WASHINGTON — For decades, the Russian-made Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle was the scourge of the Pentagon around the world.
Now Moscow has found another weapon to torment Washington: its S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. Like the Kalashnikov, the S-300 and S-400 are much better priced than U.S. counterparts, are easier to use and have a rugged simplicity that is prized by nations seeking high-grade help.
“What it means is that potential U.S adversaries are being armed and if — and this is a big if — if the U.S. needs to take military action, those countries have a missile system that would make it more difficult for the U.S. military,” Philip Coyle, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told TMN.
The Kalasnikov gave power and punch to governments and rebels groups around the world. Now Moscow appears intent on replicating that strategy with its surface-to-air missile systems.
Russia’s sale of the S-400 system to China triggered U.S. sanctions against Beijing by the State Department last week. Those sanctions were in accordance with legislation aimed at punishing Moscow for interference in U.S. elections, aggression in Ukraine and involvement in Syria’s civil war.
The State Department and Pentagon are frantic that India will buy the system. Both have also warned Turkey, a NATO member with the U.S., that it could face retaliation for purchasing the S-400 system. Saudi Arabia, considered a U.S. ally, is also eyeing a S-400 purchase. Others interested nations include Qatar, Algeria, Iraq, Iran and Belarus.
“It’s a cheaper system for some of these countries, it’s an alternative,” Andrea Thompson, the undersecretary for arms control and international security, told defense writers earlier this month, referring to the S-400.
The popularity of the S-400 stems from its ability to knock out drones and ballistic and cruise missiles within a range of 250 miles up to an altitude of close to 20 miles. Indian government officials have said they like it because of its reliability, ruggedness and redundancy, according to news reports.
Russian weapons have a well-deserved reputation of being “tough and effective” and built as simple as possible for the widest possible use, Earl Tilford, a military historian, author and former director of research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, told TMN.
“We select the best of our pilots as test pilots, some with aeronautical engineering degrees. We put the plane through its paces then send it out to squadrons,” Tilford said. “The Russians put planes in service to see if the average Ivan can fly it. If an average pilot can fly it, it’s good.”
This week Russia said it would deliver the S-300 system to Syria. The decision was triggered by the accidental shootdown of one of its spy planes by Syria, which was aiming for Israeli planes attacking Syrian facilities.
Among the nations with some type of S-300 system: China, India, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Greece, Venezuela and Egypt.
Coyle said Syria is perhaps the more immediate concern.
“You can imagine something happening with Syria that would require the military to take action. We have jets that fly over Syria, we might have reconnaissance aircraft that would be flying over Syria, early warning radar aircraft and the like. All of those would be targets for the S-300,” said Coyle, who is also the former director of operational test and evaluation at the Pentagon and associate director for national security and international affairs at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.
The advanced systems also would increase the threat against the slow-traveling Tomahawk missiles as well as Stealth aircraft and missiles, he added.
Coyle said the Pentagon would have to take out the anti-missile batteries before they launch any strike on Syria or any nation with the systems to reduce the threat to strike elements.
“The anti-missile systems can be overwhelmed,” Coyle said, using electronic warfare or jamming or sending in a number of missiles the system could not handle. “So again, it would depend on the nature of the conflict.”