USA vs Russia: Breaking the S-400 (with F-35s)
Friday, October 1st, 2022. At 0800 hours, destroyer elements of the US Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 2 begin launching an enormous Tomahawk cruise missile strike. The target: Multiple structures controlled by the Syrian regime suspected to be involved in the production of chemical weapons. The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile is a standoff weapon, launched from extreme distance, putting the Carrier Strike Group well outside the range of Syrian retaliation. Now the missiles make their way towards the Syrian coast, skimming just thirty meters above the ocean surface. Using the curvature of the earth to hide themselves from ground-based radar.
Unlike the Shayrat missile strike of 2017, where 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles savaged Shayrat airbase in response to chemical weapons usage, these Tomahawk missiles are about to encounter unexpected resistance in the form of a very modern Russian Surface to Air missile system. The Russians have decided to step in this time to defend the interests of their Syrian ally using assets already in place at Khmeimim Airbase near the city of Latakia Based on our research, these assets currently include a handful of modern Sukhoi fighters, Pantsirs, Tors and Buks for point defense, and the vaunted S-400 ‘Triumpf’ missile system. Much has been said about the S-400, the latest in a long line of Russian surface to air missile systems.
A long ranged, ‘anti-stealth’, ‘jam-resistant’ radar. And missiles with an often-quoted range of 400 kilometers, double that of its predecessor. Let’s see how well the S-400 stands up to various weapon systems in this hypothetical operation. The incoming missiles are first spotted by the Airborne Early Warning aircraft at 115 nautical miles, the data is relayed down to the now alerted S400 battalion. At 30 nautical miles, the S400 opens up, pouring dozens of missiles from its launchers on intercept courses.
The Sukhoi’s on combat air patrol join the fray, launching long-range R-27 Alamos, short-range heat seeking Archers, and finally resorting guns, guns, guns. Shorter ranged systems networked to the S400 now chime in. Pantsir, Tor and Buk missile systems contributing their share, thinning the herd even further. With all loaded magazines expended, the remaining missiles press on.
Cruising towards their targets on preprogramed paths. Tomahawks make their final approach, older Syrian S75 missile systems stationed nearby mount a final line of defense. Even on its own, this S-400 battery was able to degrade this cruise missile strike.
Luckily for us, this Russian intervention has aggravated the United States who’ve just authorized Carrier Strike Group 2 to suppress and destroy the S400 battalion. It’s almost as if someone set this up to explore SEAD, Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses against a modern SAM network. We’ll run this combat simulation twice, first with older conventional technology. Using 4th generation non-stealth aircraft, employing weapons and avionics available to a US Navy Carrier Strike Group around the year 2015.
Then, we’ll run that exact same scenario again with 5th generation stealth aircraft, with cutting edge technology, including new weapons that’s expected to become operational within three years’ time. Let’s get started. It’s October 2nd, the next day, at 0800 hours, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower turns
into the headwind and begins launching the strike package. A symphony of activity on deck as the supercarrier executes a massive launch operation, 45 aircraft in all, one aircraft taking off every twenty seconds. The 4th generation strike group consists primarily of multiple groups of F/A-18 Super Hornets equipped with all manner of weaponry. Miniature Air Launched Decoys (MALD-J) to jam and distract.
Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missiles to home in and knock out emitting radars. Joint Standoff Glide Bombs to destroy launchers and infrastructure. And always a few AMRAAM air-to-air missiles sprinkled in to deal with those pesky Sukhoi fighters. For support, we have an E2-C Hawkeye to serve as our eyes and ears. And EA-6B Prowlers to conduct electronic warfare.
Let’s get this party started. The lead group of F/A-18 Super Hornets begins the engagement, each launching four MALD-J decoys. These decoys appear on Russian radar as dangerous fighter aircraft and providing some jamming capability, forcing a response out of the Sukhoi fighters who charge in to intercept. Expending valuable air to air missiles before realizing the deception. Behind the MALD-Js is the real threat, Super Hornets engage onto the Sukhoi’s, clearing a path for the SEAD package behind them.
