The Russians allege that Syria’s largely antiquated collection of S-125, S-200, Buk, Kvadrat and Osa air defense systems shot down the majority of the incoming air strike. "According to available information, a total of 103 cruise missiles were fire,” Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operations Department, told the state-owned TASS news agency. “The Syrian air defense systems basically comprising Soviet-made weapons successfully repelled the strikes by aircraft and naval ships. A total of 71 missiles were intercepted."
However, the Russian claim is laughable. The fact of the matter is that even advanced Russian air defense systems such as the S-300V4 and the S-400 are not able to provide area air defense coverage against cruise missiles. Cruise missiles take advantage of low altitudes to hide in the shadows of radar coverage, thus without airborne cueing, even something like an S-400 cannot provide more than point defense capability against cruise missiles.
Indeed, only the U.S. Navy’s Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air (NIFC-CA)—which relies on the Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye aircraft to provide airborne target cuing—can claim to provide some manner of area coverage against cruise missiles in a maritime environment. It is very doubtful that even NIFC-CA would provide good protection against cruise missiles over land where terrain masking poses a serious problem.
Speaking of Russian air defenses, the Kremlin’s forces stayed out of the fray and did not attempt to engage the incoming missiles. However, even then, the Pentagon carefully avoided Russian forces, and thus Moscow’s forces were out of position to help their Syrian allies even if the Kremlin had been inclined to do so. “I didn't say the Russian air defenses were not turned on. I said they weren't employed,” McKenzie said.
The Russian Response
Thus far, the Russian response to the attack on Syria has been limited to rhetoric for the most part. However, the Russians had stated they would only respond with force if allied forces directly struck them. However, the allies—particularly France—took pains to avoid escalation. “We refuse any possibility of military escalation,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly said. "We had ensured that the Russians were warned beforehand."
The United States was less direct about the level of coordination with the Russians. “Probably the best way to understand it is this: The Russians don't have a veto on anything we do, and that's probably the best way to describe it,” McKenzie said. “We're not cooperating with them in Syria. We don't want to get into a fight with them. They don't want to get into a fight with us. The best way to do that is to share certain information about what you're doing, carefully -- carefully metered out by us, and I'm sure the same by them. But we're not cooperating with them, and they have no veto over what we do.”
Meanwhile, Moscow has started a propaganda offensive against the United States in response to the attack on Syria. “The Russian disinformation campaign has already begun,” Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White told reporters. “There has been a 2,000 percent increase in Russian trolls in the last 24 hours. Therefore, we will keep you all abreast of the facts moving forward.”
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest . You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar .