What Stands Behind the Failure of the Syrian Air-Defense Systems?

The Syrian opposition website "Zaman al-Wasl" attempts to provide a plausible explanation for the failure of the Syrian air-defense systems to counter airstrikes in Syrian territory. Are the Russians selling 'degraded' systems to the Syrians? Special review of the findings of the Syrian analysis

Missiles over Damascus skies (Archive photo: AP)

An interesting article published recently by the Syrian opposition website "Zaman al-Wasl" analyzes why the Syrian air-defense systems fail in their attempts to counter the repeated airstrikes against various sites in Syrian territory – the strikes the Syrian regime attributes to Israel.

These strikes have intensified recently, in line with the reasoning that the attackers target Iranian infrastructures and Iranian forces operating inside Syrian territory. This was the case with the strike of July 8 against the T-4 Air Force base, when the Syrian air-defense systems failed to shoot down any one of the attacking aircraft and all of the enemy fighters returned safely to their base.

This was the fourth strike against the same airbase, alleged to house Iranian forces and serve as a base for Iranian UAVs, in addition to many other attacks against various objectives. During all of these attacks, the Syrian air defense managed to shoot down only one Israeli fighter (the F-16 fighter shot down in February of this year) using an outdated Soviet-made S-200 missile (NATO designation SA-5), while the modern air-defense systems Syria had acquired from Russia have thus far failed to accomplish that.

Against this background, Syrian commentators (and others) have raised the obvious question of where were the modern air-defense systems the Syrian military had acquired for this purpose specifically. In particular, where were the cutting-edge Buk M2 and Pantsir S1 systems (NATO designations SA-17 and SA-22, respectively)? Why have these systems failed to shoot down any enemy fighters thus far (including the US fighters that bombed the chemical weapon plants in April of this year)? According to a Syrian commentator who maintains close ties with the Syrian air-defense arm and who is familiar with the subject, two Pantsir S1 systems deployed at the T-4 airbase at the time of the last strike launched their missiles at the attacking fighters and missiles, but to no avail.

In the absence of a plausible explanation for the lack of success of the Syrian air-defense batteries in their attempts to shoot down the attacking aircraft, the Syrian commentators have recently returned to the old story according to which the weapon systems are at fault. According to their explanations, those systems, regarded as "the pride of the Russian industry," are not identical to the systems sold to Syria. The Russians, they argue, had neutralized certain components of the systems, which degraded their performance, before delivering them to Syria (admittedly, the Soviets, and their Russian successors, are known to have sold 'export' versions of their weapon systems to other countries, from which certain elements, included in the original systems as used by the Soviet/Russian military, were missing).

According to the same commentator, the experts of the Syrian Scientific Studies & Research Center (CERS, a Syrian institute engaged in the development of various weapon systems) conducted several tests on the systems delivered to Syria, to determine the technical and operational parameters of those systems. They compared the results of those tests with the specifications in the system manuals, delivered in the context of the contract signed with the Russians, and the results of their tests were negative.

The Russians responded by claiming that the negative results of the tests stemmed from the insufficient competence of the Syrian teams that operated the systems, rather than from technical malfunctions or failures in the systems. The Russians provided answers of this nature as far back as the 1960s and 1970s, when the Egyptians, as well as the Syrians, complained that the Soviets had sold them weapon systems that were inferior to those Israel had. They further complained that those systems were not identical to the same systems used by the Soviet military – hence the failures the Egyptian and Syrian armed forces had sustained in their various confrontations with Israel, notably the Six-Day War of 1967.

In those days, too, the Russians claimed that there was nothing wrong with the systems, but that the Egyptian or Syrian teams were not sufficiently skilled in their operation (this was particularly notable in the air forces, in view of the severe results of their air combat encounters with the fighters of the Israeli Air Force).

According to the "Zaman al-Wasl" website, the Syrians conducted a final test for these systems in April 2012, at the request of the CERS institute, to determine the most fundamental and most important aspect of their performance – their ability to cope with electronic countermeasures operated against them. This time the operating teams were Russian and not Syrian.

Senior Syrian officers from the air-defense forces and air force intelligence attended the test, along with Russian specialists who operated the Pantsir S1 system, and Radar specialists from the CERS institute. Officers from the Syrian electronic warfare administration operated a Korean-made TACAN electronic jamming system fitted on board a Mi-17 helicopter from the 59th Air Brigade.

The Syrians conducted the test at the Syrian Air Force base in Khmeimim (which currently accommodates the Russian aerial force operating in Syria) and operated the Korean jamming system from the Mi-17 helicopter, under the supervision of a representative of Syrian Air Force Intelligence. When the Russian teams that operated the Pantsir S1 systems attempted to cope with the jamming aimed at their systems, they failed in their attempts to evade the jamming, despite the fact that those systems contain 30 special purpose electronic circuits intended to deal with jamming, as specified in the technical and operational system manuals. According to the same source, the Russian specialists ordered the team on board the helicopter to deactivate the electronic jamming system immediately. These specialists were unable to explain the failure of the systems they operated in this test.

According to the report, the unsuccessful results of the test notwithstanding, and following extensive correspondence between the Air Force HQ and the Syrian GHQ, the office of the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces (namely – President Bashar al-Assad) issued an order to accept the Pantsir systems as they were.

The commentator the website quotes maintains that the above explains the inability of the systems deployed in Syria to cope with and shoot down any hostile aerial target, Israeli or other, despite the dozens of airstrikes attributed to Israel against different objectives in Syria. In particular, a substantial portion of those strikes targeted objectives where these systems were present, with the emphasis on the Damascus area. Admittedly, the missiles launched by those systems filled the skies during every strike, but they were more like a fireworks display than the effect of modern air-defense systems.