New weapons: New air defense systems

The modern air defense doctrine is based on the effective A2/AD concept (anti-access, area denial) in the Western (American) military circles and on the active multi-layered air defense in the Eastern (Russian) military circles.

Besides the effective and prompt offensive weapons, the air defense is the other decisive factor to minimize the adversary’s first strike damages and allow the defender more time to countermeasures in the modern warfare.

Two former superpowers (the US and Soviet Union) developed especially ABM-based air defense systems including early warning radar systems. Both the US and Russia have resumed and extended this segment while Russia has also developed all other segments of the overall air defense system and the general understanding among military experts is that Russian air defense concepts and equipment are today at the top level.

China has so far been relied largely on Russian technology and concepts but has also begun to develop some own projects in this branch. This is why in the following text the focus is on American and Russian concepts and technology.

The US air and missile defense system

The Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) provides active main defense of the US Homeland and deployed forces, allies and partners.

The BMDS is an integrated, multi-layered ballistic missile architecture, which includes land, sea and space-based elements to track, target and destroy offensive ballistic missiles of different ranges, speeds and sizes after their launch. Some elements of the BMDS also have capabilities to defend against cruise missiles. The defense system is built up against the four countries: Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, which pose the major missile threat to Americans.

Air defense of the US Homeland is based on the particular GMD system, which is the part of overall BMDS. The NORAD is the combined Command of the US and Canada that provides aerospace warning and protection for the whole North America.

Regional and trans-regional missile defense consists of two systems:

  • Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) System, which engages short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles using hit-to-kill technologies
  • The Aegis Weapon System provides missile defense at sea and ashore against regional ballistic missiles
  • Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) air and missile defense system

The US has worldwide, active partner network utilizing the systems: Japan, South Korea and Australia in the Indo-Pacific region, NATO in Europe, some GCC-partners as well as Israel in the Middle East.  Besides the ABM, the American air defense is based on the A2/AD concept and mainly on Patriot (PAC-2, PAC-1) System and locally Stinger manpads.

The space radar satellite system, Lacrosse system of the United States, includes six spacecraft capable of “seeing” objects less than one meter in size in all weathers, at any time of the day. The monitoring is conducted in a stripe, which can be up to 100 kilometers wide.

The need to use this technology is directly related to the new type of warfare, which the Pentagon currently implements within the framework of the new defense doctrine. It goes about the network-centric organization of command of a military conflict. The Americans used this method for the first time in Iraq. Instead of the rigid vertical arrangement of the transfer of decisions from top to bottom, the principle of simultaneous collection and processing of information is used while the centers of responsibility for headquarters at various levels were preserved.

In a nutshell, each war unit (from soldier to general), each element of the tracking system and artificial intelligence of each combat vehicle were united into joint information space. The command could thus monitor the situation on the battlefield in real time. Radar reconnaissance satellites play a crucial role in the network-centric control system. Based on their experiences received in Iraq, Libya, Syria and other hotspots on the planet, the Americans developed new Lacrosse spacecraft (developed by Martin Marietta company).

Russian air and missile defense system

In America’s military strategy, the concept of anti-access and area denial ( A2/AD) has become a deeply rooted way of talking about the military capabilities of adversaries that the United States considers to relative peers. But when applied to Russia, the “A2/AD” frame has become rather misleading. This is not a concept in Russian military thought, and there is no Russian strategy bearing that name. The concept admittedly has some utility when looking at a maritime theater involving Russia or China.

Russian thinking is based around a theory of war that posits the adversary as a system with key subsystems or nodes, something like the writings of well-known US strategist John Warden postulating “the enemy as a system.”

This strategy seeks to defeat the US military at the operational and strategic levels of war, across the spectrum of contingencies. Russia’s military prioritizes defending its own critical infrastructure against aerospace attack during the initial period of war, and in the same vein intends the destruction of critical objects that they believe are vital for the United States and its armed forces to function as an integrated system.

The Russian military divides its forces functionally into categories of ‘General Purpose’ and ‘Strategic Deterrence.’  The latter are further divided into offensive and defense strategic forces. Certain conventional capabilities are seen by the Russian General Staff as strategic defensive systems, the destruction or disaggregation of which could result in Russian employment of non-strategic nuclear weapons.

