Defense Media Network

S-400 Triumf/SA-21 Growler: New Threat Emerging

Anyone familiar with the history of Cold War-era airpower knows about the impressive reputation of Russian surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems and their effects on the modern battlefield. Born from the heavy anti-aircraft artillery units of the “Great Patriotic War” of World War II, Russia’s modern-day SAM systems are the direct descendants of early battlefield SAM systems fielded in the 1950s and 1960s. Systems like the S-75 Dvina/SA-2 Guideline and S-125 Neva/SA-3 Goa provided the building blocks for what has become a cornerstone of Russian military doctrine. This mandates that military forces operate, whenever possible, under a 24/7 integrated air defense umbrella anchored primarily by SAMs. Today, Russian military doctrine still mandates operating under a missile umbrella, though the SAM systems of the early 21st century are vastly more capable than those deployed in the 1960s. The newest and most impressive of these is the S-400 Triumf/SA-21 Growler strategic SAM.

S-400 is an evolved version of the S-300 family of SAM systems, and specifically is designed to replace the S-300P/PM (NATO Reporting Name – SA-10 Grumble) first deployed in the late 1970s. Developed to deal with terrain-following B-1 bombers and cruise missiles, the S-300P/PM provided the basis for a number of variants, including the naval S-300F/FM (NATO Reporting Name – SA-N-6 Grumble) and mobile theater battlefield S-300PMU-1/2 Favorit (NATO Reporting Name – SA-20 Gargoyle). However, the growing threat of long-range ballistic, cruise, and air-launched missiles, along with low-observable manned aircraft mandated that Russian designers produce a new family of strategic SAM systems: the S-400 Triumf. Designed and developed by the Almaz Central Design Bureau, and produced by the Fakel Machine-Building Design Bureau, S-400 is perhaps the finest such system in the world today.

Most of the S-400 battery hardware is based upon road-mobile BAZ-series semi-tractor-trailers, with some cross-country/rough terrain capability. Each S-400 Battalion/Squadron (battery) consists of 4 or 8 Transporter Erector Launchers (TELs – each with 4 missile rounds), along with a 91N6E/Big Bird acquisition radar, 92N6E/Grave Stone engagement radar, and 55K6E mobile command post. S-400 uses 3 distinct kinds of interceptor missiles to cover its entire performance envelope. These include:

  • The long-range (82 miles/135 kilometers) 48N6E3; an evolved model of the 48N6E and 48N6E2 missiles fired by the S-300PMU-2/SA-21 Favorit SAM system. During testing in 2004, an S-400 battery used a 48N6E2 to intercept and destroy a ballistic test target.
  • The short-range 9M96E and 9M96E2 (24/92 miles and 40/120 kilometers) which are roughly equivalent to the U.S. Patriot PAC-3 interceptor. These missiles are clustered in three-round packs that  fit the TELs in place of one larger 40N6 or 48N6E3 interceptor.

The S-400 interceptors are extremely maneuverable, and have maximum speeds around Mach 12, making their “no-escape” zone extremely large. Reportedly, 92N6E/Grave Stone engagement radar can track and engage up to six targets simultaneously. Every element of a battery is linked by a wireless data link network that can be augmented by hard-wired cables if time and the operational situation allow. In addition, the S-400 can also fire the missiles used by the S-300/SA-10/20 family of SAM systems, along with exchanging data with their sensors.

The initial S-400 deployment occurred in August 2006 near the town of Elektrostal, as an element of the Russian Air Force’s Special Purpose Command (the Moscow Air Defense network). Today the 584th and 606th Guards “Zenith” Rocket Regiment of the 9th PVO Division, 1st PVO Corps, are the key elements of the Moscow air defense ring. More recently, Air Force commander Col. Gen. Alexander Zelin announced that two new S-400 battalions would be delivered to the Far East by the end of 2010 near Vladivostok, close to the border with North Korea. Additional S-400 deployments to the Far East, Caucasus Region, Kola Peninsula, and St. Petersburg area are likely in the next few years. S-400 export sales, however, are not being considered at present.

As good as the S-400 is, there are already reports that the Russians are preparing an even newer ultra-long-range SAM system for deployment: the S-500 Autocrat/SA-23, which likely will be based on evolved versions of the S-400 missiles and subsystems. Reportedly capable of ranges out to 366 miles/600 kilometers, S-500 is supposed to be ready for deployment some time in the 2012-2014 timeframe, and will likely raise the bar even further for SAM systems around the world.


John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-1763">

    Yes very effective in Vietnam

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-1795">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    And initially against the Israeli Air Force before countermeasures and tactics were developed. The Israelis benefited from the U.S. experience countering SAMs in Vietnam.