Russia using advanced missile system sales to drive wedge between U.S. and allies

The Russian government is using sales of “the AK-47 of missile systems” — the S-400 — to create schisms between the United States and some of its traditional allies.

The advanced S-400 has been the centerpiece missile defense system Russia has deployed to protect its bases in Syria. The systems are now garnering new attention and interest from countries like India and Turkey, which pit “Russia against the Trump administration’s drive to boost competing U.S. defense sales,” the Washington Times reports.

The S-400 Triumpf entered service in 2007. Known by NATO as the SA-21 Growler, the system has quickly become Russia’s most sophisticated air defense system, protecting against missiles and aircraft.

Designed to directly compete with the U.S.-made Patriot PAC-3 air defense system and Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), the two main missile defense systems deployed by the United States, the S-400 is being marketed aggressively to countries by the Kremlin.

Russian military contractors point to the system’s use in Syria in support of President Bashar Assad’s forces as a major selling point.

“The demand is rather significant after the Syrian events,” Alexander Mikheyev, CEO of Russian weapons firm Rosoboronexport, told the Tass news service in August.

He noted that sales discussions with other potential export customers are gaining momentum.

Notes the Times:

Moscow Defense Brief, a Moscow-based publication that monitors Russian military developments, said countries such as Algeria, Belarus, Iran and Vietnam are eyeing the S-400 and that the surface-to-air missile defense system could bring in up to $30 billion in sales over the next 15 years.

China has been a major buyer of the S-400. Beijing sees it as rivaling U.S. missile defense systems deployed on the Korean peninsula.

Analysis: It’s understandable that the Chinese would seek the S-400, given Beijing’s lengthy ties to the Russian defense industry. But Turkey’s decision to buy the S-400 is particularly worrisome given that Turkey is a NATO ally and buying a weapon system from a great power rival of the alliance can be viewed as Ankara moving closer to Moscow in general. 

Also, buying a rival country’s air defense system cuts down on interoperability, which NATO is working to improve as Russia continues to pose significant threats to European interests.

Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 “decreases interoperability, opens up cyber vulnerabilities, exposes additional real intelligence to Russia and reduces the tendency of the U.S. to truly open its technology transfer process to partners,” noted former Supreme Allied NATO Commander U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis last year.

The S-400 does have operational capabilities that exceed those of the PAC-3 and THAAD. The S-400 can launch missiles farther and higher than either U.S.-made system, which is creating a higher demand for the Russian system not seen in years.

The Times noted the operational differences:

On paper, it is easy to see why S-400 and its newer variants could be appealing to foreign militaries trying to balance performance and cost.

With an effective range of 150 to 250 miles, depending on the type of missile used, the S-400’s reach far exceeds that of the THAAD system, which boasts a maximum range just shy of 120 miles.

The Triumph can launch the latest Russian long-range missile to a maximum altitude of nearly 114 miles. The Patriot has a maximum weapon altitude just over 24 miles, and the THAAD tops out at slightly over 90 miles, according to publicly released figures by the U.S. and Russian militaries.

The THAAD does hold a slight advantage over the S-400 system in terms of firepower. The S-400 can operate a battery of eight mobile launch systems capable of firing 32 missiles. The THAAD can field a smaller battery — six missile launchers — but can fire eight missiles per launcher, allowing the U.S.-made weapon to fire a maximum of 48 missiles.

Still, the S-400 is not proven; there has never been an S-400 system used in combat.

That hasn’t mattered to potential customers, however.

And it’s not just the initial sale of these systems to countries. With sales come repeat sales, service and logistical agreements, and the ability for Russia to extend its influence geopolitically. “It creates an opening for Russian influence for years to come,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who is now a foreign policy analyst, earlier this summer.



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