Is the S-500 Missile System an F-35 and F-22 Killer? A Force Multiplier for Russia’s Air Defences

Having entered service in 2021 after over half a decade of delays, the S-500 long range surface to air missile system provided an additional higher layer to the Russian air defence network and currently has no near peer competitors in the world in terms of performance. The system has a 600km engagement range, triple that of its closest Western rivals the THAAD and Patriot systems which cannot shoot beyond 200km. It has the unique capability to intercept manoeuvrable hypersonic missiles at speeds exceeding Mach 10, where is predecessor the S-400 could intercept Mach 8 targets. Advanced features the S-500 is prized for include its very high degree of situational awareness with an 800km detection range against aircraft, its ability to intercept satellites and ICBMs, and its ability to network with older air defence systems such as the S-400 to maximise situational awareness. Where the preceding S-400 system which entered service from 2007 was designed with neutralisation of stealth targets in mind, in particular stealth fighters such as the newly inducted F-22 and upcoming F-35 of the U.S. Air Force, the S-500’s value against such targets had repeatedly been called to question. 

The S-500 was designed to be able to neutralise fighter sized target, and its very powerful sensors and precise missiles make it potentially highly formidable in such a role. Nevertheless the system was not primarily designed with combat against fighters or other tactical aircraft in mind, and is focused primarily on neutralising high value targets such as strategic bombers, strategic ballistic missiles, satellites and space aircraft. Lower end systems such as the S-400, and its shorter ranged complements such as the BuK-M2 or S-350, will meanwhile bear responsibility for tackling tactical aircraft complementing the S-500. Even if it does not engage them directly, however, the S-500 has the potential to make important contributions to tackling enemy stealth aircraft. The system’s powerful and near jamming proof sensors, when networked with S-400s and other shorter ranged systems, will provide them with greater situational awareness and allow them to better engage stealth targets themselves. 

The S-500 is also well optimised to neutralising support aircraft vital to the effective operations of enemy stealth fighters such as airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft that coordinate NATO fighter units. Tankers are another notable target and are key to allowing fighters to cross large areas without relying on external fuel tanks that would otherwise compromise their radar cross section reducing stealth profiles. American stealth fighters including the F-22, and particularly the lighter F-35, have much shorter ranges than the F-15 of the preceding generation or than modern Russian fighters such as the Su-30SM2 and Su-57, meaning even in Europe but particularly in the Pacific they will struggle to operate without refuelling in the air from tankers. As such tankers are vulnerable to S-500 attacks up to 600km away this is a potential game changer. Even the risk of having tankers compromised could seriously constrain operations, as should tankers be shot down it could force fighters to make emergency landings or else be unable to return to base. Satellites relied on for communications, navigation, surveillance and weapons guidance, if neutralised by S-500s, would also seriously impede the operations of enemy stealth fighter units. Thus while the S-500 is unlikely to be tasked with targeting enemy stealth fighters directly, its capabilities allow it to seriously impede their effectiveness through the key supporting targets it is able to neutralise at extreme ranges. 

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