by Wendell Minnick

There was confusion over last week’s announcement that deliveries had begun of the Russian-built Almaz-Antei S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile (SAM) system to China. Reports that the S-400 would give China complete blanket coverage of the entire island of Taiwan from coastal batteries now appear premature.

The delivery announcement was made on 18 January by the Russian government-controlled Tass News Agency and confirmed by various industry sources in Moscow.

The original deal was made between Beijing and Moscow in 2014. 

‘The first delivery was expected to take place in December 2017/January 2018, so it is not a surprise,’ said Vassily Kashin, a China military specialist at the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University - Higher School of Economics, Moscow.

‘The second delivery, which will fulfil the contract, will take place in 2019.’ He said each delivery will consist of a regiment, which comprises two missile battalions. One battalion has eight launchers, 112 missiles, command-and-control systems and radars. 

‘The six battalions initially reported in 2014 was wrong. There are two regiments, consisting of four battalions total. My understanding is that initially they will be with 48N6 missiles of various modifications with a range of 250 km, while the 400 km-range 40N6E will be added later. Technically, an S-400 battalion can have up to 12 launchers although, in Russia, it seems they usually have eight,’ explained Kashin.

The S-400 system uses various types of missiles, including the extended-range 40N6E (400km), long-range 48N6 (250km) and medium-range 9M96E2 (120km). 

Some in the media equate the S-400 with range. That is, the S-400 equals 400km. This is not entirely incorrect, but it is still unclear how this will impact regional neighbours, particularly the island of Taiwan, which is only 130km from China’s coast.

Though dark clouds are beginning to form over the self-ruled island because of growing Chinese military prowess, this particular S-400 variant is not yet the game-changer many have reported. The S-400 variant being shipped to China has a missile range of only 250km (the 48N6).

This does not mean that the 48N6 is not a threat to Taiwan. A US defence analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Shephard the danger is actually the radar, which ‘can still cover Taiwan, even if the missile is the 48N6'. 

He further said that the radar system can hand off targeting data to Chinese ship-based SAM systems stationed around Taiwan. China's air force and navy began conducting circumnavigation operations around the island in 2017, further isolating Taiwan from US military assistance during a crisis.

China has a long history of copying Russian systems, such as the previous sale of the S-300 that evolved into the HQ-9 land-based and HHQ-9 ship-based SAM systems.

The S-400 and 2017's air and naval circumnavigation operations around Taiwan fit into China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy designed to push the US military farther from the combat zone in any dust-up over an invasion of Taiwan, a US attack of North Korea or a Chinese attempt to occupy the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) in the East China Sea.

China could also station the system in interlocking SAM sites to lock down airspace over the South China Sea.

For the time being, the 250km 48N6 missiles will give ‘Taiwan some breathing room until the longer-range missiles are made available from Russia,’ Kashin said.

Notably, Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC), visited Moscow in December and was received by President Vladimir Putin. Zhang’s career record includes heading the CMC's Equipment Development Department and its predecessor, the General Armaments Department. 

No details of the meeting were released, but Kashin assumes that, given Zhang’s history, additional arms sales, including potential 400km-range S-400 systems, were discussed.

Not everyone in Taiwan’s defence analysis community was convinced the S-400 will be the game-changer that many fear. ‘Well, the S-400 is certainly yet another new threat not to be taken lightly,’ said a Taiwan defence analyst, speaking anonymously. 

‘However, I’m less impressed with the whole 400km-range business. While the 40N6E variant of the S-400, which has almost never publicly been seen, does appear to have impressive kinematic performance and an active seeker for terminal guidance, its effectiveness against targets beyond and below the radar horizon remains questionable’, particularly as the upcoming US Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) sensor network, which will be integrated with a fire control capability for air defence, comes online, he said. 

Unfortunately, both the CEC and the Naval Integrated Fire Control - Counter Air (NIFC-CA) capability are unlikely to be sold to Taiwan in the immediate future.

A Taiwan military source said that the problems the 400km-range variant will create in future Russian-Chinese sales have been ‘largely ignored’ by Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense (MND) and he belittled arguments that the curvature of the earth and the range of coastal S-400 (40N6E) batteries would make it difficult to strike low-altitude targets.

He added that, ‘even so, our fighters are stranded'. Taiwan operates four ageing fighter types: the Mirage 2000, F-16A/B Block 20, F-5 Tiger and locally built Indigenous Defence Fighter (IDF). Both the F-16 and IDF are undergoing upgrades, and the first IDF upgrade aircraft is expected to be unveiled on 30 January at Chihhang Air Base in Taitung.

The Mirage 2000 and F-5 are expected to be retired within a decade due to problems securing parts and servicing them. The remaining 144 F-16s are now being outfitted with Northrop Grumman's AN/APG-83 SABR active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, new mission computers, embedded inertial navigation systems/GPS and Terma ALQ-213 electronic warfare management units.

Taiwan has an open request for the US-built F-35 stealth fighter, leaning towards the F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant, but there is tremendous political pressure on Washington from Beijing to kill any sale. Previous Chinese lobbying on the US government effectively stopped Taiwanese attempts to procure 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters to replace the Mirage. Instead, Taiwan was awarded an upgrade package for its F-16A/Bs in 2011.

The result of having ageing fighter aircraft and no replacements place Taiwan in an increasingly awkward position as China begins to field the S-400 (no matter the range) along its coastline and as they are networked into its ship-based air defence system.