For 14 days, St. Petersburg S-400s will track F-35s, and vice versa

The year began with the announcement of one of NATO’s largest drills, Nordic Response 2024, taking place in proximity to Russian borders. This exercise will be hosted by one of NATO’s newest members, Finland, with prospective NATO members, Sweden, and Norway, also extending their hospitality. 

Six Australian F-35s fly over Nevada in 'world's toughest dogfight'
Photo credit: RAAF / X

Spanning thirteen countries, this exercise will mobilize more than 20,000 troops, over 50 warships, and more than 110 aircraft, ranging from fighter jets to helicopters. Participating nations such as Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States will all put their unique military hardware and personnel into play.  

According to domestic sources, Finland, the host nation, plans to utilize its fleet of Boeing F/A-18 fighter jets. Military enthusiasts speculate that the fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jet might play an active role in this exercise, presumably featuring units from the United States, Denmark, the Netherlands, or the United Kingdom’s air force. In particular, Denmark and the Netherlands are expected to make significant contributions with their F-35s as they strive to achieve full operational capability.

The S-400 is close

The maneuvers under discussion are a fundamental part of NATO’s traditional training series, designed to counter potential threats from Russia. In light of the ongoing Ukrainian conflict that surfaced two years ago, this exercise assumes increased significance. The training will involve the integration of new military tactics into the cooperative operations of the involved countries. 

Worth mentioning, Finland stands out as one of the few nations worldwide where the deployment range of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems is the shortest to its Russian border. 

S-400's interceptor fires metal fragments at the target's warhead
Photo credit: Russian MoD

Currently, the European war scenario offers the US and its allies a unique opportunity to conduct test flights to scan Russian S-300 and S-400 units based in the Northern Military District of Russia, particularly around St. Petersburg. Contrasting with the previous route [Iran-Syria-Israel] for bi-directional scanning between Russian air defense and Israeli F-35 Azir, the current opportunity appears much closer, reducing the former “entire continent” distance.

Is it possible?

While certain sources estimate a probability of more than 75% for a dual scan situation [S-400 and F-35 doing mutual scanning], it’s universally recognized that Ukraine’s Western allies have indeed conducted such scans during their standoff against Russia. 

Notably, BulgarianMilitary.com recently reported that Singapore’s Defense Ministry confirmed this news. This came as a result of the Defense Minister of Singapore, Ng Eng Hen, highlighting the benefits of the F-35 to Singapore’s legislators, thus justifying their decision to purchase an additional nine F-35s from the US. “Recently, US F-35s have been involved in detecting the locations of Russia’s anti-aircraft missiles across Ukraine. The data collected is then shared with NATO countries,” Ng Eng Hen explained during his briefing.

Israel's F-35I Adirs feature US-enhanced 'Gaza tasks brains'
Photo credit: Defense Here

What are the concerns?

The apprehension lies in the possibility that both the US and Russia might expose their vulnerabilities through the use of their most recent military weaponry during the exercise. The F-35 possesses the ability to effortlessly scan and pinpoint the location of the S-400. The aircraft is armed with stealth capabilities and can adopt various approaches like flying at low altitudes. Furthermore, the F-35 is equipped with a highly sophisticated electronic warfare system, the AN/ASQ-239 Barracuda, which is renowned for its ability to impede Russian radars. 

There’s also the matter to consider of how the Russian S-400 radars will respond. If they’re in active mode, it indicates that the 91N6E Big Bird radar and the 92N6E Grave Stone multimode engagement radar can scan the F-35’s avionics. Russia contends that these two radars can detect the F-35 on the plane’s radar cross-section, which is incredibly small. However, the reality could be unveiled during NATO’s training, potentially providing Russia with the answer as to whether these two advanced radars they claim to have developed can genuinely detect stealth.

S-400 jointly with A-50 AEW&C shot down Su-27 and MiG-29 - Russia
Photo credit: LinkedIn

Passive radars

In one of our previous articles, we delved into the functionality of the Russian S-300 radar system, as narrated by an American pilot. To jog your memory, this pilot was flying through the airspace around Ukraine—not within Ukraine itself, but in the airspace of nations partnered with the US that share a border with Ukraine. He detected the position of the Belarus-based S-300 air defense system. However, the S-300 operators had switched their radar to a passive mode, often referred to as “combat standby”

In this passive mode, the system ceases to emit radio signals, effectively concealing its location while still being able to receive incoming radio signals. The American pilot confirmed that although he had knowledge of the S-300’s location, he couldn’t confirm it because he was unable to perform a successful scan of the area.

Scanning each other

The F-35 Lightning II and the S-400 Triumph are two of the most advanced pieces of military technology in the world, each with its own unique capabilities. If they were to scan each other, they could potentially reveal a wealth of information to the adversary.

If the S-400 were to successfully scan the F-35, it could potentially learn more about the aircraft’s stealth characteristics. This could include the shape and materials used in the aircraft’s design, which contribute to its ability to evade radar detection. Additionally, the F-35 is equipped with a sophisticated suite of sensors and electronic warfare capabilities. If the S-400 were to scan the F-35, it might be able to gather data on these systems.

F-35 fighter jet by Lockheed Martin
Photo by Mikaela Maschmeier

If the F-35 were to scan the S-400, it could potentially learn about the system’s radar capabilities. This could include the radar’s frequency, range, and tracking capabilities, which are crucial for detecting and intercepting targets. Moreover, the S-400 is equipped with a variety of missile types, each designed for a specific purpose. If the F-35 were to scan the S-400, it might be able to gather data on these missiles. This could potentially provide insight into the missiles’ speed, range, and guidance systems.

Su-57 vs F-35

Isn’t it a fascinating thought? Imagine a scenario where Russia risks sending its Su-57 into close proximity with NATO and F-35 exercises. However, the stealth element of these fighters is highly effective from a distance. Nevertheless, for our American tech maestros, the F-35 can detect the elusive Su-57, even from a closer range. 

https://bulgarianmilitary.com/2023/01/11/f-35-af-7-flies-for-50-minutes-and-initiates-stealth-version-4/
Photo credit: MWM

Does this pique your curiosity? In response, Russia makes a similar claim, albeit with a slight twist in technology. Unlike the F-35, the Su-57 enjoys the benefits of both active and passive sensors, thanks to its passive ground radar mode. The F-35, unfortunately, lacks this type of passive sensor package. What makes the Su-57’s passive sensory prowess stand out is its ability to operate in stealth – the jet doesn’t emit any detectable radar signals, making an encounter with enemy sensors almost impossible. Doesn’t this place the Su-57 in a prime position to approach and engage enemy targets without appearing on their radars? 

So what makes the Su-57’s passive sensor suite function? This suite is a remarkable amalgamation of various sensors, encompassing infrared sensors, radio frequency sensors, and electro-optical sensors. This perfect blend of sensors provides a robust snapshot of the battlefield, enabling the pilot to spot and mark enemy aircraft, ground vehicles, and other targets quickly and efficiently. 

Let’s kindle your imagination for a moment, shall we? Imagine passive sensors as detectives on a covert mission. They pick up electromagnetic radiation emitted by external sources such as radio and TV broadcasts, cell phone signals – and even the warmth radiated by aircraft engines. These sensors do not hunt for primary radar beams in the traditional sense, but for elusive secondary signs, which stealth technology often fails to conceal. Intriguing, isn’t it? Especially when you consider that even the literal heat from an engine can be a potential giveaway!

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