Syria Finally Gets Its S-300 SAM System, But It's A Token Capability At Best

Assad has only received four launchers and the Russians say it will take three months to train enough Syrians to operate them.

Vasiliy Batanov/Sputnik via AP

Russia says it has completed shipping S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Syria’s government and will now begin training Syrian troops to operate them. Though it is possible that this is just an initial tranche of equipment, that is not what Russian officials are indicating and by sending just four transporter-erector-launchers, or TELs, the Kremlin appears to be giving Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad a very minimal capability. We at The War Zone had said this would likely happen after the Russians first announced their plans to deliver the weapons in September 2018.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made the announcement at a Russian Security Council on Oct. 2, 2018. Russian President Vladimir Putin chaired the gathering. Russian authorities first announced they would turn over an unspecified number of S-300s to Assad’s regime on Sept. 24, 2018, in the aftermath of a bizarre incident in which Syrian air defenders accidentally shot down one of Russia’s Il-20 Coot surveillance aircraft after an Israeli air strike against targets near the country’s Mediterranean coastline.

“In conformity with the presidential decision, we have begun to carry out a number of measures to reinforce Syria’s air defense systems in order to ensure better protection for our servicemen,” Shoigu reported to Putin during the meeting. “We have completed the delivery of S-300 systems. It included 49 pieces of equipment, including radars, control vehicles and four launchers.”

Russia’s Defense Minister also said that the country had begun training Syrian personnel to operate the surface-to-air missile system. It will take approximately three months before Assad’s forces are ready to put their new S-300s into operation, according to Shoigu.

Uliana Solovyova/Sputnik  via AP

A Russian trailer-mounted transporter-erector-launcher belonging to an S-300 surface-to-air missile system.

He did not specify what type of S-300 system the Russians had delivered. However, Shoigu did say it would have a maximum range of just over 124 miles, which observers noted would be in line with the specifications of the PMU-2 variant using the 48N6E3 missile. The S-300PMU-2, also known as the Favorit, is the most advanced export version of the system that Russia has produced.

Separately, Shoigu noted that a unified air defense mechanism would be in place by Oct. 20, 2018. This is likely a reference to Russia’s plan to deliver equipment to Assad’s forces that will allow them to receive Russian identification friend or foe signals and rapidly identify the Kremlin’s aircraft, hopefully reducing the chances of future accidents. Whatever these systems entail, they should also give the Kremlin greater linkages to and situational awareness of the Syrian air defense network's day-to-day operations, as well.

“I would like to note that it is a very timely step and we are very grateful to Russia for its efforts,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had said in an interview with Russia’s quasi-official media network RT on Sept. 30, 2018. “[The] S-300 is enough to respond to these threats [from Israel].”

However, as we at The War Zone have previously noted, it seems unlikely that this will be the case. It seems even less likely if the Russians do not supply any additional S-300 components to Syria in the coming months.

There had been reports that Russia might deliver one or more full S-300 regiments to Assad’s forces, which would have included a dozen TELs and would have been potentially able to guard multiple sites simultaneously. With a third of that total, the minimum amount for what Russia considers a battalion-sized element, the system will provide a token capability at best.

With a maximum range of around 124 miles, it’s true that a Syrian S-300 system situated in the southern portion of the country near the capital Damascus would be able to reach out into the Mediterranean and even into Israel proper . It would also cover much of Lebanon’s airspace, which Israeli jets routinely use to launch standoff strikes into Syria, but with the same limitations.

But from that position, it wouldn’t be able to cover areas in northwestern Syrian. These include some of the same areas that Israel struck that touched off the entire chain of events leading to the delivery of the S-300s in the first place. 

The maximum range is a dubious metric to begin with since the systems would only be able to engage high-flying aircraft with specific signatures at the longer distances and only under optimal conditions where their radars have a good line-of-sight to the target. Israeli jets could fly low use hills, mountains, other terrain features, readily available along Syria's southern borders, to help mask their approach. The Syrians will not be able to shoot them down as they take off in Israel, either.

On top of that, it’s not at all clear what sort of density of fire four TELs, each of which can have at most four missiles ready to fire at a time, would provide within that coverage area. Russia already has its own S-300s, along with more capable S-400s, in Syria guarding its naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean and its Khmeimim air base only slightly further inland. Previous satellite imagery shows a typical setup for TELs for the S-400 system, which are very similar to those for the S-300, grouped very closely together in fours to provide sufficient firepower against potential threats. 

