WASHINGTON — At least 13 countries have expressed interest in buying a Russian missile system instead of platforms made by American companies, despite the potential for triggering U.S. sanctions, according to people with first-hand knowledge of a U.S. intelligence assessment.
One of the people, who declined to be named, said that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Vietnam, and Iraq have all discussed buying the S-400 missile system from Russia. However, the U.S. expects that a handful of countries will fold to diplomatic pressure.
The S-400, a mobile long-range surface-to-air missile system, is the Kremlin's answer to America's Patriot and THAAD platforms. Lockheed Martin makes the THAAD, or terminal high altitude area defense, system, while Raytheon makes the Patriot.
The Pentagon deferred questions about this story to the White House, which did not comment.
Any potential economic or political penalties would come under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which President Donald Trump signed in August 2017. In September, the U.S. slapped sanctions on China for buying fighter jets and missiles from Russia. However, the U.S. could grant waivers.
China, India and Turkey have already signed purchase agreements with the Kremlin. China, which is embroiled in a trade battle with the U.S., is in the middle of receiving its final shipment of the S-400 system. India, the top buyer of Russian arms, signed a deal with Moscow for the S-400 last month. Turkey, a NATO ally, is slated to receive its S-400 next year and is expected to have the system ready for use by 2020.
When asked why nations seek to buy the S-400 instead of America's Patriot or THAAD systems, one of the people with knowledge of the intelligence report explained that foreign militaries aren't willing to stick with the cumbersome process of buying weapons from the U.S. government.
"Many of these countries do not want to wait for U.S. regulatory hurdles," the person said. "The S-400 has less export restrictions and the Kremlin is willing to expedite sales by skipping over any regulatory hurdles. It's like buying it off the shelf," the source added.
Also, while it's not clear how much the countries would pay for either system, Russian arms are generally considered less expensive than U.S. weapons and come without extensive maintenance support.
Another person familiar with the matter said Moscow can typically deliver the first systems within two years of a contract signing, a timeline the U.S. is unlikely to meet.
The S-400 system, the successor to the S-200 and S-300 missile systems, made its debut on the world stage in 2007. Compared with U.S. systems, the Russian-made S-400 is capable of engaging a wider array of targets, at longer ranges and against multiple threats simultaneously.
In terms of capability, one source noted that while there is no perfect weapon, the S-400 eclipses even THAAD, America's missile defense crown jewel.
"No other U.S. system can match the S-400's ability to protect large swathes of airspace at such long ranges," said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The S-400 can target high-altitude and high-value targets like stealth bombers, aircraft, cruise missiles, precision guided munitions and some tactical ballistic missiles, the source added. The Russian-made system is also capable of defending against a swarm drone attack which was used by Houthi rebels to destroy a UAE Army Patriot battery in February.
"It's the geopolitical aspects of the S-400 offerings that are the most interesting," said Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Karako highlighted that despite the appetite for the Russian-made system, the S-400 has yet to see combat, unlike America's Patriot missile defense system.
"Russia appears to be using air defense sales within much bigger political and economic frameworks," Karako said. "In some cases, the purchase of S-400 looks a bit like what the ancient Romans called tribute."