Two U.S. destroyers cruising in the eastern Mediterranean Sea have fired 59 BGM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles at an airbase in western Syria. The cruise missiles flew across the Russian S-400 MEZ unscathed.
Last night, Alreigh Burke-class destroyers USS Porter (DDG-78) and USS Ross (DDG-71) launched cruise missiles into Syria, in response to the chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians on Apr. 4.
On President Donald Trump’s order, 59 BGM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) targeted runway, hardened aircraft shelters, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, radars and fuel points at Shayrat Airbase, the airfield in western Syria from where, according to the intelligence gathered by the U.S., the aircraft that carried out the chemical attacks were launched
The track of the Syrian aircraft that carried out the CW attack on Khan Shaykhn (DoD released)
According to the first reports, all the aircraft based there have been destroyed or severely damaged, including some 30 Syrian Arab Air Force Su-22 Fitter attack planes, several SyAAF MiG-23s and also some Su-24 Fencers according to sources. For sure, considered the status of Assad’s air force, the attack may have had a significant impact on the ability of the loyalist air force to conduct air strikes.
However, later reports say that most of the aircraft based there were evacuated before the strike, and initial footage from Shayrat seems to show at least some areas of the airports, including taxiways, shelters, aprons, etc. with little or no damages.
Only 23 missiles flew to the Syrian air base and just 6 MiG-23s were destroyed there along with a radar station, spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, said at a briefing. Where the remaining 36 cruise missiles have landed is “unknown,” he said.
According to Pentagon, the Russians were informed ahead of strike:
Russian forces were notified in advance of the strike using the established deconfliction line. U.S. military planners took precautions to minimize risk to Russian or Syrian personnel located at the airfield.
Indeed, Shayrat Airbase is a Forward Operating Base for a few Russian Air Force Mi-35 and Ka-52 helicopters. The status of the choppers, provided some of these were there at the moment of the air strike, is unknown. However, considered that these are not mentioned in the Russian Defense Ministry statement it’s safe to assume they were not damaged by the TLAM attack.
Did Russia’s most advanced anti-aircraft defense system detect the missiles? For sure there are no reports of any of the BGM-109 intercepted by the S-400.
Designated SA-21 “Growler” by NATO, the S-400 is believed to be able to engage all types of aerial targets including aircraft (someone says even VLO – Very Low Observable ones), drones and ballistic and cruise missiles within the range of 250 miles at an altitude of nearly 19 miles. Equipped with 3 different types of missiles and an acquisition radar capable of tracking up to 300 targets within the range of over 370 miles, the Triumph (or Triumf) is a system made of 8 launchers and a control station.
Supported by effective EW (Electronic Warfare) capabilities, the S-400 fires missiles against aerial targets flying at 17,000 km/h.
So, at least on paper, all non-stealth aircraft and missiles would hardly be able to dodge S-400 missiles. Assuming that the Russians probably detected at least some of the Tomahawks flying fast and low towards their targets at Shayrat Airbase it’s not clear why the Trimf did not attempt to intercept any of the TLAMs launched by the US destroyers, considered the reaction by Viktor Ozerov, head of the Russian Federation Council’s defense committee, who said the American attack was “an act of aggression against a UN member […] Cooperation between the Russian and US militaries may be shut down after the US strike.” according to state news agency RIA.
Perhaps, considered that they were informed beforehand, they simply decided to let them pass. The Russian MoD statement does not say mention any Russian air defense system intercepting any of the U.S. missiles launched towards Shayrat Airbase even though some sources have suggested only 23 missiles reached their targets because the other ones were brought down near Tartous by the local S-400 and S-300 batteries.
The S-400 MEZ (source: RT)
Anyway, the U.S. TLAM strike marks a shift in Washington’s posture regarding Syria and it represents the first direct action against Assad’s regime after six years of civil war.
Back in 2013, when a U.S. military operation in Syria was being rumored, we published an article that you can read here. Here are some key points of that story, that still apply four years later:
“Forget F-15E Strike Eagles and F/A-18E Super Hornets carrying PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions). Should Washington really get involved in Syria, it will probably be a limited air war, mainly made of cruise missiles, most (if not all) shot by warships or submarines and almost no involvement of “tacair” (tactical airplanes).
The attack would be conducted by the four destroyers in the Sixth fleet area of operations (USS Gravely, USS Barry, USS Mahan and USS Ramage) [in 2013 these were operating in the eastern Mediterranea], each theoretically capable to launch up to 90 Tomahawks Tactical Cruise Missiles (actually less, because these warships usually carry a mix of attack and air defense missiles).
High flying Global Hawk drones flying from Incirlik, Sigonella or Al Dhafra, will perform the post-strike BDA (Battle Damage Assessment). Some sorties will also be flown by U-2s.”
At that time a real air campaign was thought to be considered. The one carried out in the night between Apr. 6 and 7 was probably an isolated air strike in retaliation for the Syrian chemical strikes earlier this week.
According to a Syrian Army statement, an Israeli jet involved in a raid over Syria was shot down. The Israeli Air Force denies.