The site also features a short-range Pantsir-S1 air defense vehicle to guard those launchers. Syria has its own Pantsirs, but only has a limited number of them, which it might not be able to spare to defend even higher priority surface-to-air missile systems.

Even if the Syrians ultimately receive a more robust S-300 capability, though this would certainly increase the risks to Israeli aircraft, there is no indication that this would truly deter it from continuing its aerial campaign. Israel has made no secret of its determination of prevent Iran and Iranian-supported groups, such as the Lebanese militant organization Hezbollah, strengthen their position in Syria and potentially use it as a staging group to threaten Israeli interests.

The Israeli Air Force lost one F-16I Sufa combat jet during operations over Syria in February 2018 and has seen other aircraft damaged, underscoring the costs it is willing to endure to follow through with these strikes. It now has an operational unit of F-35I Adir stealth fighters with which to conduct especially high-risk operations, as well.

The video below covers the activities of Russia's S-300s in Syria.

The S-300s would also be prime targets during any future Israeli air strikes and it’s unlikely that Russia would be inclined to keep supplying replacement systems indefinitely, if at all. Israel has already reportedly launched operations specifically to target more modern surface-to-air missile systems that Iran has deployed to Syria and has destroyed other Syrian air defenses in the past.

Israel has also already gained significant insight into the capabilities of the S-300 system specifically by participating in training exercises that feature older variants in Greece. Israel's arch nemesis Iran has also received PMU-2 variants, making it even more likely that the Israeli Air Force has been developing tactics, techniques, and procedures to mitigate this threat.

The constrained environment also places limitations on Syrian forces since Israelis are so close to the target areas that they have used their own Arrow 3 anti-missile interceptors to shoot down Syrian surface-to-air missiles on at least one occasion. 

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) claim they have also used the shorter-range Iron Dome defense system, intended only to shoot down unguided rockets, artillery shells, and mortar bombs, to engage Syrian SAMs, as well. It's not entirely clear how that would necessarily work, given the capabilities of Iron Dome, and the reports, though official, might be in error or actually be in reference to more Arrow 3 intercepts or the use of another system, such as David's Sling. It is worth noting that in those cases, Syria's air defenders fired older missiles and very likely did so along ballistic trajectories without locking on to a specific target, which would have made them easier to hit.

None of this is to say that the delivery of S-300s to Syria isn’t a noteworthy development. Russia has threatened to do this multiple times before, but never followed through. Now that they have, there’s no indication that the Russians will limit the Syrians to only using the systems against Israeli aircraft or that they will necessarily be able to enforce such a rule even if they do.

As such, it could potentially change the risk management plan for other parties to Syria’s conflict, including Turkey and the United States. Both of these countries are conducting air operations in the country that could be within range of the S-300s depending on how Assad deploys them – or how the Russians let him position them. 

During the opening phases of the U.S. military air campaign in Syria, when it was unclear how Assad might respond, the U.S. Air Force employed F-22 stealth fighters and F-16CJ Vipers loaded out to suppress and destroy enemy air defenses, as seen in the video below. The United States may have to return to such tactics, though it already continues to employ F-22s heavily in areas near Syrian government control.

“I cannot confirm that that is accurate. I hope that they did not [deliver S-300s to Syria], that would be a serious escalation and concern,” top U.S. State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said when asked about Shoigu’s statements at a routine press conference. “It hasn't changed anything,” U.S. Army Colonel Sean Ryan, the top spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, told Russian state media outlet Sputnik in response to a separate query about the surface-to-air missile systems.

The bigger question may turn out to be exactly how the S-300s will change the potential danger of accidental shootdowns. Russia has stated publicly that its main reason for supplying the new surface-to-air missiles to Assad is to help ensure the safety of Russian personnel in the future. 

At the same time, it seems immensely unlikely that the Kremlin plans to force Assad to abandon his existing surface-to-air missile systems, including the Cold War-era Soviet-supplied SA-5s, which has proven to be among his most effective weapons and were responsible for bringing down the Il-20. However, if the Syrians continue to operate those systems, then the Russian military aid will have done little to nothing to mitigate the apparent risks to Russian aircraft, calling into question the value of the entire exercise.

In three months time, when the Syrians are due to actually put their new S-300s into action, at least according to the Russians, we may get a better sense of exactly what capability Assad has or has not actually gained and what benefits the Kremlin might actually derive from the arrangement.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com