Russia’s Air Defenses In Syria Have Some Big Problems
Terrain limits the radars' effectiveness
In late September 2017, satellite photographs indicated that Russia had deployed a second Russian SA-21 surface-to-air missile system in Syria.
Purportedly, the system in question is deployed high in the mountains near Masyaf, fewer than 40 kilometers southeast of Lattakia, and right next to a battery of Bastion-P systems equipped with Oniks cruise missiles.
For many of foreign observers, this is an indication of the Russians bolstering their presence in Syria, perhaps even directly threatening operations of U.S. and allied aircraft against Islamic State extremists.
Actually, a closer look at the satellite photographs in question – to say nothing of the history of Russian SAM deployments in Syria since 2015 – reveals multiple shortcomings of the equipment in question, and mistakes by the Russians in the course of their military intervention in the country.
Initially during the Russian intervention in Syria, the primary Russian air base in the country – Hmemmem air base – was protected by the Slava-class guided missile cruiser Moskva.
Equipped with S-300F SAMs — a.k.a., SA-N-6 Grumble, a navalized variant of the S-300/SA-10 Grumble — this ship positioned off the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
At top — the S-400’s 92N2 pulse-Doppler radar. Vitaly Kuzmin/Wikipedia photo. Above — satellite photograph of the new Russian S-400 SAM site in the Alawite Mountains near Masyaf. Airbus DS photo
Obviously, this was hardly satisfactory. The Russian navy couldn’t keep Moskva on station off Syria indefinitely.
Furthermore, repeated attacks on Hmemmem air base by BM-21 multiple rocket launcher systems operated by Syrian insurgents have shown that Moskva’s SA-N-6s were providing no protection at all. Correspondingly, the Russians deployed at least one battery of Pantsyr-S1 — SA-22 Greyhound — SAMs at Hmemmem air base, too.
In November 2015, after the shoot-down of a Russian Su-24 by Turkish F-16s, Moscow publicly ordered the deployment of a ground-based S-400/SA-21 Growler to Hmemmem.
But the system evident in photos actually appears to be the S-350 – an advanced variant of the S-300/SA-10 Grumble that’s custom-tailored for short- and medium-range engagements of cruise missiles, combat aircraft and ballistic rockets.
In theory, this combination of SA-10s and SA-21s – or SA-22s and SA-21s – should have sealed the skies not only over Hmemmem, but indeed over the entire Syrian coast of the Mediterranean Sea. However, operational experience has shown that this is not the case.
The primary problem of the S-350 or S-400 SAM-site deployed at Hmemmem is the local terrain. This air base is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, fewer than 10 kilometers west of the Alawite Mountains, and only 40 kilometers south of the Turkmen Mountains.
P-14 radar. Photo via Wikipedia
Propaganda notwithstanding, physical laws still apply to Russian military technology. Fact is, even the most advanced radars cannot see through mountains. Therefore, the mountain chains in question are limiting the radar horizon of the Russian SAMs protecting Hmemmem.
Due to the local topography, the S-400’s 91N6E Grave Stone radar couldn’t see aircraft operating at low and medium altitudes just 40 kilometers north or 15 kilometers east of Hmemmem, even if installed atop a 40-meter mast.
On its own, this might not appear to be a major issue. After all, the SAM sites in question were foremost responsible for the air defense of Hmemmem, and not much more was necessary.
However, during late 2015 and early 2016, the battlefield in northern Syria began moving ever farther away from the base. At least periodically, there were tensions with Turkey and the United States and its allies operating over northern Syria.
This became even more important when Russian ground troops got involved in combat operations in the Aleppo area. Obviously, the troops in question required protection from possible air attack.
In December 2015, the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad deployed one site each of S-75M/SA-2 Guideline and Buk/SA-17 SAMs at Kweres air base east of Aleppo. By March 2015, it became clear that the Russians had positioned S-300/350/400 in the As Safira area around 30 kilometers southeast of Aleppo. With this, the Russians have filled the gap in their radar coverage caused by the Alawite Mountains.
Russia’s high-tech 55Zh6ME Nebo radar has not yet deployed to Syria. Rossoboronexport photo
However, on April 6, 2017, in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheykhoun that killed nearly 100 Syrian civilians, two U.S. Navy destroyers fired 59 BGM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles at Shayrat air base.
On their way to the target, most of the missiles in question passed over the Tartous area and then through the so-called “Homs Gap” – a depression between the mountains of western Syria and those in Lebanon – only 50 kilometers south of Hmemmem. Nevertheless, the Russian radars completely failed to detect them.
As reported in May this year, the Russian reaction to this experience was to deploy first one, then two, Myasichev A-50 Airborne Early Warning System to Hmemmem, with intention of expanding and improving their radar coverage.
However, the Russian air force has only 17 of these precious aircraft in operational condition. These are already overburdened with the task of controlling the extensive air space over the Russian Federation.
Finally, the deployment of Bastion-P ground-based cruise missiles in Syria demanded improved protection of these systems, too. This is the reason why the Russians eventually deployed their second SA-21 SAM near Masyaf. Its position high in the mountains significantly improved its low-altitude coverage.
One problem remained, though — the detection of stealth aircraft and cruise missiles. Certainly enough, the Russian defense sector claims that systems such as the SA-10, SA-17, SA-21 and SA-22 are able to detect and track low-observable targets.
However, one detail from satellite photographs indicates this is not the case. The photos depict a P-14/Tall King long-range radar.
This 1950s-vintage system is no longer in service with the Russian military. It’s so old that the Russian defense industry is unable to provide spare parts. The P-14 in question is operated by the Syrian air force, and kept operational thanks to upgrades from Belarus in the late 2000s.
In contrast to the radars associated with the SA-21, the P-14 operates at a wavelength that gives it some ability to detect stealth aircraft.