Let’s analyse if and how the Syrian scenario is going to change after the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to Assad.
Images and video of the first Russian S-300 battery being delivered at the Khmeimim Air Base in Syria have been shared by the Russian MoD starting on Wednesday Oct. 3. The announcement of the successful delivery of the long-range missile systems had arrived on Tuesday but the photographs and clip showing the missile tubes, radar and control vehicles provided a visual confirmation of the claims.
Russian Defence Ministry shares first photos and video footage of the Russian S-300 air defence systems arriving in #Syria. Its purpose is to help keep Syrian skies safe pic.twitter.com/JGSU5TKcVi
— Russia in RSA 🇷🇺 (@EmbassyofRussia) October 3, 2018
The S-300s were delivered in response to the Israeli air strike on Sept. 17 that led to the accidental downing of a Russian Air Force Il-20M Coot spyplane mistakenly shot down by a Syrian S-200 (SA-5) missile. Although the details and real causes of the downing are still controversial, Moscow made it clear it would boost the Syrian air defense, a dense system relative to the country’s size but whose backbone is a variety of old Soviet-era SAMs. Russia threatened to impose electronic countermeasures over Syria’s coastline, suppressing satellite navigation as well as radar and communication systems of combat aircraft attacking targets on Syrian territory.
The S-300 is a mobile air defense system that couples a radars capable to track multiple targets with long-range missiles to hit aerial targets at a distance of 150 km and an altitude up to 27,000 meters. Although well-known to the western air forces, it remains a lethal SAM system.
Syria wanted the S-300 as far back as the 1980s after the first Lebanon war, but it was forced to make do with the S-200 (SA5) system, an older system still capable to bring down an advanced F-16I Sufa on Feb. 10, 2018, when several SA-5 and SA-17 missiles were fired at seven Israeli fighter jets returning from an airstrike on the T-4 military base near Palmyra in central Syria, from which the IDF said an Iranian operator remotely piloted an Iranian drone into Israeli territory an hour earlier. In that case, the IAF determined the loss of the Sufa was caused by a “professional error”: although the on-board warning system of the F-16I alerted the crew of the incoming threat, the pilot and navigator failed to deploy countermeasures.
As commented back then, the last time an Israeli Air Force jet had been shot down dated back to the first Lebanon War at the beginning of the ’80s and the air strikes did not cease after the Sufa loss. However, it must be remembered that Israel hasn’t had a real freedom of action over Syria since late 2015, when Russia decided to install an S-400 Triumf missile defense battery able to track the Syrian airspace as well as the vast majority of Israeli airspace. In fact, since then, Israel has coordinated its activities in Syria with Moscow.
Russian MoD showed info from radars of the Russian S-400 system.
Yellow subsriptions – Israeli F-16, green Russian Il-20, red – missile from Syrian S-200. pic.twitter.com/wjQ3ijR3JB
— Yuri Lyamin (@imp_navigator) September 24, 2018
According to Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu the delivery of S-300 systems has been concluded. “It included 49 pieces of equipment, including radars, control vehicles and four launchers,” the MoD said to TASS News Agency. “We have finished personnel recruitment and have begun to train them,” said Shoigu, adding that it would take the Syrian army at least three months to learn how to use the system. It’s fair to assume that the Russians will operate the S-300s during the training period and remain for some tipe supervising operations.
The new systems were delivered by means of AN-124 Condor flights. An unusual frequency in heavy airlifter missions to the airbase near Latakia was monitored and tracked online in the days before the official announcement, suggesting an air bridge was in progress to deliver the components required to install the first S-300 batteries: as many as 6 flights between Sept. 28 and Oct. 1.
Update: Third Russian AN-124 heavy lift Latakia in 48 hrs. RA-82035 now over Iraq, hdg Syria.
S-300 deliveries? Krasukha + Zhitel ECMs? https://t.co/mhAZzeUl2b
— avi scharf (@avischarf) September 29, 2018
On paper, the addition of the new SAM batteries should not affect the Israeli ability to strike Syria. Thanks to stand-off weapons, the Israeli Air Force continues to be able to hit its targets as well as the SAM sites themselves in what is called a DEAD (destruction of enemy air defenses mission) if needed.
The Israeli Air Force has already gathered knowledge on the Russian defense system when it trained against the S-300PMU-1 surface-to-air missile system stationed in Crete during INIOXOS-2015, one the largest annual exercise of the Hellenic Air Force, during which 10 Israeli Air Force F-16I Sufa were able to test evasion tactics during simulated attacks against ground targets protected by S-300 batteries.
Moreover, if conventional aircraft can be theoretically tracked (or as some media outlets stated “locked on”) by Syrian air defenses shortly after take off from their airbases in Israel, the IAF can commit its radar-evading F-35I Adir to the Syrian air strikes. Indeed, the IAF F-35s have already carried out attacks in Syria, as the Israeli Air Force Commander, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin unveiled earlier this year. “The Adir planes are already operational and flying in operational missions. We are the first in the world to use the F-35 in operational activity,” he said showing also a famous photograph of an F-35I flying off Beirut (with radar reflectors).