Early in the morning on Mar. 17, the Israeli Air Force carried out an air strike near Damascus, in Syria.
The Israeli jets hit Mezzeh Military Airport, an airbase located south-west of the old centre of Damascus, where a local ammunition depot and a few other military installation were reportedly hit with a surgical strike.
Just a few ago, citing French intelligence sources, Le Figaro’s journalist Georges Malbrunot, said the brand new Israeli F-35Is, had already had their combat debut over Syria on the night of Jan. 12-13 (only one month after being delivered!) targeting a Pantis-S1 mobile SAM system warehouse located at Mezzeh.
Although the IAF has often been quick to put new assets into action, the (obviously unconfirmed nor denied) F-35’s participation in both the January and today’s raids seems to be pretty unlikely.
The Syrian military said a total of four IAF jets breached the Syrian airspace: one aircraft was shot down whereas another one was damaged. At the time of writing, such claims have not been backed by any evidence so far.
Actually, the IAF utilizes weapons with the range and targeting capabilities required to hit the target from inside Lebanese airspace, without intruding the Syrian one. With a range of little less than 50NM, the EO/IR targeting and large 750-lb warhead the Popeye, could easily be the weapon of choice for the Mezzeh raid.
Although unlikely, it is still possible that the Israelis used the Delilah air to surface missile, a low-speed, loitering weapon that could strike moving targets and be reprogrammed after launch. Still, its small 66-lb warhead is a poor choice for a large target such as a warehouse. Same can be said for the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb. The folding wings of the glide weapon give the requisite range but the small warhead makes the weapon a less attractive choice.
While acknowledging the raid “on several targets” in Syria (something quite unusual), the Israeli Defence Forces have denied any of the jets was harmed by the Syrian Air Defence.
“At no point was the safety of Israeli civilians or the IAF [Israeli Air Force] aircraft compromised,” an Israeli military spokesman said, according to the Jerusalem Post.
According to the Israeli military the jets were targeted with Syrian anti-aircraft missiles “of which one was intercepted by Israel’s missile defense system, heard as far away as Jerusalem, and two others landing in Israel but causing no damage or injuries.”
Some media outlets have reported that one Syrian missile was intercepted by the Arrow-3 anti-missile defense system, Israel’s most advanced Arrow system. However, the Arrow-3 is highly maneuverable system designed to intercept ballistic missiles when they are still outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Other sources said the Syrian SAM was intercepted by a Arrow-2, an air defense system more likely to be employed against an SA-5 considered the size, operating altitude and range of this surface-to-air missile.
Anyway, the one conducted earlier today is just the last of long series of raids carried out (without any apparent issue) by the Israeli Air Force in the last year.
The IAF jets have proved to be able to operate almost freely in (or close to) the Syrian airspace, hitting targets across the country with PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions) without the SyAAF (Syrian Arab Air Force) being able to pose a real threat to the Israeli attack planes that most probably enjoy a solid and effective EW (Electronic Warfare) cover during the air strikes. Without even requiring any stealth capability. At least until they need to operate well inside an S-300 or S-400’s MEZ (Missile Engagement Zone).
A Russian Tactical Air Strike in Al-Bab, Syria Kills Three Turkish Soldiers: What May Have Gone Wrong?
Wire services report that a Russian tactical air strike in Al-Bab, Syria, 40 kilometers northeast of Aleppo, has resulted in a “fratricide” (“friendly fire”) incident that took the lives of three Turkish ground troops and wounded another eleven personnel on the ground.
It is inherently dangerous for ground troops to operate in close proximity to airstrike targets. Minor miscalculations in aircraft weapon release point, malfunction of weapon release equipment on the aircraft, weather conditions such as wind and poor visibility, guidance malfunctions on precision guided weapons and problems with communications and coordination between ground troops and attack aircraft can all contribute to incidents of fratricide from air strikes.
Google Earth screengrab of the target area.
During the intense ground battles that have characterized much of the insurgent war in Syria troops have often been in close contact in urban areas. The overhead cover of buildings, the narrow streets and nearly identical appearance of many buildings in urban areas make accurate targeting of air strikes increasingly difficult on the urban battlefield.
Russia has most frequently employed non-precision guided weapons in tactical strikes in Syria. If this is the case in today’s Al-Bab incident it may have been a contributing factor.
While technical details of the strike were not released media photos from Khmeimim Air Base (also called Hmeimim Air Base) frequently show the Russian Su-25 Frogfoot used in a similar role as the U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt II for ground attack and close air support. Although unconfirmed, it may have been an Su-25 that launched today’s mistaken strike.
Su-25 pilot at Latakia airbase (Ru MoD via RT)
One factor that may have contributed to the incident is possible communication problems between Turkish ground forces and Russian close air support assets. U.S. forces traditionally employ specially trained and equipped personnel called “Forward Air Controllers” or “Tactical Air Control Parties” (TACPs) to coordinate air strikes in support of ground troops. It is possible the Russians may have assigned their own personnel, in some cases attack pilots with airstrike experience in the region, to help with targeting and coordination. But if there were no Russian air strike coordinators on the ground with Turkish troops, this could have been a contributing factor.
