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S-400 - Some Myths, Some Realities

S-400 - Some Myths, Some Realities

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 12:00
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By Lt. Gen. V.K. Saxena (Retd)


S-400 is all over in the media space. High decibel, high frequency breaking news (es) are at work to make their audience believe the many combat virtues of this "one solution for all ills" weapon system. Many sweeping statements are doing the rounds; it will provide an "impregnable missile shield" over our skies; it will care of "all aerial attacks" from our western or northern borders; no aircraft/ missile dare attack us now - we have S-400!

This article attempts to break some myths and flag some realities in the context of S-400.

Deciphering Missile shield

Ab-initio, the most (mis)used term, i.e "missile shield" needs to be seen in its right perspective. Essentially, all air defence and anti-missile defence systems exist for the sole aim of countering the "air threat" from our potential adversaries. This threat, measured in qualitative terms (implying technological prowess), as well as, quantitative terms (implying quantum numbers and total throw weight of the arsenal) has grown exponentially over the years.

Today the same is prosecuted by multiple air threat vehicles consisting of state-of-the-art aircraft, deadly attack helicopters, needle-precise cruise missiles, long-range Surface-to-Surface Missiles (SSMs), Anti Radiation Missiles capable of killing radiating sensors, soft kill weapons in the domain of lasers, charged particle beams and high power microwaves and more.

The contemporary threat vehicles are armed to the teeth with a slew of latest precision-guided munitions and are capable of long range, deep strike precision attacks at any time in day or night in any weather.

To counter the above threat, the air-defenders field a trio consisting of Sensors, Shooters and Battle Management Command and Control (BMC2) Systems. The sensors detect the air threat at long ranges, the shooters bring down effective fire to kill/defeat the threat vehicles while the BMC2 system makes it possible to do so by performing a slew of battle functions like identification of the threat as to friendly or hostile, prioritising the threat as to its lethality and immediately (most threatening to be dealt first), selection of weapon systems, designating targets to them and real-time control of the air defence battle.

In the above act, the basic operational requirement is to detect and identify the threat vehicles as early as possible and post that, to bring down successive fire on them all the way from their point of identification till the time the threat vehicle is either killed or it abandons its mission. This may well happen at the terminal end of an attacker's profile in case the threat vehicle successfully penetrates air defence layers and manages to reach all the way to its target which it intends to destroy. The technology today, however, allows the prosecutors of the threat to deliver their lethal load standing hundreds of km away from the target in a standoff mode employing smart and intelligent munitions in beyond visual range domain.

The defenders deploy their air defence aircraft (for carrying out interception of the air threat vehicles) and a family of Ground-Based Air Defence Weapons (GBADWS) in an integrated manner in what is called the Integrated Air Defence System or IADS for short. The GBADWS as a part of the IADS provides a layered-and-tiered defence which permits the system to bring successive fire on the threat vehicles all along from long ranges to the terminal end.

This is provided by a slew of  towed and self-propelled guns and Very Short Range AD Systems at the terminal end (range 6-10 km)  duly patched with missiles having varying range and altitude capabilities like short-range  surface-to-air missiles (range up to 30 Km), medium range missiles (up to 100 Kms) and long-range missiles (beyond 100 Kms). These missiles (except for terminal end weapons) are not asset specific protection systems; these provide air defence cover over a particular volume of space which may include a large number of vulnerabilities that get air defence cover.

This pattern of layered and tiered defence is what is (loosely) referred to as "missile shield". Up front, it must be noted that the (so-called) missile shield is not "impregnable" as it is made out to be. It is simply a fire envelope of missiles which is laid out in several layers and which is capable of bringing seamless fire over a range and altitude continuum that may extend from hundreds of kilometre in range and thousands ( 60,000+) of feet in altitude to the terminal end of deployments. It is with this missile shield that S-400 needs to be related to and it is this shield whose range and reach capability stands to get a paradigm enhancement with the induction of S-400. So much for putting S-400 in the perspective and connecting it with the term "Missile shield".