This is what the Author wrote back then about the F-35 Adir’s involvement in the air strikes on Syria and the inherent risks. It still applies at the current situation:
“[…] the heavy presence of Russian radars and ELINT platforms in Syria cause some concern: the Russians are currently able to identify takeoffs from Israeli bases in real-time and might use collected data to “characterize” the F-35’s signature at specific wavelengths as reportedly done with the U.S. F-22s.
In fact, tactical fighter-sized stealth aircraft are built to defeat radar operating at specific frequencies; usually high-frequency bands as C, X, Ku and S band where the radar accuracy is higher (in fact, the higher the frequency, the better is the accuracy of the radar system).
However, once the frequency wavelength exceeds a certain threshold and causes a resonant effect, LO aircraft become increasingly detectable. For instance, ATC radars, that operate at lower-frequency bands are theoretically able to detect a tactical fighter-sized stealth plane whose shape features parts that can cause resonance. Radars that operate at bands below 300 MHz (lower UHF, VHF and HF radars), such as the so-called Over The Horizon (OTH) radars, are believed to be particularly dangerous for stealth planes: although they are not much accurate (because lower frequency implies very large antenna and lower angle accuracy and angle resolution) they can spot stealth planes and be used to guide fighters equipped with IRST towards the direction the LO planes might be.
For these reasons, in the same way the U.S. spyplanes do with all the Russian Su-35S, Su-30SM, S-400 in Syria, it’s safe to assume Russian advanced anti-aircraft systems are “targeting” the Israeli F-35s and its valuable emissions, forcing the IAF to adapt its procedures and leverage the presence of other aircraft to “hide” the “Adir” when and where it could theoretically be detected. “This has created a situation in which the IAF is adapting itself to the F-35 instead of adapting the jet to the air force. The goal, they say at the IAF, is to use the F-35 to upgrade the fourth generation jets that will fly around the F-35,” commented Al-Monitor’s Ben Caspit.
Meanwhile the Israeli F-35s will probably see some action, validating the tactical procedures to be used by the new aircraft, fine tuning the ELINT capabilities of the “Adir” to detect, geolocate and classify enemy‘s new/upgraded systems, as well as testing the weapons system (and the various Israeli “customizations”) during real operations as part of “packages” that will likely include other special mission aircraft and EW (Electronic Warfare) support.
But only if really needed: the Israeli Air Force “legacy” aircraft have often shown their ability to operate freely in the Syrian airspace, using stand-off weaponry, without needing most of the fancy 5th generation features; therefore, it’s safe to assume the Israelis will commit their new aircraft if required by unique operational needs, as already happened in the past (in 1981, the first Israeli F-16s took part in Operation Opera, one of the most famous operations in Israeli Air Force history, one year after the first “Netz” aircraft was delivered and before all the F-16As were taken on charge by the IAF).”
That said, it’s highly unlikely that Israel would attack the S-300 batteries until the Russian military operate or have those weapons under their direct control. The problem is not the system itself, but the fact that it is flying the Russian flag for some time now.
Someone has recently asked me if the presence of the S-300 is making accidental downings less likely in the crowded Syrian airspace.
The answer is: most probably yes, especially considering that Russian personnel will probably operate more modern systems (even after they are officially handed over they will probably help the Syrians) and care will be taken in properly identifying targets before firing SAMs at them (the use of “transit corridors”, reviewed radar and radio procedures will be probably implemented among the Russian-Syrian teams as well). At the same time, advanced notifications will be probably used wisely, in order to prevent other incidents that could escalate tensions even more.
That said it must be reminded that the situation over Syria will remain volatile.
Yes, there are far busier areas in the Middle East as well as the rest of the World, where the concentration of civilian aircraft is higher. Open Source analysis on flight tracking websites or apps (using ADS-B/Mode-S as I have often explained here) can just give a rough idea of the situation because it provides insights into the civil part of the story. If you observe the traffic flying over Syria using Flightradar24 at any time (you can use the playback feature to monitor flights on a large period of time with speed up to 120x) you will probably only spot some civilian traffic flying in the southwestern part of the country/east of Damascus: the airspace is mainly interested by airliners belonging to the Syrian Air, Iraqi Airways, Fly Baghdad and Cham Wings Airlines flying to/from the Syrian capital. Sometimes you’ll see an airliner crossing the airspace to the North of Damascus: these are usually civilian flights heading to Beirut. Another corridor, mainly used by aircraft heading north departing from Damascus roughly runs along the country’s eastern border. You can have an idea of the corridors used by civil traffic these days here.
Using OSINT tools we don’t get a sense of how many military flights operate over there. Besides the Russian airlifters trailing other aircraft or delivering “goods” to Latakia, and the spyplanes that operate in the eastern Med off Syria and Lebanon, little can be tracked on Flightradar24.com or other public domain flight tracking websites. But we know that there are other tactical as well as intelligence gathering (manned and unmanned) aircraft flying over Syria, both Russian, Syrian and belonging to the US-led coalition. And we also know that, every now and then, combat aircraft from different countries, not operating/cooperating under the same management/coordination and possibly using different procedures as well as ROE (Rules Of Engagement), operate in proximity one another (or close to civilian aircraft).
Deconfliction hotlines between US and Russia and between Russia and Israel have helped avoiding direct clashes (although there have been some tense close encounters in the near past before the Il-20 was downed) but the risk of human-induced accidents remains.
Top image credit: composite created using IAF/Reddit/Russian MOD/FR24.com images