The overarching concept is driven by the assumption that the initial period of war will be decisive because deflection, attrition, and disorganization will stop the US military from executing its preferred way of war, and a US failure to attain quick victory will decisively affect American political resolve.

The Russian General Staff does not see warfare as only defense-dominant and expects offensive operations to inflict critical damage, resulting in attrition and disorganization. Echeloned defense, as good as it looks on paper, by itself is a recipe for losing without offensive operations throughout the theater, including the enemy homeland. For example, in a recent speech Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of General Staff, stated, “The basis of ‘our response’ is the ‘active defense strategy,’ which, given the defensive nature of the Russian Military Doctrine, provides for a set of measures to proactively neutralize threats to the security of the state.”

The Russian General Staff does not see the world in terms of domains; Russia has integrated aerospace defense as everything from low-altitude air defense to space and anti-satellite capabilities. In the Russian military these functions combine electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, counter-space, along with air defense units and the air force. Therefore, the Russian goal would be not to deny specific domains but rather to destroy the adversary’s ability to function as a military system.

Russian air defense splits into two categories: ground forces air defense, which advance in support of combined arms maneuver formations, and strategic air/missile defense units, which are part of the aerospace forces.

The latter features echeloned air defense systems composed of S-300 variants, the S-400, the new S-350 and the forthcoming S-500. These systems are typically protected by short/medium range point defense systems like Buk and Tor missile systems as well as Pantsir-S1. Russian integrated air defense is linked via automated systems of command and control and supported by electronic warfare units. The Aerospace Forces represent a purposeful integration of Russian tactical aviation, strategic air defense, missile defense and early warning systems. Russia’s often overlooked air force is an essential component of Russia’s air defense system and is tasked with conducting both defensive and offensive strategic operations.

The Russian vision includes destroying an adversary’s ability to execute an offensive campaign by achieving information superiority and functionally degrading their operations by eliminating their ability to effectively command and control their forces.

This means Russia seeks to go after intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, battle space management systems, satellites, and all the information the US military needs to orchestrate an aerospace campaign. Thus, the operational problem is not just integrated air defenses, but rather the defense/offense combination of Russia’s strategic operations. The defensive aspect of strategic operations is meant to degrade or deflect an incoming aerospace attack, while strikes on transportation hubs, logistics, precision-guidance munition systems, and command and control are intended to erode and disaggregate US forces in theater.

New 40N6 long-range interceptor missile

The Russian army has been waiting for a new 40N6 long-range interceptor missile to the present S-400 Triumf system (surface-to-air missile) that is also capable of ballistic-missile interception and has been operational for many years.

In October 2018, the Russian military announced that the game-changing weapon was now finally on active duty. Over a thousand 40N6 long-range interceptor missiles are to be purchased as part of the 2027 state armament program to arm 56 battalions using S-400. The two-stage solid-fuel missile can hit cruise missiles, aircraft, and maneuvering reentry vehicles with a target velocity of 4,800 m/s (Mach 14).

The 40N6 is capable of exo-atmospheric interception. It can hit an IRBM (intermediate-range ballistic missile) warhead in its terminal phase. Its ballistic trajectory allows the active radar to illuminate stealth aircraft from above at certain angles. Its operational range is 380 km and its fire control and target-tracking radar is an agile pulse-to-pulse frequency hopper, which can detect and track targets within 600 km. Three hundred targets can be tracked simultaneously. The missile has a maximum altitude of 185 km. and the response time is 15 seconds. The weapon has a guaranteed shelf life of 15 years and no maintenance is required. The 40N6 converts potential energy into kinetic energy during the terminal phase of its flight, picking up speed before diving toward the target. The missile may well be integrated into the upcoming S-500 (Prometey) system, alongside longer-range munitions that are currently under development. Russian experts believe that with an upgrade it could be used as an anti-satellite weapon.

Other new radars and missiles

Serial production of the new S-350 Vityaz began in 2019 and S-500 Prometey missile systems will begin in 2020.  Latest trials of the A-235 / PL-19 Nudol advanced anti-ballistic missile system, which has also anti-satellite capability, have been successful.

