The operational level of war: Russian air defences in Syria

There is a very useful article in the Georgetown Security Studies Review, a publication of Georgetown University’s Centre for Security Studies which, pretty much, puts paid to Russian propaganda attempts to suggest that Russia’s advanced S-300 and S-400 air defence systems deployed at its Hmeimim airbase and Tartus naval base actually engaged allied stand off weapons. The Georgetown report, which I regard as just about as credible as any open source reports is likely to be, says that “Even if these systems had engaged, this weekend’s attack demonstrated clearly that the United States and 5953c8c0d084cc351c8b5501-750its allies maintain the military capacity to conduct stand-off precision strikes in Syria. Even so, the United States should consider forward deploying its fifth-generation F-35 stealth multirole fighter–which, given its enhanced sensors and state-of-the-art stealth capability, can operate effectively in the face of advanced hostile air defense systems–to bolster its own and its allies’ ability to reach into contested airspace. Credibly ensuring the United States and its allies can neutralize the A2/AD effect of the S-300 and S-400, as well as Syria’s national air defense systems, is critical to deterring the Syrian president from operating with even greater impunity.” This is not to say “Na, na, na” to Russia, rather it is to say that terrorists cannot hide behind Russian anti-access and aerial denial (A2/AD) systems … they don’t work well enough.

However,” the report goes on to note, “the operational success of this attack does not mean Russian air defense systems lack strategic significance. During deliberations on how to respond to the chemical weapons attack, Secretary of Defense Mattis s-400-Triumfreportedly called for restraint, advising against a more expansive strike on President Assad’s military capabilities. The deployment of Russia’s advanced S-300 and S-400 air defense systems likely played an important role in the ultimate decision to limit targets to chemical facilities. Seeing that Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015 to prevent the imminent collapse of the Assad regime, it is hard to imagine that the Russians would not have attempted to use surface-to-air missiles to engage allied cruise missiles or even aircraft if the attack’s aim had been to cripple Mr. Assad’s key command and control nodes or his war plane and helicopter fleet, for example. This means that neutralization of Russian air defense systems might have been the required first step of a broader attack, risking Russian casualties and a dangerous escalation in the seven-year conflict.” In other words IF we ever get really serious about freeing the Syrian people from Assad’s murderous tyranny, rather than just being a periodic annoyance to him m and his Russian protectors, we will have to kill a fair number of Russians first … which is not, necessarily, a bad thing to contemplate.

Russian science and technology is not, in any way, backwards, but it does not have the overwhelming advantage that the Western nations, including Israel and Japan, share as a result of market driven research and development. No one is more critical than I of the often too many “bells and whistles” that frequently appear on allied weapon systems, but the fact is that we can and do discover, develop and produce in a faster and qualitatively better cycle than does Russia.

But the Georgetown Security Studies Review concludes with this warning: “Russia cannot be permitted to prevent or degrade American presence over Syria if the Trump administration’s goals of deterring the Assad regime from using chemical weapons and eradicating remaining Islamist extremist pockets in the country are to remain credible. The United States and its allies, therefore, need to maintain the capability b9b966e355813d3387a3c49e1c2850f4_XLto conduct not only long-range strikes with stand-off missiles, but also deep bombing raids and close air support missions. In February, a fourth-generation F-16 Israeli fighter jet, which was conducting strikes in response to an Iranian drone violating Israeli airspace, was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire; this served as a stark reminder of the dangers even less capable air defense systems pose. The airspace will become even more dangerous to the United States and its allies if Russia follows or-38007through on its threat to upgrade Syria’s national air defenses with the more advanced S-300 because President Assad, unlike Moscow, does not have to worry that engaging US aircraft or missiles could escalate into a conflict between two nuclear great powers. The S-300 poses a less credible threat to more advanced fifth generation stealth fighters and bombers, but currently the F-22 is the only allied airframe truly capable of operating within range of the more advanced hostile air defense systems in Syria. It is critical, therefore, that the United States ensures its own and its allies’ ability to field and operate sufficient numbers of the newest, stealthiest, and most lethal aircraft: The F-35 stealth multirole fighter. The F-35 can trace and attack sophisticated surface-to-air threats with pinpoint accuracy, creating gaps in enemy air defenses through which non-stealthy aircraft can advance. An increased US Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit presence in the Mediterranean that deploys with F-35Bs, for example, could enhance the combat-credibility of our posture in the region by providing assured access and freedom of maneuver. Put another way, such a forward presence would help ensure the United States could strike critical targets from both beyond and within the contested area, casting additional doubt on the potency of Assad’s air defense systems as well as the A2/AD effect of Russia’s deployed advanced missile defense systems.

Eurofighter_Typhoon_Flight_tests_with_Taurus_KEPD_350-missile-started_c_J-GietlThe message for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Treasury Board President Scott Brison is: another 1970s technology, third generation fighter is NOT a suitable replacement for Canada’s old, worn out CF-18s. Canada needs a modern, capable multi role fighter-bomber that can fight, using stand-off missiles if and when appropriate in a modern, high intensity air defence environment  … just the sort that Russia is providing to terrorist states in the third world.


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