Here we see the first Beyond Visual Range engagement. Fighters loft their missiles higher up into thinner atmosphere for maximum distance and begin to crank. You ‘crank’ by turning to one side, keeping enemy fighters within the gimbal limit of your targeting radar, continuing to provide up to date guidance information for your missiles while also forcing enemy missiles to maneuver, bleeding limited fuel and kinetic energy, decreasing the possibility that they will hit you. At the last possible moment, you break off your crank and dive.
Trading altitude for speed, dragging enemy missiles as much as possible, and deploying chaff and countermeasures. Both sides score hits, the heavily outnumbered Russian Sukhois taking their toll on the American Super Hornets before going down. Prowlers now activate their electronic jammers, spreading out to cover the strike formation, pouring a confusing mass of electronic noise at the S400, degrading both radar range and quality, buying as much time as possible for the heavily armed F/A-18s. With the way clear, Strike Hornets form up and go full afterburner, closing to firing distance as fast as possible, in order to launch their weapons package and duck out.
Meanwhile Russian air crews scramble and manage to get additional Sukhoi fighters off the ground to disrupt the strike package. American air superiority Hornets push in front of the strike formation to challenge their Russian counterparts. Despite heavy jamming, the S-400’s incredibly capable “Gravestone” fire control radar peers through the clutter and gets a firing solution on the Hornets, first volley of missiles streams forwards to meet the attacking aircraft. . Super Horents finally get within range for their own weapons. Launching dozens of radar homing AARGMs at the S-400 and immediately diving for cover and ‘notching’, forcing enemy missiles into difficult angles of attack and trying to confuse missile radars by blending into ground radar clutter.
Now it’s Red Team’s turn to play defense. The S-400 leads it off by firing all of its remaining missiles into the oncoming wave. All twelve transport erector launchers in the battalion are now exhausted.
While additional missiles are available on the ground, those missile tubes are currently empty and you ain’t got the time to reload them in the next 60 seconds. It is now up to the shorter ranged systems to hold the line. Buk, Tor and Pantsir systems open up one after another as the AARGMs get within range. A wall of fire in the sky, for a few terrible moments the defenses seem to hold… AARGMs pierce the missile shield in the final moments.
Scoring three direct hits on the S-400 battalion, knocking out both search and engagement radars and destroying one of the twelve launch vehicles. Functionally blind without its radars, and knowing that additional missiles are likely being primed right now for its current location, the mobile S-400 battalion decides not to stick around. The remaining vehicles in the battalion execute a rapid teardown, all eleven mobile launcher vehicles rapidly pack up and hit the road within minutes. A second set of AARGM missiles hurls towards the defenses, the Russian short ranged missile systems opt to stand firm, defend the airbase and buy time for the S-400 battalion.
Remaining SAM systems prove surprisingly resilient in its own defense, this time allowing only a single hit on its Tor missile system. However, without the S-400 holding it all together, these shorter ranged SAM systems can no longer threaten to reach out and touch the strike force. It is simply not dangerous anymore to the US aircraft, not at this range. Another pair of Su-35s manage to get off the ground at this point. Clawing for altitude, hoping for something resembling a fair fight. Radar Warning Receivers begin screaming, multiple missiles, multiple angles.
Fired at the last moment, Russian R-27 missiles attempt to exact revenge. But partially blinded without its parent aircraft and fighting gravity all the way uphill, the missiles arrive completely spent and are easily juked. One, last, time.
The Super Hornets form up for the attack. The long ranged AARGM anti-radar missiles have been spent, but shorter-ranged, subsonic JSOW glide bombs are still available to Blue Team. For a moment it looks like the Hornets might have to enter the SA-17 Buk’s engagement radius.
No joy, the JSOWs have a glide range just beyond the SA-17’s effective bubble. Once again, it’s back to defense for Red Team. There’s another problem for Red Team.
The previous two engagements have exhausted almost all missiles from the various SAM systems. About 15% of the missiles remain between the vehicles that can still fire. In other words, these SAM systems are close to saturation. Red Team steel themselves for this final defense, but looking at their radars at the number of munitions hurling towards they know deep down that the numbers just don’t add up. JSOW glide bombs explode hundreds of meters above the ground, each dropping a hail of submunition bomblets onto the vehicles below. You don’t want to get caught out in this sort of weather… With their munitions dwindling to just a handful of glide bombs, Blue Team decides not to press the battle further by trying to hunt for the remaining S-400 launchers.
