The F-35 is one of the most advanced flying machines ever developed by human beings. Sleek, stealthy, but very expensive, it should dominate the skies for many years to come.
But, has it met its match with the development of the new Russian S-500 surface-to-air missile defense system? Let’s take a look.
What is the Russian S-500 defense system?
The S-500 missile defense system, also known as the 55R6M (Triumfator-M) or “Promotey” (“Prometheus”), is a Russian developed surface-to-air (SAM) and anti-ballistic missile system developed to replace the older A-135 missile defense system currently in use. Intended to be used as a supplement, and eventual replacement, to the S-400, it has been in development since 2009, and was originally planned to enter production in 2014 but has been subject to years of delays.
According to some reports, the S-500 is one of the most capable missile defense systems ever developed and may even have space-defense capabilities, too. This cutting-edge piece of military hardware is capable of intercepting an array of aerial threats, ranging from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to hypersonic and ballistic missiles up to a range of around 373 miles (600 km), and analysts claim it could even target satellites in low-earth orbit (LEO).
“The S-500 anti-aircraft missile system has no [analogs] in the world and is designed to defeat the entire spectrum of existing and promising aerospace attack weapons of a potential enemy in the entire range of altitudes and speeds,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
It differs in physical appearance from the S-400 by its distinct pair of much larger missiles launch tubes when compared to the S-400’s quad setup. However, like the S-400, it will also be truck mounted.
This will make the S-500 highly mobile, enabling the system to be deployed and relocated with relative ease.
A single S-500 platform is, purportedly, capable of tracking up to 10 hypersonic targets, as well as, detect hostile targets even in lower layers of space at altitudes up to 1,243 miles (2,000 km). What’s more, is that these targets can be tracked when traveling at speeds of over 4 miles per second (roughly 23,170 km/h).
This is thanks to the S-500’s suite of distinct radar systems that are geared towards different targets, whether they be planes, helicopters, drones, or missiles. Little information is available on this subject, but most experts believe it likely utilizes the 1N6A(M) battle management radar, a modified 96L6-TsP acquisition radar, as well as the new 76T6 multimode engagement and 77T6 ABM engagement radars.
This is primarily because the S-500’s main focus though is intercepting intermediate-range ballistic missiles. In fact, its manufacturer, state-owned defense company Almaz-Antey Concern, has claimed that the S-500 could also strike low-orbit satellites and certain types of spacecraft in near space.
Russia is planning to export the system over the next few years, with serial deliveries scheduled for as early as 2025. They have already begun the training of specialists to learn how to operate the new system at the Military Academy of the Aerospace Force in Tver for a few years now.
The deliveries of the S-500 “Prometheus” anti-aircraft missile system to the external market are expected in the next few years. At present, the permits for it have not been issued, according to Alexander Mikheev, CEO of state arms exporter Rosoboron, who spoke during the closure of the 2021 Dubai Airshow.
According to Mikheev, the first operational S-500 missile defense systems could be ready for delivery by as early as the end of 2021. At present, Russia’s main export, with regards to air defense hardware, is the Pantsir-S1 (codenamed the SA-22 “Greyhound” by NATO) and S-400 “Triumf” (NATO codename SA-21 “Growler”).
Entering service in 2007, the S-400 is widely considered one of the most capable, all-around strategic SAM systems in the world. Designed to provide aerial protection from aerial threats like cruise missiles, tactical and operational ballistic missiles as well as intermediate-range missiles in a radio-jamming environment, and it can also be used against ground installations.
The S-500, however, can do everything the S-400 can do, and more. Trials of the new system are very impressive indeed.
In 2020, the S-500 was put through its paces at the Army-2020 international arms show outside Moscow. During the trials, the S-500 anti-aircraft missile system struck a target at a range of 299 miles (481 km), which was 50 miles (80 km) further than any existing anti-aircraft missile system.
The S-500 is also much quicker than its predecessor, the S-400. According to some reports, it has an average response time of three to four seconds — roughly six seconds faster than the S-400.
Some NATO members, like Turkey, have even signed contracts with Russia for the S-400 system way back in 2017, much to the displeasure of other NATO members. India has also signed a $5.43 billion contract for the supply of the S-400 Triumf, which envisages delivery beginning by the end of 2022. Both India and China have also expressed interest in the new S-500 system.
Amazingly, the S-500 is not the end of the story. Russia is already planning its upgrade, called the S-550. Very little, if anything, is currently known about this newer system, however.
