A Buk-M2E missile system. Via Wikimedia Commons

Three Reasons Not to ‘No-Fly’ in Syria

Regime’s updated jets and missiles represent big danger

The White House’s confirmation on Thursday that the regime of Bashar Al Assad has used chemical weapons against Syria’s rebels and civilians has prompted talk of possible intervention by U.S. and allied warplanes.

“We need to create a no-fly zone,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said on Sunday. “We cannot take air power out of the equation.”

But there are at least three good reasons a Syrian no-fly zone might be too costly. The regime’s numerous air defenses — including long- and short-range Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) and jet fighters — have been overhauled and upgraded and could pose a lethal threat to foreign planes.

“Of all the Middle Eastern nations, Syria has one of the most robust SAM networks,” wrote Sean O’Connor, an independent air-defense expert based in Indiana. “Multiple SAM sites provide redundancy, allowing for overlapping coverage in many critical areas,” including population centers.

Israel’s air strikes on Syrian targets in 2007 and again this year were apparently carefully plotted to avoid Syrian cities and thus most of the radars and missiles, but in order to protect rebels and civilians a no-fly zone would have to be directly overhead the most heavily-defended areas.

Syrian S-200 coverage. Via Sean O’Connor

Mega rockets

According to O’Connor, the Syrian government deploys at least five Soviet-era S-200 missile batteries along the Mediterranean coast, providing the first line of air defense.

More than 30 feet long and weighing eight tons, the 1970s-vintage S-200 is “immense by any measure,” wrote Carlo Kopp, an analyst with the Air Power Australia think tank. A radar-guided S-200 can hit airplanes 160 miles away but is not very maneuverable owing to its powerful Space Age rocket motor.

Don’t let its age and ungainliness fool you. Syria’s S-200s have probably been upgraded with improved electronics and other components, possibly acquired from Iran. Moreover, the giant SAMs are part of what O’Connor describes as “an integrated network,” with new Chinese-made radars plus short-range defenses that can fill gaps in the S-200s’ coverage.

Among the most dangerous shorter-reaching missile systems is the new Buk-M2E. “It’s a highly mobile system able to relocate rapidly,” O’Connor tells Medium. “Furthermore, the Buk has never been faced by Western air power in combat.”

Equally worrying is Damascus’ planned purchase of new S-300s from Russia. Broadly similar to the S-200 but much deadlier, the possible S-300 transfer “poses a huge problem for us,” a French official told Reuters.

A Syrian rebel with an Igla missile. Youtube video capture

Shoulder-launched killers

The Pentagon has specialized forces for finding and destroying stationary enemy air-defenses such as Syria’s S-200s and even the Buk-M2Es. But these “defense-suppression” warplanes are much less effective against shoulder-fired SAMs, which are light enough to be carried by a single person and can remain concealed until moments before launch.

A typical, shoulder-launched Igla-1 has an infrared seeker, a range of around three miles and a three-pound warhead. The newer Igla-S — “one of the world’s most modern heat-seeking missiles,” according to The New York Times — is even more lethal, with a longer reach and more explosives.

Man-portable air-defenses systems have proliferated across Syria. Not only does the Assad regime maintain stocks of Iglas, rebels have gotten their hands on some of the missiles, too — either buying them abroad and stealing them from government stores.

A video posted on the Internet in June appears to show rebels using an Igla-S to shoot down a regime helicopter. If the rebels can do it, the government can, too.

A German MiG-29 launches an air-to-air missile. Via Wikimedia Commons

Air defenders

According to aviation expert Tom Cooper, since March 2012 the Syrian air force has lost 47 jets, scores of helicopters and more than 300 air crew to rebel gunfire and missiles, severely depleting the once-mighty air arm.

But Assad’s air force remains loyal, “show[ing] an absolute minimum of dissent since the start of unrest in Syria,” Cooper wrote in Combat Aircraft. And Damascus’ flying branch still has enough planes and pilots to resist a no-fly zone.

Most dangerous are the approximately 20 Russian-made MiG-29s, roughly equivalent to American F-16s. Overhauled in 2009, the twin-engine MiG-29s have mostly been kept out of the fighting so far. But that could change if foreign warplanes begin flying over Syrian territory.

Advocates of a no-fly zone point out that U.S. and allied planes were able to survive over Libya in 2011 despite that country possessing much of the same defensive hardware that Syria does today.

But Libyan defenses had been more heavily degraded by rebel attacks and also lacked the recent upgrades Syria has acquired from Iran and Russia. “Syrian forces are almost certainly still far more effective than those of Libya,” wrote Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Still, Cordesman thinks a no-fly zone is feasible and advisable.

Air-defense expert O’Connor does not. Compared to other countries whose airspace the U.S. has captured — usually after extensive bombing — Syria is prepared to defend itself, he wrote. “With modern Chinese radars and modern Russian SAMs [Syria] has moved away from the bomb-able model of air defense.”

“Everyone should step back and let the situation play itself out,” O’Connor advised.