North Korea's latest missile test, carried out this past weekend, ended about sixty miles off the Russian coast. Russia is not happy about the test, as one might imagine. In fact, they may get angry. Of course, we should note that Putin has options aside from sending Kim Jong-un a letter telling him how angry Moscow is.
Russia has long pushed the development of surface-to-air missiles, and the Soviets put that system on the map in 1960 by downing the Lockheed U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers. In one sense, Russia needs to have good air defenses since their fighters tend to come out second-best when tangling with American or Western designs.
A USAF Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady. When Russia shot one down in 1960 with a SA-2 Guideline, it proved the surface-to-air missile was a factor in warfare. | U.S. Air Force photo
So, what options does Russia have to shoot down a North Korean missile? Quite a few – and it can be hard to tell them apart.
1. SA-10 Grumble
This is probably the oldest of Russia's area-defense systems capable of downing a ballistic missile. Like the Patriot, it was initially intended to provide air defense for important targets by shooting down the strike aircraft. It eventually began to cover the tactical ballistic missile threat as well - much as the Patriot made that evolution.
According to GlobalSecurity.org, the baseline SA-10, or S-300PMU, now exported to a number of countries (including Iran), had a maximum range of 124 miles. A navalized version of this missile, the SA-N-6, is used on the Kirov and Slava-class cruisers.
The SA-10 Grumble system. (DOD image)
2. SA-12 Gladiator
The Russians consider the SA-12 to be a member of the S-300 family. While the S-300 was initially designed to handle planes, the SA-12 was targeted more towards the MGM-52 Lance. Designation-Systems.net notes that the Lance's W70 warhead could deliver up to a 100-kiloton yield. That could ruin your whole day.
But the development of a conventional cluster munition warhead for the Lance really bothered the Russians, who expected to see a many as 400 Lances launched in the early stages of a war in Europe. GlobalSecurity.org credits the SA-12 with a range of about 62 miles – not as long a reach as the SA-10 but more than enough to take out an incoming missile before it can do harm.
The SA-12 Gladiator system at an arms expo. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
3. SA-20 Gargoyle
This is an improved version of the SA-10, according to GlobalSecurity.org. It has the same maximum range as the SA-10 version (about 124 miles), but there is a capability to engage faster targets than the baseline SA-10, which usually translates into neutralizing ballistic missiles launched from further away.
The system, also uses several types of missiles — including in the 9M96 family (9M96E1 and 9M96E2) that are smaller than baseline SA-10 missiles. Like the SA-10, there is a naval version, called the SA-N-20, which is on the Pyotr Velikiy and China's Type 51C destroyers.
The SA-20 Gargoyle - an improved version of the SA-10. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
4. SA-21 Growler
This is also known as the S-400. The system made headlines when it deployed to Syria after Turkey shot down a Su-24 Fencer jet. The system is often compared to the American Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, but unlike THAAD, it is also capable of hitting aircraft and cruise missiles. GlobalSecurity.org credits the SA-21 with a range of about 250 miles.
Launch vehicle for the SA-21, which has a range of about 250 miles. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
5. SA-23 Giant
What the SA-20 is to the SA-10, the SA-23 is to the SA-12. This is a substantially improved version of the SA-12, and is intended to deal with longer-range ballistic missiles than the MGM-52 that the SA-12 was intended to take out. The SA-23, also known as the Antey 2500, has a range of 124 miles according to GlobalSecurity.org.
SA-23 launch vehicles. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Russia's born-of-necessity work on surface-to-air missiles has lead to some very capable options in air defense. The real scary part is that Russia has been willing to export those systems – and that could mean they will face American pilots sooner rather than later.