As the Obama administration and the Congress consider whether to use force against the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons, CDN Defense Correspondent Zbigniew Mazurak briefly analyzes Syria’s air defense systems exclusively for CDN readers.
Syria’s weapons arsenal is predominantly of Soviet and Russian origin, and the same is true of its air defense systems. Although the currently does deploy three types of modern Chinese air defense radars – including one VHF radar type – these radars are not compatible with, and not linked to, Syria’s ADS fire control systems or the launchers themselves. Accordingly, they can only warn about danger, but Syria’s Russian-supplied air defense systems won”t be able to use it.
Accordingly, until the promised delivery of S-300 air defense systems by Russia, which would be a game changer, Syria is left with upgraded legacy Soviet and Russian equipment, namely the obsolete Vietnam War era SA-2 and SA-3, the SA-6, the late 1970s vintage SA-5, and the more modern (and repeatedly upgraded) SA-11/17, Tor-M1, and Pantsir-S1.
The first weakness of the SA-2 and SA-5 is that they are static, deployed on fixed pads. Moving them would be very difficult and just “packing” them for transport would take several hours. However, Syria’s other systems – the SA-3, SA-6, SA-11/17, Tor-M1, and Pantsir-S1, are highly mobile and can relocate in minutes rather than hours or days.
Air defense systems are in a dangerous position if they don’t relocate frequently, as the Syrians themselves discovered first-hand in 1982 and 2007 when the Israelis conducted airstrikes against them, and as the Iraqis discovered in 1991 and 2003 and the Libyans in 2011.
The second weakness of all of Syria’s ADS, other than the SA-5 Gammon, is their short range: all but the SA-5 have a range of less than 50 kms. The SA-2 missile’s range is just 45 kms, the SA-11/17 can muster only 30 kms, the SA-6’s range is a pitiful 24 kms, the SA-3 Goa’s is slightly better at 34 kms. The very short-range Tor-M1’s range is but 12 kms, and the Pantsir-S1’s is 20 kms.
This means that, again excluding the SA-5 Gammon, all of Syria’s air defense systems can be simply evaded by staying out of their range. Moreover, their engagement envelope is so pitiful that US aircraft could jam them while still being outside their range.
Nonetheless, even such short-range systems can be deadly: for example, the Pantsir-S1 shot a Turkish RF-4 reconnaissance jet just 2 years ago, scoring its first kill. Moreover, these same SA-2, SA-3, and SA-6 systems, together with anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), imposed heavy casualties on Israeli aircraft in the late 1960s War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel and in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Also, SA-2 batteries inflicted even heavier casualties on US military aviation in the Vietnam War. And in 1999, a single Serbian SA-3 battery shot down an F-16 and an F-117 while damaging another F-117, and 19 out of 22 Serbian SA-6 batteries survived the 1999 Operation Allied Force. So these systems’ short range, on second inspection, does not have to be a weakness if those systems are properly employed.
The effectiveness of Syria’s air defense systems will thus depend not on the equipment – for the equipment is mostly fine – but on training and tactics. Which raises three questions:
1) Will the Syrians use “hide, shoot, and scoot” tactics so successfully employed by the North Vietnamese, the Egyptians, and the Serbians? Or will they use their equipment in a static, sitting duck manner like they did in 1982 and 2007, like the Iraqis did in 1991 and 2003, and like the Libyans did in 2011? History has shown that doing the latter can cost a nation a war and that nation’s dictator his life – Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi did not employ “hide, shoot, and scoot” tactics, and both are dead now, executed by their own people. Does Assad want to share their fate?
2) Will the Syrians use the brutally effective Soviet doctrine of using complementary and overlapping air defense systems (SAMs at high altitudes, AAA at lower ones)? This was also part of the reason why the US lost so many aircraft in Vietnam and the Israelis over Egypt: US and Israeli pilots were driven into a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” choice: either fly at high altitudes and be shot down by SAMs, or fly at low altitudes and be shot down by AAA. Most US and Israeli pilots chose the latter and were shot down by AAA.
3) How well trained and educated are Syrian air defense system crews? All of the Soviet/Russian air defense systems which Syria operates use analog technology and require very intelligent, very well trained, educated, and disciplined (not to mention ADS-proficient) crews. The North Vietnamese, Serbian, and Egyptian crews of their respective air defense systems were exactly that, and they (except the Serbs) were aided by well educated and trained, highly proficient Warsaw Pact instructors; in Egypt, the Soviets even deployed an entire division of their own Air Defense Troops! Syrian ADS crews have performed miserably in past campaigns, raising serious questions about their training, education, and equipment usage proficiency.
In sum, the air defense systems the Syrians currently have are short-ranged (except the SA-5) and mostly old, dating back to the Soviet (pre-1992) era. Nonetheless, even these old Soviet-era systems have, in the past, imposed high casualties on the USAF and the IAF when used competently. In the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese were able to do so with nothing but SA-2s and AAA, and Serbia’s most modern system in 1999 was the SA-6. So some humility is in order; the US and its allies may suffer higher casualties than they expect to.
Still, to inflict any significant casualties on Coalition aircraft, the Syrians, equipped with only these systems, would have to display tactics, skill, and proficiency matching that of the North Vietnamese, the Egyptians, and the Serbs – which they have historically failed to do. Moreover, there is a limit to what one can do with these mostly Soviet-era systems, many of which are static and most of which have a very short range.
If the US and its allies decide to bomb Syria, casualties will probably be light – but that will be due exclusively to the obsolescence of Syrian air defense systems and the poor training and skills of its crews. It will be yet another instance of clubbing baby seals at sea – a global military power beating a weak nation. Its result, whatever it turns out to be, will be of zero relevance as to the military capabilities of China, Russia, or even North Korea and Iran.