The S-400 strikes out
The past few days have revealed yet more evidence of the failure of one of Vladimir Putin's world-beating whiz-bangs – the S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft system.
The S-400 is a supposedly state-of-the-art SAM system capable of knocking down either aircraft or missiles from treetop level to high altitude. It's a multilayered system featuring four distinct missile types with a maximum range of nearly 250 miles, which means that it dominates the airspace of the eastern Mediterranean littoral. It is considered best in its class, the missile system to beat. Some observers have gone so far to assert that the S-400 threatens to eliminate use of air power over the battlefield.
Russia deployed two S-400s to Syria, the first in late 2015 after a Turkish fighter shot down a Russian SU-24, the second in January of this year. This was generally interpreted as Moscow laying down a marker as to how seriously it took its Syrian alliance. The Russians played this to the hilt, periodically threatening to unleash the S-400 on all comers while utilizing the system as a shield for the activities of forces loyal to Bashar Assad.
The deployment of the S-400 led to serious misgivings and sleepless nights among Western nations, particularly in Israel. This ended with the April 13 strike against Assad's nerve gas industry, when the U.S., Britain, and France fired 105 missiles against targets in Syria. Every last missile hit its target while the mighty S-400, Slayer of Missiles, failed to launch so much as a single SAM in response. (The Syrians fired a number of missiles – perhaps as few as two – after the strike occurred. They hit nothing.)
The immediate Russian reaction was telling – a claim that the S-400 had shot down no fewer than 70 of the attacking missiles, including all of the U.S. models. (Evidently, this line is still being pushed by domestic Russian media.)
Since this claim fell apart under the weight of its own absurdity, a number of other excuses have popped up: that the U.S. cheated by flying missiles over Lebanon (this is something widely known as "tactics") or that the Russians failed to carry out any interceptions out of politeness. Both of these, needless to say, contradict the original Russian claim.
Western think-tank spokesmen have rushed to support these claims:
The logic tree suggests we should avoid any hard conclusions, or be a little too triumphal about our ability to penetrate the S-400.
All the same, further evidence of the failure of the S-400 has appeared with the news that the Russians have rushed a shipment of the S-300 anti-aircraft system to Syria. While the media are playing this up as a potential delivery to the Assad government, the logic tree here suggests that it's an effort by the Russians to bolster their own anti-aircraft assets in the wake of the collapse of the S-400.
The S-300 is a precursor system to the S-400, first deployed in 1979 and nowhere near as advanced, but at least it's known to be able to shoot down targets. While the Russians may have vague notions of turning the system over to the Syrians eventually – where it will shortly be bombed out of existence by Israel – there's little doubt that its primary purpose is to take over from the S-400 – one of a long line of Russian super-weapons that somehow just didn't work out.