Checkpoint Asia

S-300 Spotted on US Soil, But Is That a Big Deal?

It's a 1982 model that Russians retired a decade ago

A number of recent reports have indicated that at least one S-300PT surface to air missile system has been delivered to the United States for testing. Satellite images at an American military testing site show a 30N6 fire control system and 5P85 transporter erector launchers, though the time of delivery as of yet remains uncertain.

The acquisition of the S-300 system by the U.S. Military is far from unprecedented, with a long history of acquisitions of Soviet aerial warfare systems for performance evaluation since the early days of the Cold War.

These previously included, among other examples, MiG-21 and MiG-23 third generation fighters and S-75, an 2K12 KuB air defence platforms acquired from Egypt in the 1970s, MiG-29 and Su-27 fourth generation fighters acquired from Moldova and Belarus respectively in the 1990s, and even Chinese manufactured J-7 fighters sold by the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation – sought out for their close similarly to the Soviet MiG-21.

While a number of U.S. defence clients in Europe operate or have previously operated older variants of the S-300, including Bulgaria with the S-300P, Slovakia with the S-300PS and Greece with the S-300PMU-1, Ukraine is almost entirely unique for its access to the PT variant which is believed to have been delivered to the U.S.

With Ukraine having previously demonstrated its willingness to cooperate closely with Western states and share sensitive technologies inherited from the Soviet Union, including providing full access to its elite Su-27 air superiority fighters, and in light of reports that NATO pilots had been allowed to train against Ukrainian S-300 systems in the country, it is likely that Kiev would be a willing supplier of the S-300PT to the United States. 

The first S-300 system entered service in 1978, and the platform has since evolved considerably with the most recent variant, the S-300V4, entering service in the early 2010s. The S-300PT represented a slight improvement on the capabilities of the original S-300P, and is believed to have entered service in 1982 equipped with the 5V55KD surface to air missile. This provided the platform with a 90km engagement range and introduced a terminal semi active radar homing guidance mode for improved precision, but were limited in there capabilities by a light 133kg warhead, low speed of Mach 3.35 and the ability to engage only a very small number of targets simultaneously.

The value of this ageing system in Ukrainian service today remains extremely limited, with with platform lacking the mobility of new S-300 variants, the protection of complementary shorter ranged systems or sufficient electronic warfare countermeasures making it something of an easy target for a Russian strike. The platform’s limited value in the event of even a minor conflict with Russia may well have provided Kiev with a greater incentive to send the S-300 to the U.S. for study.

Given the limited similarity of the S-300PT to current systems deployed by potential U.S adversaries, the value of studying the platform remains somewhat limited.

There are numerous S-300 variants spanning decades and generations of tech

While Russia does deploy a number of newer S-300PS systems which are somewhat similar to the PT variant – having entered service in 1985 – these currently fulfil a very limited role in its air defence network and are soon set to be replaced by the more modern and sophisticated S-350 medium ranged platform.

The S-300PT represents a very different kind of air defence system to even the 1990s platforms developed by Russia such as the S-300PMU-2, which are designed for wide ranging anti access area denial rather than short ranged point defence and are capable of engaging dozens of targets simultaneously at hypersonic speeds and at extreme ranges almost three times that of the S-300PT.

The sensors, electronic warfare systems and munitions used by these 1990s platforms are all well ahead of their Soviet predecessors. The discrepancy is greater still when considering platforms which entered service in the mid 2000s such as the S-300VM, currently operated by Venezuela, and the S-400 – or the S-300V4 of the following decade.

Trying to evaluate modern Russian long range air defences such as the S-400 or S-300V4 through study of the S-300PT, a platform at least three generations behind, would be like evaluating America’s F-35 based on the F-5A Freedom Fighter which the USSR acquired from Vietnam – both unspecialised light fighters but of the second and fifth generations respectively.

Whether the U.S. Military will be able to gain access to more modern Russian air defence technologies, possibly the S-300VM and complementary R-77 and R-27ER missiles which are likely to be transferred if efforts to overthrow the Venezuelan government are successful, remains to be seen.

Source: Military Watch