The flexible and fast S-400 missile system. Photo: Sergey Malgavko / Sputnik

The People’s Liberation Army has taken delivery of the first batch of equipment for an advanced Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, probably bringing the entire island of Taiwan within range of Chinese forces for the first time.

Russia’s TASS news agency reported that a control station, radars, fuel and other auxiliary equipment for the missile system were en route to China. It said Chinese troops, believed to be from the PLA’s Rocket Force, had undergone training on the system in Russia last year.

Described as “one of the best air-defence systems currently made” by The Economist, the S-400 system can fire four missiles simultaneously at multiple aircraft and at different altitudes over a maximum range of 400 kilometers and withstand powerful electronic jamming defenses.

Launch silos and vehicles are being readied in the southeastern province of Fujian, which is only 130 km from Taiwan at the most narrow point in the straits, comfortably within the missiles’ range.

China is reportedly buying six batteries of the S-400 under a deal signed in March 2014. The order was announced at the end of last year during a visit to Russia by Chinese Communist Party Central Military Commission deputy chairman Zhang Youxia.

The PLA has deployed 15 divisions of the S-400’s predecessor, the S-300, along Fujian’s coast, primarily targeting northern Taiwan. But the arrival of the S-400, which Russia calls the “Triumf” and Western forces know as the “Growler,” could be a real game-changer in the region.

An S-400 missile battery in Russia. Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin/WikiMedia

In Syria, where it was widely used by Russian forces, the S-400 was regarded as the most effective long-range surface-to-air missile battery available. Used by Russia since 2007, it is rated by some analysts as far superior to any equivalent Western system.

However, its effectiveness in the Taiwan Straits will depend on which missile actually accompanies the battery. A new generation of 40N6Е missiles is being developed to replace the S-300 series, but it is unclear if any will be ready for the first Chinese batches — or whether Moscow is even willing to release them.

The 40N6Е has an active radar homing capability in the terminal phase of the launch, a wider range of target detection and better control systems. Some analysts say that without the 40N6Е, the batteries will not be a big improvement on the existing S-300 systems.

Taiwan will be very interested to know which system is coming, as the enhanced range will allow China not only to dictate aircraft movements in the strait, but also around the disputed Diaoyu Islands. Known as Senkaku by Japan, which also claims the islands, they could be reached by missiles launched in northern Shandong Province, making it difficult for the US and Japan to deploy combat aircraft in this airspace.

The fact that China is equipping only four divisions with S-400s suggests that they may be only a stop-gap measure while the PLA develops its own long-range anti-aircraft missile systems. Either way, it will have an edge over Taiwan forces.

Taiwan-based military observer Wendell Minnick told Deutsche Welle that Taiwan does not yet have batteries capable of countering S-300 and S-400 missiles launched across the strait in a pre-emptive strike.

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