At the end of February 2020, the Russian Aerospace Forces received their first S-350 Vityaz medium-range air-defense missile system. This initial battery will be used at the Anti-Aircraft Missile Troops Training Center of the Aerospace Defense Military Academy, located in the Leningrad region (Novy Uchkhoz village, Gatchinsky district), to instruct all units that will be assigned to operate S-350 systems (RIA Novosti, February 26).
The S-350 was created to replace older S-300PT-PS anti-aircraft systems. It is intended to combat advanced standoff weapons threats, such as cruise missiles, manned (including stealth) aircraft, medium and heavy unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as tactical ballistic missiles (RT, December 23, 2019). Initially, the S-350 was also supposed to supersede the Buk combat air-defense system, but the new weapon’s failure to meet certain force standards means it will ultimately only be deployed at local air-defense bases to protect Russia’s most important state, administrative, industrial and military facilities.
The newest addition to Russia’s air-defense inventory is capable of following and engaging targets in a full 360-degree area, not just by sectors as the S-300. Moreover, it boasts a significant increase in the number of missiles and target-handling channels (Interfax-AVN, March 17, 2015). According to the head of the Aerospace Defense Military Academy, Lieutenant General Vladimir Lyaporov, this boosts Russian effectiveness in defending against cruise missiles by 2–2.5 times (TV Zvezda, December 27, 2019).
The S-350 can fire several types of interceptors: the active radar-seeking 9M96E/9M96M (40-kilometer firing distance, 20 km target altitude) and 9М96Е2 (120 km firing distance, 30 km target altitude) as well as the infrared-guided 9M100 (firing distance up to 10 km). Nonetheless, the S-350’s official firing distance is listed as only 60 km (TV Zvezda, February 26, 2020). It is unclear why that should be considering that the 9M96E2 missile specifically has a range of up to 120 km when fired as a ship-based version—the 9K96 Redut. One possibility is that the system’s 60 km range covers the extent of the missile’s kinetic energy necessary to intercept a certain class of highly maneuverable and high-speed targets.
Each S-350 air-defense missile system will consist of 2 launchers with 12 missiles, enabling a simultaneous strike against 16 aerodynamic or 12 ballistic targets. In other words, up to two missiles are simultaneously aimed at every individual target (RT, December 23, 2019).
Once equipped, standard Russian surface-to-air missile (SAM) regiments will henceforth be completed with divisions of Pantsir S1 short-range anti-aircraft missile and gun systems, medium-range S-350s, and long-range S-400s/S-500s. The co-use of S-350 and S-400/500 systems will be complementary. For example, an S-400 can attack aircraft at a distance of 100–250 km preventing them from firing on Russian targets. And in case of a massive cruise missile attack attempt, the S-350 can react by deploying its large number of interceptors. In addition, the various assets’ radars and anti-aircraft missile complexes form a single system, tracking and handing off a target from one echelon to another for guaranteed interception and destruction.
The S-350 can also be used along with the Pantsir-S1 SAM/anti-aircraft artillery system. When coupled together, these two air-defense units are designed to establish a nearly impenetrable air-defense zone for incoming aerial vehicles, including low-sized and low-altitude assets. Compared to the Pantsir-S1, the S-350’s longer range permits it to engage targets first (Cont.ws, February 27, 2018).
Russian experts predict that the S-350 will yield the best result in conjunction with the S-500 Prometheus SAM system, expected to begin entering service in the next two to three years. The S-500 will be able to hit targets at a range of 600 kilometers, whereas the S-350 will intercept any targets that fly past, at a closer distance. Combined, the two systems will increase the anti-aircraft fire density when a protected object is approached (Zvezda Weekly, March 21, 2020). However, the S-350 can also work autonomously.
In total, the Russian Armed Forces presently wield about 50 S-300PT-PS systems (Izvestia, April 17, 2019). So far, the Ministry of Defense announced that 12 new S-350 divisions will enter service between 2021 and 2027 (TASS, December 27, 2019), which, over six years, will add up to 144 launchers. These plans look eminently realistic. The manufacturer of these air-defense systems, Almaz-Antey, is now completing previously contracted production of S-400s. And with these released resources, the production of S-350s can even be increased to 150 launchers.
Defense officials announced that five SAM regiments are set to be complemented with the S-350 system. The re-equipment of the anti-aircraft missile brigade deployed in Khakassia will begin in 2021 and be completed a year later. According to Alexander Lapin, the commander of the Central Military District, this unit will protect the most important facilities in Siberia (for example, the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam) (TV Zvezda, February 27, 2020). And starting in 2025, S-350s will enter the SAM regiment in Achinsk, Krasnoyarsk Krai. Other regiments to be re-equipped are probably located in Siberia as well. It is unlikely that the system will be placed in Crimea. The newest S-400 and Pantsir-S1 are already there, which make the addition of the S-350 unnecessary.
While the S-350’s potential for Russian military security looks clear, the export potential for this new weapons system is ambiguous. For many countries, the advanced S-400 is excessive or too expensive, thus making the new S-350 a seemingly better choice. Hypothetically speaking, it could even be of interest to some Central Eastern European countries, such as Bulgaria and Slovakia, already armed with outdated S-300s. But—as Turkey’s decision to buy Russian S-400s has illustrated—the political cost of purchasing from Russia would almost certainly be too high for them. By all indications, the United States will not be dropping its sanctions on Russian military trade with Washington’s allies in Europe and Asia any time soon. In contrast, a more realistic client base for Russia may be India, China or countries in the Middle East. For example, Qatar could find the S-350 preferable to the S-400 due to the small size of its territory. The complex could also become attractive for former countries of the Soviet Union as well as Serbia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Algeria and Egypt.
In the meantime, Russia is likely to soon deploy the S-350 to Syria for combat testing, in part as a way to advertise the system’s effectiveness to potential foreign clients—as Moscow has done with a number of weapons already. This will demonstrate the power of the Russian Armed Forces in the clearest way possible, which is what the defense ministry always endeavors to prove.