Russia’s precision-guided weapons have traditionally been larger munitions, while smaller bombs such as the 100kg and 250kg have not been guided. This is contrary to the U.S. development of small precision-guided weapons like the recent GBU-53/B small diameter bomb, a GPS/INS guided 250lb (approx. 113kg) bomb that has been employed by the F-22 in strikes in Syria. Russian precision guided munitions appear to be larger than 500kg including the FAB-500 high-explosive bomb and the “bunker busting” AB-500 bomb used on reinforced concrete targets.
Russian guided weapons relying on satellite targeting may be inherently less accurate than their U.S. counterparts since they update targeting and guidance data from the GLONASS GPS satellite constellation. According to Russia Insider the GLONASS satellite constellation “is fractionally less accurate in low latitudes than [western] GPS”. This suggests the Russian systems may be optimized for striking targets in northern areas.
Analyst for the Japan Times, Robert Burns, wrote, “The skies over Syria are increasingly crowded — and increasingly dangerous. The air forces of multiple countries are on the attack, often at cross-purposes in Syria’s civil war, sometimes without coordination. And now, it seems, they are at risk of unintended conflict.”
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter expressed early concern over a year ago about the possibility of “inadvertent incidents and lack of communication” with Russian aircrews. Part of then-Secretary Ash’s concern stemmed from a relative lack of sophistication with Russian communications systems and their use of non-precision, unguided air delivered weapons.
The precision strategic long-range strike crossed Iranian and Iraqi airspace and, according to the Russian MoD, the targets (terrorist group’s command centers, weapon stockpiles and armored vehicles) were completely destroyed.
The primary bomber aircraft on the strike are the latest version of the TU-22 “Backfire” series bombers. Production of the aircraft ended in 1993 but updates to targeting and avionics have likely continued.
Based on an examination of the BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment) and targeting strike video, it would appear that the weapons employed were, as usual, unguided “dumb” bombs released under precision sighting from the Russian bombers. The weapons appear to be one of the Russian FAB series unguided bombs, either the FAB-250 (500 lb) bombs or the larger FAB-500 (1,000 lb) bombs.
Unguided bombs employed using precision strike technology from the bombers themselves have the advantage of not requiring time-consuming targeting data often required by laser designated, GPS-guided or optically guided air-delivered weapons. As a result the Russian forces can prosecute targets more quickly since fewer targeting assets in the region are required.
No intelligence was released indicating how targeting was achieved for the airstrikes.
The Tu-22M3 is internally equipped with the Leninets PNA-D precision ground attack radar for targeting and the SMKRITS RORSAT Targeting Datalink Receiver (Molniya satcom) for remote target designation. The aircraft is also equipped with an OPB-15 remote optical bombsight. The strike video may have been shot using the aircraft’s onboard AFA-15 strike camera.
The strikes appeared to have been conducted from medium to high altitude based on the videos.
In 2010, the Russian Air Force operated 93 of the Tu-22 bombers in several versions while Russian Naval Aviation flew 58 Tu-22’s according to public sources.
Although Russia did not officially name the units involved it is most likely the raids were flown by aircraft from the 52nd Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment at Shaykovka and/or the 840th Heavy Bomber Regiment at Soltsy-2 in Novgorod Oblast, Russia.
This follows a similar raid on strategic targets in Syria flown earlier this week on Saturday.
VFA-131 Operation Inherent Resolve Cruise Video includes rare footage of Russian Flanker (and Iranian F-4 Phantom) encountered by the U.S. Navy Hornets.
The footage below is not the usual USN Squadron cruise video.
Indeed, along with the standard carrier launch, recovery, air-to-air refueling, high-g maneuvering stuff that you can find in all these videos, this one from VFA-131 also contains some pretty rare footage filmed during the cruise aboard USS Eisenhower in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, in Syria and Iraq.
In particular, a close encounter with a RuAF Flanker, most probably a Su-35S Flanker-E from Hymeim airbase near Latakia. Filmed by the Hornet’s AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod, a multi-sensor, electro-optical targeting pod, incorporating thermographic camera, low-light television camera, target laser rangefinder/laser designator, the IR footage shows the Russian aircraft carrying only one R-77 RVV-SD (on the starboard wing’s inner pylon) and two R-27 air-to-air missiles.
Noteworthy, talking to the WSJ, a U.S. Air Force official has recently claimed that Russian planes regularly fly too close to U.S. fighter jets, risking collision in the crowded skies above Syria. According to Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles Corcoran, commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, Russian pilots fail to emit identifying signals on the agreed hotline during flights, adding to confusion in the air, an allegation that is refuted by the Russia’s Defense Ministry.
Moreover, there’s some interesting dogfight with a French Rafale (at 09:38 and 11:57) and (at 09:01) another close encounter, with an F-4 Phantom, most probably an Iranian one met over the Gulf.
Here below you can find a screenshot showing the Phantom.