One more connect for S-400 is required in its anti-missile role. Defender's SAMS does not defeat attacker's SAMs. It is the anti-missile capability of the defender (called the Ballistic Missile Defence or BMD for short) which is meant to defeat the enemy's SAMs. Since S400 is also an anti-missile system, it must find a place and a connection with our existing BMD system.

 India has developed its own BMD system under the Defence Research and Development Organisation's Project, codenamed Programme AD". This programme was to be developed in two phase.  Phase I was to build the BMD shield against an incoming threat of SSMs of ranges up to 2000 km while Phase-2 extended this capability to cover the missile threat from 2000-5000 km.  The timelines for completion of Phase I were 2012 and for Phase 2 by 2016. Both the phases stand completed, however, Phase-2 is in the process of operationalisation. S-400 as a BMD system will bring a sweep enhancement in the resident capability of the Programme AD system.

Combat Virtues of S-400

The erstwhile USSR (and the legacy as inherited by Russia only in part, sadly) has been the leading Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) of some of the most robust and effective GBADWS. Its capability has encompassed the complete trio of sensors, shooters and BMC2 systems and in that, they have given to the world, guns, missiles and radar systems that have lasted half a Century and counting. S-400 carries this legacy and has an OEM domain expertise of nearly 45 + years.

In fact, the journey of S-400 started way back in the seventies (1978-79) with the birth of S 300 series of long-range SAMs capable of providing area air defence to large-sized vulnerable areas like Military Bases, Industrial Centres, Logistic and Administrative Areas and the like. 

S 300 developed along three tracks. "P" series (standing for PVO Stranny or country's air defence) as the mainstay development line, "V" series (V standing for Vyoska or ground forces) as compact systems for mechanised forces and "F" series (F standing for Flot or fleet) for the Navy.

Over four decades in development, the basic design philosophy has essentially remained unchanged (a typical USSR/Russian signature). The same is anchored on three pillars. Initial detection of threat at long ranges (500-1000Kms) through state-of-the-art sensor systems referred to as Long Range Surveillance Radars or LRSRs, passing on the detected threat to comparatively shorter range Multi-Function Radars or MFRs for accurate tracking of targets, launching of missiles and their guidance to the target  and a state-of-the-art  BMC2 system making all the above possible.

It is in these three fields that S-400 brings unprecedented capabilities.

The story of LRSR initially started with the development of medium and high altitude radar (36D6, NATO codename- Tin shield) since the threat vehicles in that era (the 1980s) generally operated at those altitudes. Over the years as the threat started to manifest at low levels, another radar was developed (76N6 NATO - Clamshell) which was optimised to detect the low-level threat. This was followed up with 64N6 radar (NATO - Big Bird) that was specially designed to detect Ballistic Missiles. Since, during 1990s-2000, the threat from them was becoming prominent. 

As time and technology moved, the medium and low-level radars were combined into one, all-altitude radar (96 L 6E NATO - Cheese Board). This radar got further refined in the S-400 system as a three dimensional (3D) all altitude panoramic Radar (91 N6E NATO - Big Bird) optimised for detecting ballistic missiles as well as stealthy targets.

Similar technological developments took place in the MFRs. Adopting different frequency bands to keep the radars compact, optimising them for accurate tracking of identified threat and for precise missile guidance besides making them worthy to track ballistic missiles and stealthy targets have been the noteworthy milestones.

The biggest leap forward has come in the field of missiles (also referred to as interceptors). The unique signature of the S-300/400 family as regards its missiles are concerned has been its capability of featuring multiple missiles with varying ranges all fireable from the same weapon platform with nil/minimal changes on action-stations. The second feature has been the adoption of multiple guidance systems in respective interceptors, each featuring a different guidance methodology. This makes the system versatile and difficult to jam adding to its survivability in a hostile electronic warfare environment.

