Air Defense: Layer Or Die


June 3, 2020: Syrian Air Force officers are apparently going public with their complaints about the shortcomings of the Russian S-300 SAM (Surface-to-Air Missile) system supplied to Syria in late 2018. The Syrians had to undergo training to use the new system and by 2019, the Syrian crews were considered ready. Despite that, Israeli airstrikes continued to succeed against targets in Syria that the Syrian S-300 batteries were supposed to be defending. Russia blames the Syrian operators, but now the Syrians blame the S-300 because the S-300 radar cannot detect jets approaching a very low altitude. That is a tactic Israeli aircraft train for and use regularly. That’s but one of several techniques the Israelis use to evade air defense systems. Some of the Israeli techniques are electronic and the Russians admitted that they did not know the full extent of Israeli capabilities in this area.

To help with the “flying under the radar problem”, Iran apparently moved two of its Chinese JY-27 radar systems to Syria in early 2019. China claims the JY-27 is capable of detecting stealth aircraft and is better at detecting low flying aircraft. Later in 2019 Israel allegedly sent some of its F-35 stealth aircraft into Syria to destroy the JY-27 radars but were only partially successful. More likely the JY-27 radars were not the primary target of several successful Israeli airstrikes. The Syrians now believe that the JY-27 radar is somewhat better than their Russian radars at detecting low flying aircraft, but not sufficiently better to regularly spot incoming Israeli airstrikes.

The Russians told the Syrians that the S-300 radar was not intended for detecting low flying aircraft and neither is the JY-27. The Syrians are supposed to use the low altitude radars supplied with the 30 Pantsir mobile anti-aircraft systems Russia provided Syria with to form a layered air defense system. In a layered system, the Pantsir radars detect low flying aircraft and the S-300 radar would detect higher flying aircraft. The Pantsir radars are supposed to be linked to an integrated air defense system that provides the S-300 batteries with real-time information on what the Pantsir radars were detecting. That would enable S-300 batteries to launch missiles when the approaching aircraft popped up to unleash their missiles. The Syrians never managed to organize the integrated low/high altitude radar data sharing that makes an integrated system so formidable.

The Syrians and Russians (and Chinese) also suspect that the Israelis use EW (Electronic Warfare) to deceive the Pantsir and S-300 radars sufficiently to allow the Israeli aircraft to get in, launch their missiles and get out before the air defense system operators are aware of what happened. The Syrians suspected this after so many instances of firing S-300, and older S-200, missiles at Israeli targets that were not there anymore. This created a spectacular light show in the night sky over Syrian targets. This was often over the Syrian capital Damascus where there were plenty of civilians with cell phones ready to capture videos of these incidents. Air defense experts could see that the Syrian missiles were not hitting anything because there was apparently nothing to hit. It was also noted that the Israeli air-launched missiles tended to hit their targets just before the Syrian air-defense missiles lit up the night sky.

The Syrians also did not want to admit that the slower moving Israeli missiles were operating like cruise missiles and coming in at low altitudes. Israel also used faster missiles based on the missiles they had developed to act as targets for their anti-ballistic missile systems. These target missiles are launched from aircraft but instead of going down low, they go high and then come down at high speed like a ballistic missile warhead does. The Russians and Chinese have a better sense of what the Israelis are apparently doing because the Russians and Chinese have carefully examined Israeli air attack methods over the past few decades. The Israelis, for obvious reasons, do not discuss this but, to the trained eye of air defense experts, it is fairly obvious that the Israelis have improved their EW equipment and air attack tactics on a regular basis.

Russia and China do not discuss this openly because the Israeli techniques defeat probably the latest Russian and Chinese air defense systems that are for sale in export markets. Russia has very carefully avoided using its air defense systems against Israeli aircraft in Syria because there it is likely the Israeli have developed methods for defeating even most modern Russian air defense systems, and it would be bad for export sales if that were demonstrated in combat. As for the failure of Syrian S-300 systems, the Russians blame the Syrian operators. There is some truth to that because the Syrian military has lost most of its technical personnel since the 2011 rebellion began. Some of these technical experts joined the rebels early on and many others simply deserted and fled the country. There are some left but not enough to efficiently operate the kind of layered air defense system the Russians use. This is obvious because of the number of Pantsir systems the Israelis have destroyed. In one case the Israelis captured the destruction on video. The Russians attributed that to operator error, as in the Pantsir system was not turned on. But several operational Pantsir systems have been destroyed and the Pantsir already has a bad reputation.