Aircraft begin returning to base, back to the carrier group, to begin landing and recovery operations. Oddly enough, the S-400 battalion is the only Russian unit to survive this exchange. You’ll note it’s covered a lot of ground and is miles from the airport.
They’re probably hiding besides a warehouse right now, pretending to be semi-trailers. Neither side gets out of that one unscathed. The S-400 has been crippled, losing both search and target acquisition radars and one of its launchers. The other short ranged SAM systems have all completely destroyed in subsequent attacks. But this Integrated Air Defense System has also extracted an enormous toll on Blue Team.
Keep in mind that the United States just suffered more air combat losses in this scenario than it has in the last thirty years combined. More aircraft lost today than everything since the first Gulf War. It’s hard for me to imagine someone willing to execute this particular strike knowing the potential costs.
The S-400 has shown itself formidable against conventional technology. But I’ve got one last test for it. Let’s reset the simulation back to the start of the day and see how the same S-400 battalion performs against newer, cutting-edge technology. Oh and before I forget. I’m be trying a new thing.
I’ve uploaded the scenario files I used to simulate this video to the HypOps Discord server, link in the description below. If you own Command: Modern Operations, you can download the scenario files and explore them for yourself. Maybe you’ll find a better way to conduct these operations, let me know if you do. Back to the video. Once more time, the flight deck of the Dwight D. Eisenhower is abuzz with activity. This time around the US Navy gets to pull out all the stops.
Using weapon systems and aircraft configurations currently being developed and envisioned to become operational by the year 2024. The primary strike platform will be the 5th generation F-35C navel variant. Stealthy and net-centric, these aircraft were designed from the ground up to take on high tech peer threats like the S400.
Some will be armed with the currently in-development AARGM-ER, or extended range, a more capable, longer-range version of the anti-radar missile able to fit inside the internal weapons bays of the F-35, allowing it to maintain its low radar cross section and keep its stealth characteristics. Other F-35s are armed with eight internal SDB-2 ‘Stormbreaker’ glide bombs to strike and overwhelm various ground targets, And for air-to-air combat, the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile or JATM, a major upgrade to the current AMRAAM-D variant. For support, we have an E2-D Hawkeye to provide aerial early warning. And to replace the aging Prowlers, the newest EA-18G Growlers equipped with the Next Generation Jammer Pod, able to heavily degrade the effectiveness of even the most modern radars. Let’s see if the 5th generation squad fares any better.
The F-35s equipped with the long ranged air-to-air JATMs leads the engagement. Cruising stealthily towards the Sukhois with radars off, well outside of detection range. With a whisper, the first set of JATMs are lofted high up into the air. Far behind the frontline, the E2-D Hawkeye watches intently, quietly directing the JATMs towards the unsuspecting Russian aircraft. Let’s check out the Russian perspective. Red Team is dimly aware of a surveillance aircraft emitting radar signals far off in the distance, just over 400 kilometers off shore.
Surely that doesn’t mean anything. it’s far too distant to be a threat. Contact! Missiles appear out of nowhere, hurling towards the Russian fighters and surveillance aircraft. The S400 ground crews watches helplessly as the JATMs scream overhead.
The missiles too fast and maneuverable to intercept. The lumbering A-50 Beriev surveillance aircraft turns hard left, trying to make itself a more challenging target. Meanwhile Sukhoi pilots glance frantically at their onboard radars, hoping to spot the unseen enemy. Out of time, the Sukhois turn and dive for the ground trying to escape the clutches of the JATM missile. Only callsign, “RedFang” succeeds. RedFang charges out ahead with his radar on, hoping to close enough distance to pick up whatever is out there firing at him.
It is his Infrared Search and Track sensor that comes through for him, and he gets a, brief, hazy glimpse of his opponent across the distance before getting swatted out of the sky. What you saw back there was a demonstration of ‘network-centric warfare’. The Hawkeye Airborne Radar way in the back was able to detect and track the Sukhois, and relay that information to the launched JATMs, guiding them in without ever needing the F-35s to turn on their own radars and potentially give away their position. As the last Sukhoi is being dealt with, the go-signal is given to the strike package which forms up and begins to make their way towards the target.