The initial interceptors were with the basic guidance system of Command to Line of Sight or CLOS, wherein, the missile is guided to the target with commands from ground radar station. Then came Semi-Active radar homing (SARH) wherein, the missile guided itself to the target based on the signals of another radar that illuminated the target. Then came Track Via Missile (TVM) in which the missile is guided as in SARH mode but the guidance commands are given by ground station , keeping the missile passive (and hence undetectable)  and finally active radar homing in which the missile is independent of the ground station and has its own radar to home on to the target. Combination guidance involves one of the above three with ARH for the end game.

The four interceptors of S-400 take the best of the above.  40N6 is an active radar homing long-range missile with 400 km range optimised for BMD role. 48N6 is a 250 Km missile featuring the SARH and TVM mode of guidance and. 9M96E1 AND E2 are active radar homing missile with ranges of 40 and 120 Km. The vertically launched interceptors negate the need of lock on before launch (LOBL) and thus can quickly respond to fast developing threats.

The BMC2 system of S-400 has evolved over its long development journey and currently presents a fully automated architecture capable of executing all the battle functions like optimal management of radar resources, dynamically fusing surveillance inputs in near-real time producing an air situation picture identified as friend and foe, selection, prioritisation and designation of the targets to interceptors and the minute-to-minute control of the air defence battle till the end game.

Reality Check

Having stated the combat virtues of S-400 here are a few points by way of a reality check.

The system provides a "WAY UP" capability in terms of range, reach, sophistication and lethality than what exists as the current threshold in the GBAD domain.

A system like this in place will cover huge swaths of  a theatre providing area air defence and BMD capability to a large number of VAs located in its beat,

One of the biggest challenges will be to integrate a complex system like S-400 into the current GBAD ecosystem. Integration is not simply joint deployment, it is a tall order in which the system's sensors integrate with the existing sensor system providing a far enriched cumulative and shared surveillance capability and the communication and data transfer systems connect to the existing national-level BMC2 system called the Integrated Air Command and Control system (IACCS) of the Air Force (which is connected to similar BMC2 systems of Army and Navy).

This will call for large-scale integration of dissimilar platforms making use of Common Data Links (CDLs). Finally, the S-400 interceptors must integrate to provide the type of qualitative addition as is possible by the system. In essence, the S-400 must become a "capability enhancing component" of the IADS system.

That said, the stature of S-400 is such that it should not be seen as merely an air defence system providing air defence cover to certain VAs in the tactical battle area (TBA) or in the rear area. This is a strategic system capable of protecting metros, seats of Government, national command posts, nuclear facilities, power stations, oil refineries, and other core sector strategic vulnerabilities. It is at this level the weapon system is to be conceived.

That brings home the requirement of multi-agency and multidisciplinary coordination at the national level. For instance, when S-400 is to be deployed in the BMD role its fire units must be deployed in consonance with the fire units of the Programme AD weapon system. Selection of land, creation of huge infrastructures for missile storage, preparation and testing facilities for system repair, maintenance and overhaul and the huge requirement of simulators are only some of the many imperatives that need to be addressed.

Also, it must be remembered that S-400 will not come tomorrow (or a day before yesterday as the media will have us believe!). After signing of the contract (call it T0), it is likely to take anything from T0 +24-36 months before the system constituents start arriving. By around T0 + 48 months, the weapon delivery is likely to be completed. The process of operationalisation, which must run concurrently, is likely to put the system firmly and operationally in the hands of the user by around T0+ 60 months. That is the time frame which must be looked at and not the media stopwatch.

It is also important and pertinent to mention here that a strategic system like S-400 while may be manned by any Service (in this case the Air Force) it has to be placed under the overall operational control of the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), as is the case with other strategic systems like the Agni or the Programme AD. It is only under the SFC that a national level perspective, much above the Service confines, will be possible.

With this reality check, the myths like the "impregnability of the missile shield", or one weapon that will keep all the adversaries' missiles at bay or the system's availability, day after the contract is inked, stand answered.

Former Director General Corps of Army Air Defence, Indian Army

Pic - Manufacturer