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Almaz S-300 – China's “Offensive” Air Defense

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by Dr. Carlo Kopp
Published on February 25th, 2006

The most capable air defence system currently in PLA service are derivatives of the Russian Almaz S-300PMU/SA-10 Grumble family of Surface to Air Missiles. The S-300 SAM systems remain one of the most lethal, if not the most lethal, all altitude area defence SAM systems in service, with a range of more capable derivatives entering service in Russia, or in development. Over the Taiwan Strait the later versions of the S-300 become "offensive" weapons in that they can attack targets in Taiwanese airspace, severely challenging that nation’s air defense. Moreover, these missiles threaten all U.S. combat aircraft that may be called upon to assist Taiwan other than the stealthy B-2A and F-22A, the latter which is just entering service in diminished numbers.

China remains the single substantial export client for the S-300PMU/SA-10 Grumble, with other export sales having been sporadic and small. Until the advent of the S-300PMU/SA-10, the PLA's primary area defence SAM was the HQ-2, a reverse engineered derivative of the 1960s Soviet S-75 Dvina/Volkhov/Volga or SA-2 Guideline. With mobile tracked TELs and conventional launchers, the HQ-2 was not a credible weapon due to the vulnerability of its Fan Song series engagement radars to jamming and anti-radiation missile attack.

The S-300PMU/SA-10 family of SAMs are true analogues to the US MIM-104 Patriot, providing similar capabilities against aircraft targets at all altitudes, as well as ballistic missiles. With later variants offering genuine 'shoot and scoot' capabilities, the S-300PMU/SA-10 systems are both highly lethal, and highly survivable.

Evolution of the SA-10/SA-20

The origins of the S-300PMU/SA-10 system date to the late 1960s, when the Soviets opted to develop a much more effective SAM system to replace the S-75/SA-2 and S-200/SA-5, neither of which proved effective operationally. The intended 'common' S-300 was to be used by the Voyska PVO (Air Defence Forces), PVO SV (Army Air Defence) and Voenno-Morskii Flot (Navy), but the program soon unravelled and resulted in the very much unique V-PVO S-300P and PVO-SV S-300V systems.

The first production model was the S-300PT or SA-10A, with a towed 5P85 TEL, the V-500/5V55 SAM, a towed 5N63S Flap Lid A engagement radar, a towed 36D6 Tin Shield 3D acquisition radar, and the unique LEMZ 5N66/76N6 Clam Shell continuous wave low altitude acquisition radar, typically mast mounted. An important innovation was the family of semi-mobile 75 ft 40V6, 40V6M and 120 ft 40V6MD mast systems, available for the Flap Lid, Tin Shield and Clam Shell to provide much extended low altitude coverage.

The label 'Patriot-ski' is a reasonable one. The 5N63S and later 30N6 engagement radar is like the Patriot's MPQ-53 a space fed passive phased array design, built to concurrently track and engage multiple targets, and inherently difficult to jam with low sidelobe performance and high peak power. The command link guided 5V55K SAM could engage targets between 80 ft and 80 kft, to 25 nmi range.

With the advent of the F-4G Wild Weasel IV and EF-111A Raven during the late seventies, the Soviets responded in 1982 with the highly mobile S-300PS/SA-10B (S -Samokhodniy – Self Propelled), which saw the improved Flap Lid B and 5P85 TEL integrated on a 8x8 MAZ-7910, based on the MAZ 543 Scud TEL. The S-300PS is the forerunner of most current S-300PMU/SA-10 variants and a true 'shoot and scoot' system, unlike the Patriot. A key innovation was the new 5V55KD SAM, which introduced a Track Via Missile (TVM) terminal guidance scheme similar to the Patriot, and highly jam resistant.

The first export variant appeared in 1989, the S-300PMU/SA-10C, based on the S-300PS/SA-10B. The S-300PMU/SA-10C introduced the semitrailer based 5P85T road mobile TEL, cheaper and faster than the SA-10B's 5P85D/S TELs, but unable to negotiate rough terrain.

By 1993 Almaz developed a further evolution, in the S-300PM and S-300PMU-1 or SA-10D, the latter the export variant. Incremental and deep improvements were made to the 30N6E1 Flap Lid D, the 54K6E1 command post, and the Clam Shell was the retained. Two key innovations were the new 48N6 SAM, and the new NIIIP 64N6E Big Bird phased array acquisition radar, designed to acquire aircraft and ballistic missiles. The Mach 6 48N6 missile expanded the engagement envelope down to 25 ft AGL, out to 80 nmi, and added an Anti-Ballistic Missile capability comparable to the Patriot PAC-1/PAC-2 configuration. Almaz claim capability to 21.5 nmi and 2.8 km/sec.

The 64N6 was however the bigger advance. It is a large 2 GHz band reflective phased array, with boom mounted feeds, in a dual sector 'Janus-faced' arrangement. In terms of capabilities the 64N6 is best described as a 'land based Aegis analogue', with an aperture size similar to the SPY-1A Aegis system. It is fully mobile and can be deployed or stowed in five minutes.

