Air Defense: Russian Tech Fails To Protect Syria

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May 16, 2013: Why hasn’t Israel suffered any losses during their recent air raids into Syria (one in 2007 and three so far this year)? This happened despite many pundits predicting heavy losses if NATO or Arab states attempt to provide air support for the rebels, as was done in Libya. The Syrian air defense system is apparently now as effective as many think. It is probably more capable than what Libya had but that’s not saying much. Two years ago NATO warplanes operating over Libya found they had few problems with the Libyan air defense system. This was not unexpected because Libya was known to be lax when it came to maintenance and training. Moreover, Libya had not updated a lot of their systems.

Syria was thought to be a different story and the Syrians thought so as well. They should not have and Syrians were shocked when the Israelis flew deep into Syrian air space six years ago and destroyed a nuclear weapons research facility. After that Syria very publically upgraded its air defense system. In addition to updates for some older systems (some dating back to the 1970s), two new systems were purchased (with Iranian cash) from Russia. The most powerful one was the Buk M2. This is the latest version of the SAM-6 system that proved so effective in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The new M2E missiles for the SAM-6 weigh 328 kg (720 pounds) each and have a max range of 50 kilometers. The land based version Syria obtained has four missiles carried on (and launched from) a tracked vehicle. Another vehicle has the target acquisition radar which has a range of over 150 kilometers. Syria apparently had one battery (a radar vehicle, control vehicle, and eight launcher vehicles) but there may have been more batteries delivered. The three Israeli attacks this year may have simply detected the characteristic frequencies used by the Buk radar and avoided hitting any targets within range of a Buk missile. Israel also has specialized aircraft that can jam air defense radars and confuse missile guidance systems. Israel has done this to Russian air defense systems many times in the past.

The smaller system is the Pantsir-S1, which is mounted on an 8x8 truck. Each vehicle carries radar, two 30mm cannon, and twelve upgraded Tunguska missiles. The 90 kg (198 pound) Tunguska missile has a twenty kilometer range, while the Pantsir-S1 radar has a 30 kilometer range. The missile can hit targets at up to 8,400 meters (26,000 feet) high. The 30mm cannon are effective up to 3,200 meters (10,000 feet). The vehicles used to carry all the Pantsir-S1 can vary, but the most common one used weighs 20 tons and has a crew of three. Each Pantsir-S1 vehicle costs about $15 million and Syria apparently has over 30 of these vehicles. But the short range of the radar and missiles means not a lot of the country can be covered with that many vehicles and Israel may simply avoid them or be able to jam them.

Israel, for obvious reasons, does not discuss openly what it can do and how it does it. What is known is that four Israeli raids into Syrian air space suffered no losses. It is also known that Israel designs and manufactures world class military electronics, including the sort of equipment used to detect and jam air defense radars. If NATO does send warplanes into Syria, the Israelis would be willing to make a deal to provide help protecting those aircraft from Syrian air defenses.

 


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