Moscow’s S-300 Double Bluff in Syria
In early October, following the loss of an Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft over the Mediterranean Sea on September 17—which Moscow blamed on Israel—Russia carried out a high-profile additional deployment of the S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system to the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) (see EDM, September 27, October 9). However, the underlying reason for the free transfer of this advanced SAM system to the SAA—purportedly, in response to the incident on September 17—masks several deeper issues as well as Moscow’s true motives (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 3). Such systems, apart from their role in air defense, form an integral part of the Russian Armed Forces’ stand-off strike capability, feed into a layered air defense, and constitute important elements of Russia’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies. With a growing emphasis placed upon high-precision strike systems in Russian military modernization, these can offer a variety of options and possible use for General Staff planners, ranging from force protection as already seen in Syria, to possible offensive operations and the threat of their use to coerce an adversary or to send strategic signals (see EDM, October 2).
At first glance, the Russian narrative concerning the transfer of S-300s to the SAA looks believable, at least on the surface. On October 2, following the announced intention to make the transfer, the Russian minister of defense, Army General Sergei Shoigu, duly reported to President Vladimir Putin on the successful completion of the deployment. Reportedly the transfer involved three “regimental sets” of the S-300PM system to the SAA, transferred via An-124 transport aircraft on October 1 (Interfax, October 8).
These equipment transfers involved eight launchers in each set. The original agreement between Moscow and Damascus to supply S-300s to the SAA was signed in 2010 but later suspended. Following the downing of the Russian reconnaissance aircraft by a Syrian missile (but blamed on the Israeli Air Force operating in the area), Moscow reactivated the agreement and concluded the free-of-charge transfer. Further details emerged on October 9, when TASS reported the equipment was transferred from anti-aircraft missile regiments that had been reequipped with the modern S-400 system (TASS, RIA Novosti, October 9). Shoigu also claimed that, by October 20, an integrated joint air-defense system in Syria will finally function alongside Russian air defense, with a further three months to train SAA officers in the handling of the S-300PM (Kommersant, October 8).
Unfortunately, there are serious flaws in the Russian defense ministry’s claims concerning the equipment transfer and in the details of both the narrative and Russian media reporting. Those flaws raise important questions about the controversial move and its motives. Chief among these is that only four launchers have been publicly seen; moreover, Shoigu had noted the same quantity when outlining the transfer of “49 pieces of equipment.” But there are a range of other issues linked to the deployment of the SAM system that suggest it has been hurriedly put together with some wild claims thrown in for high impact. Illustratively, some other sources had speculated that it could involve the more advanced S-300V version of the system (Vpk-news.ru, October 9; RBC, October 8).
Video and photographic images of the unloading of the S-300 SAM system in Damascus reveal a multifunctional radar station that belongs to the S-300PM2, with its communications-and-control system’s characteristic antenna shape. Nonetheless, none of the other images of the delivered S-300 equipment relate to the S-300PM2. They seem more consistent with the S-300PM or the S-300PS. According to Russian air-defense experts, the reason for this discrepancy may likely be that the transfer in question was, in fact, a “hybrid” regimental system (Vpk-news.ru, October 9).
These issues surrounding the air-defense transfer to the SAA are only a small element of the actual bluff or set of bluffs inherent in Moscow’s decision to send S-300s to Syria. At its root, the purpose of providing the SAA with the S-300 is to protect Syrian airspace in the so-called “Iranian corridor,” in which the Israeli Air Force frequently operates. Yet, Russian air-defense experts acknowledge the impossible nature of this mission, which would require covering several hundred kilometers of Syrian territory. Of course, the S-300PM, on which the first observed regimental set seems to be based, is a robust SAM system; its main advantage is its high mobility, which the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) frequently test during their military exercises. Recently, the 25th Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade was formed to protect the territories of Khakassia, Krasnoyarsk and other regions of Siberia. The brigade rehearses air defense across vast areas covering around 1,000 kilometers. Consequently, for the SAA to be able to rely on the S-300 in the Iranian corridor, it would require marches and deployments taking several hours, with positioning of various supporting assets to facilitate coverage. Also, the SAA suffers from well-known issues in long-range target detection, but this could be compensated for by the VKS providing radar information from its airbase in Latakia and airborne assets operating in Syria (Vpk-news.ru, October 9). Still, even after the future completion of the “three regimental sets” of S-300 SAM systems (probably of a hybrid variant), the SAA will not be able to prevent all Israeli Air Force strikes.
An additional problem facing the use of S-300PMs or S-300PM2s relates to air-defense integration. These systems are incapable of operating alongside the formidable Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile and gun systems, known to be effective in offering protection against cruise missile strikes (Vpk-news.ru, October 9). An added issue is the training required to develop the officer-level technical knowledge to operate the system; Shoigu’s suggestion of achieving this within three months is quite optimistic. Until the SAA does have these trained personnel, the systems will depend on Russian officer specialists and advisors operating alongside their SAA counterparts. The arrival of the S-300 for use by the SAA offers no quick fix, nor does it afford any immediate problems for the Israeli Air Force that cannot be side-stepped in some way.
The biggest mystery about the Russian military S-300 transfer to Syria is the sighting of only four launchers. Combined with some of the other issues involved, it seems that Moscow has used the S-300 system as a double bluff: its transfer to the SAA will not result in deterring the Israeli Air Force from conducting future strikes in Syria, nor will a full-fledged joint Russia-Syria air-defense system emerge. Achieving the latter would involve a much more massive transfer of Russian air-defense systems to Syria.
Roger N. McDermott specializes in Russian and Central Asian defense and security issues and is a Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies, The Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC, Senior International Research Fellow for the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Affiliated Senior Analyst, Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen. McDermott is on the editorial board of Central Asia and the Caucasus and the scientific board of the Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies.
This article appeared originally at The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor.