Russia’s Mystery of Missile Defense

By Pavel Luzin, Visiting Scholar at The Fletcher School

On March 22, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu declared that Russia will complete the modernization of the missile defense system around Moscow by the end of 2023. He also announced the upcoming deployment of new units: one air defense division, one air defense brigade, one regiment equipped with S-350 medium-range air defense systems, the space monitoring radar station Razvyazka and one special operations brigade for air and missile defense (Mil.ru, March 22).

Paradoxically, the very next day, on March 23, the Indian Air Force reported that Russia has delayed the supply of S-400 systems to New Delhi. According to the contract signed in 2018, delivery of the air defense systems was previously scheduled for 2023 and must be completed by 2024 (The Economic Times, March 23). This delay has appeared, despite reassurances of Russian officials, who confirmed that the S-400 systems would still be delivered to India according to the original schedule (Interfax, February 13). Even so, this is not the first time the process has been delayed. The first delays appeared in late 2022 (TASS, January 12), only several months after the Kremlin’s declaration that its war against Ukraine will not influence the S-400 contract with India (RIA Novosti, March 18, 2022).

However, the fact of the matter is that the head of the state-owned Almaz-Antey Corporation, the major Russian manufacturer of air and missile defense systems, already confirmed that the war in Ukraine has created significant problems for the corporation’s manufacturing activity as early as April 2022 (Oborona.ru, April 25, 2022). Moreover, Russia has started to use S-300 and even S-400 missiles as short-range surface-to-surface missiles (Focus.ua, January 14). Consequently, the delays in S-400 supplies to India were inevitable considering the limited ability of Russia to produce these missiles domestically, largely as a result of Western sanctions (see EDM, January 23). Nevertheless, this situation also clarifies the Kremlin’s priorities in the field of air and missile defense.

Russia has spent more than two decades and invested about 550 billion rubles (approximately $13 billion) into the modernization of its production capacity for air and missile defense systems. In fact, the development of just three new plants, in St. Petersburg, Kirov and Nizhniy Novgorod, alone cost 107 billion rubles ($3 billion) (Oborona.ru, April 25, 2022). The main projects during these years included the development of S-400 systems; the development of modernized versions of silo-based missiles for Moscow’s ballistic missile defense system, 53T6s for high-altitude targets and 51T6s for outer-atmosphere interception; and the development of S-500 mobile ballistic missile defense systems with high-altitude 77N6 interceptors, which are likely unified with the modernized silo-based 53T6 missiles or are meant to replace them (Interfax, May 23, 2017; Krasnaya Zvezda, January 22, 2020; EADaily.com, September 28, 2021; see EDM, December 17, 2021).

However, the problem with this production approach has been that all these planned projects were a bit ambitious and faced severe technological as well as manufacturing problems, despite the billions of rubles in investments and the tens of thousands of engineers and scientists who work for Almaz-Antey. For example, Russia was only able to start a scaled serial manufacturing of long-range 40N6 missiles for the S-400 systems by 2018 (RBC, February 18, 2019; TASS, April 29, 2019; TASS, January 26, 2020). In addition, the start of serial manufacturing for S-500 systems was announced in 2021, one year later than the originally planned goal of 2020. Furthermore, the first delivery of S-500 systems to the Russian Armed Forces was announced in 2022. But now, these supplies will not be ready until 2025 (Kommersant, August 23, 2021; Vedomosti, May 18, 2022). In this way, the announced completion of the final modernization of the ballistic missile defense system around Moscow by the end of 2023 may also be postponed due to the proliferation of problems in manufacturing these missiles.

Even so, the Kremlin, together with Almaz-Antey, is attempting to boost this process and may not care much about the reputation of Russian arms supplier in the eyes of India, among others. Moreover, during wartime, when the global market is shrinking and closing for Russia, domestic arms supplies became the highest priority considering that the Russian Armed Forces are actively suffering from a deficit in arms. Regarding the air and missile defense systems, the Kremlin may think that a weakened Russia needs to be ready for an upcoming clash with the modernized Ukrainian army, equipped with Western arms and munitions, as soon as possible. In this way, the announcement of the further deployment of the first special operations air and missile defense brigade should be questioned. Thus, in the face of mounting production issues and a growing deficit in technical capabilities, in the short to medium term, Russia will have to get creative with its ballistic missile defense capabilities in and around Moscow.

This post was republished from The Jamestown Foundation Website.

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