For the United States, there is one detail in particular about the S-500 that will certainly be making them feel a little nervous. Claims are circulating, whether unfounded or not, that the S-500 could be a “silver bullet” against stealth fighters such as the F-35.
Let’s see if there is any justification for such a bold claim.
How can you track and defeat a stealth aircraft?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of whether or not the S-500 could potentially knock out an F-35, let’s first look at what is required to find, track, and destroy a stealth aircraft. A large object, like an aircraft, has some physical properties that can be exploited to identify, track, seek, and destroy them from a distance.
However, it is important to note that stealth technology is not necessarily about “hiding” the aircraft in plain sight, like a magician.
It is more about offering the pilot increased freedom of movement, enabling them to decide where to position themselves and engage or disengage on their terms. Stealth technology is also not a singular technology.
It is, in fact, a group of active and passive systems that work together to make radar and infrared detection more difficult than it would otherwise be. Components like radiant-absorbent material (RAM) coating, electronic countermeasures (such as jamming), special composites, fuselage design, and construction are some notable examples.
For example, RAM coating is a special paint that contains tiny spheres coated with a substance such as carbonyl iron or ferrite. This enables the paint to absorb some of the incident energy from radar waves, thereby reducing their radar signature.
While traditionally you would need to physically “see” a target to engage it, technological advancements over time have enabled military forces to be able to intercept enemy aircraft from a distance using radar and other sensors.
Put into great effect during WW2, radar has been one of the primary remote sensing methods of detecting aircraft for many decades. In fact, it was in response to radar that stealth technologies were originally developed, in an attempt to reduce its effectiveness.
The first “true” stealth aircraft to enter service was the now venerable F-117A “Nighthawk,” which was used to great effect during the aerial superiority phases of the First Gulf War.
However, contrary to what some may believe, a stealth-capable aircraft is not invisible. In fact, “stealth” is something of an umbrella term used to describe a range of design features to reduce a vehicle’s infrared, radar, visibility, and other electromagnetic signatures.
Modern stealth-capable craft like the F-35, for example, are primarily designed to be more-or-less, “invisible” to X-band wavelength radar systems.
In fact, they will show up on a radar system, albeit producing a much smaller signature. The angular design and special materials used to build the fuselage give stealth-capable aircraft, like the aforementioned F-117A, a radar signature equivalent to a small bird.
In theory, however, low-frequency radar systems should be able to detect even an advanced stealth fighter like the F-35, although it is not a foregone conclusion that they could. This is because targets tend to show much larger radar cross-sections under the low-frequency radar.
However, so does every other object within range of the radar. This could include birds, passenger planes, etc, all of which make the signal very chaotic (“noisy”) and hard to interpret.
Low-band radar systems are also not very accurate, and would only reveal the approximate location of an incoming stealth fighter, like the F-35.
However, there are some periods when a stealth-capable aircraft could “stand out like a sore thumb” on a radar. This is the moment they are preparing to launch their payloads.
To reduce their radar signature, stealth-capable aircraft usually store their weapons in internal bays. When these bays are opened, and weapons are exposed ready for launch, their radar signatures “spike”.
Such moments, if an enemy is aware enough, could provide a window of opportunity to detect and counter a stealth aircraft. However, this would be a fleeting moment that would require very rapid response times from air defense systems.
But, radar is not the only way to potentially detect a stealth craft. Another property that can be used is the craft’s infrared signature. All things with mass, unless they are at absolute zero, give off some form of infrared light.
While measures have been taken in the design of stealth-capable aircraft to reduce this to an absolute minimum, they still emit infrared light that, if it can be identified, can be used to defeat the aircraft.
In fact, most infrared-based tracking systems work by “seeing” the contrast between a potential target and its background. They want the target to basically “stand out”.
One potential solution is something called infrared search and track (IRST) technology. While a relatively new development, it has undergone significant improvements over the last few decades.
Much improved sensors and algorithms have helped modern fighter aircraft, like the Eurofighter Typhoon, which is equipped with onboard IRST systems, and is jokingly said to be able to detect “a campfire on the Moon“.
“IRST looks for temperature differences using liquid hydrogen or nitrogen to cool the sensor to extremely low temperatures which provide a contrast to the outside. Then it relies on the fact that the air is very cold (at altitude) and any fighter airframe moving through the air at several hundred knots, or particularly supersonic, heats up a lot so temperature difference is huge,” Justin Bronk, a Research Fellow specializing in combat airpower at the Royal United Services Institute told Business Insider.
