October 22, 2018

Syrian S-300 Update #2 - the Russians "dumb down" the weapon system

Russian brochure for the S-300-PMU-2 "Favorit"
Note: This is another follow-up to my two earlier articles on the Russian delivery of the S-300 air defense system to Syria:
- Syrian S-300 Update - It's likely three S-300PM battalions (October)
- Syria to receive S-300 air defense system from Russia (September)

The Takeaway:
The Russians hastily delivered to Syria three battalions of a version of the S-300 air defense system that is not normally exported. Having second thoughts, Russian technicians are now converting the system to the less capable export version. Although still a lethal system, it is not the "latest and greatest" as that used by Russian troops.

The Details
Almost immediately after the mistaken downing of a Russian Air Force intelligence collection aircraft during Israeli operations near Syria's Mediterranean coast, the Russians began a massive airlift to deliver three battalions of the very capable S-300PM-2 (NATO: SA-20 Gargoyle) air defense missile system. These systems were recently withdrawn from service and placed in storage.

According to Russian media, the weapons originally belonged to the 531st Antiaircraft Missile Regiment based in the Alexandrovsk district of Murmansk Oblast in the Russian Arctic. The systems were accompanied to Syria by Russian air defense troops where they were to train Syrian operators.

At some point, the Russian technicians and advisers tasked with standing up the air defense system in Syria realized that the system was not the downgraded export version known as the S-300PMU-2 (NATO: SA-20B), but the more capable S-300PM-2 version authorized for use by only Russian air defense units.

In order to safeguard some of the advanced electronics from possible acquisition and exploitation by potential adversaries (read: American, British, and Israeli), the Russian technicians are now removing some of the more sensitive Russian-only components from the system.

When completed, the newly-acquired air defense systems will have been converted to the S-300PMU-2 export standard. There is one notable exception, however - the Russians are leaving the more advanced target detection radar and identification-friend-or-foe (IFF) system associated with the Russian-only S-300PM-2 in Syrian hands.

Why change the modes and codes, in essence "dumbing down" the system?

Simple. The Russians are not the only air force in the region with sophisticated signals intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities. The Russians do not want their most advanced electronic systems in the hands of demonstrably incompetent Syrian troops whose use of the system will transmit the capabilities of their air defenses to the antennas of Western intelligence agencies.

In addition to the Russian Air Force Il-20M (NATO: Coot-A) electronic intelligence (ELINT) platform - like the one mistakenly downed by a Syria S-200 (NATO: SA-5 Gammon) missile that prompted the S-300 delivery - at a minimum, the Israelis, the United Kingdom, and the United States operate a variety of airborne collection platforms that can easily access the S-300's electronic and communications signals.

While the Russians have deployed Russian-only S-300 and S-400 systems with their own forces in Syria, they have been extremely judicious in their use to limit Western access to system capabilities.

The S-300PMU-2 Favorit - the system that the Syrians will eventually own - can track and engage multiple targets out to a range of over 100 nautical miles. Remember that it is not the range of the S-300PMU-2 system that is the threat, it is the improved capability. The existing S-200 missiles in the Syrian inventory have a longer range (190 miles versus 108 nautical miles), but it is the lethality of the S-300PMU-2 missile system and its ability to operate in a dense electronic warfare environment that make it more dangerous.

It remains to be seen just how the Syrians will integrate the new system into the existing Syrian air defense network, but it will certainly raise the threat to Israeli and U.S.-led coalition aircraft.

That said, Syria's new capabilities will be more in line with the air defense capabilities of other countries that have been sold the S-300PMU-2 system, many which have trained with (and against) U.S., NATO, and Israeli pilots.

For a more thorough analysis on the S-300 system, please see the "airlandbattle" article here.