September 29, 2018

Syria to receive S-300 air defense system from Russia

Russian S-300VM "Antey-2500" (NATO: SA-23 Gladiator/Giant)

Following the accidental shootdown of a Russian Air Force IL-20M (NATO: Coot-A) electronic intelligence aircraft last week, Russia announced that it is deploying at least one S-300 air defense missile system to Syria to bolster Syria's air defenses.

It was a Syrian air defense S-200 (NATO: SA-5 Gammon) missile that downed the Russian reconnaissance plane, killing all 15 on board. Syrian air defenses have been plagued with not only maintenance issues due to the seven-year civil war, but poor training and leadership.

Russian Federation Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov announced that the delivery of the air defense system has already started.

Russian Air Force AN-124 airlifter unloading S-400 missiles in Syria

In fact, in the last few days, at least three Russian Air Force AN-124 (NATO: Condor) heavy transport aircraft have flown from Russian air bases to Humaymim air base, Syrian, a base now used almost exclusively for Russian forces. While other Russian military transport aircraft fly daily resupply flights, the size of the S-300 system components require the use of the jumbo Condor airlifters.

It is still unknown which version of the S-300 system will be delivered to Syria. Versions of the S-300 family of air defense missiles have been in use by Russian and other militaries for decades - the initial deployment of the original S-300P (NATO: SA-10 Grumble) was in 1978. An anti-ballistic missile capability (the S-300V) was added in 1983.

The Russians developed an export version in the early 1990's - the S-300PMU-1 (NATO: SA-20A Gargoyle) with a range of 75 miles, followed shortly thereafter with the extended range (120 miles) S-300PMU-2 (US designation SA-20B). Since 1996, the primary export version has been the 120-mile range S-300VM "Antey-2500" (NATO: SA-23 Gladiator/Giant).

I suspect the SA-23 is the version that will be supplied to the Syrians. It is the same system sold to Egypt in the wake of the ill-advised U.S. arms embargo after the military coup of 2014 led by then-General (now President) 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi.

I want to preface some of the more technical details of the SA-23 with a few comments about Russian air defense systems. The Russians have always emphasized development of air defense systems - it fits into their military strategy, just as the United States tends to emphasize offensive systems. Russian air defense systems are state of the art and highly capable.

Although the Russians have developed even more advanced systems than the S-300VM, such as the S-400 and S-500 systems, the S-300VM system to be provided to the Syrians will pose a serious threat to almost all aircraft in the region, with the exception of fifth generation U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor and Israeli Air Force F-35I Adir stealth fighters.

The Antey-2500 system consists of a command post vehicle, three general surveillance radars, a sector surveillance radar, and a guidance radar. These electronics support/control up to six missile radar-equipped transporter-erector-launchers (TELAR), and six loader-launcher vehicles. It is a large, but completely land mobile system. It was the first system in the world capable of simultaneously engaging aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. The Russians claim that it can successfully track low radar cross section aircraft (stealth) aircraft at ranges over 100 miles.

The Russian Ministry of Defense said they would deploy two S-300 battalions to Syria. That means about 24 launchers.

Since late 2016, the Russians have operated S-300 and S-400 missile systems in Syria around the air base at Humaymim and their naval facility at Tartus. Although these systems have been noted active electronically, they have yet to engage either Israeli or U.S.-led coalition aircraft.

The Russians and Israelis have established deconfliction protocols to avoid engagements when Israeli aircraft conduct operations against Iranian targets in Syria. It is an uneasy arrangement - it is in question now that rather incompetent Syrian air defense units downed the Russian reconnaissance aircraft.

It is unknown where the Syrians will deploy their new air defense capability. In the past, Syrian air defenses have been concentrated in the southern part of the country in an attempt to defend Damascus. However, the recent spate of Israeli attacks have been against Iranian targets across the country, ranging from the Damascus suburbs to the central deserts and the northwest coastal area.

Remember that it is not the range of the S-300MV/Antey-2500 that is the threat, it is the capability. The existing S-200 missiles in the Syrian inventory have a longer range (190 miles versus 120 miles), but it is the lethality of the S-300 system and its ability to operate in a dense electronic warfare environment. It remains to be seen just how the Syrians will integrate the new system into the existing Syrian air defense network, and if the S-300VM will significantly raise the threat to Israeli and U.S.-led coalition aircraft.

It is also unknown what Russian support will be provided. Since Syria had contracted in the past to purchase the S-300 system, a deal that has been on hold, they do have a small cadre of officers trained in the system. I suspect the Russians will provide on-site trainers and advisers as part of the deployment to prevent another deadly and embarrassing incident.

In any case, the introduction of yet another capable Russian weapons system into Syria increases the likelihood of continued confrontation between Syrian and Israeli forces, and increases the risk of a direct U.S.-Syria confrontation.

In a word, unhelpful.

September 12, 2018

ADDENDUM: Iranian Air Force or SAHA airlines - who really owns this aircraft?

ADDENDUM: In light of the September 15 Israeli airstrike on the cargo associated with this particular aircraft, I wanted to update this article with new information and photographs. The new information appears immediately following the original article.

Hard-to-catch track of this Iranian Boeing 747-200 freighter aircraft over Syria, here as civil registration EP-SHB. Note the Mode S (Hex) code 734D02 – this stays with the aircraft as it changes registration and owners. The Mode S and registration seem to agree on SAHA airlines.

