Defeating the S-400 with stealth aircraft

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the S-400 is among the most advanced air defense systems in the world. Its declared engagement range of 400km easily exceeds the range of comparable US terrestrial SAM systems. So impressive are its stats, that even a NATO country like Turkey chose it over the American Patriot system.

Yet, I will claim in this article that US carrier strike squadrons comprising a total of 24 strike aircraft and 6 EW aircraft are more than capable of destroying a highly fortified S-400 battalion. And, furthermore, that they can accomplish this without incurring any aircraft losses.

Let’s begin by reviewing the Russian premier air defence system. A S-400 battalion consists of a command vehicle, a 91N6 Big Bird search radar, a 92N6 fire control radar and up to 12 TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher) units, each with 4 long range 40N6E missiles. This structure is illustrated in the figure below:

S-400 regiment architecture
Source: Wikipedia

The 91N6 Big Bird surveillance and track radar operates in S-band. It is a space-feed phased reflector array, with two feeds radiating each of the reflector antennas mounted back-to-back. This radar is credited with a detection range of 600km against a large, bomber sized aircraft.

The 92N6 Grave Stone is an X-band fire control radar, with a space feed phased array similar to the US Patriot system. This fire control radar can engage 6 targets with up to 12 missiles at a time.

Grave Stone fire control radar on the left. S-400 TEL on the right
Source: Wikipedia

To simulate the engagement of US Navy aircraft and the state-of-the-art Russian air defense systems, I will use the Command Modern Operations commercial simulator.

For the purpose of this analysis, the Red Force will comprise of 1 S-400 battalion with 12 TELs. I will augment this force with layered medium and short range air defense. The medium layer will consist of a single S-350 battalion with 4 TELs each carrying 12 missiles with 65nm range. The S-350 became the newest Russian SAM system when it entered service in 2019.

Point defense will consist of 4 9K330 Tor-M2KM (SA-15) TELARs (Transporter Erector Launcher And Radar) and 4 Pantsir-S1 (SA-22) vehicles. Furthermore, I will attach a long range anti-stealth Nebo-M VHF radar to the batallion. Therefore, the Red Force will have a total of 12×4=48 400km range missiles, 4×12=48 medium range missiles, plus 4×8=32 15km range SA-15 missiles and 4×12=48 18km range SA-22 missiles. In addition, the Pantsir systems field 30mm effector guns.

Nebo-M VHF radar
Source: Wikipedia

The Nebo-M is a modern AESA radar operating in the VHF band. Stealth fighters are optimised against short wavelengths in the X-band range, because this is where most fighter radars and ground fire control radars operate at. Because the Nebo-Ms wavelength is in the meter range, which is comparable in size to many features of a fighter aircraft fuselage, the radar scattering will be in the resonance region rather than the optical region, severely degrading their stealth profile. While this radar is more than capable at detecting F-35 class aircraft at ranges in excess of 100km, it is not impervious to jamming as we shall see below.

The Blue Force will comprise 2 carrier strike squadrons with 12 F-35C per squadron, where each aircraft is armed with 8 GBU-53/B StormBreakers SDB-II (small diameter bombs) and 2 AMRAAMs. This represents only a half of the strike aircraft normally embarked on US carriers. Augmenting the strike package are 6 EA-18G Growler EW (electronic warfare) aircraft, each armed with 2 AGM-88E AARGM anti-radiation missiles. The Growlers will be critical in degrading the performance of Russian SAM radars and allowing the F-35s to approach undetected within range of their glide bombs.

This strike package carries a total of 8×24=192 subsonic bombs and 12 supersonic anti-radiation missiles. In the spirit of the US Air-Sea battle doctrine, it will be augmented by 2 B-52H strategic bombers each carrying 12 expendable MALD-J stand-in jammer drones. Target reconnaissance will be carried out by the Triton UAV.

ADM-160B MALD drone
Source: Wikipedia

Because this is a purely hypothetical scenario of aircraft vs SAMs, the Red Side will not be operating aircraft of its own. Blue Side aircraft will approach from the sea, allowing perfect unobstructed radar horizon for the Red Side.

Let’s switch to Command: Modern Operations.

I organised the attack force into 4 vectors, each composed of 4 F-35C and 2 EA-18Gs. The Growlers are flying about 30nm behind the F-35s. In between, we have 3 flights of 8 MALD-J drones each. As you can see from the image below, all the aircraft are well within the firing range of the S-400 (dotted circle), except for the Triton UAV and the B-52Hs.

White circles denote F-35 flights of 4 aircraft each. Yellow circles denote Growler EW flights of 2 aircraft each. The 3 clusters in the middle are the MALD-J drones

However, its only the big Nebo-M radar that’s picking up any contacts, in this case the MALD drones at 112nm. The jammers appear to be doing their job.

MALD-J incoming!

First missiles are fired at the drones only once they’ve closed to about 50nm, because the X-band FCRs were not able to establish a good enough firing solution at longer distance due to jamming:

First missiles away at bogeys

All this time, while the S-400 and S-350 were draining their missiles against the drones, the F-35C were closing in completely undetected at 12,000 feet obscured by the Growler aircraft jamming beams flying behind them. As long as the strike aircraft and the EW aircraft are aligned with the main lobe of the Russian radars, the F-35s will remain obscured at ranges they would normally be detected.

Once the F-35s close the distance to 60nm, they release their small diameter bombs at the Russian SAMs and the radars, dive to 2000 feet and retreat undetected. The SDB-II bombs are highly accurate thanks to a combination of terminal active radar and infra-red imaging homing. They are not a particularly difficult target for the Russian SAMs, but what they lack in evasive manoeuvres they more than make up in numbers.

Conclusion

The red side fired a total of 136 missiles and 1700 rounds of 30mm ammo against 24 MALD-J drones, 144 SDB-II bombs and 6 AGM-88E missiles on the Blue Side. Ultimately, it was the sheer number of bombs the 24 F-35Cs unleashed that depleted the magazines of Russian SAMs and the remainder overwhelmed the limited firepower of the Pantsirs’ auto cannons. The result was a total destruction of Red Force, with 50 bombs to spare on the Blue Force side.

A one-sided match summary

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