But it’s in the anti-ballistic missile role that the S-500 could really come into its own. While the S-400 already provides Russian — and an expanding list of export customers — with a mobile system that can take down air-breathing targets at prodigious ranges, the S-500 promises to do similar against ballistic missile threats. Already, there has been Turkish interest in the new system, with Turkish President Recep Erdogan saying his country will cooperate in producing the weapon, although this may well have been a politically motivated signal to the United States, following Ankara’s ejection from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program over its planned purchase of S-400s.
This is in stark contrast to the A-135 system, which is launched from fixed silos and has only been deployed around the Russian capital. The S-500 is road-mobile, with a 10 x 10 transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) on a BAZ chassis providing a significant degree of mobility. As well as making it deployable, it also renders it far more survivable.
In fact, the S-500 is not the only system on development that will supersede the A-135. A follow-on development of that weapon, the A-235, is also due to provide strategic defense against ballistic missiles attack, although it’s actually expected to be a dual-role missile with an anti-satellite capability.
There is also potential for a naval version of the S-500, which would follow the same pattern of development as the S-300 and S-400, both of which have analogs in service with the Russian Navy. In this instance, a naval S-500 has been connected with the planned Lider class of destroyer, although the fate of this ambitious program is currently unclear, with reports of its suspension last year.
From a Russian perspective, the S-500’s advanced capabilities can’t come soon enough. After all, the United States is now rapidly progressing plans to modernize all three legs of its nuclear triad, as well as develop new strategic and theater weapons delivery systems, including cruise missiles, revamped ballistic missiles, and rocket artillery. An ability to counter hypersonic missiles has been attributed to the S-500, but it’s unclear if this refers to incoming ballistic missiles in their terminal phase of flight or the new class of weapons that will cruise at hypersonic speeds. Certainly, hypersonic weapon defense will become a developmental focus of the system, if it is not already.
Regardless, a mature S-500 could play a part in a Russian mid-course intercept capability. While actually realizing a robust ability to do so is a highly complex proposition and extends well beyond a single air defense system, S-500 could be a crucial part of realizing such a capability set. Even an extended-range terminal anti-ballistic missile capability, with the potential to even intercept very fast-flying ICBM warheads as they careen through the atmosphere, would be a remarkable accomplishment.
The inherent flexibility of the S-500 looks to make it an attractive air defense asset not only for Russia but likely also for export customers. In the same way that the S-300, and then the S-400, brought long-range, mobile, SAM systems within the reach of many operators, the S-500 could do the same for anti-ballistic missile systems. After all, as well as being able to defeat these kinds of threats, the S-500 retains the ability to engage traditional air-breathing threats at very long range, too.
The S-500’s long reach promises to further push back the “safe” areas in which high-value-asset aircraft such as aerial refueling tankers and Airborne Warning and Controls System (AWACS) aircraft can fly their critical missions.
All told, while the S-500 has clearly suffered from delays, if its full potential can be realized, this ambitious program could set in motion an important overhaul of Russia’s ground-based air defense capabilities, further extending its existing A2/AD zones.
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