Russia has been the world’s discount weapons depot for decades now, supplying military hardware to nations either to poor or too unstable to earn access to American defense products. While lucrative, and popular amongst its clients, this policy has caused diplomatic tensions between Russia and the West for years. Most recently, Russia has toed the line by selling the embattled Bashar al-Assad the S-300PMU2 anti-air defense system. Earlier this week, a story broke that Syria had received a shipment of these missiles. While this has since been debunked, it has also come to light that Russia intends to provide Syria with the system, honoring a 2010, $900 million contract.
So what exactly can these missiles do that has everyone buzzing about? Well, as has been mentioned before, the S-300PMU2 is comparable to the American anti-air defense system, the Patriot missiles, making them state of the art. What this means is that the S-300PMU2 is a comprehensive, mobile air defense system containing missile launchers, radar arrays, and command posts. The system set to ship to Syria is the latest generation in a series dating back to the 70s, which has become increasingly difficult counter.
The current incarnation provides the capability to defeat incoming aircraft, cruise, and ballistic missiles. Furthermore, the missiles are mounted on mobile carriers who can pack up the array and move to a new launch location or back to base to reload. Keep in mind that these are not small rockets, but 24-foot missiles delivering 300-400 pound warheads. The S-300PMU2 can track multiple targets over an effective range of 125 miles which, to put it in context, is about 45 miles shy of the length of Israel’s entire coastline, putting the vast majority of Israel’s airspace in the battery’s range. Both the radar arrays on the ground and the guidance systems in the missiles themselves are difficult to jam, making them more lethal and, with missile speeds exceeding Mach 6, it can catch just about everything in the air.
So how much of an upgrade is the new system? We heard some level discussion about the power of Syria’s air defense system before, at the beginning of this conflict. Yet that system was proven rather ineffective by Israel’s multiple, casualty-free sorties into Syrian airspace. The previous weapons went as far as the SA-22, which has a range of around 12 miles and delivers a 44-pound warhead. The upgrade here is analogous to putting down a handgun and picking up an assault rifle.
The S-300PMU2 is nothing to sneeze at, and would likely cause casualties if Israel flew against it, but that does not make it impenetrable. The most difficult aspects of such a system are assembly and operation, both of which require time and training. As is, Syria is quickly running out of time, and training will be less available given the state of the country. Also, even with everything complete, the system can be penetrated.
But the most important part of all of this is not the specifications of the weapons system. The bigger picture gives a better understanding of the situation. Essentially, Syria is upgrading its air defenses, an odd thing to do while embroiled in a war where it has clear air superiority. In summary, Syria is using this upgrade as a deterrent against the international community, making it more costly to impose a no-fly zone. This story represents a shift in focus by the Syrian regime, from the domestic threat of the rebels to the threat of the rest of the world. By upgrading his air defense, Assad is diverting effort from the real fight against the rebels to a potential one against the world. If Assad has the resources and time to create this kind of buzz, what does that say about the state of the conflict in Syria?