While the SA-10D is formidable, Almaz continued with enhancements, releasing the further improved S-300PMU-2/SA-10E Favorit during the late 1990s. The Favorit introduced incremental improvements to the 30N6E2, 64N6E2, 54K6E2, and introduced the new all altitude LEMZ 96N6E Tombstone acquisition radar, replacing the Tin Shield, and the extended range 48N6E2 SAM. The Favorit retains compatitibility with the earlier 48N6/48N6E1 missiles, but also introduced software and interfaces allowing it to control legacy S-200VE/SA-5 Gammon batteries, and their 5N62VE Square Pair illuminators. In 2002 the Russians stated that existing S-300PM systems could be block upgraded to the Favorit-S configuration.[1]

The next evolutionary step was the Almaz/Antey S-400 Triumf or SA-20, which is to achieve initial operational capability in Russia this year. The Triumf introduces further incremental improvements to the systems, and adds three entirely new SAM types to the weapons package.

The first two are the 96M6E and extended range 96M6E2. These are Russian equivalents to the US ERINT/PAC-3 interceptor, with both missiles using a combination of thrust vector control and canard surfaces to achieve agility, analogous in design to a short range air to air missile. Both weapons have active radar seekers and directional shaped charge warheads with a smart fusing system. Four of these missiles can be carried in tubes, within the footprint of a single 48N6 missile, allowing a single TEL to deploy 16 weapons.

A third missile type has been reported, with a cited range of 215 nmi against a high altitude target, since identified as the 48N6DM (Dal'naya – long range). This missile was developed to defeat AWACS, JSTARS, Rivet Joint, U-2, Global Hawk and other standoff ISR capabilities, as well as EA-6B or EF-18G support jammers. The Kolchuga long range ESM system is cited as a passive targeting adjunct for the Triumf system.

The Triumf thus provides a layered air defence capability within a single highly mobile system, with the 96M6 family missiles providing an organic self-defence engagement capability against smart weapons such as the Tomahawk, ALCM, JASSM, JSOW, HARM, JDAM-ER and SLAM-ER.

At least one report claims that funding for the development of the Triumf was provided in part by the PLA.

The recently announced 'Samodyerzhets' system is the latest evolution in the S-300PMU family of missiles. It is a fusion of technologies from the S-400 and PVO-SV S-300VM systems, designed as a dual role SAM/ABM system.

Russian sources claimed in 2003 that the system 'combine[s] the far range of the S-300VM missile and the advanced electronics of the S-400 missile'. Jane's identified, in 2004, the use of the extended range 9M82M Giant B round from the S-300VM, in an enhanced S-400 system. The TELAR configuration has yet to be disclosed.

S-300 and S-400 Missiles: The larger 48N6E “Favorit,” which arms later models of the S-300 system, and the more compact 9M96E and 9M96E2 missiles of the S-400 system. Photo: RD Fisher

The S-300V/SA-12 and S-300VM/Antey-2500, despite sharing designations with the S-300PMU systems, are entirely unique weapons produced originally by Antey, prior to the forced merger of Antey and Almaz. Fully mobile, on tracked chassis based on the MT-TM utility vehicle, the S-300V system was intended to replace the cumbersome 2K11/3M8 Krug/1S12 Long Track/1S32 Pat Hand/SA-4 Ganef system, and provide divisional SAM and ABM capabilities. Design objectives were air defence, defeat of Pershing ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and supersonic standoff missiles like the AGM-69 SRAM.

The large 9S32 Grill Pan engagement radar is a large X-band phased array with extensive ECCM capabilities, it is supplemented by the 9S15 Obzor 3 / Bill Board acquisition radar and 9S19 Imbir / High Screen ABM acquisition radar. The system uses two hypersonic SAM types, the Novator designed 9M82 Giant long range weapon, and shorter 9M83 Gladiator. Both SAMs use command link and inertial midcourse control with terminal continuous wave semi-active homing, using large illuminator/command link antennas on the 9A82 and 9A83 TELARs. To date the Russians have been claiming the high ground in the ABM market, with the 9M82 and enhanced 9M82M missiles, the latter cited at 108 nmi range. Performance is claimed to be good enough to defeat IRBMs with velocities of 4.5 km/sec.

China and the S-300PMU

Russian sources claim that the PLA now operates 12 batteries of S-300PMU, eight delivered during the 1990s and four very recently. A deal for an additional four to eight batteries was being negotiated in 2003, ostensibly to cover sites facing Taiwan, with earlier buys providing cover for Beijing and Shanghai. Available photographs suggest a mix of S-300PMU-1 and PMU-2, the configuration of the latest buy is unknown.

S-300 Coverage of Taiwan Strait: This map from the 2005 issue of the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual report on PLA modernization shows that new S-300s can cover air routes used by international airliners landing on Taiwan, as well as illustrating the PLA’s ability to deny the air-defense buffer of the Taiwan Strait to the Taiwan Air Force. Source: U.S. Department of Defense

It is unclear just how many of these missiles China is buying, but for Russia, a battery may contain 36 to 48 missiles. If the PLA is replicating Russia’s battery structure, then it could be buying 700 to over 1,000 of these missiles, assuming that spare and practice missiles will be part of the total.