While, theoretically, such a system could be used to track an F-35 at long range, such systems are fairly small and have a limited “field of view”. You would, in other words, need to have a rough idea of where to look for an incoming stealth aircraft. Unlike radar, which can have a very wide sweep, systems like IRST are more directional and work more like a telescope.
Such systems can also be hugely affected by weather and tend to work best at night.
Another weakness of stealth-capable aircraft is their specialization. Since their airframes, and overall design, are focused on delayed detection, they are not necessarily good all-rounders as aircraft.
Notably, such aircraft are potentially vulnerable during air-to-air combat. Once one is spotted and engaged by fighters, like the Su-27, for example, they have a much lower chance of surviving the encounter.
However, this is putting the horse before the cart somewhat. After all, the whole point of stealth technology is to enable the pilot to decide when, and where, to engage an enemy — if at all. Therefore, such a head-on encounter with air superiority aircraft is highly unlikely.
One another limitation of stealth aircraft that can be exploited is their cost. While not necessarily a weakness, per se, the development costs of this craft are extortionate compared to more conventional aircraft.
With some examples, like the B-2 “Spirit” stealth bomber costing an estimated $2 billion a unit, such a cost ties up a lot of resources in one place. This limits the number of them that can be deployed, let alone risked in combat.
In the end, since stealth aircraft are highly capable aircraft, they tend to be used sparingly and for more precision strike roles.
Has a stealth fighter ever been shot down?
While stealth-capable aircraft are incredibly impressive pieces of technology, they are not immune to being lost in combat.
In fact, back in the late-1990s, this is exactly what happened. In March of 1999 during the NATO bombing campaign of Yugoslavia, one United States Air Force (USAF) F-117A “Nighthawk” was shot down by an S-125 Neva/Pechora surface-to-air missile.
The weapons were fired by a Yugoslav army unit (the 3rd Battalion of the 250th Air Defense Missile Brigade), and the pilot managed to eject safely and was later rescued. The downed Nighthawk’s “wingman” was also damaged by another surface-to-air missile, but managed to return to base.
The offending missile was of Soviet design and is a two-stage rocket designed to counter maneuverable targets. The missiles themselves are aimed and guided by a series of radar systems that operate in the C-band, I/D band, and E-band radar ranges. These work together to acquire a target and guide its missiles into the intruder.
However, according to some later analysis of the incident, the successful shot appears to have been a mixture of “complacency, strategy, and luck”.
Previously, stealth aircraft were never sent along the same route twice when on the campaign. However, on this occasion, the plane did fly along a route used previously. The enemy was aware of this route and was prepared accordingly. The next factor is that NATO communications had been partially compromised, and human spotters were used to report activities of NATO airforce movements too.
Since the F-117A’s were also flying alone (with no electronic warfare aircraft like the EA-6B “Prowler” as escorts) and “blind” (they do not deploy their radar detection antennae during strike missions), they were effectively sitting ducks. All well and good, but since these are stealth-capable aircraft, how were they detected?
Yugoslav forces deployed the P-18 “Spoon Rest D” early warning radar. These operate in the VHF frequency and are able to detect an aircraft at 200 nautical miles (370 km). By setting this radar to its lowest frequency it was found that even stealth-capable aircraft, like the F-117A, could be detected at a range of around 15 miles (24 km).
However, this could not be used as a reliable method to guide a missile to the target. But, at very close range, the radar systems on their SAM units could do the rest.
All the Serbs had to do was set up their units in ambush positions and wait.
The F-117A crashed in a relatively intact state, and was not, to the surprise of many, destroyed by the USAF to prevent any recovery by enemy forces. This is partly because the F-117A, at this point, was a relatively old aircraft, well known to the public, and often displayed at air shows.
Can the S-500 take out an F-35 stealth fighter?
Since stealth technology has been defeated before by SAM units, you might be wondering if their latest model, the S-500, could do the same with the most modern stealth fighter, the F-35?
In order to answer this question, we first need to investigate what types of detection systems the S-500 has. Limited definitive information is available, but from what some have gleaned it does appear to have a suite of different kinds of radar systems.
For example, the S-500 comes equipped with a revised 96L6-TsP acquisition radar, and the new 76T6 multimode engagement and 77T6 ABM engagement radars.
The former is a direct derivative of the 96L6-1 series used as a battery acquisition radar in the S-400. This radar system is ideally suited for detecting and tracking ballistic missiles flying at high altitudes.
According to some sources, the system features four radar vehicles per battery, including the 91N6E(M) S-band acquisition radar, 96L6-TsP C-band acquisition radar, 76T6 multimode engagement radar, and 77T6 anti-ballistic missile engagement radar.
This radar complex reportedly allows the S-500 to detect ballistic and airborne targets at up to 1,243 miles (2,000 km) and 487 miles (800 km), respectively.
Otherwise, apart from some comparisons with the existing S-400 system, little else is really known.
So, can any of this information help us find out if the S-500 could detect and counter stealth-capable craft like the F-35? Let’s start with radar.
Since we could in theory detect a stealth fighter using low-frequency radar (usually less than 1 Ghz), are any of the systems on the S-500 low frequency?
The 91N6E(M) is an S-band radar that operates on a wavelength of 8-15 cm and a frequency of 2-4 GHz which means it is not easily attenuated which is well within the usual radar range.
The 96L6-TsP C-band acquisition radar operates within the microwave spectrum of between 4 and 8 gigahertz. Such systems are more usually used for satellite communications, Wi-Fi, and some surveillance and weather radar systems. For the S-500, this radar is designed for all-altitude surveillance radar intended specially to detect ballistic missiles as well as hypersonic missiles and aircraft flying at very high altitudes.
So far, no dice.
The most interesting part is the reference to the 76T6 multimode engagement radar. This is very new, and very little technical information is available. However, its main role is for airborne target acquisition and tracking.
This may well have the ability to identify and track aircraft with low radar cross-sections, like the F-35, but no one can say for sure. However, like all stealth-capable craft, it could probably pick up the spike generated from the F-35 exposing its weapons systems.
However, it would need a very quick reaction time (which, admittedly, the S-500 is supposed to have) to acquire and then deploy ground-to-air missiles to attack such an F-35. By them, an attack may already be over.
Whatever the case, in reality, U.S. military officials are certainly taking very seriously the claims that the S-500 has this capability.
So what about infrared? Sadly we have no reliable information on that fact. Considering that most infrared detection systems are basically directional, you would need to know where to look in the first place.
However, the real deterrent offered by a system like the S-500 might ultimately come down to basic economics (and a little blindman’s bluff). Stealth-capable aircraft, like the F-35, are incredibly expensive pieces of kit to build and deploy.
This means they cannot be deployed in huge numbers and, being such expensive pieces of kit, are unlikely to be put in harm’s way just like that. Even a single loss of one, whether by accident or malice, is also very embarrassing for the fielding airforce — and potentially damaging to its international reputation.
The S-400 series cost around $300 million per system, which is not cheap. While the F-35 cost an estimated $78 million each, these planes also have significant running costs over their lifetime and cost around $38,000 per hour to fly. This “price tag” is also a little misleading as the entire development program has, by some estimates, proved to be incredibly expensive (perhaps as much as $1.7 trillion).
What’s more, SAM units like the S-400, and by extension, the S-500, are theoretically able to deal with several enemy aircraft simultaneously, and are cheaper to maintain and field over time. Although the missiles they carry do have a hefty price tag, it is not as much as an F-35.
However, this is also their weakness, from a SAM versus F-35 point-of-view. Russia, and other nations, currently do not have large numbers of the S-400 and the S-500 is yet to enter large-scale production.
While the systems are impressive on paper, without actual units in operation defending a nation’s airspace, any claims of their capabilities (whether true or not), are somewhat academic.
You need to actually have the physical working machines in place for them to have any real advantage. According to some estimates, for the S-400 at least, this will take a few more years to build and deploy them in sufficient quantities.
The S-500, which is still very much in development, is even fewer in number. With new stealth aircraft, like the new B-21, on the horizon, it may well be likely that the capabilities of the S-500 (if it is a real threat) will have been countered by newly-developed stealth technologies.
The existing fleets of F-35, if not replaced by an even more capable stealth fighter, will likely have been improved by future variants too. War technology is, after all, subject to the ever ongoing pressures of an arms race.
So, can the new S-500 shoot down an F-35? The Russian’s claim it can. The Americans are likely taking such threats very seriously.
But, ultimately, until the two units actually meet in combat (which hopefully will never happen) we will never really know.