Russian defensive system A2 / AD. Pure propaganda or real skills?

(To Stefano Marras)
28/06/19

By now entered the military jargon as a highly advanced defense system capable of preventing penetrating attack systems from entering particular areas, the A2 / AD (Anti Access / Denial Area), is associated in particular with the Russian and Chinese strategy designed to counter the technological advantage that the West has held in the air-sea field over the past 25 years. However, this term has not only been inflated, since it represents nothing more than a modern concept to describe a much more ancient tactic of military interdiction, but its effectiveness has probably been exaggerated, so much so that by now it is commonly believed to say that these "bubbles defensive "are completely impenetrable, rendering the military advantage of the West invalid.

To question much of the myth that surrounds him, he has recently thought, among many, of the Swedish defense agency (Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut, FOI) with a search open-source which carefully analyzes not only the real Russian defense capabilities in the Baltic Sea, but also the possible countermeasures that NATO, and the Scandinavian country itself, can adopt in the event of a military conflict1.

What emerges is a more complex and less favorable picture in Moscow than has been told so far. In particular, the report seeks to dispel the myth by surrounding the S-400 anti-aircraft system, a veritable pillar of the Russian A2 / AD. Became operational for the first time in Kaliningrad in 2012, it is in fact an integrated defense system comprising various types of missiles that can be selected based on the type of target, from ballistic missiles to cruise missiles, to low radar observability aircraft. Particularly feared is the long-range variant (40N6), which according to the builders and the Russian armed forces, is capable of hitting flying objects up to a maximum distance of 400 km. However, FOI notes, due to the numerous failures during the tests, it has not yet become operational nor has it entered production, making the medium and short range missiles (from 40 to 250 km) the only ones available within the platform S-400.

Furthermore, even if the 40N6 missile were to become operational (recently Moscow claimed that the manufacturing company obtained production authorization), it would still be necessary to connect it with an additional advanced radar set on the surface or mounted on an aircraft (despite all the missiles of the S-400 are active or semi-active radar guidance, they are however limited to a maximum distance of 50 km, forcing them to use an external radar for the most distant targets) capable of acquiring long-distance targets beyond the horizon and at high latitudes (up to 10000 meters) and keep it lit for the entire duration of the action so as to transmit the data needed by the missile to engage and hit it. This ability is also called Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), and to obtain it not only are required very high levels of technological expertise, particularly in the field of electronics which the Russian defense apparently does not yet have, but in this way enemy planes would have the possibility of identifying the radar and consequently they could try to hit him with air-to-ground missiles, thus depriving the S-400 of what is probably its most essential component

Another limitation is given by the terrestrial curvature which prevents the radar, operating instead in a straight line, from detecting targets at long distances and at low latitudes. For example, the Swedish agency notes that if a target is at 2500 meters high, and the radar antenna at 16 meters high, the radar horizon is around 200 km, while if the target flies to higher altitudes like 10000 meters, the radar horizon would be well 400 km. Reason why, in order to trace flying targets at low latitude, radars installed in special aircraft are preferred (AEW & C), as the Boeing E-3 Sentry, which consequently have a greater visual capacity. This makes the selection of targets by the short and medium-range missiles of the S-400 limited to large high-latitude aircraft, such as transport aircraft and ballistic missiles, and at a maximum distance of 250 km, while for targets at low latitudes such as cruise missiles and fighter planes, the radius would not exceed 35 km.

However, it should be pointed out that when discussing the A2 / AD Russian defense system, reference is not made solely to the S-400 or its predecessor, the S-300, but to a vast and heterogeneous complex of anti-missile and anti-aircraft weapons operating on various levels and with different objectives, such as the Pantsir S1 which combines short-range ground air missiles with two 30 mm machine guns. Without considering the powerful and numerous fleet of planes and naval units that Moscow would use to support air defenses.

On the other hand, as the case of the Kosovo war in the 1999 has shown, even an airplane "stealth"(Ie with low radar observability) such as the l 'F-117 Nighthawk (photo) can be torn down by a flak not particularly advanced in technological terms. In this way and from this point of view, Moscow is able to fill part of the technical and natural deficiencies inherent in its defenses, thus creating an efficient defensive bubble, although not impenetrable.