This particular aircraft was delivered to the Imperial Iranian Air Force in 1977 as 5-8113. For 1984 and 1985, it was leased to then national civil flag carrier Iran Air, and then returned to the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF). In 1991, it was “leased” to SAHA airlines, a wholly-owned company of the IRIAF. In the intelligence business, we call this a shell company.

In 2013, SAHA airlines suspended all operations, restarting again in 2017. At that time, EP-SHB was returned to the IRIAF, again as 5-8113. It appears to be in IRIAF service today, operating from Tehran/Mehrabad airport – home to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) aircraft fleet. How coincidental.

I first saw this aircraft in Syria in this livery. Note the Iranian flag on the tail, over the military airlift service logo, plus the IRIAF identification in Farsi on the front of the fuselage and IRIAF in Latin letters below. No question that this was an Iranian air force jet.

As Iranian support for terrorist groups became notorious, we saw the aircraft in this livery. Note the removal of the IRIAF identification in Farsi and the IRIAF letters. The flag and logo remained. Iranian, but whose? The logo alone tells me it's still IRIAF.

As Iran promoted the fiction that this and other aircraft were not part of the the Iranian air force or involved in support to terrorist groups - notably Hizballah - the military airlift service logo was removed, and the civilian registration EP-SHB was applied.

This is the 2018 livery of the aircraft. This is what we in the intelligence business call a “vanilla” airplane. Although in the color scheme of the IRIAF, there is no visible identification – it’s likely there, but so small it is virtually undetectable from more than 10 feet.

Recent flight history – note the numerous flights listed from Kermanshah to Tehran. Also note the dubious flight path – I am not buying it. I suspect this aircraft is part of the Iranian resupply effort to Syria dubbed the “Shi’a Express.”

Who really owns this aircraft?

Spoiler: That was a rhetorical question. We know.

ADDENDUM: Updated information begins here.

This image is a screen shot from the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting network showing this same aircraft. As I indicated above, its identification is there, but very small and not very descriptive. Note the numbers 113 on the lower fuselage. That is an abbreviated form of the IRIAF registration 5-8113. If you look closely at the earlier photograph in the original article, and now know where to look, you can make out the 113. This image is likely at the military ramp at Tehran's Mehrabad airport.

This image shows this IRIAF aircraft, using its false civilian registration EP-SHB en route from Tehran to Damascus on the evening of Saturday, July 15.

It landed later at the Syrian Air Force 29th Air Brigade ramp at Damascus International Airport.

After the cargo was unloaded Saturday night, it was struck by Israeli Air Force missiles, destroying the cargo, and likely damaging the aircraft. The image above, posted in a tweet from an imagery analyst, shows the aircraft on the military ramp with blackened tarmac where the cargo was struck.

Thoughts on the coming battle for Idlib

This is a recapitulation of a Twitter thread concerning the upcoming battle for Idlib, based on two recent CNN interviews.

Lt Col Rick Francona, USAF (Ret): Syria would be insane to use chemical weapons in the assault on Idlib governorate. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad knows using chemical weapons will draw a military response from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and now possibly even Germany.

It’s hard to understand the absurdity, but it appears that as long as you only use barrel bombs, artillery, rockets, and missiles to kill, it is deemed almost acceptable, but cross that line and use chemicals, the ire of the world demands a military response. So why use them?

There is no military reason for the Syrians to use chemical weapons. With Russian airpower, artillery, and rocket and missile strikes, combined with Iranian and Hizballah support on the ground, the Syrian military has the required force to reassert control over all of Idlib.

The “battle of Idlib” will likely be the last major military operation in the Syrian civil war, but it's not the end of the crisis. After Idlib falls - and it will – we need to address the political situation.

What of the US-supported mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)? Are they to be integrated into the Syrian Army? Not likely.

Will the Kurds be allowed some form of autonomy like their Iraqi cousins? Bashar al-Asad says no, as does Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In fact, Turkey - our erstwhile NATO ally – wants all the Kurdish “militants” to leave northern Syria. By this, Erdoğan means all the members of the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish party that he believes is nothing but an extension of the PKK, a Turkish Kurdish separatist group recognized as a terrorist group by NATO. The problem: they’re Syrians, where are they going to go?

After the trilateral meeting in Tehran with the leaders of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia is worried about civilians in Idlib but finds it “unacceptable” when civilians are used a pretext to “shield terrorists” ... and supports Syria retaking control of all of Idlib governorate. Translation: Get ready for a bloodbath.

Erdoğan urged Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to include a [unilateral] ceasefire in the final statement on Syria. Putin said since opposition groups were not present at the meeting, there could be no such agreement. Teaching point: When it comes to ceasefires, the enemy also gets a vote.

On the United Nations proposal for the self-segregation of combatants and civilians whereby the combatants will voluntarily move from civilian areas. This is a non-starter; the opposition groups, be they rebels or the al-Qa'idah affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), will co-locate with civilians as human shields to raise the risk of large numbers of civilian casualties.

Despite reports that the Syrian regime is faced with a troop shortage and the Iranians and Hizballah are balking at providing forces as they did in Aleppo, I believe a Syrian regime assault on greater Idlib governorate is inevitable. The Syrians and Russians, with urging from Iran, are committed to the extermination of remnants of the rebels and HTS, no matter the cost.