Is A Batch Of Russia's Most Advanced Surface To Air Missiles Sitting On The Sea Floor?

A Russian official confirmed an entire shipment of top-of-the-line interceptors for the S-400 surface-to-air missile system never made it to China.

Vitaly Kuzmin

Russia has confirmed that it did indeed sell long-range 40N6 surface-to-air missiles to China as part of a sale of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. At the same time, the Russians have revealed that none of those interceptors ever reached their destination after the ship carrying them got caught in a storm that resulted in the loss of the entire shipment, possibly with some of the missiles physically going overboard into the sea.

On Feb. 18, 2019, Sergei Chemezov, the CEO of the state-owned industrial conglomerate Rostec, which includes the state-run arms broker Rosoboronexport, offered up the new information at a press conference at the 2019 International Defense Exhibition & Conference (IDEX) in the United Arab Emirates. Aviation Week’s Defense Editor and our good friend Steve Trimble Tweeted out a full transcript of the exchange.

“The contract was signed quite long ago. We were to supply [the 40N6 missiles,] but there was a failure,” Chemezov explained. “The vessel that was transporting those missiles – it was caught in a storm. So they have to liquidate all the missiles that were on the vessel and now we are manufacturing new ones.”

China signed the contract to buy S-400s from Russia in 2015, but since then, there has been little concrete information about what interceptors the deal would include. It's worth noting that the Russian military only officially accepted the 40N6 into service itself in October 2018.

The 40N6 is one of three types of missiles presently available for the S-400 system, the others being the 48N6 and the 9M96. It also has the longest range of any of these interceptors, able to engage targets up to around 250 miles away, according to the manufacturer, Almaz-Antey. Variants of the 48N6 have maximum stated ranges between 120 and 160 miles, while versions of the 9M96 can hit targets out to between 20 and 75 miles.

Russia had previously acknowledged that a storm had forced a ship carrying cargo related to China’s S-400s to return to port in January 2018. However, at the time, the Russian Federal Service of Military-Technical Cooperation, abbreviated FSTVS in Russian, which oversees foreign military-technical cooperation, had described the damaged components as “support equipment.”

As of Jan. 19, 2018, Russian authorities were assessing the damage for insurance purposes, FSTVS said in an official statement, according to state-run media outlet TASS. The Kremlin planned to send any undamaged S-400 related cargo to China at the earliest possible convenience.

In April 2018, Russia announced that it had successfully delivered the first of two “regimental sets” of S-400s to China, but there was still no confirmation about the specific interceptors the Chinese had received. Unconfirmed reports at the time suggested that the deliveries came with shorter-range 48N6E2 missiles and that 40N6s would arrive later, according to The Diplomat. Chemezov's revelation about what cargo got lost in the January 2018 accident would fit with these reports. 

It remains unclear exactly what happened to the earlier shipment of 40N6 missiles. Chemezov’s description of the accident would seem to imply that the missiles simply suffered catastrophic damage during transport and ended up scrapped, at least in part. Russia never identified the vessel in question, making it harder to assess the exact scope of the accident.

Ship spotters noted that the Nikifor Begichev, a general-purpose cargo ship heading for China from the Russian port of Ust Luga in the Gulf of Finland, experienced unspecified trouble with cargo on its open deck after running into a storm in or around the English Channel. On Jan. 3, 2019, it turned around and subsequently returned to port.

Two days later, the Ocean Power, a roll-on/roll-off cargo ship known to be involved in Russian arms shipments, also made an abrupt turn around in the Baltic Sea. It then sailed back to the port of Koskolovo, also in Russia in the Gulf of Finland.

This is a possibility that the cargo physically came loose and fell off the ship. The Baltic Sea, the North Sea, and the English Channel are all well known for bouts of extreme weather and heavy seas. In 2009, a Russian freighter notably lost 1,500 tons of timber in the Channel.

