Russia’s decision to furnish Syria with its advanced S-300 missile defense system has sparked a wave of commentary on how the transfer will affect the Syrian government’s military posture and staying power. Israel seems to be doing everything it can to convince Moscow not to go through with the promised delivery. But Russian leaders seem adamant, describing the goal of the transfer unambiguously: to deter foreign intervention, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s comments illustrated on June 20.
Many analysts seem to have bought Russia’s logic, with recent assessments highlighting the "game-changing" nature of the strategic weapons’ transfer. Some contended that S-300 batteries would "alter the balance of power" in the region and make intervention "extremely difficult." Others noted that the system’s ability to hit targets in Israel and in other countries allied to the United States in the region increases the likelihood that "regional war" might erupt.
Despite these prognostications, there are four reasons why the potential transfer of the S-300 is unlikely to significantly challenge U.S. capabilities to decisively intervene by air in Syria. Furthermore, the argument that the system’s deployment by itself automatically contributes to greater regional instability, when weighed against evidence of the possession by other Middle Eastern countries of similar weapons systems and more destabilizing weapons of mass destruction, holds no water whatsoever.
First, although the United States has not faced the S-300 in combat, a host of its allies — including Bulgaria, Greece, and Slovakia — currently use variants of the S-300 system. Through its alliances, the United States has enjoyed access to these systems and has gathered data, which could facilitate the development of countermeasures. As recently as 2012, NATO carried out a training exercise that tested the ability of various fighter aircraft to carry out missile hunting operations against Slovakia’s S-300 PMU, one of the more recent variants of the S-300 system.
Other U.S. allies have engaged in their own intelligence-gathering efforts on the S-300 to ascertain system vulnerabilities and develop countermeasures, the results of which they most likely shared with their U.S. counterparts. In 2008, Israel conducted joint exercises with Greece to gather intelligence on its more modern S-300PMU-1 system, the second-most recent S-300 iteration. According to award-winning investigative author Edwin Black, the exercise showed that "a 1400 km distance [about 870 miles] could be negotiated with Israeli aircraft remaining aloft and effective." In turn, the Israeli Air Force (IAF), along with Israeli defense companies, began developing electronic countermeasures and decoys to hedge against the system’s capabilities. Even today, Israeli defense officials acknowledge that while the S-300 would pose problems it would not be the game-changer that some analysts have described. IAF Colonel Zvika Haimovich recently told Reuters, "Though it would impinge on our operations, we are capable of overcoming it."
Second, a system with the technical complexity of the S-300 would prove exceedingly difficult for the Syrian military to operate. Personnel would require months of training to operate and maintain the S-300 — by some estimates, almost a year — before they could reliably deploy it. By then, sustaining a robust air defense could very well be the last concern of a regime fighting to keep control on the ground. Training personnel and developing facilities to operate and potentially repair the S-300s would expend precious troops and resources and still leave the systems vulnerable to ground attack by rebel forces, as much of the rest of Syria’s air defenses have been for the past two years. Furthermore, to maximize the S-300’s capabilities, the Syrian military would need to integrate the system into its overall air defense network so that each of its missile batteries engage the most appropriate targets. According to IHS Jane’s, doing this would require additional command and control hardware — such as the Baikal-1– which would entail further time for training and deployment of the S-300. Thus, the likelihood and payoff of a quick S-300 deployment seem small.
Third, recent analyses have inflated the vulnerability of aircraft to S-300 systems. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, for example, declared that the S-300 could target aircraft about 185 miles away, thus rendering vulnerable aircraft in Israeli airspace. Others, like Anthony Cordesman, have posited more reasonably that the maximum range is closer to about 95 miles. But what many analysts seem to have missed is that the S-300 does not detect all aircraft uniformly. The range at which the system would detect U.S.-Israeli aircraft is not only a function of the S-300’s capabilities, but the stealth profile and altitude of the aircraft being flown. Highly stealthy aircraft, like the U.S. F-22A, could relatively safely penetrate much further into Syrian airspace than other fighter jets like the F-16. And the S-300 would detect these aircraft at even smaller ranges if they are flown at low altitudes. While the S-300 can be outfitted with low-altitude radars, deployment of this component in an S-300 battery greatly limits the system’s mobility. Thus, any battery that uses the component becomes more vulnerable to strikes.
