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Modern Russian air defense systems have trouble targeting 5th-generation U.S. aircraft

How would U.S. aircraft fare against Russian air defenses?

(NationalSentinel) Russia: There have been some reports – unsubstantiated – claiming that Russian air defenses, the S-300 specifically, were responsible for downing a number of American Tomahawk cruise missiles fired at a Syrian air base earlier this month.

The U.S. government said that officially, 60 Tomahawks were fired at the base, but that one failed enroute, leaving 59 to strike their targets. The Pentagon said that the base was nearly completely destroyed, and that included some two dozen Syrian warplanes.

Now, that got us to thinking how possible it is for Russian air defense systems – the S-300 and S-400, both of which are quite good and form a layered air defense network that is difficult to penetrate – to down American cruise missiles and American aircraft.

What we found was noteworthy, to say the least.

According to The National Interest, 4th-generation aircraft such as the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 are indeed vulnerable to the S-series Russia air defense networks, but 5th-generation aircraft like the F-22, B-2 bomber and, when it becomes fully operational the F-35 – are far more difficult for the Russians to target and hit, if they can at all:

Russian air defenses may appear formidable as part of Moscow’s increasingly sophisticated anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability, but areas protected by these systems are far from impenetrable bubbles or ‘Iron Domes’ as some analysts have called them.

While it is true that a layered and integrated air defense may effectively render large swaths of airspace too costly—in terms of men and materiel—to attack using conventional fourth generation warplanes such as the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon, these systems have an Achilles’ Heel. Russian air defenses will still struggle to effectively engage fifth-generation stealth aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor or F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

“In terms of establishing viable air defenses against opponents with fifth generation aircraft, it’s quite clear how Russia is trying to tackle the problem of stealth,” said Mike Kofman, a research scientist specializing in Russian military affairs at CNA Corporation during an interview with The National Interest. “Russia’s advanced radar, variety of capable missiles and systems that try to integrate large amounts of data for a more potent air defense will increasingly segregate Western air forces into two benches. In a future where these systems have proliferated to China, Iran and other regional powers there will be those that can penetrate and survive against advanced air defenses in a high end fight, and those whose job it is to bomb ISIL or its successor.”

TNI notes further that the S-300, S-400 and forthcoming S-500 systems can track fighter-sized, low-observable aircraft using VHF, UHF, L and S-band radar, but those still do not deliver a “weapons-quality track.”

“Russia has invested in low-band early warning radars, with some great variants out there, but can it use these to put a good picture together, and process it to develop a track against low-observation aircraft?” Kofman asked rhetorically.

TNI notes further:

For the Russians, solving the problem of targeting a low observable aircraft is something that they continue to work on—but it is doubtful the Moscow has resolved the issue. Russia’s strong investment in layers of air defenses tells us that the Kremlin believes the primary threat to its ground forces comes from U.S. airpower. As such, defeating stealth technology is one of Moscow’s top priorities, Kofman notes, and the Kremlin has dedicated a lot of resources to that end.

As for Russia air defense systems versus the Tomahawk, there is no reliable information suggesting such a capability exists. In fact, that’s been a bugaboo of Russia’s for some time now – missile defense. The U.S. and Israel have effective systems in the Patriot PAC-3 and Iron Dome, respectively, but Russia hasn’t developed an effective missile defense system as of yet.

Instead, Moscow has been putting its R&D money in ICBM’s it believes can defeat U.S. and Western missile defenses, including that RS-28. It is said that just one of these missiles is capable of destroying an area the size of Texas or France.

Still, the U.S. and Israeli systems are for short-range threats or single-warhead missiles of the kind North Korea or Iran could someday field – not modern Russian missiles with multiple warheads.

In any event, there’s no indication the Trump administration has any interest in challenging Russia in Syria anyway, and vice-versa – which explains why the White House warned the Russians before the attack. But had Russia shot down a number of Tomahawk cruise missiles, chances are good the White House would not have taken that lightly.

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