Why NATO Hated Russia’s S-200 - The Cold War’s Longest Range Air Defence System

The S-200 long-range surface to air missile system played a central role in Soviet air defences for most of the Cold War and began to see exports across much of the world from 1982 - with several clients continuing to operate it. Its primary operators today include North Korea, Syria, Iran, Poland and Bulgaria, which all purchased the missile systems in the 1980s and 90s, and Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan which inherited them after the Soviet collapse. 

Designed to be able to protect high-value targets from all types of air attacks, as a higher-end and longer-ranged counterpart to the more widely used S-75 system which had begun to enter service in the Soviet military from 1957. 

The first S-200 units became active nine years later from 1966 and would remain in service until 1996 when the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War led Russia to retire very large quantities of Soviet-era air defence systems. 

In Soviet service 18 S-200 sites and over 342 launchers were deployed very quickly by the end of 1966, and by 1969 60 sites were operational, with deployments peaking at 130 sites and 2,030 launchers in the 1980s. 

Missiles used radio illumination with mid-course correction throughout most of its flight, before using semi-active radar homing in its terminal phase, and detonating either a 217kg high-explosive fragmentation warhead or a 25 kiloton tactical nuclear warhead - the latter which could only be triggered by command signal. The discrepancy in performance between S-200s produced in the 1980s and the original 1960s variants was very significant, with the top end S-200D variant having a 300km engagement range compared to just 175km for the original S-200A. 

Later variants had a higher flight ceiling of up to 40km, were more versatile with a superior anti-ballistic missile capability, and had a much higher probability of hitting their targets. They could also engage targets travelling at low hypersonic speeds of up to Mach 6, compared to speeds of just Mach 4 for older variants, and had a detection range against targets of up to 600km and the ability to search for targets in space at altitudes of over 45,000 metres - both capabilities ideal for ballistic missile defences. 

Each S-200 battalion uses 6 single-rail missile launchers and a fire control radar, and the system was designed with engagement against ballistic missiles as well as larger aircraft such as bombers in mind. The system could also threaten fighters, however, even at longer ranges, and in Syrian hands was responsible for downing U.S. Navy A-4 and Israeli Air Force F-16 jets. 

Despite its impressive capabilities, including an engagement range that has yet to be matched by any Western rival and has been surpassed only by the specialised 40N6E missile used in small numbers by Russian S-300V4 and S-400 systems, the S-200 suffers from a single significant weakness which led to its early retirement. 

This was its lack of mobility and deployment only from fixed sites, as opposed to the S-300 and S-400 series which could be equipped with more compact vertically launched missiles and remain almost constantly on the move. The locations of S-200s, however, could be ascertained by surveillance in a conflict’s early stages and would remain fixed - making them much easier to target and neutralise. 

The S-200’s relevance for most of its remaining clients remains limited as many have since acquired more modern and mobile systems - in most cases S-300 variants from the 1990s designed specifically to replace it. Despite deploying S-300s, as well as similar systems such as thee Khordad 15 developed domestically, Iran has stood out as an S-200 operator for investing heavily in upgrading the system and reportedly making it mobile. The defence system does retain some relevance for ballistic missile dance and the targeting of high-speed surveillance aircraft in particular and is expected to continue to be fielded throughout the 2020s before the last units are retired. 

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