Following the extensive IAF attack against Iranian objectives in Syria last November, the Syrian opposition website, Zaman al-Wasl, published two interesting commentaries. The first commentary addressed the response of the Syrian air-defense system during the attack. A special source within the Syrian Army's Air-Defense Administration told the website that during the last Israeli strike against objectives in and around the city of Damascus, an unusual event took place, which the source described as "A real disaster encountered by the missiles of the regime's air-defense systems."
According to the source, a new problem emerged with the Syrian air-defense missiles after they had been launched toward their targets, as some of them exploded within a short distance of 2 to 5 kilometers from the launching sites. Other missiles scattered and dropped to the ground shortly after the launch. This led to civilian casualties in and around Damascus. The source explained that initially, officers of the Syrian air-defense force had attributed the phenomenon to Israel, which initiated massive jamming against the Syrian radars and command, control and communication systems at the same time as the attack against the missile systems. In this case, however, the source reported that they were in for a surprise.
Several Russian electronic warfare centers, operating to the south of Damascus, and especially along the road leading to the international airport, picked up the sources of the jamming signals. They had come from bases inside Syria, and particularly from the sites where the Syrian Army maintains and operates electronic warfare bases: Jebel al-Manaa near Al Kiswah, Tel-Sarukhiya to the west of Damascus and Tell Sultan near al Sayyidah Zainab (a holy Shi'ite site). The Russians reported this to the Syrians.
Apparently, at all three sites, Iranian-made IS-1 and IS-2 jamming systems acquired by the Syrian regime were employed. These systems were designed to jam cruise missiles and GPS-guided missiles, as well as missiles using other guidance systems. These jamming systems were apparently the cause of the serious malfunctions in the launching of the air-defense missiles.
Against this background, the Syrian Minister of Defense ordered the establishment of a tripartite technical review board, which is to include specialists from the Electronic Warfare Administration, the Air-Defense Administration and the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (CERS, charged with weapon system development). The board is intended to investigate the events and determine the causes of the malfunction, so that it may be addressed and prevented in the future. The Minister's directive calls, among other things, for technical cooperation with Iranian and Russian specialists operating in Syria, so as to identify the problem and find a solution for it as soon as possible.
The Failure of the Russian-Made Systems
The other commentary in the Syrian opposition website referred to the Israeli announcement made following the attack, which destroyed – according to the website – Russian-made missile systems deployed to defend Damascus and the area to the south of it. According to a knowledgeable source, the Israeli media preferred to ignore this fact, and instead, Israel published detailed photographs of the objectives attacked and destroyed, claiming that most of them were Iranian objectives.
The same source told the website that the attack also destroyed batteries of state-of-the-art Russian-made Pantsir S1 and Buk M2 surface-to-air missiles, known in Russia as "Cruise Missile Hunters". According to the source, Israel did not want to embarrass the Russians and create tension in the relations between Russia and Israel owing to the attack against the Russians' cutting edge air-defense systems.
According to the website, this has been the fourth time in which Israel attacked and destroyed the launching vehicles of the Pantsir missile system of the Syrian Air-Defense. On previous occasions, the Russians claimed that the attacks had been staged while the systems were reloading missiles onto their launchers, which Israel exploited and which enabled it to destroy those systems. The website examined satellite photographs of the sites attacked to the south of Damascus, and found that missile systems of the aforementioned types had, indeed, been destroyed (the photographs are presented as part of a story published by the opposition website).
According to the source, publicizing the report regarding the destruction of those systems by Israel could undermine their reputation and have an adverse effect on the sales of such systems around the world, owing to the fact that they failed to defend themselves against the Israeli attacks. It should be noted that the reports in the Israeli media referred to the attack against and subsequent destruction of surface-to-air missiles of the Syrian Army, along with military objectives belonging to the Iranian Quds Force, so this reference is unclear.
Presumably, this could be the sentiment among Syrian elements owing to the lukewarm Russian response to the attack, which stated, "These events caused great concern and indignation in Moscow. We believe that it is imperative to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and other countries in the region. So far, Israel's actions have increased tensions and the potential for conflict around Syria and are counteracting our efforts to control the situation and bring about stability and political resolution in Syria."
What do the Russians Hide?
The failure of the Russian-made air-defense systems Syria operates had made the headlines before, and questions were asked whether the Russians were selling the Syrians "neutralized" systems. As no plausible explanation could be found for the Russian systems' failure to engage the attacking aircraft, Syrian commentators claimed that the weapon systems were at fault, and that the systems sold to Syria, ostensibly regarded as "The pride of the Russian industry," were not identical to the original systems, as Russia had neutralized various elements in them, thereby degrading their performance. The systems were tested by the specialists from CERS upon arrival in Syria, and found to be different with regard to their performance characteristics, compared to the data specified in the system manuals.
In response, the Russians claimed that the negative results of the tests stemmed from the ineptitude of the Syrian teams that had operated the systems, rather than from any technical malfunctions in the systems proper. This type of response by the Russian side regarding the ineffectiveness of the systems supplied to the Arab armed forces in the region had been made before, in the previous century, when both Egypt and Syria complained to the Soviets that they were selling them inferior systems. According to those countries, that was the reason for their failures in their various conflicts against Israel. Pursuant to the complaints of the past, the Syrians conducted another trial of their systems in April 2012, to determine their performance and how effectively they could cope with electronic countermeasures. This time, the operating teams were Russian instead of Syrian.
The trial was conducted at the Khmeimim airbase, operated by the Russians, and was attended by senior Syrian officers from the Air-Defense Administration, the Electronic Warfare Administration, and Air Force Intelligence, along with specialists from CERS, and Russian specialists who were familiar with the systems under test. The trial proved that the systems failed to cope with the jamming directed at them, as well as in their attempts to evade them, although they had been designed to do so according to the system manuals. This was a surprise even for the Russian specialists, who could not explain the failure of the systems they had operated in this trial.
It should be noted that in their official publications, the Russians present their Pantsir and Buk missile systems as the most advanced missile systems in the world, while stressing, in particular, the successful experience these systems had gained in operational employment in Syria, apparently in an attempt to boost their export sales, with the emphasis placed on third-world markets. To date, Pantsir systems have been sold mainly to countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and the Russians endeavor to find new markets for them, including markets in the Gulf countries. At the same time, over the last year, various articles by independent Russian military experts appeared in the Russian media, which stated that the Pantsir system had never actually proven its effectiveness in operational employment in Syria, and that it requires some serious upgrading.
It should be stressed that the Russians have addressed the performance of the Buk missile system very rarely, especially in view of the involvement of this system in the shooting-down of the Malaysian passenger aircraft over eastern Ukraine in 2014 – an incident which had a severely adverse impact on Russia's credibility in the international arena.
Nehemiah Burgin contributed to the preparation of this article