Russia is deploying advanced air defense systems to Syria as part of its military build up inside the war-torn country. While it is currently deploying point defense missiles, it’s possible Russian forces could deploy more capable area air defense systems like the much-feared Almaz-Antey S-300 to the region. If Russia does deploy their latest surface-to-air missiles (SAM) to Syria, the areas protected by these systems would become no-go zones for most allied aircraft save for the F-22 Raptor and B-2 Spirit—and the F-35, if that warplane was genuinely operational.
Russian forces have already deployed two to three SA-22 Greyhound—more properly called the Pantsir-S1—point defense systems around their base in Latakia, Syria, along with as many as 28 fighters and strike aircraft. The highly mobile Pantsir-S1 is primarily designed to protect a small area against a threat with a pair of 2A38M 30mm cannons and a dozen 57E6 surface-to-air missiles. According to its manufacturer, it has a 12-mile range and can engage targets as high a 60,000ft.
But the Pantsir-S1 is just a point defense weapon. Russian integrated air defense systems are usually layered—similar to an onion or a matryoshka doll. The Pantsir is just one component. Systems like the mobile Almaz-Antey Buk-M2E—an older version of which downed the MH17 airliner over Ukraine—provide protection at longer ranges and are designed to accompany a mechanized force on a campaign. The Buk—which NATO designates as the SA-17 Grizzly—is designed to engage targets at ranges of 28 miles and altitudes of more than 82,000ft according to its manufacturer.
Weapons like the S-300 and S-400 form the top tier of Russian surface-to-air missile systems and are designed to protect strategically important areas. The S-300PMU-1 has a range of about 120 miles and can engage targets as high as 100,000ft. Each battery can attack more than half a dozen targets simultaneously.
While older generation strategic SAMs were fixed emplacements, the S-300 and its follow-on systems are highly mobile and can move with little notice—which makes them far more survivable and dangerous. During the Soviet-era, weapons like the S-300 were usually assigned to the Soviet air defense forces—the Voyska PVO—while medium-range systems like the Buk were assigned to the Soviet ground forces. Modern Russia maintains a similar structure, but the Voyska PVO has been folded into the Russian Air Force.
The S-300 and its follow-on systems are some of the most capable and dangerous air defenses an opposing air force could ever face. Not only are the missiles mobile, but the systems are networked together. One S-300 battery is a handful, but several such systems networked together into an integrated air defense system is a nearly insurmountable challenge for most fourth-generation fighters like the F-16 or F-15. As one senior U.S. Marine Corps aviator told me, the S-300 series is deadly. “A complete game changer for all fourth-gen aircraft [like the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18]. That thing is a beast and you don’t want to get near it,” he said.
The best option to defeat an integrated air defense system is to use a stealth aircraft—like the F-22 Raptor and the B-2 stealth bomber. Since the F-22 became operational in 2005, Raptor crews have practiced a mission they call the “Global Strike Task Force”—which is a combined strike package of F-22s and B-2s.
The Raptors “kick down the door” using their unique combination of stealth, high altitude and blistering speed to target the nodes of the integrated air defense system so that the B-2s can proceed to their targets unmolested. It’s a mission the F-22s have only gotten better at with the Increment 3.1 upgrade that allows the jet to geo-locate emitters much more precisely than before. And that capability will continue to improve with the Raptor’s forthcoming Increment 3.2B upgrade.
The other option to take down an integrated air defense system is to use a combination of standoff weapons like the JASSM and JASSM-ER cruise missiles together with electronic attacks from a platform like the EA-18G Growler. The Growler can not only jam the enemy’s radar, but can generate an ellipse to target the missile site. The problem there is precisely updating the cruise missile with current track data before the enemy moves during the incoming weapons’ time of flight.
This is all hypothetical in the event that something goes horribly wrong. It’s important to note, however, that U.S. forces in the Middle East are not trying to confront Russian forces—nobody wants a third world war. But the presence of Russian and American forces in such close proximity inside a war zone is bad news to say the least.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image: Creative Commons/WikiCommons.