The Almaz/Antey S-300P series is Russia’s most formidable tactical surface to air missile
One area of technology where Russia has never lagged behind the west is in the field of surface to air missiles (SAMs.) NATO got a dramatic demonstration of that on 1 May 1960. Since the mid-1950s USAF U2 spy planes had been crossing the Soviet Union and taking high resolution photos of strategic targets. These aircraft, flown first by British Royal Air Force pilots and later by the CIA, cruised at so high an altitude that they were thought to be invulnerable to the USSR’s air defences. That belief crashed to earth along with Francis Gary Powers and his U2. As Powers flew near Sverdlovsk an air defence site launched a salvo of three S-75 missiles at his aircraft, and despite being at an altitude of over 70,000 feet (21km) one of the missiles overhauled his aircraft and exploded close behind it. The S-75 – NATO codename SA-2 GUIDELINE – was an enormous missile, often compared to a flying telephone pole, and the blast of its 200kg warhead was enough to rip the U2’s wings off. NATO’s commanders quickly revised their opinions of Soviet SAMs.
The next lesson came during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria attempted to reoccupy land captured by Israel six years earlier. The Israeli Air Force had got used to dominating the airspace over every battlefield, but now Egypt had taken delivery of SA-6 mobile SAM systems. In the first days of the war these decimated Israel’s A4 Skyhawk attack aircraft, and even took a toll of the high-performance F4 Phantoms. Reprogrammed warning receivers and new tactics finally reduced the threat, but over 40 aircraft had been destroyed and the confidence of the IAF had been severely shaken.
The SA-2 and SA-6 are both obsolete now, but the Soviet Union continued developing a range of SAM systems, and Russia has continued this effort. Air defence systems are one area where Russian equipment approaches or even exceeds the price of its western equivalents, but it still represents good value for money. For nations with a large enough budget all relatively modern Russian radar and missile systems can be tied into a highly resilient layered, integrated air defence network. Even as standalone systems they can be formidable, though, and the S-300 is one of the most effective.
The original S-300P system entered service in 1979. Although it’s a mobile system most of them were allocated to the defence of Moscow. In 1984 the S-300F naval version was introduced as the main anti-aircraft armament of the Slava-class missile cruiser and the Kirov battlecruisers. Both of these systems had a maximum range of around 75km and could engage high-speed targets from very low to very high altitude. In fact the minimum engagement altitude was only 25 metres and the upper limit 30km. The maximum target speed was over 4,000km/h; by 1992 this had increased to over 10,000km/h as new Track Via Missile (TVM) guidance systems were introduced. With that sort of capability the potential of the system as a ballistic missile defence was obvious. Since then upgrades have continued, with improved versions including the S-300PS, PMU-1 and PMU-2. There’s also the closely related S-400, which can intercept targets travelling at an incredible 18,000km/h.
The nearest western equivalent to the S-300 is the US Patriot system, and in the early days of S-300 development the two were roughly comparable. However the S-300 has developed to have a considerably longer range – at least 200km in the latest variants, against 160km for the Patriot PAC-2.
The S-300P is carried on an 8×8 Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) based on a high mobility chassis. A complete system consists of a command post vehicle, three separate radars – surveillance, low altitude search and fire control – and up to twelve TELs. Each TEL has four missile mounts and these can be loaded with a variety of missiles designed for the system. All missiles are supplied in sealed launch tubes and are treated as a round of ammunition; they require no maintenance once the tube has been sealed. The standard long and extended range rounds consist of a single large tube, allowing four missiles to be fitted to each TEL. Medium-range missiles come in a quad tube, so each TEL can carry 16 of them. A mix of missile types can also be loaded.
The vast majority of the S-300 systems that have been produced – over 1,000 TELs – are in Russian service; as well as defending major cities and important installations they are in use as an Army-level mobile missile system. They’re also a popular export item, though, and are even in NATO service – Greece took over 12 launchers originally meant for the Greek Cypriots, and Slovakia also has several units. Of more interest to western militaries is the fact that several Middle Eastern countries are interested in acquiring it. Syria has several radars and launch vehicles on order and Iran has been trying to buy systems for years. The S-300 isn’t unbeatable, but it is dangerous. If they fall into the hands of hostile nations they will make the job of air planners much more difficult.