Russia’s S-400 air defense system may be world’s best

Russia is testing a new missile for its formidable S-400 Triumf air defense system that, if it performs according to its claimed specifications, is the most formidable long-range anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense system in the world.

Three-star Col. Gen. Alexander Zelin, the commander of the Russian air force, announced testing plans for the new missile Tuesday, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.

RIA Novosti described the S-400 Triumf — NATO designation SA-21 Growler — as being “designed to intercept and destroy airborne targets at a distance of up to 400 kilometers (250 miles) — twice the range of the U.S. MIM-104 Patriot and 2.5 times that of the S-300PMU-2.”

The report said the S-400 was projected to remain the backbone of Russia’s theater air and missile defense systems at least until 2020, and possibly even until 2025.

“The S-400 system is being successfully deployed with air defense units. At present, we are testing a new missile for this system,” Zelin said, according to the report.

RIA Novosti noted that in 2007, the Russian air force announced it had carried out effective live firing tests of the S-400 air defense complex at its Kapustin Yar firing range in south Russia’s Astrakhan region. As previously reported in these columns, the Russian air force already has put into operational service a battalion of its first missile regiment armed with the S-400 to defend the Russian capital, Moscow, and its surrounding regions.

The S-400 Triumf system is claimed to have the capability to intercept “stealth aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, with an effective range of up to 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles) and a speed of up to 4.8 kilometers per second (10,800 mph),” RIA Novosti reported.

The report said a regular S-400 battalion operates at least eight launchers with 32 missiles. The Russian government has approved funding for a state arms procurement program to produce 18 such battalions with a total arsenal of 576 missiles by 2015, it said.

Russia still dangles Gabala radar for U.S. use

The Kremlin got nowhere in trying to tempt the Bush administration to use its radar tracking facilities at Gabala in Azerbaijan against the threat of possible future Iranian nuclear-armed missiles instead of building a separate U.S. radar facility in the Czech Republic.

However, now Moscow is renewing its offer in the hope that the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will be more accommodating.

“Our proposal remains on the table. The new U.S. administration will encounter serious problems with regard to the implementation of its third missile site plan in Europe. We are not exerting any pressure on the U.S. administration here,” First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov stated Monday, according to a report from the RIA Novosti news agency.

Denisov claimed the use of the Gabala radar station, which Russia leases from the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan in the Caucasus would prove to be “cost effective” compared to other proposals — presumably referring to the planned construction from scratch of an advanced U.S. radar tracking array in the Czech Republic. The Czech base is designed to guide 10 U.S. Ground-based Mid-course Interceptors to be based in Poland to intercept future Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles that may be fired at targets in Western Europe and the eastern United States.

The Russian government, however, has long claimed that the real purpose of the Polish GBIs and the Czech-based radar systems would be to target any survivable second-strike Russian nuclear capability. The issue has deadlocked the Russian and U.S. governments for years.

In a bid claimed to break the deadlock, the Kremlin suggested letting the United States operate radars at Armavir in southern Russia and at Gabala in Azerbaijan. However, U.S. experts say those facilities are far too close to the potential Iranian launch sites to most effectively guide the GBIs on to their targets when they are in midflight over Central Europe.

Also, the Armavir and Gabala bases, of course, would remain effectively under Russian control, and Moscow therefore could eject the U.S. technicians operating radars there at any time.

Obama and Democratic Party foreign policy analysts, however, are eager to sign a new arms control treaty to replace START — the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — that runs out in December 2009, a year from now. And they also have expressed skepticism about the value of building the BMD base in Poland with its accompanying radar.