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Debates continue to rage over effectiveness of air defence systems

December 15, 2021 at 5:17 pm

Russian S-400 air defence system, seen during a military parade in Moscow, Russia, 27 December 2017 [Wikipedia]

Questions persist over which air defence system is more capable of fulfilling a country’s national security objectives, with the Russian S-400, US Patriot, and Israeli Iron Dome systems the focus of the ongoing debates.

Although several countries trust these systems, especially those located in conflict zones, some conditions bring their reliability up for discussion, Anadolu News Agency reports.

Israel’s Iron Dome system, which has fallen short of blocking missiles from Palestine, is frequently discussed, while the Patriot air defence system has become a hot topic due to its failure to stop attacks by Houthi rebels using inferior missiles against Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi-led coalition has long been battling the Houthis and, despite Riyadh spending billions of dollars in recent years building six battalions of US-made Patriot surface-to-air missiles as well as associated radars, they could not stop recent attacks by the rebels.

Patriot vs S-400

Tolga Sakman, the Chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Diplomatic Affairs and Political Studies, said the Patriot defence system was generally designed to combat ballistic missiles and aircraft.

“Vehicles that can fly closer to the ground, such as cruise missiles and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) can’t be detected by the Patriot’s one-way radars,” he noted.

Comparing the Russian S-400 and Patriot systems, he said “we can talk about the superiority of the S-400,” adding that the most important technical difference is the range, and the S-400 has advantages in terms of range.

Also, the S-400 is considered ahead in many aspects such as cost, battery capacity and speed.

Sakman noted that the relatively new S-400 system has not been used in active combat but there is a high opinion that it has more development potential.

Noting that the Patriot system has been produced in large numbers until now, purchased by many countries and used in many conflicts, he underlined that it is effective against ballistic missiles and aircraft, but falls short against different types of missiles and vehicles.

“The S-400, on the other hand, is capable of using versatile mobile radar masts to combat this problem.

“It is very important to detect UAVs, which have an important place among the aircraft of the future, through the system,” he added.

Can Kasapoglu, the Director of the Security and Defence Studies Program of the Istanbul-based independent think-tank, the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, said the S-400 is an area denial weapon rather than an anti-ballistic missile system.

Kasapoglu said the S-400 system is theoretically effective against an adversary’s strategic enablers, such as tankers and aircraft.

“The biggest caveat would be its stand-alone character in the Turkish setting,” he noted.

He added that the S-400 system is not reliable in intercepting missile threats.

S-400, sanctions, effects

Turkey, which needs an air defence system due to ongoing conflicts in its region, chose the Russian S-400 system because of Washington’s negative attitude towards Ankara’s demand for the Patriot system.

As a NATO member country, Turkey’s move triggered discussions, and the US decided to implement Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) against the country.

US officials have claimed that the S-400 would be incompatible with NATO systems and would expose next-generation F-35 fighter jets to possible Russian subterfuge.

According to the CAATSA sanctions, which became valid as of April 2021, Turkey’s Defence Industries Presidency cannot obtain an export license from the US and benefit from credit packages from the US and related financial institutions.

The US has also imposed visa restrictions on some Turkish officials in the defence field, including the head of the Presidency, Ismail Demir.

Turkey is the first NATO member country facing CAATSA sanctions, which have also been imposed on other countries including Russia, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.

CAATSA sanctions can also include stronger measures such as stopping trade and foreign currency transactions.

While Turkey signed an agreement for the S-400 system in 2017, the country has also carried out several indigenous air defence projects under the Defence Industries Presidency’s control.

Sakman said the embargo principle of the US that it uses as a political pressure tool and which has recently been institutionalised through legal grounds such as CAATSA, seems to have generally yielded results.

READ: Saudi Arabia has no interest in the S-400, says Russian industry official

“These embargoes, which were built on reducing the capabilities of the target country, often caused splits,” he stressed.

He said international embargoes often force the target country to find new partnerships, and it is not always the case that these processes support domestic production in the defence field.

“As a result of some long-term embargoes, it is seen that the states support domestic production, but the shortage of (production) capacity in these places also affects the standards of production. As soon as Turkey started production, it produced a competitive product (in the defence field).”

Such embargoes supported Turkey’s production with an equivalent or a new concept, he noted, saying Turkey’s unmanned aerial vehicle production has achieved a power that cannot be compared with any fighter jet.

“However, with the effect of joint engagements, production plans can always be reviewed. There are not many states whose standards and obligations within the framework of the NATO alliance have been tested by embargoes.”

Technical features

The S-400 system can detect threats within a range of 600 kilometres (372.8 miles) and it has different types of missiles for shooting down threats in different ranges, from 40 km (24.8 mi) to 400 km (248 mi).

The Patriot’s radar can detect threats within a range of around 150 kilometres (93.2 miles), while it can shoot down targets within a range between 20 km (12.4 mi) to 160 km (99.4 mi).

The S-400 can shoot ballistic missiles within a range of 60 km (37.3 mi), while it can shoot aerodynamic targets within a range of 400 km (248 mi).

The S-400 can shoot targets at an altitude of 10 meters (32.8 feet), while the Patriots can shoot targets at a 60-m (196.8-ft) altitude.

While the Patriot system was developed in 1982, the S-400 was created in 2007.

The Patriots need 25 minutes for being ready for launching, while it takes only five minutes for the S-400.

The S-400 can lock on to 72 targets at the same time, while the Patriot can lock on to 36 targets. Their radars can detect 160 and 125 different targets at the same time, respectively.

While the US rejected Turkey’s demand for sharing technical features of the Patriots, Russia accepted this demand and offered a better price.

Russia previously sold the S-300 system to around 20 countries, including NATO members such as Bulgaria, Greece, Croatia, and Slovenia. The S-400 system was purchased by Belarus, China, Turkey, and India.

NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, has previously said developing military capacity is a national decision of countries, while the important thing for NATO is ensuring the systems can work together.

US sanctioning Turkey over the purchase of Russian missile - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

US sanctioning Turkey over the purchase of Russian missile – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]