What’s more, the increased ranges of the S-300 are somewhat offset by stand-off missiles like the U.S. Air Force’s JASSM-ER missile, a stealthy, highly-accurate cruise missile which pilots can launch 575 miles from a target. The JASSM-ER flies at very low altitudes, enabling it to evade advanced systems like the S-300 until within several miles of the radar. Stand-off strike missiles like the JASSM-ER, especially when launched in large numbers, could overcome the defensive advantages provided by the S-300.
Fourth, despite the range of the S-300, the Assad regime is unlikely to unilaterally shoot down U.S. aircraft outside of Syrian airspace. While the regime was accused of doing precisely this to a Turkish warplane in June 2012, it also saw the grave risks of such provocations. The Turkish government strongly considered a military response, forcing Assad to confess that he regretted the decision to shoot down the aircraft. As the incident illustrated, any future provocations would provide greater impetus for an intervention, which the regime is desperately trying to prevent. Indeed, threats of retaliation notwithstanding, Syria failed to respond to three covert air attacks on weapons shipments by Israel this year. If the Assad regime were to sanction the use of the S-300, it would be in the context of a clear decision by the United States and the West to intervene militarily in Syria (although such a decision may not be made public to increase the intervention’s chances of success). Under these circumstances, as previously mentioned, U.S. forces would be capable of neutralizing the S-300 threat.
So if the S-300 is unlikely to deter military intervention in Syria, then why is Russia expending political capital on this transfer? As the world’s second-largest arms exporter, foreign military sales contribute over $14 billion to Russia’s economy. Global focus on the Syrian conflict provides a useful opportunity to showcase one of Russia’s most advanced and widely exported military products, no less in a region home to the world’s largest arms importers. In addition, Russian leaders may be using the sale as part of a broader strategy to reassert itself in the Middle East. U.S. policymakers shouldn’t find this surprising, as Russia pursued similar objectives when it declared its intention to transfer the S-300 to Iran. According to Reuters, leaked diplomatic cables revealed that Russian officials had no intention of going through with the transfer. Instead, in 2010, Russia backed out of the agreement in exchange for several Israeli surveillance drones and guarantees from Israel to withhold arms from Georgia.
One caveat, however, is in order. If Russia does go ahead with its S-300 sale to Assad, it may also choose to send Russian personnel to man and train Syrian forces to use the system in the early months following the transfer. Under these circumstances, a decision to strike the S-300 batteries could be greatly complicated by the risk of killing Russian personnel. The military feasibility of counter-air operations in Syria still would not change, but the broader strategic costs certainly would. The death of Russian soldiers on Syrian territory by Western militaries would not be taken lightly by Moscow and could very well cause an international diplomacy crisis.
To be sure, acquisition of the S-300 would represent a drastic upgrade for a dense but aging Syrian air defense system. Robert Hewson accurately, if inadvertently, describes the shortcomings of recent analyses of the S-300 threat when he acknowledges, "If your plan is to waltz into Syrian airspace and start bombing things this is a big wrinkle." And Hewson is right to assert that this would limit the ability of aircraft to "roam around Syrian airspace with impunity." But this is an unreasonable standard by which to assess the feasibility of future contingencies in Syria. Certainly acquisition of the S-300 would necessitate some retooling of current plans for military action. But it would not prohibit and is unlikely to make significantly more costly any future air campaign in the area.
That Russia’s potential supply of advanced missile defenses to Syria is no panacea to Assad should not automatically lead to the endorsement of a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone, or any of the other direct military intervention options being advocated elsewhere. Many U.S. analysts have made sensible arguments about the risks that would entail any direct military intervention in Syria. But the claim that the S-300 would prohibit or make very costly any future air campaigns in Syria simply doesn’t pass the sniff test. Indeed, such arguments can generate the impression of a closing window of opportunity and thus bolster the case for speedy military action. Other political and security dynamics on the ground may evolve in ways that make the case for intervention more or less appealing, but the country’s current or future air defenses are unlikely to be one of them.
Joseph Singh is a research assistant at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) North America. Bilal Y. Saab is the executive director and head of research of INEGMA North America.