Can NATO Break Through Russia’s A2/AD?

In the 21st-century the strength of air power may be tested to its fullest in battle spaces containing advanced air defense systems such as the S-400. For NATO to operate effectively in combat environments with S-400s supported by S-300 and medium to close range SAM systems, NATO would need to fully integrate many assets and tactics to disable advanced Russian air defense networks effectively. Massive coordination would be required between NATO air, land, sea, space and cyber platforms to allow for destruction of these highly sophisticated and capable Russian air defense networks.

This coordination may be tough for even the United States who since Vietnam has yet to deal with a conflict involving a opposing military possessing modern air defense systems.  Since Vietnam the U.S has mainly been involved in conflicts against powers who had at best decades-old air defense tactics, training, and equipment as seen in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. Therefore,  neither the U.S nor other NATO countries have ever engaged an adversary possessing such systems like the S-400 or even the S-300 series of surface to air missiles systems. Although it is currently at the center of U.S training and doctrine development to be able to counter these threats, the world has yet to see the outcome of an air war with potentially hundreds of these advanced SAM systems.

With its estimated 400 km maximum range the vaunted Russian air defense system, the S-400  Triumf (SA-21) represents the pinnacle of  Russian mobile air defense development.   The launcher system, a significant upgrade of the S-300 (SA-10) system allows for multiple missile types of varying ranges including the long range 40N6 missile. The 40N6 missile utilizes an active radar homing (ARH)  seeker that could be capable of reaching out and engaging high-value air assets such as AWACS or other key opposing air assets.

The anti-access/ area denial strategy (A2/AD) hinges on systems such as the S-400 and S-300 to engage potential opposition air incursion in a swath of area within these systems range.  The A2/AD strategy has been adopted by both Russia and China as a counter to the United States air power. Along with sophisticated mobile missile defense systems such as S-400, anti-ship missile systems such as the K-300 Bastion-P provides a long range threat to U.S SAG’s (Surface Action Groups) and possibly to CVBG’s  (Carrier Battle Groups) with its estimated range of up to 300 km.  This synergy of systems would allow Russia to pose a significant threat to both  NATO sea and air forces operating in the Baltic and Black Seas.

The United States military’s approach to defeating systems such as the S-400 and S-300 revolves around saturation of the air defenses utilizing a blend of MALDS (Miniature Air Launched Decoys), MALD-J’s (radar jammer variant), JSOW’s (Joint Standoff Weapons), HARMs (High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile) and Tomahawks.  Additionally,  along with these systems, electronic warfare and cyber warfare would be highly utilized to form a comprehensive offensive along all domains.

In an engagement between the United States Air and advanced A2/AD systems, the Raytheon developed MALDS would be key in sufficiently saturating and overwhelming complex air defense systems. By using their onboard Signature Augmentation System (SAS)  the Miniature Air Launched Decoys (MALD) can simulate a range of different aircraft including B-52’s, F-16’s, F-18’s and others. In the eyes of an enemy air defense network, they would be unable to discern between MALDS and opposing fixed wing aircraft. This confusion could allow for the penetration of key assets to enable the potential destruction of the advanced SAM system by JSOWs, SLAM-ER’s, Tomahawks or other offensive assets and munitions.

In conjunction with the MALDs, MALD-J’s with their onboard radar jamming systems would compound the confusion and fog of war inflicted upon the opposition’s air defense network. Utilizing the confusion caused by the MALDs ingression into the battlespace other air assets in the role of SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defence)  would deploy HARM’s against the enemies stimulated emitting air defense platforms. At this time in the theoretical engagement, the air defense operators would be attempting to process and evaluate the multitude of decoy MALD contacts, in addition to attempting to work through the jamming caused by MALD-J’s and other OECM assets (Offensive Electronic Counter Measures).  Assets such as the F-35 could potentially thrive in this type of environment because their network sensor fusion capability coupled with their low radar signature.  Although low-band radars do have some degree of detecting utility against platforms such as the F-35, in the high-intensity battlespace with decoys such as MALDS and with OECM platforms deployed, the ability for an opposing force’s EW or other radar systems to effectively find and destroy low signature platforms will be heavily diminished.

F-35A Lightning II
F-35A Lightning II

The S-400s and S300 positioned in key areas such as Kaliningrad near the Baltic Sea,  Crimea or Syria pose a significant threat to NATO aircraft. However, NATO could counter these systems with a team of systems working synergistically to locate and destroy these power A2/AD assets.  For NATO to effectively operate in areas covered by these SAM area denial systems, a mixture of low-level terrain masking flying, low-signature aircraft, electronic warfare and standoff munitions would need to be integrated into a complex battle plan to neutralize systems such as the S-400s/S-300s and their supporting assets. Destroying these advanced SAM systems would then open the way for the numerous quantities of 4th generation aircraft to operate in the area of operations at higher operating altitudes allowing them to avoid the threat of dangerous Russian low-level AD systems such as Tunguska’s and shoulder-fired MANPADS. With many nations operating  4th generation aircraft within the NATO’s alliance, destroying high threat AD systems would open the way for NATO airpower to utilize their vast numerical advantage.

2K22 "Tunguska" self-propelled anti-aircraft weapon
2K22 “Tunguska” self-propelled anti-aircraft weapon

In places such as Syria, or Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea,  S-400 positioning by the Russians changes the strategic situation in the region, and has effect on strategic calculations made by NATO. This ability to cause disruption just by the placement of such systems can not be underplayed. As we progress into the 21st century, systems such as the S-400 will be a constant reminder that  even with low-radar cross section aircraft like the F-35 steadily joining the ranks of multiple nations militaries. To achieve air dominance in a possible 21st-century conflict  NATO  would need to fully utilize a multi-platform, multi-domain approach to countering such powerful system as the S-400.

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