In the last fortnight, missiles fired by Syria’s Russian-made air defense systems twice missed hitting Israeli air force planes – the first time on Oct. 16, when Israeli planes flew over Lebanon, and the second time on Wednesday, Nov. 1, when Israeli jets were reported to have struck Syrian military targets near Homs.
These incidents gave Western and Russian military experts their first glimpse of some of the aerial tactics employed by Israel, and also some of the operational flaws inherent in the Russian-Syrian air defense network spread out across Syria.
That network works on the “air defense bubbles” method, which is called in professional parlance “anti-access/area-denial-A2/AD exclusion zones.” It is composed of anti-air missiles systems designed to hit flying objects at a wide range of altitudes and distances, and is supported by two tiers of ground-to-ground and shore-to-sea missiles. The entire set-up is backed by ship-to-air missiles installed on Russian warships cruising nearby.
The “bubble” is equipped with long-range surveillance radar, which gathers data and beams it to the stationary or mobile command center, which then selects the appropriate missile battery for downing or intercepting hostile aircraft or missiles. Available too is “engagement radar,” which guides the missile on its way to target.
A variety of advanced Russian air defense systems have been installed in Syria. Among them are the Pantsir-S1 or Buk-M2E, the S-400, S-300 and S-200. Integrated in the bubble of advanced weapons are 6 Syrian battalions which include ageing Russian-made SA-2 and SA-5.
The Russians operate the network from an air defense command at their air base at Khmeimim in Latakia, together with the joint command they have set up with Syria.
Russian sources claim that the Israeli Air Force, for its Oct. 16 flight in Lebanese skies, lofted different types of fighter-bombers, including the new F-35 stealth plane and a number of F-16 andF-15 jets. After an Syrian SA-5 battery east of Damascus shot missiles at those planes and missed, Israel conducted a separate air raid to destroy the battery. Western experts say the Russians are not certain whether they used cruise missiles or GPS-guided bombs. The Russians say their command center heard of the Israeli air strike after it had started, too late to activate an anti-air missile.
What the Russian argument reveals is that its three-tier air defense system can respond to attacks from planes and missiles approaching Syria, but not when missiles or guided bombs are aimed at Syrian targets from outside its borders, such as over Lebanon or the Mediterranean. The Israeli Air Force is using this flaw to bomb targets in Syria without being exposed to the risk of being shot down or intercepted by Russian air defense batteries.
The Russian and Syrian systems were unified under a joint command after a massive US Tomahawk cruise missile attack on Syria’s air base at Shayrat on April 7. In the ensuing seven months, the unified command has discovered its inability to strike back at hostile aircraft flying just beyond Syrian airspace, which release their ordnance without warning.
The Russian system appears to lack the capacity to differentiate between the Israeli planes when they drop bombs or missiles or identity the types of ordinance used – both of which are essential data for determining which air defense systems are best suited to activate in response.
DEBKA’s military sources add: This may not be the only flaw in Russia’s air defenses; the Israeli Air Force may also be exploiting others. At the same time, the Israelis may possibly be allowed to get away with it thanks to a Russian decision to turn a blind eye to their maneuvers against Syria and Hizballah. If that is the case, Israel had better be prepared for them to change their minds at some point and use all the resources to put a stop to Israeli aerial incursions.