Russia is building a new network of radar stations best suited to detect missile launches from afar by installing Container-type over-the-horizon (OTH) radar stations along its borders. The move will substantially boost Moscow’s capabilities to monitor airspace and detect missile launches, particularly in case of hypersonic projectiles.

An OTH radar employs a different technology, compared with conventional radar installations that only provide “line-of-sight” coverage limited to a range of dozens or hundreds of kilometers at best. OTH systems rely on radio waves bouncing off the ionosphere, Earth’s top layer that is heavily ionized by space rays. Radio beams of a specific frequency projected by an OTH transmitting antenna get bounced down high up in the sky and on their way back to the ground can be reflected back by aircraft, ships or missiles. The return signal then travels back to the receiving antennas, again, via the ionosphere. This technique extends coverage to thousands of kilometers. In early December 2018, the Ministry of Defense announced that upgraded OTH radar is now on trial duty in Russia’s Mordovia region and during 2019 it is expected to be fully operational and enter regular service.

The new Container radar is capable of detecting and tracking over 5,000 air targets simultaneously. It can also track a small plane right on the runway, or detect launch and track the warhead of short- or intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which have smaller radar cross-sections than their intercontinental cousins. When hypersonic aircraft and short- and intermediate-range missile warheads fly at high altitudes, an ionization signature forms around them in the form of a compression wave in front and an ionization wake behind. This makes them easier to detect by OTH radar already trained to analyze the state of the ionosphere. The Russian military believes that 10 to 12 Container-type OTH radar stations will be enough to cover the entire airspace outside of the borders of Russia. The OTH coverage will complement traditional radar stations of the upgraded Voronezh type, which serve as part of Russia’s ICBM launch early warning system.

The new 59NE Protivnik-GE 3D, decimetric band track data processing radar, is now developed to Russian Aerospace Defense Forces. The radar is designed to control the space, detect air targets, determine their high-resolution coordinates (azimuth, distance, altitude), speeds and flight trajectories at long ranges and high altitudes. The station is able to operate under conditions of intense radio interference.

A new Nebo-UM radar system has gone into operations in November 2018, for regional airspace control. The new radar station, will monitor airspace at medium and high altitudes. The Nebo-UM is the modernized variant of the Nebo-U series of VHF/multiband 3D-radars, NATO codename Tall Rack. The mobile, all-weather radar system is designed to locate and accompany aircraft, cruise missile, ballistic and hypersonic warhead targets at a range of up to 600 km, determine their origin and transmit this data to command and/or local air defense systems. The radar works in both standalone mode and as a component of a wider air defense network.

Russia has expressed their interest in developing American THAAD / Aegis type joint systems with other partner countries. Russia’s new military doctrine does not rule out creation of joint missile defense systems together with other countries on condition of Russia’s equal participation. The doctrine’s 2010 edition did not mention that possibility.

The chiefs of staff of the armed forces from the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have agreed on further developing the CIS integrated air defense system, told Chief of Russia’s General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov in March 2019. The countries involved are Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Russia to launch space radar satellite system “Liana” to counter USA’s “Lacrosse”. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced the imminent launch of all elements of the new system of radar intelligence system code-named as “Liana” in the summer 2019. Four space vehicles were deployed in near space at an altitude of about 100 kilometers. The first satellite went into orbit back in 2009, while the second one was deployed in space in 2018. It is believed that the new system will gain the full potential after the launch of the remaining two units in 2019. Thus, the complex will be fully deployed in early 2020. The launch of the Liana system will enable Russia to arrange large-scale military actions on the basis of principles of network-centric warfare.

The emergence of the Liana complex can therefore be considered as the next stage in the development of the capabilities of the Russian space industry. Russia was forced to respond to challenges of the Pentagon after the Americans developed and launched the Lacrosse satellite system. Presumably, Liana is a system that has global coverage. Like its American analogue, the Russian system can monitor the earth’s surface through a layer of clouds. The spacecraft of the system have a synthetic aperture, which increases the angular resolution of the radar station. The use of such a technology makes it possible to receive detailed images of an object on the surface, and even in the subsoil layer.