Russia’s anti-air & air defense systems in Syria: more for show than substance?

by Roger Näbig (Twitter). He works as a lawyer and freelance journalist in Berlin with a focus on global conflicts, defense, security, military policy, armaments technology, and international law. He also gives lectures on defense policy issues. For a German version of the article see here.

Russia has neither the military means nor the political intention to establish an impregnable no-fly zone for Israel, the US and its allies in Syria. However, the findings on Russian anti-air and air defense systems gained in the Syrian conflict are not directly transferable to Russia’s “A2AD” zones in Europe.

Panzir-S1 at the Hmeimim military airfield (Syria).

Panzir-S1 at the Hmeimim military airfield (Syria)..

Russia has been exclusively equipping Syria with its anti-aircraft systems since the Soviet era and trains the Syrian soldiers in their use under Russian doctrine. Syria’s air defense consists mainly of modernized but outdated S-200VE (NATO code: SA-5 Gammon – long-range) and more modern 9K40 Buk-M2 (SA-17 Grizzly – mid-range) which are supplemented by Panzir-S1 (SA-22 Greyhound – close-range). Russia is also said to have rebuilt entirely Syrian air defenses and linked them with Russia’s air defense and radar systems at the military bases in Hmeimim (Air Force) and in Tartus (Navy). According to official statements, the two Russian bases on the Syrian Mediterranean coast are protected by three air defense layers, some of which also include Syrian systems. The outer ring is formed by S-400 Triumf (SA-21 Growler), S-300V4 (SA-23 Gladiator) and presumably Syrian S-200VE, the middle sea-based S-300FM (SA-N-20) and Buk-M2E, the inner Osa-AKM (SA-8 Gecko), S-125 Pechora-2M (SA-3 Goa) along with Tor-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet) and Panzir-S2 for immediate close-range defense (Mikhail Khodaryonok, “Three Layers of Russian Air Defense at Hmeymim Air Base in Syria“, TASS, 12.02.2016).

Despite the combination of both air defense systems and intensive training of Syrian soldiers, Syrian air defense has suffered some defeats with its Russian systems since 2014. In recent years, using mainly fourth-generation fighters (F-15, F-16), Israel has flown more than 250 airstrikes on targets in Syria where only one of its aircraft was lost.

The United States launched airstrikes against a Syrian military airbase in 2017 and a year later, with Britain and France, against three alleged chemical weapons manufacturing plants (see also “Chemical Weapons in Syria: Red Lines or Proving Grounds“, offiziere.ch, 04.08.2018). In the first attack on April 2017, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired at the Shayrat Airbase (south-east of Homs) in western Syria, of those, 58 hit their target. They were all launched from the two US destroyers, the USS Porter and USS Ross (“ISI First to Analyze Shayrat Airfield Missile Attack“, ImageSat International, 05.11.2017). After Russia had repeatedly pointed to its superior air defense in Syria and because the US had warned Russia just before the attack, this was an embarrassing performance. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that only 23 of the cruise missiles had reached their target, an assertion that can be refuted by analyzing satellite imagery (see below). Instead, it seems that Russia had not activated its air defense systems, and only the older Syrian systems were used. So why did Russia remain inactive, even though it had the means and had advance notice of the attack?

Trump’s bombardment of Syria’s Shayarat with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles -- click on the image to enlarge (compiled by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography).

Trump’s bombardment of Syria’s Shayarat with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles — click on the image to enlarge (compiled by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography (Facebook / Twitter).

Before this question can be answered, one must first address the common misconception about the alleged ability of Russian S-400 and S-300V4 anti-aircraft systems to create an impenetrable no-fly zone within a radius of up to 400 km. Although on paper, the technical data for both systems is impressive, many factors influence their actual range and efficiency in actual use against enemy fighter aircraft. For example, the 40N6 rocket with a range of 380 km on the S-400 was just approved for serial production at the end of October 2018 (Franz-Stefan Gady, “New Long-Range Missile for Russia’s S-400 Air Defense System Accepted Into Service“, The Diplomat, 23.10.2018). Even if it were to be available in larger quantities, only large targets, such as tanker, cargo and early warning aircraft flying at an altitude of more than 10 km could be detected and engaged at this range (Robert Dalsjö, Christofer Berglund und Michael Jonsson, “Bursting the Bubble – Russian A2/AD in the Baltic Sea Region: Capabilities, Countermeasures, and Implications“, Swedish Defence Research Agency Report, 04.03.2019). The accurate targeting of stealth-capable 5th generation aircraft (F-35, F-22) and needed low-flying cruise missiles remains an insurmountable technical problem for Russian air defense systems (Guy Plopsky, “Russia‘s Air Defenses in Syria: More Politics than Punch“, BESA Center Perspectives Paper, No. 618, 18.10.2017). Due to the radar horizon, even older 4th generation fighters can only be detected and identified at a distance of approx. 30-40 km and cruise missiles at an altitude of approx. 50 m at approx. 25 km which can only be partially improved by A-50 AWACS aircraft (Roger McDermott, “Russian Air Defenses and the US Strike on Al-Shayrat“, Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 14, Issue 50, 11.04.2017). Finally, radar detection can be severely hampered by airborne electronic warfare, such as the use of specialized combat aircraft such as the EA-18G Growler used in the attack on the Syrian military airfield.

The airstrike on Damascus and Homs in April 2018 on three alleged Syrian chemical weapon research and production sites involved 105 US, British and French (stealth) cruise missiles approaching from different directions. According to the Pentagon, all missiles fired reached their intended targets. Russia was also warned of this attack. Even in this attack on its closest ally in the Middle East, the Russian air defense systems remained inactive. Instead, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that Syria’s air defense alone had shot down 71 cruise missiles with its S-200, S-125, Osa, Buk, and Strela anti-aircraft systems (at Damascus International Airport, the Shayrat Airbase and other military airfields; a claim refuted by the coalition). This statement reflects Russia’s ambivalent attitude, because at no time did Russia deploy its anti-aircraft systems for the Syrian army during airstrikes on Syrian territory. There are two explanations for this. Firstly, Russia does not want to be drawn into an escalating conflict with the US or Israel, which could result from the active use of its air defense systems. Secondly, Russia’s political-military interests are solely for the protection of its two military bases in Syria (see also Damien Sharkov, “Criticisms aside, was Russia Capable of Halting the U.S. Strike?“, Newsweek, 08.04.2017).

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Graphic compiled by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography (Facebook / Twitter).

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Other indications point to this explanatory approach. In June 2017, a report by Russian television stated that Russia would not attack coalition aircraft in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), as long as they are more than 60 km away from the Hmeimim military airbase. While Syrian fighters flew escort for Russian fighter-bombers, the Russian side did not return the favor. In June 2017, when a US F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22, Russia also decided for political reasons to issue a clear warning. In those Syrian areas west of the Euphrates where the Russian Air Force is engaged in combat operations in Syrian airspace, all manned or unmanned aerial vehicles, including those belonging to the international coalition against IS, would pursued as air targets by the Russian air defense (“Russian Missile Defense to Track US-Led Coalition Aircraft in Syria – MoD“, Sputnik, 19.06.2017). It remained with the warning. When in February 2018, at Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, US fighters flew over the Euphrates to the western bank to repulse an attack by Syrian units supported by the private Russian paramilitary “Wagner Group“, neither the Russian air defense nor the Russian Air Force budged, even though here the lives of their citizens were at stake.

Sometimes conflicts do arise, and we are naturally concerned about the possibility of military confrontation between the Iranian and Israeli forces in Syria. We do everything possible to prevent it. To prevent the escalation of the conflict. — Levan Dzhagaryan, Russian Ambassador in Teheran, cited in Anna Ahronheim, “Russia Concerned about Military Confrontation between Israel and Iran“, The Jerusalem Post, 19.07.2018.

Russia also does not militarily intervene in Israeli airstrikes, including those on Iranian military installations in Syria. It is an open secret that Moscow is watching the growing influence of Tehran and the Shiite militias in Syria with increasing discomfort and distrust. More and more, Russia sees Iran as an annoying competitor, vying for supremacy in Syria, rather than a willing “brother-in-arms” in the bloody civil war. Syria, on the other hand, needs Iran as an ally to make up for its lack of battle-hardened ground forces. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Russia looks on passively when Israel bombs Iranian positions in Syria, as long as no Russian soldiers or institutions are harmed (Amir Tibon, “Everyone Wants to Get Iran Out of Syria. But No One Knows How to Do It“, Haaretz, 26.08.2018). Russia also worries that the perpetual Israeli-Iranian feud could drag its Syrian allies into a war with Israel in the medium term, which would do more harm than good to Russia itself. At the same time, Moscow does not want to dupe Damascus nor anger Teheran too much, which is why the Syrian air defense is allowed to engage with the Israeli Air Force in attacks on Iranian weapons depots and rocket factories (Lidia Averbukh und Margarete Klein, “Russlands Annäherung an Israel im Zeichen des Syrien-Konflikts“, SWP-Aktuell 2018/A 45, August 2018). It was foreseeable that this political balancing act would lead to long-term problems.

