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9 Nov, 2018 15:32

S-300 fear factor: Will Israel risk bombing Syria now?

 S-300 fear factor: Will Israel risk bombing Syria now?

The Israeli Air Force reportedly hasn't conducted a single air mission in Syria after Russian S-300 systems were delivered to the Arab Republic. How may the situation develop further?

Israel has not carried out a single military operation in Syria on its own after September 17, when a Russian Il-20 reconnaissance plane was brought down by a Syrian missile by mistake, writes German Contra Magazine. The outlet linked this fact with the recent delivery of the formidable Russian S-300 systems to Syria.

Let's clarify Tel-Aviv's position first, though. There have been reports that the Israeli Air Force command pledged to conduct future air missions on the condition of obtaining a prior clearance with the Russian military.

But these reports are at odds with the statements made by Israeli politicians, who denied Russia's request for timely notifications of Israeli Air Force operations in Syria. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said: "We will not accept any restrictions on our freedom of operation."   

At present, all Russia gets is a few minutes' notice before Israel delivers an air strike on targets in Syria.

High-ranking Israeli military officials justify this by saying that if they were to inform Russia in advance, it could result in information leaks, which, in turn, would give the Syrian air defense and pro-Iran armed groups the time to prepare for an incoming attack. In October, Lieberman said that "in all the matters that concern our security interests, Israel cannot afford to make any compromises."

Now, let us look at the reasoning behind Israel's attacks in Syria. According to Tel Aviv, Israel only launches airstrikes against Iranian militant groups that allegedly supply missiles to terrorist organizations who use the weapons to kill Israeli civilians. In addition, Israeli air forces carry out missions to prevent Iran from delivering weapons to Hezbollah. Tel Aviv considers the actions undertaken by Tehran in Syria as one of the biggest threats to Israel's national security.

This leads to the only possible conclusion: the airstrikes will likely continue, regardless of whether there are any S-300 air defense weapons systems on the ground in Syria or not.

Now, let us look at the combat capabilities of the S-300 missile system (also known as 'Favorite') deployed in the Syrian Arab Republic. There are reasons to believe that there is a set of S-300PM-2 air defense missile battalions currently operational in Syria, consisting of a command-and-control vehicle, a radar detection vehicle and two air defense missile battalions.

The exact number of launcher vehicles in each of the battalions is unknown, but we can safely assume that their number is limited. In any case, the battalions deployed in Syria are not equipped to full strength, which would be 12 launcher vehicles per battalion.

The essential point is that all units of the S-300PM-2 air defense missile battalion are manned by Russian personnel. It will take at least three months to train Syrian crews to operate the system, and so far these pieces of military hardware have not been handed over to be under the command of the Syrian Air Defense Forces.

It seems imperative to give a brief description of the combat capabilities of the system. In mass media, they often say that the S-300 currently has a max range of 250km (155 miles). That means that two battalions of this system can effectively cover nearly half of Syria.  

In principle, it is possible. However a bit of clarification is certainly necessary. Effective engagement range of any air defense missile system depends on the altitude of a target, which is explained by the basic laws of the radio-wave propagation and the fact that the Earth is not flat.

For example, the max range for the S-300PM-2 is indeed 250km, but it will only be able to intercept a target that far if it flies at an altitude of around 12 to 15km (7 to 10 miles). In modern military context, combat aviation rarely operates at such a high altitude. So, if the target travels at about 100m (328 feet) then the engagement range of the S-300 system drops to 25km, and it may get even worse – complex landscape configuration can cut it down to 14-16km.

The key idea here is that one single set of S-300 air defense missile battalions at no point should be seen as a silver-bullet that will enable Syria to shoot down practically any incoming threat.

It should be noted though that even most advanced weapons turn into a pile of metal scrap when handled by ill-trained and unqualified crews.

The S-300 missile systems can only be effective if they are used as elements of a modern missile defense system, which includes a layered anti-aircraft system, fighter jets to provide air cover, a surveillance radar system and electronic warfare components. What is even more important, all those systems need to be operated by highly qualified and motivated personnel.

So, for the Syrian army to be able to fight the Israeli Defense Forces on equal terms, it has to be trained to reach the combat readiness and fighting efficiency of the Israeli military.

It is debatable whether that is at all possible. Even if it is theoretically possible as far as weaponry and military equipment are concerned, trained and motivated crews are a must, and Bashar al-Assad has no military personnel that can meet this criteria right away.

At the moment, one possible scenario is that the Israeli Air Force will continue its airstrikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria and the presence of the S-300 systems is unlikely to stop that.

Let's also not forget that Israel will see operational S-300 air defense systems as a national security threat. However it's unlikely that Israel will try and destroy these missile systems – at least as long as the S-300 'Favorite' is operated by the Russian military.

By Mikhail Khodarenok, military commentator for Gazeta.ru


Mikhail Khodarenok is a retired colonel. He graduated from the Minsk Higher Engineering School of Anti-Aircraft Missile Defense (1976) and the Command Academy of the Air Defense Forces (1986).
Commanding officer of the S-75 AA missile battalion (1980-1983).
Deputy commanding officer of a SAM regiment (1986-1988).
Senior officer at the High Command of the Air Defense Forces (1988–1992).
Officer at the main operational directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces(1992–2000).
Graduated from the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (1998).
Worked as an analyst at Nezavisimaya Gazeta (2000-2003) and editor-in-chief of Voyenno-Promyshlennyi Kuriyer (2010-2015).

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.