Russia's New Anti-Aircraft System Can Destroy Satellites, Commander Says

The commander of Russia's aerospace forces has said that the next-generation S-500 anti-aircraft missile system will be able to shoot down satellites and hypersonic weapons. If accurate, this would mark a significant milestone in the hypersonic and near-space arms races.

Colonel-General Sergei Surovikin told the Red Star newspaper this week that the S-500—the next evolution of the S-400, which is considered the most advanced standalone anti-aircraft system currently deployed—would soon be delivered to active combat units.

Surovikin said the S-500 "will be able to destroy low-orbit satellites and space weapons," as well as "hypersonic weapons of all modifications," according to the RBC news agency.

Russia had been hoping to have the first S-500 batteries operational by 2021, but recent comments by Surovikin and Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko have suggested they could be deployed as soon as this year.

The S-500—known as "Prometheus"—is being developed by the state-owned Almaz-Antey Air Defence Concern. It has a planned range of 370 miles for defending against ballistic missiles and 310 miles for other targets. It will be able to simultaneously engage up to 10 hypersonic targets at speeds of up to 16,000 mph.

The S-500 will also be able to engage hypersonic cruise missiles, spacecraft and other targets moving faster than Mach 5 (11,509 mph). Its engagement ceiling is planned to be as high as 120 miles, meaning its missiles could reach the thermosphere, where some satellites are in orbit.

The S-500 is designed to augment Russia's S-400 system, which has become a key export item for Moscow—much to the chagrin of the U.S. The S-400 entered service in 2007 and the longest range of its four missiles travels as fast as Mach 15 and can engage targets at a distance of 250 miles and an altitude of over 98,000 feet.

Russia has been investing heavily in its hypersonic capabilities, moving out ahead of the U.S. and China in a field expected to reshape military strategy among great power competitors.

Hypersonic weapons can be armed with nuclear warheads and travel at high speeds while maneuvering in flight, making them very difficult for existing defensive systems to intercept. Their flat trajectory also means defenses have less time to respond.

Russia already has operational offensive hypersonic weapons, and Putin said last month that his armed forces would soon also have systems capable of defending against the advanced weapons.

The U.S. is rushing to catch up with Russia. The Pentagon requested $3.2 billion for hypersonic research for the 2021 fiscal year—an increase from $2.6 billion in the current year. The U.S. successfully tested an unarmed prototype of its first hypersonic missile in March and is hoping to deploy the first weapon by 2023.

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This file photo shows a Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile launcher—the predecessor of the under-development S-500—in Moscow, Russia on June 18, 2020. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images/Getty