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.