As tensions rise with NATO, Russia announced the development of S-550 – an advanced, “never seen before” missile defense system, seemingly deadlier than the recently unveiled S-500 ‘Prometey’.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced this without giving details about the design or capability of the system. With the latest S-500 system still pending induction after successful trials, the teaser of the proposed S-550 has got the world abuzz with different theories and speculations.
Experts predict it could be a propaganda move by the Kremlin. However, some reports have suggested that it is actually a Soviet-era missile defense system, which was deferred due to the Arms Control Treaty with the United States.
However, no official communication has been forthcoming regarding this from Moscow.
According to the Russian state-run news agency TASS, the Soviet Union had been developing the S-550 “high-mobility terminal air defense system” in the 1980s.
That project, along with many others, was reportedly shuttered as part of Soviet-U.S. arms control agreements. With the bilateral relationship between the two states at an all-time low, Russia has started work on it afresh, according to some experts.
S-400 & S-500 SAMs
Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “Under the state armament program, 25 S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems and over 70 modern fighters were delivered over the past four years. More than 20 S-300 systems and 90 aircraft were upgraded.”
He also said that the Russian Army will get the first batch of S-500s, whose development, is years behind schedule. The Russian Army previously said that it would receive the first S-500 systems in 2020.
In July this year, the Russian military, for the first time, released footage showing the live wire test of its advanced S-500 Prometey (Prometheus in Russian) missile system. The test took place at southern Russia’s Kapustin Yar shooting range with the missile system engaging a high-speed ballistic target.
The induction of the S-500, touted as the most advanced and agile missile defense system in Russia’s arsenal, is yet to start.
The S-500 was launched to supplement S-400 ‘Triumf which is used and exported by Russia. The announcement of S-550 within a few months of the launch of S-500 raises several questions about the need, function, utility, procedure, and timing.
The S-500 is a surface-to-air missile system designed to intercept and destroy ICBMs as well as hypersonic cruise missiles. It has the requisite capability to evade anti-warning systems and for jamming aircraft.
It is designed to defend against UAVs, low-Earth orbit satellites and space weapons launched from hypersonic aircraft. The missile’s integrated feature put it in the same league as American THAAD. Despite these unparalleled features, it’s questionable why Russia teased a new system.
The observation that it wants to strengthen its domestic air defense is untenable because the Kremlin had observed that Russia has enough to induct as well as export to India and China, as reported previously by EurAsian Times.
The S-350 is another powerhouse in the Russian inventory designed to combat advanced standoff weapons threats like cruise missiles, manned stealth aircraft, medium and heavy unmanned vehicles and tactical ballistic missiles. It is capable of engaging and attacking targets in a full 360-degree area making it stand out from its own peers.
With the induction of this missile system last year and with the S-500 making an entry earlier this year, the configurations of S-550 would be intriguing. Some experts are speculating that as the S-500 supplements the S-400, the new S-550 might supplement the S-350.
Rising Tensions With West
The Russian teaser of a new defense system has come in the backdrop of the deteriorating relations between Russia and the US-led NATO. The announcement came days after the Russian Foreign Ministry linked the NATO drills in the Black sea as an American aim to contain Moscow.
The Russians also proclaimed that they were ready to fight any provocation arising out of NATO’s actions, hinting towards the Ukraine membership of the Treaty Alliance. The Foreign Ministry rebuttal came days after the US Sixth Fleet announced a flagship maritime exercise in the Black Sea that Russia considers its backyard.
The relations between the two blocs worsened after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and later American allegations on Russia for electoral interference. The tensions came to a head last month when Russia suspended the NATO mission altogether in retaliation for its own diplomats expelled by NATO.
The thorny relationship between the United States and Russia has caused a shift in geopolitical equations.
Despite Washington threatening countries with sanctions under CAATSA, several countries including India went ahead with S-400 procurements. Both of America’s arch-rivals, Russia and China have now upgraded their relationship. Russia has also been flirting with Pakistan apart from being India’s trusted defense supplier.
So while Russia embarks on crossroads with the United States, the latter has also been lobbying to get East European nations to become a part of NATO, a possibility that Russia considers as a geostrategic and security threat to itself.
All said, the question remains why Moscow chose to announce yet another air defense system. One reason could be intimidation tactics against NATO which has been conducting military drills in Russia’s backyard and challenging its authority.
A second possibility could be a marketing gimmick to fast-track the sales of existing systems — S-400 and the newly unveiled S-500 — to friendly countries. And the third factor could be propaganda to stir emotions domestically, within its own ranks and for the global community.