- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2018

It may be Russia’s most successful military export since the Kalashnikov — at least at driving a wedge between the U.S. and some key allies.

The S-400 advanced missile defense system, which has been a linchpin protecting Moscow’s military bases on the battlefields of Syria, is attracting renewed interest from countries such as India and Turkey — pitting Russia against the Trump administration’s drive to boost competing U.S. defense sales.

Since entering the Russian arsenal in 2007, the S-400 Triumph air defense system, which is also known by the NATO moniker SA-21 Growler, has quickly assumed the mantle as Moscow’s premier anti-aircraft missile system. Touted as a direct competitor to the American-made PAC-3 Patriot air defense missile system and the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense or THAAD — the main ballistic missile defense system fielded by U.S. forces, the S-400 is the beneficiary of an increasingly aggressive marketing campaign from Moscow.

The S-400’s performance in the Russian mission supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad is proving a major selling point, Russian military contractors say.

“The demand is rather significant after the Syrian events,” Alexander Mikheyev, CEO of Russian weapons firm Rosoboronexport, told the Tass news service last month. He said talks with other potential export customers are accelerating.

Moscow Defense Brief, a Moscow-based publication that monitors Russian military developments, said countries such as Algeria, Belarus, Iran and Vietnam are eyeing the S-400 and that the surface-to-air missile defense system could bring in up to $30 billion in sales over the next 15 years.

Rosoboronexport recently announced that it will stop conducting its export deals in U.S. dollars, allowing purchasers to use local currencies.

Moscow has ramped up its marketing of the weapon to foreign militaries, including those with long-standing military and diplomatic ties with Washington, despite a threat from the State Department that buyers of the S-400 face U.S. sanctions.

Moscow has racked up a series of S-400 sales to China, a near-peer competitor to the U.S. that is actively looking for systems to counter American THAAD deployments on the Korean Peninsula.

Beijing claims THAAD is a threat to the country’s ballistic missile deterrent and is also reportedly eying the S-400 in a bid to curb American and allied efforts to contain its ambitions in the South China Sea.

Russia has also targeted Turkey, a NATO member, and held discussions with other U.S. allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose military and diplomatic relationships with Washington are coming under increasing strain.

Tensions reached a head with Ankara over the proposed Turkish deal last month when Congress voted to block sales of the next-generation F-35 fighter jet to Turkey in opposition to its deal to buy the S-400.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is feuding with President Trump on a number of fronts, affirmed last year that his government was proceeding with the estimated $2.5 billion purchase despite American reservations. Turkish workers reportedly have been busy preparing a site that will host the Russian missile defense system.

The Pentagon and private defense analysts fear Ankara’s decision to field the Russian-made anti-aircraft missile system will draw Turkey deeper into Moscow’s growing sphere of influence in the Middle East.

Retired Adm. James G. Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander of NATO, warned that the willingness of U.S. allies to consider the S-400 is disconcerting.

“It decreases interoperability, opens up cyber vulnerabilities, exposes additional real intelligence to Russia and reduces the tendency of the U.S. to truly open its technology transfer process to partners,” Adm. Stavridis told the online publication Breaking Defense.com last year.

But with the S-400’s ability to launch missiles farther and higher than the American-made Patriot and THAAD systems, foreign militaries have flocked to the Russian-built weapon in numbers not seen since its launch in 2007.

Of the plethora of advanced Russian weaponry Moscow is seeking to export, the S-400 “is the one we are most concerned about,” said Andrea Thompson, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

“I know [American-made weaponry is] the best equipment in the world,” she said, but the S-400 is a viable alternative to some U.S. allies.

Moscow’s efforts to aggressively market the S-400 to American allies “adds another dimension to ongoing discussions” in U.S.-Russian diplomacy, Ms. Thompson told reporters during a breakfast meeting Friday in Washington. The issue could come up in talks at the U.N. General Assembly gathering in New York this month, she said.

Asked directly whether Russia’s S-400 sales push was intentionally targeting U.S. allies whose ties to the Trump White House are under strain, Ms. Thompson simply replied that Moscow “has multiple [diplomatic] tools at their disposal.”

Head to head

On paper, it is easy to see why S-400 and its newer variants could be appealing to foreign militaries trying to balance performance and cost.

With an effective range of 150 to 250 miles, depending on the type of missile used, the S-400’s reach far exceeds that of the THAAD system, which boasts a maximum range just shy of 120 miles.

The Triumph can launch the latest Russian long-range missile to a maximum altitude of nearly 114 miles. The Patriot has a maximum weapon altitude just over 24 miles, and the THAAD tops out at slightly over 90 miles, according to publicly released figures by the U.S. and Russian militaries.

The THAAD does hold a slight advantage over the S-400 system in terms of firepower. The S-400 can operate a battery of eight mobile launch systems capable of firing 32 missiles. The THAAD can field a smaller battery — six missile launchers — but can fire eight missiles per launcher, allowing the U.S.-made weapon to fire a maximum of 48 missiles.

The battlefield prowess of the S-400 is entirely hypothetical because the weapon has never been used in a combat situation.

Despite reports of its deployment alongside Russian forces supporting the Assad regime, the S-400 has yet to prove its devastating potential, said a State Department official, noting the numerous combat deployments of the Patriot and THAAD.

But the S-400’s skimpy track record has not deterred some potential buyers. One reason is pure economics, said the State Department official. Russia claims the weapon is capable of countering enemy fighter jets and other aerial threats while having an anti-ballistic missile capability. In the American arsenal, the Patriot’s main mission is tackling aerial threats such as fighters and bombers, and the anti-ballistic missile mission is left to the THAAD system.

Another reason, Ms. Thompson said, is that some former Soviet satellite states have long histories fielding Russian-made weapons, and that familiarity has bred a built-in market for systems like the S-400.

Those countries “have to wean themselves off of that,” said Ms. Thompson, noting that once those militaries fully embrace the superiority of American weaponry, “those folks will get it.”

A political weapon

Russia’s move to put more S-400 systems in the hands of American adversaries and allies alike is part of President Vladimir’s Putin’s larger challenge to U.S. and Western dominance.

“When you buy any nation’s defense equipment, you are not just buying the equipment; you are also building a relationship. The same is true for Russia,” the State Department official said.

A particularly delicate case in point is India, where talks between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis with their Indian counterparts last week focused in part on India’s interest in acquiring the S-400 from Russia.

Mr. Pompeo emerged from the talks saying, “Our effort here is not to penalize great strategic partners like India,” but he made it clear that the two sides were trying to resolve the issue of U.S. sanctions if India proceeds with purchasing the Russian system.

The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act may have unintentionally given Russia a diplomatic opening to outmaneuver the U.S. through its weapon sales.

The legislation, signed by Mr. Trump in August 2017, essentially made any foreign nation that dealt in Russian weaponry vulnerable to U.S. sanctions. The White House can grant waivers on a case-by-case basis.

Russia has used the sanctions law as a selling point for countries with close but frayed ties with the U.S.

“The S-400 has both commercial and geopolitical dimensions,” Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who is now a foreign policy analyst in Moscow, told Bloomberg News this summer. “It creates an opening for Russian influence for years to come.”

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