Syria’s missile response may not be so modest next time
The tripartite air strike on three chemical weapons facilities in Syria set off a series of claims and counter-claims on the success of Bashar Assad’s air defenses in protecting these sites against a barrage of missiles, including the first combat use of the JASSM advanced missile, reportedly fired from US B-1B Lancer heavy bombers. What followed was the important game of how Western precision strike missiles went up against Russian-made air defense systems.
The BDA, or battle damage assessment, is key to understanding the outcome of the operation. Russia conducted its own within seconds, with an impressive amount of kills.
The Russian military has claimed that the Syrian air defenses, whose most modern weapon is a three-decades-old Russian-supplied anti-aircraft system, shot down 71 of 103 missiles fired by the US and its allies, the UK and France. Moscow said Syria used S-125, S-200, Buk and Kvadrat systems to repel the attack.
The next morning, the Pentagon said the US and its allies “successfully hit every target,” while displaying photos of targets that were hit in Syria. During the Pentagon’s BDA briefing, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said they were “confident all missiles reached their targets” and that there were no losses. Pentagon officials said the Syrians did launch their air defense missiles, but only approximately two at the end of the attack and 38 more afterward as testimony to a complete failure of its air defense system.
To be sure, we are not yet clear on the role of electronic warfare during the strike in terms of Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD), a major indicator of the other part of the battlespace that is just as important as the cruise missile-air defense system relationship.
The battle between Russia and America in terms of precision strike weapons versus an effective and highly adaptive air defense system has been a constant since after the Kosovo War of the late 1990s. Former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic used denial and deception to spook American air strikes, ordering the creation of false targets such as cardboard tanks wrapped in aluminum foil. Primitive yes, but effective too. The point is, from the Kosovo War forward, Russia has sought to develop its air defense capabilities and spread that network against advanced Western precision cruise missiles.
Not only do the latest strikes underline how Syria is a testing ground for some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems, deployed by both the US and Russia, but also that the capabilities of air defense systems is a long-term challenge to air power.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
Russia has sold air defense technology to many countries in the greater Middle East and Eurasia, from Armenia and Belarus to Iran and Iraq and other Arab states. The Russians learned to develop air defense as a primary interlocking mechanism to unite allies against Western air forces and their high-tech weapons. By building an industry around such a concept, Moscow has been able to create a wide audience. Air defense as a concept is an important part of Moscow’s sales pitch to Arab countries, which will then be used against other Russian clients. Fancy that.
The same is true today. Syria and Russia both claim shooting down impressive numbers of Western missiles with a very intensive media campaign, including falsified pictures of missile parts. Thinking back to Milosevic’s tank decoys, one can clearly see what is happening. The images from the pro-Syrian social media are almost laughable.
Russia’s reputation for effective and highly adaptive air defense systems is notable, as is the US’ for precision strike cruise missiles. Russia also has a historical reputation for using the media as a tool to craft perceptions of outcomes, more so than the US. Despite Russia’s air defense technology, the Syrian air defense units were ineffective in stopping US cruise missiles, and most information now points to that outcome (actually, it looks like the Syrians only responded after the last missile had hit). This represents a significant blow to the Assad regime and to Russia’s ability to assist in effective air defense in the region.
Last year, when the Trump administration struck Shayrat Airbase with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, both the Syrians and the Russians claimed the ability to disrupt American firepower through electronic warfare by taking control of the missiles and grounding them. No hard evidence was ever provided as part of any BDA as to the electronic warfare aspect.
Clearly, the technological clash and resulting disinformation about the attacks helps to cloud the next steps in Syria. No doubt there is a continued tripartite operational presence that means more strikes are guaranteed if there is a whiff of chemical weapons being used. There is a bigger question, however, that determines the next steps in the battlefield: What will be the air defense response next time? Will Syria, with Russia behind, give Assad better air defense assets? Most likely, given the historical trajectory of Moscow’s penchant for protecting its allies from Western air strikes.
Not only do the latest strikes underline how Syria is a testing ground for some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems, deployed by both the US and Russia, but also that the capabilities of air defense systems is a long-term challenge to air power. The display may not be as modest next time.
• Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C.