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Head-to-head matchup: Russia’s S-400 and America’s Patriot missile system

Both are potent defensive systems against aerial threats – but which one is superior?

Russia's S-400 missile system

As the two greatest powers on the planet, the Russian Federation and the United States of America have long been in a state ranging from competition, to rivalry, to “cold war”, from the time of the ending of World War II to now.

This competition was certainly most widely understood during the Cold War in terms of nuclear weapons count and capabilities, but the military forces of both nations were not merely limited to such weapons. Nuclear war is, of course, the “court of last resort” in international conflicts, and we are certainly blessed that this type of warfare has never taken place.

However, war is a reality, to either be fought or deterred, and most of the world’s powers either do one or the other.

The two great powers of the 20th and now, the beginning of the 21st century, have both been in competition with each other and determined to outpace the rest of the world in weapons technology. In particular, the advent of anti-ballistic missile systems has moved with some speed, and the United States of America and the Russian Federation are the two leaders in development – and deployment – of this weapons technology.

We have compiled here a brief analysis of the current generations of the anti-missile systems operated by both superpowers.

The two systems that are currently in full deployment are the S-400 “Triumf” of the Russian Federation, and the MIM-104 “Patriot” missile systems. These two systems are used not only by their respective nations, but as defense systems by other nations in various places around the world.

The S-400 system is used presently by the Russian forces. It is deployed to protect Moscow, Northwestern Russia, the Kuril Islands, Kaliningrad, Novosibirsk, Electrostal, Nakhodka and the shared border with North Korea. Additionally, a sea-based derivative system known as the 48N6DMK is employed on the Russian battlecruiser Admiral Nakhimov. The system is also present in Belarus.

Outside Russia, this system has been reported to be in service in the Syrian conflict since November of 2015, with installations in use at Humaymim Air Base in the Latakian region, and near Masyaf in the Hama Governate. The system is not known to be in use anywhere else in the world, but Turkey expressed interest in buying the system in 2009. Recently, though, on 8 December, 2017, Turkey quietly backed out of the deal to purchase an S-400 system because Russia refuses to transfer the keys to the internal technologies of the system.

Several other nations have been reported to be interested in the system, or in various stages of negotiations to acquire it: Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Algeria, Egypt, India, Armenia, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Viet Nam, Iran, and China. This map shows the present and future nations known to be in the process of acquiring this system.

The American-made MIM-104 Patriot missile system

The American-made Patriot Missile System is manufactured by Raytheon, and it derives its name from the backronym “Phased-Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target”, which is the name that the system’s radar system took. This system is presently the US Army’s primary High- to Medium Air Defense System, and it also serves as the Army’s anti-ballistic missile system, which is now the primary overall purpose of the weapon system. It is very current, and although the various equipments used have been updated and upgraded, the overall Patriot system is anticipated to remain in the field until at least 2040.

This system has been sold to and operates in The Republic of China (Taiwan), Germany, Greece, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, South Korea, and Spain. In addition, the Patriot system is deployed by NATO forces in Turkey; it is used in training in Poland, and has seen service in Israel. Future operators of the system include Poland, Romania, and Sweden.

The Patriot system has seen quite a bit of use since its first deployment in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. During that war, the success of the system was a subject of controversy, starting with the first use of the missile in combat, where the missile launched to chase a computer glitch, and no actual target. However, the use of the system in combat conditions did spur refinements and corrections to be made to the system, which later gave it a great reputation for effectiveness. This map shows the nations that employ it, presently and in the foreseeable future.

This video clip shows the Patriot system in action during tests, and gives us an historical account of this weapon system.

The Russian S-400 is shown here, rather late in the video clip.

The Syrian – ISIS conflict had given the Russian Federation its first real opportunity to showcase the deadly effectiveness of its modernized military forces and weapons systems. To date, there is no record of the S-400 used in battlefield conditions, however this video, filmed at the Kapustin Yar test range, is reported to have taken place under heavy electronic jamming conditions. Despite this, all four missiles are reported to have hit their targets.

Both of these systems are quite formidable, and a direct numbers comparison is interesting. According to Sputnik News, the Russian system is younger (by 25 years), possessing of longer range of damage of aerial targets (250km for the S-400 compared with 160km for the Patriot), longer range for ballistic missiles (60km to under 45km), greater target elimination height AND closer minima as well, and the Russian system boasts much greater radar coverage and much more rapid deployment time.

The list goes on. The Russian system on paper is superior in pretty much all listed aspects. However, the American system has been the one to see use in the battlefield, and hence, it enjoys a reputation for effectiveness that is borne of experience, including experience of relative failure during the first Gulf War, and continuing to a very solid performance record in more recent times.

A fair criticism, as seen here, is that “brochure comparisons” are not the most useful for determining the effectiveness of weapons systems in combat. This is a fair assessment. Good military strategy requires that each side anticipates the other’s capabilities, and creates corresponding countermoves the ensure its own success in the campaign. In such thought, simulations and tests of military systems are good as far as they go, but once in battle, everything can and does change.

During the first Gulf War, the reputation of the Patriot batteries was inflated greatly, and it was later discovered that timing failures in software led to failures of the system to protect allied interests against incoming Scud missiles fired from Iraq. While the common act in wartime conditions is to maximize our side’s success and the other side’s failures, propaganda does not do much to change more than morale at its best, and it certainly cannot change reality.

At this time, we can say that the American Patriot system is battle-tested and effective. We can also say that the S-400 appears to be an amazing military weapons system, and that it has performed in an outstanding manner in tests. We have no reason to assume that the Russian Federation’s equipment will suddenly turn out lousy on the battlefield, since we have seen remarkable effectiveness with other systems such as the Sukhoi fighter planes and cruise missile systems.

However, there is no substitute for experience, and in the meantime, we can say that both nations offer formidable ability to project military force. It is this author’s hope that these two nations would be united in partnership against all real threats that exist in the world.

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