What followed then in September 2018 was so far the most significant political failure in the Syrian air war for Russia: the accidental shooting down of its Il-20 Maritime reconnaissance aircraft with a fifteen-man crew over the Mediterranean by a Russian designed Syrian air defense unit (presumably an S-200VE), which had previously tried in vain to fight four Israeli F-16Is in Syrian airspace. After this debacle, Russia decided in October 2018 to deliver the long-promised three S-300 batteries to Syria, each with eight launchers. One reason for this may well have been that the incident revealed the Syrian S-200 identification and compatibility problems with the more modern Russian systems, in addition to general shortcomings in air defense coordination between the two countries. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu justified the deliveries, fiercely criticized by Israel, as aimed with guaranteeing a clear identification of Russian aircraft by the Syrian air defense in the future as well as avoiding further losses due to friendly fire. For Syria, this decision represents a significant increase and improvement in its air defense capabilities, even though the S-300’s maximum combat range is lower, the missiles used are much more effective.

Soviet S-200 ground-to-air missile (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin).

Soviet S-200 ground-to-air missile (Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin).

Israel’s airstrikes on Damascus International Airport and nearby weapons depots in January 2019 are indicative of Syria’s progress in expanding its air defense capabilities. After all, Syrian Buk-M2 and Panzir-S2 anti-aircraft batteries could intercept some Israeli missiles of the first wave of attack, but this did not prevent Israel from eventually gaining the upper hand in military terms. The Syrian systems were no match for the Israeli “saturation attack” with several more waves of rockets, guided bombs, cruise missiles, and so-called suicide drones “Harop” against the original targets and additionally against the Syrian air defense units. In addition to the Iranian weapons camps, two Syrian Panzir-S2s were hit and destroyed. A video (below) showing the final approach of an Israeli guided missile to the modern Russian SHORAD system spread like wildfire on the Internet.

The recent strike shows clearly that, for political reasons, Russia still does not want to intervene in the conflict itself with its own, more modern anti-aircraft systems, and that therefore Israel will probably be able to overcome the Syrian air defense in the future, albeit with different methods of deployment and use more and better weapons systems. While Syria’s S-300 anti-aircraft batteries were unlikely to be fully operational in January 2019 and Syrian soldiers probably lacked adequate training, morale and operational readiness, Russia has probably also delivered older, less powerful export versions of its anti-aircraft systems. In addition, the Syrian S-300 anti-aircraft batteries were also not used in later Israeli airstrikes, for example in mid-April 2019, suggesting that Russia has a decisive voice in when they’re used (Sebastien Roblin, “Israeli F-16s Smashed a Syrian Missile Complex (And Russia Held Its Fire)“, The National Interest, 24.06.2019). Whether this will continue in the future will crucially depend on how the Middle East conflict develops. Therefore, one should be careful with inferences for comparable “A2AD” zones in Europe, e.g., in Kaliningrad or on the Crimean peninsula. In any case with its sometimes older anti-aircraft systems in service in Syria, Russia can gain valuable operational experience, which it will use to modernize its systems continuously.

Nonetheless, Israel’s and the United States’ many years of experience in the air war over Syria prove that Russia can not set up insurmountable “A2AD” zones in Eastern Europe either. The laws of physics (radar horizon), electronic warfare, and stealth capabilities in 5th/6th generation fighters (F-35, FCAS) continue to demonstrate the limits of Russian air defense. Worth mentioning is also the Israeli successes in the fight against Russian air defense systems by drones and the application of the former Soviet tactic of the “saturation attack” from the Cold War. Only if the European states are prepared and willing to spend more money on the purchase of modern combat aircraft, missiles, cruise missiles and drones in the future will they be able to disrupt or combat Russian air defense systems effectively in the event of a conflict. For Germany, this should be a wake-up call, not only to rely on NATO partners, but finally to clarify the succession of the almost 40-year-old Tornado fighter bomber, which, among other things, flies Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (“SEAD”) missions in the ECR version, and, above all, speeding up the development of the Future Combat Air System with France.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Roger Näbig, Russia, Syria, Technology.

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