Janes claim that China is manufacturing an SA-10 variant under the designation HQ-15, but do not specify the configuration or variant of the weapon system. More is known about the HQ-12 or FT-2000, which appears to be a derivative of the SA-10 design.

The HQ-12/FT-2000 was developed to destroy Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance assets with active radar systems such as the E-3 AWACS, E-8 JSTARS and E-2C Hawkeye.

It employs a broadband passive anti-radiation seeker with coverage cited between 2 GHz and 18 GHz, with inertial midcourse guidance and memory capability to retain the location of an emitter which shuts down. CPMIEC released images of the antenna array, which used a two axis gimbal and platform with multiple antenna elements, a technique also used in the Russian Kh-31P missile's L-111E passive seeker. The seeker is claimed to include a home-on-jam capability.

Mockups of the missile show the addition of strakes to increase glide range and turn rate during terminal homing. Missiles are carried on an 8x8 WS2400 TEL, and a battery uses four vehicles with ESM receivers used to triangulate the target.

What the S-300PMU and HQ-12 provide the PLA with is the capability to deny airspace to most regional air forces, including that of Taiwan, and to present the US Navy with genuine difficulty in penetrating Chinese airspace. The S-300PMU series is less than effective when confronted with highly stealthy types like the US Air Force B-2A and F-22A Raptor, the latter expected to be used extensively for lethal suppression of S-300PMU based air defences.

S-300 Firing: The PLA may be purchasing up to 1,000 of the S-300 SAM series. Source: Internet

Of particular concern is the long range of the later missile types deployed by S-300PMU variants, as batteries located along the Taiwan Straight could be used to produce an effect not unlike that seen in 1973, when Egyptian 9M9/SA-6 batteries were able to extend a protective umbrella across the Suez Canal, allowing Egyptian forces to perform an amphibious assault against fortified Israeli positions in the Sinai. The 80 nmi range of the baseline 48N6 missile allows a high altitude target over Taiwan's eastern coast to be engaged by a mainland shore based battery. Should the PLA deploy the S-400 with the 108 nmi range 48N6E2 missile, or longer ranging weapons like the 48N6DM, it gains the capability to deny airspace over Taiwan proper.

With SAMs which have range performance well in excess of 100 nmi, the PLA acquires the means of effecting a partial airspace blockade over Taiwan, forcing all air traffic into Taiwanese airfields via eastern approaches at low altitude, to avoid entering the envelope of the SAM systems. Most of Taiwan’s international and domestic air traffic travels along its Western coast, which would be covered by the longer-range S-300 weapons.

In addition, such a missile blockade also affects the rest of Asia, insofar as major air transport corridors critical to commerce between Northeast and Southeast Asia transit the Taiwan Strait. In times of tension it is not inconceivable that accidental launches could replicate the September 1983 KAL 007 disaster, in which Soviet fighters shot down a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 airliner killing 269 people, or the unfortunate USS Vincennes incident in 1988, which killed 290 people.

The high mobility of the SA-10/20 and their high jam resistance force engagement techniques using stealthy fighters and hard kill weapons, as conventional SEAD and EW techniques become exceptionally risky.

In conclusion, the PLA now has a significant air defence capability in its regiments of SA-10 systems, sufficient to effectively deny Chinese airspace to the Taiwanese and indeed other regional air forces. Should it deploy later variants such as the S-400, it will gain further breadth, depth and capabilities.

If the United States wishes to have a credible capability to decisively defeat the PLA's developing SAM force, it will need many more than just 183 F-22A fighters.


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2. Kopp C (1995), Clam Shell boost S-300PMU/PMU-1 Capability, Jane's Missiles and Rockets,, accessed January 2006.

3. Kopp Carlo (1997), `Benchmarking the Wider Regional Threat', Australian Aviation, December, Aerospace Publications, Canberra,, accessed January 2005.

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6. Kopp C (2004), Russia's Impressive S-300 SAM Systems, Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, Volume 30 Number 8 Oct 2004, pp38-42.

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Dr. Carlo Kopp is a Melbourne, Australia, based defense analyst and academic. His work has been published by the US Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force, and a wide range of publications including the Journal of Electronic Defense. He is a Research Fellow at the Monash Asia Institute, dealing with regional military strategy issues, editor and co-founder of the Air Power Australia website, and lectures on computing and systems engineering topics at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.

[1] Russian sources claim that the Favorit will be compatible with the 96M6 series missiles otherwise attributed to the Triumf. Given the modularity of the S-300 series systems, it is likely that hybrid variants will proliferate as various capabilities are added in block upgrades. This reflects the model seen with Sukhoi Su-27/30 Flanker fighters, where arbitrary variants acquire capabilities previously seen only in advanced demonstrators.

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