Russia’s Dubious Air Game in Syria

Should the Russians conclude that Israel’s air force is likely to overcome the S-300, the loss of marketability of that missile system might outweigh the financial benefits of the sale to Syria.

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By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on June 24, 2013)

The news that Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries may be deployed in Syria is a reminder that more than 40 years ago the Israel Air Force fought major duels against such weapons. Then it was Soviet SA-2s, SA-3s and SA-6s deployed in Egypt, at the time a severe challenge to the IAF.

Already during the Vietnam War it became apparent that newly developed Soviet surface-to-air missiles had changed the balance between aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons. During the War of Attrition the Soviets convinced President Anwar Sadat that Egypt could neutralize Israeli air superiority by fielding Soviet surface-to-air missiles.

During the last months of the War of Attrition in 1970, Soviet surface-to-air missiles in Egypt, some manned by Soviet personnel, were denying the IAF air superiority over areas covered by these missiles. It was a lesson the Israel Defense Forces had still not learned when the Yom Kippur War broke out three years later.

In violation of the cease-fire concluded in August 1970, the Egyptians moved their ant-aircraft missile batteries toward the Suez Canal. By then it should have been clear that the IAF would not be able to provide adequate support for Israeli ground forces in the area if war broke out. Nevertheless, Israel’s strategy in 1973 was based on the assumption that small regular-army ground forces would, with the help of air support, throw back any Egyptian attempt to cross the canal. It was a strategy that failed. Only the arrival of reserve forces saved the situation.

Nine years later, during the first Lebanon war, the IAF tilted the balance between air power and ground-based anti-air missiles back in favor of air power. Syria’s Soviet-made SA-2, SA-3 and SA-6 batteries deployed in Lebanon were destroyed in one day without the loss of a single Israeli aircraft. Technological advances and clever tactics had neutralized the batteries.

Faced with the defeat of the much-touted Soviet weapons system, there was great consternation in Moscow. The Soviets went to work developing more-advanced surface-to- air missile systems. The premier example is the S-300, a mobile, long-range system using phased-array radar, first developed in the Soviet Union and now manufactured and improved in Russia. It has become a major Russian export and has been sold to many countries including China, Algeria and Greece. Russia has signed a contract to sell this system to Syria, although it’s uncertain when delivery will take place.

It’s not certain that the introduction of this system has regained the advantage that surface-to-air missiles enjoyed in the 70s, substantially changing the balance between air power and anti-aircraft systems. In any case, its deployment in Syria constitutes a significant upgrade in Syria’s anti-aircraft capabilities and would be a challenge for the IAF.

What would happen in a duel between the IAF and the S-300 system deployed in Syria? That’s a question of great interest not only to Israel and Syria, but also to the powers that be in Moscow.

Should the Russians conclude that the IAF is likely to overcome the S-300, the loss of prestige and marketability of that system might outweigh the immediate financial benefits of the sale to Syria. Even the sale’s contribution in enhancing Russia’s political position vis-a-vis the West in Syria might turn out to be a very dubious asset. In that case, the Syrians may have to wait a long time before the S-300 system is delivered.

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