Russia is working on the S-550 – a threat to everything that flies

Two years ago, an unexpected revelation was made by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during a press conference. He casually mentioned President Putin’s emphasis on the advancement of domestic air and missile defense systems, specifically referencing the S-350, S-500, and the previously unheard-of S-550 for the armed forces. 

Production of anti-satellite anti-ballistic S-500 SAM has begun
Photo credit: TASS

The S-350 and S-500 medium-range missiles were already recognized within military circles. However, the S-550 was a new entrant, a system that was only hinted at during the conference. Recently, Russian media outlets have started to buzz with claims that the development of the S-550 system is already underway. 

The Russian military started deploying the S-500 Prometey [Prometheus] air defense system as early as 2020, despite several delays. Initially, experts hypothesized that the S-550 might be a shorter-range offshoot of the S-500, similar to how the S-350 is an intermediate-range missile complementing the longer-range S-300 and S-400 systems. Russia’s state news agency TASS reminisced about an S-550 mobile anti-missile defense system [ABM] developed between 1981-1988 that never saw active service. 

However, Sergey Chemezov later clarified at the Dubai Air Show that the S-550 is designed to detect and intercept ballistic missiles at a larger range than the S-500 and that the physical components for the system have already been made. 

Focusing on strategic defense

Production of anti-satellite anti-ballistic S-500 SAM has begun
Photo credit: Wikipedia

The current consensus is that the S-550 will be a mobile system focusing on strategic defense. It is expected to shield against intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs] that ascend high into space before unleashing nuclear destruction at velocities up to twenty times the speed of sound.

Russian insiders have been hinting at a “space attack” or “space defense” function, which could encompass tasks such as intercepting low-Earth orbit spacecraft like the US military’s X-37B. This is apart from kinetic anti-satellite missions. Intriguingly, no naval variant is planned, unlike the S-500.

The S-500, already applauded for its advanced ballistic missile defense [BMD] capabilities, uses the 77N6-N series missile. This missile, according to US intelligence, is competent against medium-range and some intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs]. 

Recently, military expert Dmitry Litovkin shared with TASS his belief that this system will augment the Prometheus system. It’s been previously declared that this system can neutralize both ballistic nuclear warheads and low-orbit satellites. However, it seems that the military has opted to distribute these functions between two systems – a decision that underscores the fact that versatility isn’t always an asset in a combat system. Meanwhile, an unnamed source informed RIA Novosti that the S-550 is a derivative of the S-500 air defense system, specializing in anti-missile and space defense tasks. 

THAAD successfully fired Patriot's PAC-3 MSE missile using AN/TPY-2
Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

Standalone version

While these claims are far from conclusive, they suggest that the S-550 might be an enhanced, standalone version of the S-500’s anti-missile defense capability. It’s uncertain whether this implies the basic S-500 will be less adept at anti-missile defense than initially expected, or if the S-550 will exceed expectations in its effectiveness against ICBMs. 

According to RIA Novosti’s sources, the S-550 is the first road-mobile system capable of reliably neutralizing ICBMs. They even assert that it outperforms the US’s THAAD and Aegis with SM-3 Block llB missiles. 

While both US systems are mobile and designed to defend against short- to medium-range missiles, they do possess some anti-ICBM capabilities. This is particularly applicable to the SM-3 Block IIA, which successfully intercepted an ICBM in a November 2020 test and reportedly can reach an altitude of up to 1,460 miles. 

In the Baltics, S-400 air defense systems shoot down Su-27s
Photo credit: DefBrief

Interestingly, RIA’s officials did not refer to the silo-based Ground-Based Midcourse Defense [GMD] system designed to intercept ICBMs mid-course. It’s likely that the S-550 is intended to bridge the gap between the SM-3 Block II and the GMD, potentially offering decent ICBM capabilities but within a more restricted range.

Evolution of Russia’s missile defense

Imagine a defense system that can unleash missiles traveling seventeen times the speed of sound! That’s the reality with Russia’s existing silo-based A-135 Amur defense system. Equipped with 53T6 anti-missile missiles and a ten-kiloton nuclear warhead, it’s primarily tasked with protecting Moscow and its surrounding industrial areas. This strategic decision was influenced by the 1972 ABM Treaty, which permitted only two ABM sites for Russia and the United States – one for the capital and another for ICBM silos. 

Fast forward to 2002, the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty and kick-started the development of the GMD missile defense system. Now stationed in Alaska, this system provides national defense to the continental United States. However, it operates with a limited inventory of just over forty [out of sixty] interceptors. 

Russia is working on the S-550 - a threat to everything that flies
Photo credit: Russian MoD

Why the limited number of ABMs, you might ask? It was a strategic move to reassure Russia and China that the GMD was not designed to undermine their nuclear deterrence capabilities. Instead, it was intended to combat threats from smaller potential nuclear actors like North Korea and Iran. Despite this reassurance, Beijing and Moscow perceived things differently, investing billions to develop sophisticated nuclear weapons to counteract the GMD. 

It’s important to note that even a limited ICBM defense could potentially thwart a small-scale nuclear attack by a great power. Such an attack might be designed to achieve limited military objectives or serve as a political demonstration. 

ABM Treaty’s gap

Enter the S-550. With this development, Russia seems to be leveraging the ABM Treaty’s gap to expand its ICBM defense beyond the Moscow area. The A-135 is currently being replaced by the upgraded A-235 Nudol anti-missile defense system. This new system can significantly extend the range of anti-missile defenses over western Russia and incorporate surface-to-air missiles, either complementing or fully replacing nuclear interceptor missiles.

Ever wondered why Russia is so keen on the S-550 mobile anti-missile system? One reason is the ease of geographical dispersion facilitated by road mobility. This could potentially fortifyiments would be challenged to fend off such advanced weaponry. 

This situation also presents a conundrum: How to determine whether an incoming missile attack is conventional or nuclear? And how many high-tech missile defense interceptors should be spent on countering conventional attacks when a nuclear strike might be looming? 

The domino effect

Russia-has-ordered-at-least-10-of-the-latest-S-500-Prometheus-air-defense-systems----s-400
Photo credit: TASS

Russia’s evolving missile defense capability could trigger a self-propagating feedback loop impacting U.S. missile defenses. For instance, if Russia has an extensive arsenal of anti-ballistic missiles to intercept long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, Washington might find a reason to expand its inventory of GMD interceptors beyond the current sixty. Also, China’s reported mid-range ballistic missile interception test using an HQ-19 missile in April 2021, despite not having an operational ABM system, adds another dimension to this equation. 

According to TASS, the S-550 could be commissioned as early as 2025. However, it’s prudent not to set this date in stone. After all, the initial deliveries of the S-500, which were initially projected for 2016 or 2017, faced delays.

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