Then there is the fact that many of the targets of Israeli airstrikes can avoid being hit by launching their missiles while flying near the Syrian border in Lebanon or Israel. In some cases, the Israeli jets fly over Jordan to do this. There is an unofficial understanding with Jordan that comes down to “you don’t shoot at us and we won’t shoot at you.” Jordan and Israeli also exchange information on Islamic terrorist activity and this has frequently proved very useful to Jordan. The Israeli jets can fly into Jordan at night, often after midnight, avoiding urban areas, launch their missiles into Syria  and fly back to Israel without the mission becoming public knowledge. While Jordan officially considers Israel an enemy, most Jordanians are more hostile to the Assad government in Syria and Islamic terrorists in general.

Another factor in the S-300 failure in Syria is the Chinese media campaign to reveal short comings of Russian air defense systems as part of an effort to find export customers for similar, but cheaper and more capable, Chinese versions. For over a decade China has been gradually replacing its Russian air defense systems with Chinse made equipment. The latest development was the success of the new HQ-9B system, with its longer range missiles and superior (to Russian systems) radars and computers. Older HQ-9 batteries are being upgraded to the HQ-9B standards by replacing fire control equipment so that the battery can use longer range (about 300 kilometers) missiles and an improved guidance system. China has also designed many surveillance and tracking radars to work with HQ-9 batteries. China has always touted the superior computers and electronic systems in the HQ-9 compared to the Russian S-300. China pointed out that HQ-9 was developed a decade later than the first S-300 systems and that China has a larger and more advanced electronics and computer industry than Russia. Currently, most Chinese long-range antiaircraft systems are HQ-9s while a shrinking number are Russian S-300s and S-400s. Back in 2015 about a quarter of Chinese air defense systems were Russian and now it is closer to ten percent.

In the beginning, the HQ-9 was a much less capable system, at least on paper. Over a decade of development and upgrades was believed to have benefitted from data stolen from similar American and Russian systems. The HQ-9 radar apparently derived a lot of technology from that used in the Russian S-300 system. The HQ-9 missile itself is similar to the U.S. "Patriot." The first HQ-9 missiles had a max range of about 100 kilometers, weighed 1.3 tons, and had a passive (no broadcasting) seeker in the missile. The Patriot missile weighs a ton (for the 70 kilometer range version) and a third of a ton for the 20 kilometer range anti-missile only version. The S-300 missiles weigh 1.8 tons and have a range of 200 kilometers. The HQ-9 export model, FD-2000, is believed to have removed the more obvious items stolen from American and Russian systems. This reduces capability a bit but makes the FD-2000 more resistant to lawsuits over stolen technology.

Currently HQ-9 batteries use missiles with a range of 200 or 300 kilometers. There are a growing number of search radars available, many of them superior to anything the Russians have. HQ-9 units are mobile. The search radar (often a Type 120) is carried and operated from a heavy truck. This radar can be put into service in less than 15 minutes and shut down and be on the road again in 10 minutes. The Type 120 has a max detection range of 300 kilometers. China will sell the HQ-9 and Type 120 radar to export customers separately, and in 2013 rebels captured a Type 120 in Syria (which does not have HQ-9).

Until the Syrian experience, the S-300 had not been tested in combat. This is important because Russian designed air defense systems tend to perform poorly in combat. Even the Russian SA-6 missile systems that Egypt used in 1973, and was initially a surprise to the Israelis, were soon countered and did not stop the Israelis from getting through. While the best sales technique is to push the products' track record, you have to do just the opposite with Russian and Chinese anti-aircraft systems. Thus, the Russians, and now the Chinese with their HQ-9 (exported as the FD-2000), emphasize low prices, impressive specifications, test results, and potential. The Chinese are also very tolerant of selling for inflated prices that allow the receiving country to distribute generous bribes to the senior officials involved.

Since late 2019 Chinese media have been openly criticizing the poor performance of S-300 and S-400 systems in Syria and bluntly suggested that Syria ought to buy the FD-2000. China has not had much success in finding customers for the FD-2000. Turkey, Egypt and Iraq showed interest but never placed an order. In 2016 Iraq apparently agreed to spend $2.5 billion to buy a brigade of Chinese FD-2000 air defense system. China was willing to provide credit so Iraq could delay payments for a while. Iraq has bought advanced weapons from China before. In 2015 Iraq was able to purchase Chinese CH-4 UAVs, a system very similar to the American Predator.

Iraq did not follow through with the FD-2000 purchase, apparently because of opposition from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Iran. None of these countries wanted Iraq to establish effective air defenses, which the Chinese could take as a compliment of sorts. While the HQ-9 has not been tested in combat China is trying to reinforce the popular opinion that the HQ-9 is probably superior to the S-300 and S-400.




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