NATO countermeasures

An evaluation of the Russian defenses would not be complete if the various air defense suppression capabilities were not taken into account (SEAD, Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) that NATO forces would adopt in the event of a conflict. These countermeasures include identification and jamming electronic to radar, using for example the modern AN / ASQ-239 system built by BAE System aboard the F-35 and capable of attacking radars that operate at low bandwidth up to 5.925 Hz; cyber attacks against the system's control infrastructure; the launch of special radar-guided missiles active against the nerve centers of anti-aircraft defense; the use of fifth generation low observability aircraft; the use of deceivers (decoys) to throw off the enemy (see the BriteCloud developed by Leonardo) and even the use of artillery and special forces where possible, as in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave surrounded by NATO and European countries.

Despite this wide range of possibilities and analyzed the various structural weaknesses in the Russian antiaircraft defenses, the FOI report suggests that it would be necessary to strengthen and further increase the suppression capabilities of the NATO air forces and especially those of the European countries in relation to development and the purchase of active radar-guided missiles and precision missiles. These capacities in fact, after the end of the Cold War were taken for granted because of the relative technological inferiority of the nations and / or terrorist organizations that the NATO countries had to face (Iraq, Afghanistan, Al-Qaida, etc.). Without considering the heavy cuts in military budgets that have involved most western (especially European) countries in the last 10-20 years, as opposed to a slow but progressive rearmament of Russia, especially in the field of anti-missile and anti-aircraft systems.

Reasons why, only recently the major European countries and industries of the continent have returned to take greater account of the offensive capabilities of suppression of enemy anti-aircraft defenses. In particular, to the recent Paris Air Show 2019, MBDA, a pan-European company and world leader in missile production, has proposed numerous types of supersonic cruise missiles, designed specifically to carry out tactical and depth attacks in such a way as to neutralize enemy anti-aircraft systems. The company is also considering other solutions such as short-range missile systems hard-kill to counter incoming attacks even when other defense systems were ineffective, while Airbus is developing "remote carriers‚ÄĚLaunched from autonomous platforms and in main function of deceivers but also with capacity for electronic warfare and target designation. Developments that can easily be placed within a commitment of European countries to achieve greater if not full military autonomy, and which echo in the words of the MBDA administrator, who claims to be "ready to face the challenge of offering our countries domestic the full sovereignty of their future air combat systems "2. Commitment often reaffirmed in recent decades in the Old Continent by various political, military and industrial players, but which now seems to have greater and more solid concreteness, also due to the two future European "sixth generation" air combat systems, the Tempest British guide (and with the potential inclusion of Italy and Sweden), and the French-German-Spanish FCAS.

Finally, again on the part of MBDA, and in collaboration with Leonardo, we are working on an electronic variant of the air-to-ground missile SPEAR 3. The new missile, announced in April and named SPEAR-EW, could be used both fromEurofighter Typhoon than from the F-35, and was designed specifically to suppress enemy anti-aircraft defenses through the jamming of the radars (it has not yet been revealed to which bandwidths it would operate, but it is believed that it can detect and attack radar operating in X, KU, K, and KA bands (the latter oscillates from 33 to 36 Gz), and / or as a deceiver, this system would therefore provide a further and formidable one asset to be used to penetrate the A2 / AD Russian areas and preserve the aerial domain. As indeed stated by an MBDA spokesperson in the military magazine Armada: “This concept is designed specifically to counter the expected scenarios anti-access, area-denial of the future"3.

Finally, we should also consider the potential future use of drone swarms, which in Europe has found an interest above all in the British Ministry of Defense, which, according to the former minister Gavin Williamson, will be used by Royal Air Force to "confuse and suppress enemy air defense systems"4.

To conclude, it seems that although the Russian military systems are formidable, especially in relation to missile capabilities, they are still far from invincible and from creating impenetrable defense bubbles for Western air forces. Much of the Russian defense capabilities of A2 / AD thus appear to be more the result of an advertising campaign designed not only to increase the potential international sales of such systems, but also to offer an image of Russia as a great military power, unassailable and gifted of superior technological capabilities. As stated by the Swedish agency, rather than talking about "Anti-Access", It would therefore be more appropriate to refer only to one area"Area-Denial", In which the enemy forces, even with great difficulty, with the right and the adequate number of offensive systems, would nevertheless be able to penetrate.

1 https://www.foi.se/rest-api/report/FOI-R--4651--SE