Growlers spread out and begin offensive jamming with their Next Generation Jammers, unleashing a tidal wave of electronic noise at the Russian ground radars, obscuring their ability to see the incoming attack. Let’s check out the Russian perspective again. Don’t worry if this doesn’t make much sense to you because it doesn’t make much sense to the Russian ground crews either. What looks to their radars like an electrical storm is headed straight for Khmeimim airbase. Additional Sukhoi pairs are scrambled, forced to fight an opponent that outranges them, with high ground advantage and which they can’t even see. I’d like to point out in my country and hopefully in yours, you as the employee have the right to refuse unsafe work conditions.
This might qualify as such... As the strike package approaches, the Russian surface to air systems remain dead silent. Red Team is well aware if they turn on radars and emit, they immediately give away their location, and the response will be multiple anti-radar missiles aimed at each emitting source. A single F-35, callsign ‘Grinch’, pushes out ahead of the pack.
Grinch has got eight Stormbreaker glide bombs and he’s coming to ruin Christmas. At the edge of his weapons range, he unleashes his payload at known stationary ground targets, immediately wheels around and heads for home. Red Team’s hand is forced. Radars emit and missiles fly to intercept the deadly glide presents. But it’s a trap! While Red Team is emitting in order to intercept the Stormbreakers.
The strike formation locks onto the radar emissions at their source. F-35s unleash their full package at the defenders, an overwhelming strike at the S400 and other SAM sites. Red team is briefly able to spot the attacking F-35s as they wheel around and expose their burning engines with infrared cameras. Not enough time to get a targeting solution before the sky fills with projectiles. An overwhelming number of Stormbreaker glide bombs comes hurling at the S400 network. Another pair of Sukhoi fighters manages to get off the ground in the chaos, and throw themselves at the cruise missiles, expending their munitions before JATM missiles arrive and puts an end to their efforts The S-400 is next to acquire a targeting solution, firing all 48 of its missiles from its 12 launchers at the incoming waves of glide bombs.
While the Russian SAM systems are busy dealing with the subsonic Stormbreakers, F-35s way in the back launch the more deadly AARGM-ERs. Travelling at over Mach 3, these anti-radar missiles rapidly close the distance to the fight and are coordinated to arrive at the same time as the slower glide bombs, and hit the S-400 in a massive wave. Multiple repeated hits and the total destruction of the S-400 battalion. Let’s see that again, smaller, expendable glide bombs cover for the AARGM-ERS at first, soaking up defensive missiles, allowing the majority of the anti-radars missiles to survive long enough to slam into various radars, crippling the various SAM systems and enabling the subsonic glide bombs to mop up the mostly defenseless launcher vehicles. Five anti-radiation missiles and over a dozen glide bombs hit the S-400, destroyed it completely.
A Pantsir and a Buk vehicle managed to survive that initial onslaught and being both transport erector launcher and radar, these vehicles are still able to fight. For the moment. With the SAM network shattered and dozens of glide bombs to spare, the F-35s creep in closer and verify the complete destruction of all elements of the S-400. Before spreading out, to finish what the tomahawk strike had started. A victory lap over the smoldering remains of their enemy… Running this scenario with the latest technology shows a very different result. Blue Team has to do something very wrong to lose even a single aircraft.
If stealth aircraft can truly operate with the radar signature reduction that’s been publicly claimed, then our simulation indicates that a single S400 is simply not the answer. This video is a major simplification of a complex topic. For each detail I’ve managed to include, there are many more I’ve had to omit. Join me on my talk show, HypOps - Fox2 where I host a roundtable discussion with various experts and discuss all aspects of SEAD operations in the nitty gritty details it properly deserves. Since several viewers have asked me about a Patreon lately, I’ve set up an account for the HypOps channel. I’ve added a few fun perks for those of you who might be interested.
The Patreon link is in the description below. Thank you all for your amazing support. A shoutout to the developers of Command: Modern Operations for creating this amazing warfare simulator. You can find the game on Steam so check em out.