Container ships regularly lose some of their loads in bad weather, in general. In 2017, the World Shipping Council conducted a study that indicated, on average, 1,390 containers had ended up in the ocean every year in the previous three years. Other estimates have been significantly higher, up to 10,000 lost containers annually, or around 27 every day. So, while we don't know for sure what happened, it certainly wouldn't be unreasonable for the 40N6s to have fallen off the ship entirely.

Still, if this was the case, after more than a year, there doesn’t appear to be any clear indications that the Russians have sought to bring anything up from the seabed in either the English Channel or the Baltic Sea. However, Russia does have its own fleet of special mission submarines that could potentially have carried out such a mission, or at least inspected the state of the lost cargo, covertly.

If there are containers full of 40N6s sitting on the bottom of the sea, they could be goldmines for Western intelligence services – if they can recover the interceptors or at least parts of them. The U.S. Navy, in particular, has extensive deep-sea salvage and intelligence-collecting capabilities, including the specially modified Seawolf-class submarine USS Jimmy Carter.

USN

USS Jimmy Carter returns to port in September 2017, flying a pirate flag, a symbol associated with the successful completion of a mission. The submarines activities, however, are highly classified.

Cold temperatures and the potential for new episodes of poor weather, might make such a recovery operation especially complicated or outright impractical. For comparison, since November 2018, Norwegian authorities have struggled against the elements to try and raise the almost completely sunken frigate Helge Ingstad, even though it is in relatively shallow waters near the port of Bergen.

Earlier in February 2019, divers removed missiles and torpedoes, and blew up the latter with explosives, out of concern that they might be dangerously unstable after weeks sitting the water. Any 40N6 missiles submerged for months could be equally hazardous to handle.

But it wouldn't be the first time the United States has deemed the potential risks worth the effort to collect valuable hard intelligence about an opponent's capabilities. In the 1970s, Central Intelligence Agency famously employed the Hughes Glomar Explorer recovery ship to recover a portion of the Soviet Golf II-class ballistic missile submarine K-129 from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Navy salvors also have experience in this regard from retrieving lost American munitions. In 1976, the deep-diving nuclear research submarine NR-1 located and recover a live AIM-54 air-to-air missile in the North Atlantic off the coast of Scotland. 

But whatever the fate of the lost shipment, China is undoubtedly eager to get a batch of replacement interceptors. As already noted, the difference in capability between the 40N6 and 48N6 is significant. For China, what this means is that S-400 batteries armed with the former missile and positioned on the mainland near the Taiwan Strait can cover the entire airspace over Taiwan.

DOD

An annotated map showing the range of certain Chinese surface-to-air missile systems and short-range ballistic missiles in respect to Taiwan. The maximum range of the S-400 with the 40N6 is twice that of the green line shown here.

Various factors might limit the target detection capabilities and engagement envelope for the S-400s against aircraft operating over Taiwan, but the additional coverage would still be a significant new threat to the Taiwanese Air Force. The Taiwanese military already has to contend with an increasingly capable mix of Chinese land-based ballistic missiles, as well as combat aircraft and warships armed with land-attack cruise missiles, which can now effectively target sites on the Pacific Ocean-facing side of the island.

S-400s with 40N6 missiles would be a powerful anti-access and area denial tool for Chinese forces in other contested regions or potential hotspots. This could include batteries situated on China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea or positioned along the country’s lengthy border with India.

Depending on the extent of the losses, Almaz-Antey might find itself having difficulties meeting the demands for replacement missiles, or having to divert production from other customers to fulfill the Chinese order sooner. There has been such a surge in sales of and general interest in the S-400 that, in May 2018, the state-owned company said its plant responsible for building the surface-to-air missile systems was fully booked with orders through 2025.

With Chemezov’s comments now on the record, it will be interesting to see how long it takes China now to actually receive its 40N6 missiles. Whenever the Russians put the delivery together, maybe they’ll consider sending it by train the second time around.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com