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Why so much fret over the S-300?

Israel worried advanced Russian air defense system will tip balance with Syria

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2 Jul 2013
Why so much fret over the S-300?

Israel received a scare in May when embattled Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad suddenly claimed that his forces had taken delivery of batteries of the Russian-made S-300 air defense system. His announcement came after several air strikes attributed to Israel were carried out on weapons convoys bound for Hizbullah in Lebanon and a military research factory outside Damascus.

The boast sent Israeli officials scurrying to Moscow to verify whether the Kremlin had indeed supplied Syria with the highly advanced defense system which shields against hostile aircraft and missiles. After several conflicting reports, Russian officials eventually assured the S-300 batteries had not been handed over yet but likely would be sometime in 2014.

The episode has left Israeli officials and analysts busy weighing just how much of a game-changer it would be in the regional military balance if Syria were to acquire the S-300. Most assessments gauge it to be a highly accurate and effective defense system which would greatly reduce Israel’s air superiority in the region and complicate its aerial operations over Lebanon and Syria. Israel has been pleading with Russia for several years now to refrain from handing the state-of-the-art air shield over to Iran, and now must worry about its deployment in and around Damascus.

Russia’s sophisticated S-300 air defense system (NATO uses the name SA-10 Grumble) is one of the world’s most advanced military platforms. Incorporating radar, interceptors and ancillary systems mounted on large all-terrain trucks, the S-300’s latest versions can defend air space to a radius of 200 kilometers against incoming aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles.

According to Jane’s Defense Weekly, the S-300’s radar can track up to 100 incoming objects at once and engage 12 targets at a time. A highly trained crew can take the mobile system from standby to full operational capability in only five minutes.

Designed by the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War to defend Soviet military bases, cities and industrial centers in the vast spaces of northern and eastern Europe, the S-300 has yet to be tested in a real conflict, but it is still considered a very capable SAM system.

NATO commanders were able to get a first-hand look at an S-300 battery in April 2005 during a combat exercise in France and Germany. The Slovak Air Force showed up with an S-300 mobile unit it had acquired during its days as a member of the Warsaw Pact, providing a unique opportunity for NATO to become familiar with the platform.

In May 2012, a large exercise also took place in Slovakia in which the SA-300 was challenged by modern NATO aircraft aided by ground radar jammers. NATO concluded that, with a professionally trained crew, the system is capable of effective operations with a high level of success even in a complex battle environment.

Further complicating matters is the fact that its deployment in the relatively small theater of the Middle East would allow the system to be turned from a defensive into an offensive platform, potentially endangering civilian as well as military aircraft far from the frontlines.

Currently, Russia appears determined to finally deliver several S-300 systems ordered by the Assad regime in 2010. The original contracts were signed months before the current civil war in Syria erupted, but officials in Moscow claimed that their goal was to deter “hotheads” in the international community who might be tempted to directly interfere in the Syrian civil war. The move is seen by Russia as an important signal to regional and international players that it will stand by its long-time and only remaining major Arab client.

“The missile batteries would give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime a powerful weapon against foreign air strikes” Ria Novasti journalist Alexey Eremenko noted recently. “Verifiable information about the S-300 deal is desperately scant: Was there a deal at all? What did it cover? Has any part of it been implemented? For now, what we know about the S-300 saga, from its origins to its implications, has been based on disappearing documents, anonymous sources, rumors, approximations and misunderstandings.”

“The deal is strictly between Moscow and Damascus – which is to say, it’s all in the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Eremenko continued. “All attempts to ban arms sales to Syria via the UN Security Council have been blocked by Russia. Of course, there is behind-the-scenes haggling and arm-twisting, but that’s unofficial.”

In a recent briefing at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Israel’s Minister for Intelligence and Strategic Affairs, MK Yuval Steinitz, frankly admitted that Israel is worried about the delivery of the S-300 and other advanced weapons to the Assad regime. He offered several arguments against such a move, including that it could fall into the hands of the Hezbollah terror militia or other jihadists organizations as the destabilization of Syria continues.

“This is something that should be prevented,” Steinitz warned. “We don’t understand the Russian position. Why should someone supply Assad with advanced ballistic, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles at this time? First, it might encourage Assad to continue the war and not to compromise with the opposition. Secondly, (the weapons) might find their way to the hands of Hezbollah or other terrorist organizations… Unfortunately, some of those weapons might find their way even to Iran. So we are in communication with the Russians and we hope this won’t happen”

He went on to explain that among Israel’s concerns is that the system, although it is classified as an “air defense” system, it can also be used offensively. With a range of 200 kilometers – designed for the vast areas of Northern and Eastern Europe in the days when the Warsaw Pact squared off against NATO – an S-300 system deployed in Damascus could shoot down Israeli military and even civilian aircraft as far south as Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv or the Nevetim airbase in the Negev.

However, Ruslan Pukhov of the Center for Analysis of Strategy and Technologies in Moscow posited that it could take several months before Assad’s S-300 systems could be manufactured, tested and prepared for delivery, and even then “dozens or even hundreds of staff would have to be trained to operate the complicated machinery, which should take about six months. This would push Assad’s most optimistic deadline of owning fully operable S-300 complexes to November at best, with spring of 2014 being a more realistic estimate.”

Another troubling possibility is that Russian crews could be deployed along with the systems, although that would involve endangering Russian soldiers in a conflict which could prove unpopular in Russia and politically dangerous for Putin.

Meanwhile, yet another conflicting report on the subject emerged in early June when Interfax quoted a Russian military source as saying that although Syrian officers were among the 250 foreigners from 19 countries being trained on the air defense weapons by a Russian military academy, "the training of Syrian officers under the S-300 program is not yet taking place."

Appeared first in the Jerusalem Post magazine, Christian Edition, released in July.


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