Several Russian mainstream information outlets along with military experts and officials have, in recent months, presented a long list of achievements that are purportedly raising the country’s Air and Missile Defense Forces (Voyska Protivovozdushnoy i Protivoraketnoy Oborony—PVO-PRO) to a qualitatively new level. In addition to the much-discussed S-500 Triumfator-M surface-to-air missile (SAM) system currently under development, Russia is actively working on medium- and short-range anti-aircraft and anti-missile complexes that will play increasingly important roles in Russia’s integrated PVO-PRO framework.
Three main elements deserve particular attention:
– The 50R6 Vityaz (S-350E) medium-range SAM system: On April 12, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexey Krivoruchko stated that the S-350E had successfully passed its testing program, and serial production would be initiated in 2019 (TASS, April 12). The S-350E is expected to replace the outdated S-300PS complexes introduced in 1982. The new weapons system is equipped with three types of missiles: the 9M96E2 (with a reported striking range of 120 kilometers), the 9M96E (40 km) and the 9M100 (15 km), making the S-350E a “three-level short- and medium-range PVO-PRO defense system” (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, April 23). As noted by the editor-in-chief of the military magazine Arsenal Otechestva, Viktor Murakhovsky, “the Vityaz is capable of targeting various objects, including cruise missiles, various types of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), aircraft,” and other targets “moving at speeds of up to 1,000 meters per second.” Murakhovsky noted that “the Vityaz is not perceived by the Russian military as an independent piece, but rather an integral element of an integrated, automated PVO-PRO system… a very good and extremely modern complex, much cheaper than the S-400 Triumf.” It should also be noted that, in addition to an increased number of missiles (144—twice as many as the S-300PS), the S-350E is equipped with a multi-functional radar system, allowing it to simultaneously track up to 100 targets and strike up to 16 aerodynamic (aircraft, cruise missiles and UAVs) and 12 ballistic targets at the same time.
In a related comment, Russian military expert Mikhail Khodarenok has argued that the S-350 is “distinctive” for its “extremely high level of noise immunity and fire performance.” He added, “It is specifically designed to strike an opponent operating [with large numbers of assets] at low altitude. We are talking about dozens of aircraft…” In Khodarenok’s opinion, this complex “should not be seen as a substitute for the Buks [self-propelled, medium-range surface-to-air missile systems—see below]; rather, it will become a supplement to it and will occupy its own niche. This complex has not been developed for the Air-Defense Troops, but rather for the needs of the VKS [Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—the Russian Aerospace Forces], meaning that its prime task is concerned with protection of objects of prime importance.” According to the expert, the S-400 and the S-300PS complexes are tasked with very different functions than the S-350E, which is to “fill out the niche somewhere between the S-300 and the Buk system” (RIA Novosti, April 16).
– The Buk-M3 medium-range SAM system: This air-defense complex is currently being deployed to Orenburg Oblast and Altai Krai, and it will fortify the 41st Combined Arms Army, stationed in the Central Military District (Pravda.ru, March 11). The new Buk-M3, which is capable of carrying 12 missiles (in comparison with 8 normally carried by older versions of the system), considerably differs from its previous iterations. The main difference is that the Buk-M3 is equipped with a new missile—the 9M317M—with is said to be much lighter, faster and with a longer striking range than the missiles (the 9M38 and 9M317) used in earlier Buk models. Russian sources claim that the modernized Buk-M3 can strike various aerial and naval targets (aircraft, helicopters, tactical and cruise missiles)—including those featuring so-called “stealth technology” and traveling at speeds of up to 3 km per second. The striking range is reportedly up to 70 km away and at an altitude of 10 m–35 km (Vestnik-rm.ru, April 14).
Russian military experts argue that the export version of the new Buk (the “Viking”) is generating significant interest among potential customers due to its unique qualities and characteristics (Vpk-news.ru, April 15). As noted last year by Rosoboronexport Deputy CEO Sergei Ladygin, “It is excellent news for our foreign partners. Keeping the best qualities of the famous family of Buk anti-aircraft missile complexes, the Viking is a new development in medium-range air-defense weapons. Producers have equipped it with unique characteristics corresponding to modern requirements for protecting troops and infrastructure from strikes by modern and prospective aerial attack methods, in conditions of electronic and fire counteraction. It could be firmly stated that among existing models, the Viking has no competitors on the global weapons market” (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, March 28, 2018).
– The Tor-M2DT (so-called “Arctic Tor”) low- to medium-altitude, short-range SAM system: The Tor-M2DT is now in the process of being integrated into the Russian Armed Forces. First tested in early 2018, the “Arctic Tor” is capable of operating under challenging climactic conditions (as cold as –50 degrees Celsius) (Voyennoe.rf, February 16, 2018). Aside from this, the newly modified version is equipped with “unique heavy-duty towing engines that allow the Tor to successfully overcome all known natural obstacles.” It has also been revealed that its producers are actively working on increasing its actual capabilities and characteristics. Namely, aside from expected targeting of cruise missiles and objects equipped with “stealth technology,” Russian producers are claiming that “in the future, the complex could be fully equipped with Artificial Intelligence (AI)” (TASS, December 25, 2018).
The above-indicated developments seem to fall in line with a statement by the former head of the General Staff, Army General Nikolai Makarov, who in 2011, claimed that the Russian PRO-PVO system would “take the form of a three-layered ‘umbrella’ that will protect the country” from various types of air, sea- and land-based missiles (Lenta.ru, December 25, 2012). Nevertheless, doubts have also recently emerged about the efficacy of Russia’s newest air-defense technology. And such expert skepticism raises questions about the actual capabilities of the PRO-PVO forces when facing a technologically advanced opponent.