Upon Refection (15 April)

Dr. John Bruni discusses the aftermath of the limited US-led airstrikes against Assad's chemical warfare sites, focusing on the strength of Russian and general air defence technology

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15 April 2018

US-led strikes on Syria: What was targeted?

14 April 2014, London, United Kingdom – BBC – The ‘limited strike’ against Syria’s chemical warfare capability netted a few very interesting outcomes, the most important of which being that in the anti-aircraft/anti-ballistic missile realm, the offense clearly outweighs the defence.

Leading up to President Trump’s very public declaration of his intent to hit Syrian targets in response to the 7 April Douma chemical weapons attack, much was made of Syrian S-300, Buk-M2E and Panstir S-1 batteries posing a clear threat to incoming Western cruise missiles and other ‘stand-off’ weapons. The pro-Russian commentariat and some in the Western media speculated that a wall of Syrian anti-ballistic missiles would ‘take out’ multiple incoming Western targets, rendering the attack meaningless.

Not surprisingly, so close after the US-led coalition attack, initial reports regarding Syrian defences are mixed and contradictory.

The White House described the attack as perfectly executed and that Syrian anti-ballistic missile systems were activated some 40 minutes after Western missiles had found their targets.

The other story is from Russia, with Moscow arguing that of the 105 Western missiles fired, 71 were destroyed on the way to their targets. If we believe that the figures being bandied about on the Western attack, then only 32 missiles found their way to their Syrian government targets which would indicate that Syria’s Russian-bought air defences accounted for over half of the West’s missiles and stand-off weaponry.

As both sides have clear interest in exaggerating the effectiveness of their weapons, for now the truth of the Western mission and its effectiveness will be shrouded in mystery. Western battle damage assessments will in the short-to-medium term be classified, and only slowly trickle out through judicious ‘leaking’ over time. But what we do know about ground-based air defences, Western and Russian produced, is that shooting a missile down with another missile is a wickedly hard problem, arguably only to be solved by the integration of mature on-board AIs within these air defence systems. So, the truth in the ‘fake news age’ has to lie somewhere in between American and Russian claims.

Considering the amount of warning time the Syrians and their Russian advisors had prior to the attack, it is unlikely that Syrian air defences were caught completely off-guard.

If we consider that Moscow spent enough time and money on training Syrian air defence personnel in the effective use of their technology, it is possible that some Western cruise missiles and stand-off weapons were shot down. But, as shooting down incoming missiles with missiles is so very difficult a problem that not even the ‘esteemed’ American Patriot batteries are immune from error, it can only be assumed that Russian systems would suffer similarly.

Realistically therefore, the upper limit of 71 missiles claimed to have been intercepted by Syria is way too high to seem credible. However, considering that cruise missiles fly at subsonic speed, thus giving them more aircraft like characteristics, it is possible that well-trained crews could shoot down a number of them. Stand-off weapons are a different story. Some are designed to fly at speed, making the task of interception more difficult. So, if we take current estimates of the US-led strike package consisting of 105 missiles, a credible Syrian account might be in the low-to-mid 30s. And this is under the best operational conditions, i.e. perfect weather, no technical glitches, no Western electronic warfare interference and Syrian air defence crews being exceptionally trained and motivated.

What does this mean? It means that Russian-manufactured air defences, just like their Western counterparts, are flawed and that they depend on a number of perfectly working variables to shoot down only a limited number of missiles.

At the outside, they can limit the full scope of a surgical Western air attack, but they form no deterrent to such action. So rather than all 105 missiles finding their targets, some 70 may.

This shows clearly that air defence technologies are more hype than actual in their capabilities. Considering that, the aerial offensive capabilities of the West will trump (no pun intended) Russian manufactured air defences unless the Russians make some sort of technological breakthrough. Should such a breakthrough occur, it is unlikely they would sell such systems to client states like Syria.

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