of the newest long-range interceptors-significantly restricts the operational range of the S-400 by denying it the intended long-range interceptors, and will in all probability cause still further substantial delays in introducing the S-500. The commissioning of this system before 2020 is unlikely.
If published figures are to be believed, the S-400 represents the apex of current air defense capabilities, and is in many respects more capable than the U. S. Patriot series. However, comparisons with THAAD and SM-3 missiles could be misleading, as these systems were developed solely for the purpose of missile defense and their design follows an entirely different philosophy. Russia’s goal is to protect its territory from within its borders, using a multilayered shield of several complementary systems, including, but not limited to, the S-400 and the S-500. The United States is focusing heavily on countering ballistic missiles in various stages of their flight, which requires a missile defense shield of global reach and presence.