Drones are difficult targets to engage with systems designed to hunt airplanes. The same is true of cruise missiles, but many modern SAM systems claim to be capable of engaging them. However, in April 2017 and April 2018, Syrian air defenses seem to have completely failed to detect and engage a total of over 160 U.S., British and French cruise missiles.
In the first attack, fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles struck Shayrat airbase without eliciting counterfire, apparently damaging or destroying five S-200 batteries amongst other targets.
However, if you believe the performance art of Syrian and Russian state media, Syrian missiles shot down seventy-six cruise missiles this April of 2018 using six different missile systems! Remarkably this unprecedented feat in the history of air defense occurred despite radars only detecting the launch of around forty Syrian SAMs after the cruise missile strike had landed. Presumably, the SAMs employed top-secret time-travel and self-replication capabilities. For a detailed examination of why the claims are so outlandish, I recommend this article by Joseph Trevithick.
As fellow National Interest’s defense editor, David Majumdar, explains in detail, small, low-flying cruise missiles are simply very challenging targets for ground-based air defenses to detect and engage due to the manner in which intervening terrain interferes with ground-based radars. Only short-range systems are likely to have a shot at hitting a cruise missile, but just because a short-range system like the Pantsir-S1 theoretically has the capability of doing so doesn’t mean it will on reliable basis—as the result of the May 9 air strike vividly illustrates.
Overall, Syria’s dated air defenses have proven ineffective at shooting down hostile missiles and aircraft from several of the most technologically advanced air forces on the planet. However, the air-defense systems does have modest deterrent value by shaping the behavior of its adversaries, increasing the opportunity cost of enemy air raids and making certain types of operations risky or impossible. Although Israel has the means to target and destroy Syrian air defenses, doing so requires more planning, the use of more expensive munitions and the taking of additional precautions. Until Damascus can improve the training and technology of its forces, that may be the best it can hope for.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: Wikimedia Commons