Will the Russian deployment of its S-300 anti-aircraft missile batteries in Syria stop the Israelis from bombing its neighbor? According to most defence experts, the answer is yes—but at least one Israeli expert claims the answer is no.
According to a review of the S-300 missile system’s capabilities, made by Dave Majumdar, the defense correspondent for the National Interest, the answer is most certainly yes.
“If Russia does deploy their latest surface-to-air missiles (SAM) to Syria, the areas protected by these systems would become no-go zones for most allied aircraft save for the F-22 Raptor and B-2 Spirit—and the F-35, if that warplane was genuinely operational,” Majumdar wrote.
“Weapons like the S-300 and S-400 form the top tier of Russian surface-to-air missile systems and are designed to protect strategically important areas. The S-300PMU-1 has a range of about 120 miles and can engage targets as high as 100,000ft. Each battery can attack more than half a dozen targets simultaneously.
While older generation strategic SAMs were fixed emplacements, the S-300 and its follow-on systems are highly mobile and can move with little notice—which makes them far more survivable and dangerous.
The S-300 and its follow-on systems are some of the most capable and dangerous air defenses an opposing air force could ever face. Not only are the missiles mobile, but the systems are networked together. One S-300 battery is a handful, but several such systems networked together into an integrated air defense system is a nearly insurmountable challenge for most fourth-generation fighters like the F-16 or F-15.
Referring to an earlier article he wrote for the Daily Beast, Majumdar quoted a senior US Marine Corps aviator as saying that the S-300 series is deadly. “A complete game changer for all fourth-gen aircraft [like the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18]. That thing is a beast and you don’t want to get near it,” he said.
Majumdar’s earlier article dealt with the fallout of the deployment of the S-300 system in Iran, and said that the “delivery of the new weapon, called the Almaz-Antei S-300PMU-1—known as the SA-20 Gargoyle in NATO parlance—would effectively force the U.S. to rely on its small fleet of stealth aircraft to strike targets inside Iran in case the mullahs make a dash for the bomb.”
“But even those aircraft might have a difficult time,” he said, adding that “This would be a huge deal depending on where they [the S-300s] are based…The Persian Gulf would be an interesting place to fly,” said one senior defense official with experience on multiple stealth aircraft types. “These new [surface-to-air missiles] change the whole complexion…It’s a big move.”
“Many U.S. defense officials from the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps agree that the Russian missile system effectively renders entire regions no-go zones for conventional jets like the F-16 or Navy F/A-18 Hornet.
“Currently, only high-end stealth aircraft like the $2.2 billion B-2 Spirit—of which the Air Force has exactly 20—and the high-performance F-22 Raptor can safely operate inside an area protected by the S-300 and its many variants.
“The Pentagon’s $400 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will eventually be able to operate inside those zones, too. But according to multiple sources within the Pentagon and defense industry, no warplane now operating can remain inside those well-defended areas for long.
A senior U.S. Marine Corps aviator said that if Russia delivers the S-300 missile to Iran, it would fundamentally change U.S. war plans. “A complete game changer for all fourth-gen aircraft [like the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18]. That thing is a beast and you don’t want to get near it,” he said.
“The sale of the S-300 also would neutralize any possibility that Israel could take unilateral action against Iran, one senior Air Force commander noted. The S-300 would effectively prevent the Israeli air force from attacking Iran until the F-35 is delivered to that nation.”
“It essentially makes Iran attack-proof by Israel and almost any country without fifth-gen [stealth fighter] capabilities. In other words, Iran, with the S-300, can continue to do what they want once those systems are in place without fear of attack from anyone save the U.S.”
But even when Israel receives the F-35, the relatively short-range stealth fighter can only carry a pair of 2,000-pound bombs—which are not likely to be adequate for the most heavily fortified targets, Majumdar continued.
If there is a large number of those S-300 air defense systems in place, even pilots flying stealth jets like the B-2 and F-22 Raptor would find the mission to be extremely difficult. “If they’re all over every square inch of the country, then it doesn’t matter what you put out there—it’s going to be a challenge,” the Air Force official said.
Judah Ari Gross, the Times of Israel’s military correspondent, however said in a new article that the “true threat of S-300s is not that they’re powerful, but that they’re Russian.”
Gross claimed that “the Israeli Air Force likely has the means to work around Russian electronic warfare and Syrian air defenses, but doing so risks inflaming the growing Jerusalem-Moscow crisis.”
“For Israel, the S-300 would represent a significant but not insurmountable obstacle in Syria,” Gross continued. “While the S-300, known by NATO as the SA-10, is far more powerful than Syria’s current long-range anti-aircraft system, the S-200 or SA-5, the Israeli Air Force has had decades to prepare for it.
“A number of Israeli allies operate the air defense system. The IAF has reportedly trained against S-300 batteries that once belonged to Cyprus, but are now owned by Greece, during joint aerial exercises over the years.
“Israel is also the proud owner of a growing fleet of F-35 fighter jets, a model whose raison d’être is stealth. These fifth-generation jets have already been used operationally, the IAF said earlier this year.”
In addition to supplying Syria with the S-300, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu also said Monday that Russia would “jam satellite navigation, on-board radars and communication systems of combat aircraft attacking targets in Syria.”
“Here too, the Israeli military would likely have a number of technological and operational means to overcome this challenge, but the top brass would have to weigh the use of those measures against the value of the target,” Gross wrote, concluding that the political fall out of a clash between Israel and Russia was a larger deterrent than actually bombing the missile launchers.
For its part, Syria has announced that the acquisition of the S-300 system should make Israel “think carefully before attacking Syria again.”
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad was quoted by China’s Xinhua news agency as saying that Israel, “which is accustomed to launching many aggressions under different pretexts, will have to make accurate calculations if it thinks to attack Syria again.”
He stressed that “the aggression on Syria is an aggression on the forces that fight against terrorism in Syria.”
Asked by Xinhua if Israel would launch other attacks on Syria after obtaining the S-300 system, Mekdad said: “Let the Israelis try and we will defend ourselves as we have done before.”