Russian Defense Ministry personnel unload S-300 air defense missile systems from a transport plane at the Khmeimim air base in the south-east of the city of Latakia, Syria. Photo: AFP/Russian Defense Ministry
Russian Defense Ministry personnel unload S-300 air defense missile systems from a transport plane at the Khmeimim air base south-east of the city of Latakia, Syria. Photo: AFP/Russian Defense Ministry

The rear doors of the huge nearly 200-ton An-124 transport aircraft dropped to the ground, and in a video supplied by Russia’s military, two Transport, Erector and Launch (TEL) vehicles, each weighing tens of tons, drove down the ramp and onto Syrian territory.

The S-300 delivered to Syria – the video shows the TEL with missile canisters but not the radar systems and command and control vehicles that form part of the S-300 – is a major upgrade and escalation promoted by Russia’s military as a retaliation against Israel.

The S-300 is a long-range air defense system designed for use in the European theater and ill-suited to the confines of Syrian airspace, bordering on Iraq, Jordan and Israel. We do not know if the system delivered is new: it is probable it is an old S-300 freshly painted.

While the delivery of the S-300 is the Russian Ministry of Defense’s response to Israel, who they blame for the loss of an IL-20M surveillance plane shot down by Syrian air defenses on September 17, the delivery of the S-300 may cause the Russians more problems than they want to think about, including the possibility of losing more aircraft to “friendly” fire.

YouTube video

The Russians will train the Syrian army on how to use the S-300 system. That will take time, and the training provided in 2007 to the Syrians for their existing anti-aircraft systems has proven inadequate. With high attrition in the Syrian military, it would be hard to believe any of the trained operators are still serving. If they were, they would still need to be retrained since their previous instruction was 11 years ago.

Poorly trained military

The Syrian military it seems is poorly organized and run and because of tremendous attrition during the Syrian civil war, the quality of recruits appears to have dropped even further. The Syrian military and police have lost 99,868 soldiers, with another 64,041 losses of pro-government militia fighters.

To get an idea of the scope of the government losses, Syria in the past fielded an army of 304,000, of which half were reserves. Combat losses are an aggregate but don’t include non-combat deaths and desertions.

According to recent research, “an estimated 100,000 Syrian soldiers and officers have left their positions since the beginning of the crisis in 2011. While many have deserted to flee the conflict and take refuge abroad, a smaller number of military personnel have defected to the opposition.”

What all of this means in practical terms is that recruiting and keeping talented people in the Syrian military has to be a huge challenge; on top of that many of the recruits are raw and inexperienced as well as uneducated.

The current size of the Syrian army, post-2015, is no more than 100,000. Commentator Mihail Khodarenok has written, translated from Russian: “While militias, Iranian volunteers, Hezbollah and PMCs fight in lieu of the Syrian army, Bashar Assad’s soldier busy themselves with collecting bribes at checkpoints. This view becomes more and more widespread among military experts aware of the actual situation in Syria.”

Operating a modern air defense system is a challenge. The Syrian army’s performance so far with air defense has demonstrated that they really don’t know what they are doing and often fire their anti-aircraft systems in order to avoid criticism from their superiors, which is why they keep on shooting long after the threat has left the area.

The Russians may now have made it far worse, because the S-300’s range is greater than the older systems in use in Syria. According to public information, the radar of the S-300 could potentially cover northern Israel’s airspace.

Will Syrian gunners shoot their missiles into Israel? If they do, it is likely to trigger a general war.

Friendly or unfriendly targets

Here’s some technical details: Different radars are supplied with the S-300 including “Tin Shield” ST-68U with a range of up to 150km (93 miles) and the 96L6 Cheesboard 3D radar with a range of 300km (186.4 miles). The S-300 model exported to Syria is probably the S-300PMU, or an old version of the S-300 in Russia’s inventory, and it has 5V554 interceptor missiles with a range of 150km but also can be fitted with other types of interceptor missiles.

The distance between Damascus, where the S-300 may be headed, and Mt Bental overlooking the Golan Heights and part of Israel is 60km, or 37.3 miles.

The biggest problem for Russia that the S-300 does not solve is the absence of systems in Syria to sort out friendly and unfriendly targets.  These are known today as IFF systems – Identification Friend or Foe.

US and NATO IFF is multipurpose: it provides information on the type of aircraft, its speed and direction and it works with codes that are changed on a daily basis to prevent spoofing.

The latest IFF system, known as Mode 5, does all this, provides frequency hopping and encryption to conceal transmitted information from an enemy.  It can also link to civilian ADS-B – automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast – and to GPS satellites for navigation. US and European aircraft must have ADS-B by 2019.

Modern military aircraft in the United States typically get FAA certification and the Defense Department normally requires all new aircraft to be in compliance with FAA regulations and get FAA certification.

IFF systems can be used on aircraft, ground vehicles, naval vessels, missiles and even on soldiers to try and cut down on friendly fire accidents. Israel has developed a mini-IFF for unmanned aircraft and the US is working on similar systems.

Until recently the Russians have had trouble with IFF. In 2008 the Russians shot down four of the six warplanes they lost in the Georgia conflict. General Vladimir Shamanov reported: “In South Ossetia the IFF system, in fact, did not work, and it was very hard for our units to recognize whose equipment they were seeing – ours or Georgian.”

Russia lost Su-25 ground attack aircraft and a Tu-22M3 long-range bomber. Several other Russian aircraft were badly damaged but survived.

In a similar manner, when special Russian forces shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in July, 2014, the BUK missile system either lacked IFF or the irregular operators paid no attention to it or didn’t know what it meant. Civilian aircraft are equipped with transponders with a code they receive from air traffic controllers.

Alternative systems

It was the BUK system that was also responsible for shooting down the four Russian warplanes in South Ossetia where the IFF system did not work.

In Syria there are eight BUK complexes – model BUK-M2E – delivered in 2011.

Russia’s primary IFF system is called Kremnij. It was upgraded to the 2M version because all of Russia’s IFF system had been spoofed by NATO. The Kremnij has two modes – peacetime and wartime. The wartime version is only allowed to be used for war directly involving Russian territory.  The peacetime version is jammable and spoofable.

Another Russian IFF is called Parol. It is a replacement for Kremnij-2M, but Kremnij remains in use. The Parol has a more sophisticated waveform and uses encryption like Western systems.

Russia did not provide IFF to Syrian air defense systems nor to Syrian aircraft, meaning that the Syrians can only guess what they are shooting at under the best of circumstances.

Russia held back on supplying IFF to Syria in fear that compromise of their IFF system would weaken the central focus of Russian defenses in European Russia. This means that the S-300 system delivered to Syria, just like its predecessor air defenses, won’t have functional IFF.

The Russian Ministry of Defense’s Major General Igor Konashenkov said: “There were no precedents for transferring Russian IFF systems to other states, including the Syrian Arab Republic.”

As a result, supplying the S-300 is dangerous for three reasons: its range, meaning it can lead to war with Israel if it shoots across the border; its lack of IFF, meaning it can’t distinguish between friendly and hostile forces; and the risk to Russian aircraft, meaning it is a threat to Russia’s operations in Syria.

It may also be a threat to civilian air traffic around the Damascus airport. If put in the hands of poorly trained operators, the sale of the S-300 to Syria is a reckless measure pushed by the Russian military, who may rue the day they decided to send the S-300 to Syria.

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