America’s venerable B-52 bomber vs. Russian S-400 missile system: Who wins?

The recent deployment of six B-52H Stratofortresses bombers from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana at the U.S. European Command area became a real hot topic in the media and in experts community.

B-52s have conducted flights near the Russian border in Baltic Region that probably to the annoyance of the Russian military. Moreover, Russian fighter jets repeatedly conducted an intercept of U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress bomber over international waters of the Baltic Sea.

As previously reported, the Russian army also moved components of its S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems from Gvardeysk to Baltiysk, the westernmost town in Russia.

In a series of posts on Twitter on 22 March, military blogger Petri Mäkelä reported that Russian Defense Forces has deployed S-300 systems at the westernmost point of the enclave of Kaliningrad, near the border with Poland to counter potential air strike.

Against the backdrop of growing tensions between Russia and the U.S., many began to wonder who would win in battle of B-52 bomber vs. S-400 missile defense systems.

Airmen assigned to the 5th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron load AGM-86/B Air-Launched Cruise Missiles onto the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Nov. 3, 2015, during Exercise Global Thunder 16. Photo by Airman 1st Class Justin Armstrong

Developed in the 1950s, the B-52 heavy bomber has been the mainstay of the United States Air Force for 64 years. Venerable B-52 bomber saw service in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the War on Terror in both Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria.  And of course, he was a cornerstone of American Cold War nuclear deterrence for decades.

Even at his age, B-52 Stratofortress is capable of dropping or launching the widest array of weapons in the U.S. inventory, includes gravity bombs, cluster bombs, precision guided missiles, and joint direct attack munitions. The basic B-52 design evolved from an aircraft capable of dropping their bombs from 30,000 feet to the real Stratofortress that can launch long-range cruise missiles.

It is worth noting that Russian military sources claim that five U.S. Air Force’s B-52H Stratofortress bombers conducted a mock nuclear strike against targets in Russia, include Moskov and St. Saint Petersburg during training flights on 28 March.

B-52H’s missile range when deployed over the Norwegian Sea

The training flight of U.S. B-52H bombers with Norwegian F-16 fighter jets over the Norwegian Sea was one of the examples of dummy cruise missile attacks outside the detection zone by air-defense radars, as well as outside the combat radius of MiG-31 supersonic interceptor aircraft.

The classic B-52 cannot penetrate adversary air defenses; therefore it needs the long-range missile. But, according to Airforce Technology website, B-52H is capable of carrying some missile systems, included AGM-86A air-launched cruise missiles (with range 1500 miles), AGM-84 Harpoon missiles (with range 77 miles), AGM-86C conventional air-launched cruise missiles (with range 1500 miles) for the full range of strike operations.

A total of 744 B-52s were built with the last, a B-52H, delivered in October 1962. “H” modification is the only variant still in use by the U.S. Air Force.

Even though B-52 is the oldest aircraft in the history of the Air Force, it still remains deadly for enemies of the United States around the world.

Photo by Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

As for Russian S-400, it is one of the most modern and controversial defense missile systems in the world currently.

S-400 surface to air missile system, previously known as the S-300 PMU-3, developed in the 1990s by Russia’s Almaz Central Design Bureau as an upgrade of the S-300 family. It has been in service with the Russian Armed Forces since 2007. Open sources report the S-400 uses four missiles to fill its performance envelope: the very-long-range 40N6 (248 miles), the long-range 48N6 (155 miles), the medium-range 9M96E2 (74 miles) and the short-range 9M96E (25 miles).

But a recently published report by the Swedish Defense Research Agency, commonly known as FOI, questioned the capability of modern Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system.

In closer inspection, Russia’s capabilities are not quite as daunting, especially if potential countermeasures are factored in.

The analysis shows that the actual range of the new Russian anti-aircraft system is actually only 90-125 miles. Against low-flying missiles launched from a B-52 bomber, the S-400’s range may be as short as 12 miles.

Photo by Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

According to a report, the missile with a purported 248-miles range, the 40N6, is not yet operational and has been plagued by problems in development and testing. In its current configuration, the S-400 system should mainly be considered a threat to large high-value aircraft such as AWACS or transport aircraft at medium to high altitudes, out to a range of 125-155 mile. In contrast, the effective range against agile fighter jets and cruise missiles operating at low altitudes can be an as little 12-20 miles.

Moreover, despite its sophistication, an S-400 battery is dependent on a single engagement radar and has a limited number of firing platforms. It is thus vulnerable both to munitions targeting its engagement radar and to saturation attacks. If and when the 40N6 missile goes online, its 248-miles technical range cannot be effectively exploited against targets below approximately 3000 meters unless target data can be provided and updated during the missile’s flight by airborne or forward-deployed radars.

As a result, only a real conflict can give an exact answer. It is not easy to fully predict who would win in an epic battle between a B-52 bomber and S-400 missile system.  Thousands of other factors, such as the weather, crew, electronic warfare, and more, can affect the real situation.

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