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From ‘telegraph poles’ to Russian missiles: Syria’s air defence

The deployment of the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems (pictured) to Syria has caused tensions to rise among Western powers. LuchezarS.

As the civil war in Syria continues, several states are now decrying the potential deployment of the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems.

Described as a move to cool “hothead” pro-interventionists in the Western camp, Moscow’s gambit is aimed at deterring outside military action against the Assad regime.

But will the deployment be a “game-changer” in the ongoing conflict? In the short term, it will impact upon Israel’s capacity to launch strikes against Syrian targets. In the medium-to-long term, it will pose a challenge to any efforts at imposing a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace.

Historical context

Russian-manufactured SAMs have long posed a considerable risk for Western pilots. In 1960, an American U2 spyplane was shot down near the Ural Mountains by the S-300’s venerable elder, the S-75 “Divina”.

Two years later, a similar incident during the Cuban Missile Crisis pushed the Cold War to boiling point before Russia and the US wisely reigned themselves in. In 1972, as the US stepped up its strategic bombing of North Vietnam, the S-75 again proved its metal, carving out a fearsome toll of American aircraft over Hanoi.

During this same period, the Israelis began to experience the impact of Soviet SAMs. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) lost its characteristic edge in the face of a mass deployment of such systems in the hands of Egyptian and Syrian opposition.

Where the IAF had assumed it would be facing the Egyptian and Syrian air forces in a fight it had historically succeeded at, it instead found itself dodging relentless waves of “flying telegraph poles” that resulted in considerable losses.

The post-Vietnam war period saw the US and Israel coming to terms with the threat posed by the current generation of Soviet SAMs. The IAF’s success in June 1982 in the Bekaa Valley against massed Syrian air defence batteries signalled the Israeli remastering of the skies over the Levant.

While Russian airpower may have lagged behind during this period, a new generation of surface-to-air missiles emerged during the late 1970s. These missiles were designed specifically to counter the threat of Western air dominance. Systems produced during this period included the 9k37 “Buk”, the man-portable 9k38 “Igla” and the corn-silo-sized S-300.

Beyond their initial development, much time and effort was also invested in keeping these platforms capable of responding to developing threats. As the S-300 system further evolved, it was to gain ranges of up to 200 kilometres and a sophisticated guidance system, capable of defeating many of the countermeasures mounted on western aircraft like those found in the arsenals of Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Syrian context

The integration of such a system into the Syrian regime arsenal would pose a major question mark over the current balance of power in the region. The Syrian air defence network is extensive, but according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, it is largely composed of antiquated Cold War relics.

Although they were able to shoot down a vintage Turkish F4 reconnaissance aircraft in June 2012, Ba’athist air defences have thus far proven completely incapable of responding to the standoff munitions the IAF have been employing against them from Lebanese airspace.

Israeli soldiers performing military training operations in the centre of Golan Heights, during an Israeli military exercise near the Israeli-Syrian border. EPA/Abir Sultan

The S-300 can potentially change all this. Although the system remains untested in battle, its purported capacity to down Western aircraft has clearly shaken Israel. Such consternation have culminated in unprecedented threats out of Jerusalem to strike Russian-flagged transports in the region. This is a move with ramifications that are difficult to predict and could be extremely destabilising for the region’s security balance.

The system has long been controversial in the Middle East. A similar level of consternation emerged over a potential deal between Russia and Iran in 2010 that ultimately collapsed under pressure from Israel and the US. Where the Iran deal was primarily aimed at a long-term deterrence strategy, however, the deployment of the system in Syria will have immediate implications.

The controversy surrounding the potential deployment of the system may also be playing a part in the recently emboldened regime rhetoric regarding Israel. Ominous statements from Assad himself earlier this week have implied reprisals in the Golan for future Israeli strikes.

The reality of such threats remains remote. Even with the potential removal of Israel airpower, the IDF remains generations ahead of its Syrian counterpart and Assad is not likely to be that interested in wasting his heavy equipment to open a front against a foe he has no chance of besting.

For its part, the IDF has shown little desire to escalate its low-intensity scraps with the Syrian Armed Forces across the Area of Separation, much to the relief of UN peacekeepers stationed in the area. For now, at least, containment seems to override incursion.

Although the S-300 doesn’t make further Israeli strikes against Syria impossible, the potential of losses will give Jerusalem cause for thought.

Whether such reconsideration would result in a more cautious approach to the Syria dilemma - or result in attempts at reproducing the successes of 1982 - remains to be seen.

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