Much-vaunted Russian anti-aircraft missile systems failed their test

Much-vaunted Russian anti-aircraft missile systems failed their test

58 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched by the Americans at the Syrian government forces' "Shayrat” air base hit their designated targets.

As reported, on April 7th, the United States of America (USA) launched a Tomahawk cruise missile attack on the Syrian government forces’ "Shayrat" airbase. 58 of the 59 cruise missiles launched by the Americans hit their intended targets - combat aircraft of the Syrian Air Force, air-defense weapons, ammunition and fuel storage depots, and other Syrian military infrastructure in the region. The official reason for the strikes, as declared by the US government, was the use of the chemical warfare agent, sarin, against armed opposition groups and civilians, by the Syrian government on April 4.

Since the start of the Russian operations in Syria in October 2015, the Russians had installed S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems in Syrian territory, and deployed "Pantsir-S1" air-defense missile-gun systems at their air-defense missile positions and airbases to provide protective cover.

According to the Russian President’s press secretary, Dmitriy Peskov, these weapons systems, in addition to other troops and equipment, were transferred to Syria to protect the Russian aviation contingent. In reality, it was clear that the real purpose for deploying modern and effective (according to Russian experts) air-defense and anti-missile-defense systems in Syria was rather different.

In part, this was confirmed by the representative of the Russian Defense Ministry, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, who, when addressing the media on 6 October 2016, stated that the operating range of the S-300 and S-400, which are at the disposal of the Russian units in the region, "could come as a surprise to any unidentified flying objects". Consequently, he "...would recommend that our colleagues in Washington carefully assess the possible consequences of carrying out any plans they may have for air and missile strikes against Syrian troops." The Russian general was clearly warning the US and Israel, which had previously expressed a readiness to intervene  in the Syrian conflict by military means “if necessary.”

The reason behind the appearance of the much-vaunted Russian air-defense missile systems in Syria became fully clear after the statements made by the Russian Foreign Ministry. Here is a quote from the Russian newspaper "Vzglyad" on October 7, 2016: "The mystery of the sudden appearance of additional Russian anti-aircraft missile systems in Syria has been solved. As officially announced by the Russian Foreign Ministry, they are intended to prevent American cruise missile attacks on Syrian airfields."

But, as became clear on April 7 of this year, the Kremlin’s threatening statements and saber-rattling with anti-aircraft missiles do not warrant much attention. Even when pitted against the far-from-new US cruise missiles (the Tomahawk cruise missile was adopted by the US Army back in 1983), the efficiency of Russian air-defense systems proved debatable, to put it mildly. Many today are wondering why the Russian air defense systems "held their peace" while the American Tomahawks were tearing through the Syrian air base. Especially if, as advertised by many Russian publications, a cruise missile is the number one target for such systems as "Buk-M1", S-300, "Pantsir-S1," and the cutting-edge S-400.

Of course, after the successful American strike, Russia’s military and political leadership was quick to crank out numerous conspiracy theories and allegedly plausible explanations for the Russian air defenses’ blunder. They ranged from claiming that a "political understanding" had been previously reached between the US and Russia "not to interfere with each other" to stating that the American missile attack was "clearly ineffectual." But these explanations aimed not so much to explain the real reasons behind the blunder, as to deliver psychological and propagandist content (since one must somehow justify their military failures to their own citizens).

Consequently, these explanations were rather quickly and comprehensively refuted by harsh reality - despite "the cutting-edge, most efficient anti-aircraft missile systems in the world" and the "reliable anti-aircraft defense shield" present in Syria, the United States’ cruise missiles had struck all of their designated targets, and delivered a hefty blow to the Russian defense industry in the process.

But this does nothing to explain the true, purely military, reasons behind this Russian anti-aircraft missile scandal. It would be hard to believe that the Russians had not even tried to intercept the American "Tomahawks" (after all, the Russians did not send their air-defense systems to Syria to figure in the local military hardware and weapons exhibition). In addition, Russian diplomats needed no encouragement to boast about the "super-reliable air defense systems deployed over Syria."

In fact, the reasons mentioned above are manifestly obvious and superficial- none of the available Russian anti-aircraft missile systems are effective against such aerial weapons as a cruise missile. Moreover, this has long been known.

Cruise missiles of this type have been used by the American army in actual combat since 1991. During the Gulf War, the US Army launched 297 such missiles, 282 hitting their designated target. During Operation Desert Fox in 1998, 370 Tomahawk missiles were launched in Iraq, another 200, in Libya; while  in Yugoslavia, the Americans used hundreds of Tomahawks against the army of the dictator Milosevic.

Without going into military and technical details, I would say that the main reason the currently available Russian air-defense missile systems are ineffective against cruise missiles is that they detect the latter too close to Russian positions. Short distance means insufficient time for Russian air defense systems to aim and fire at the cruise missiles (the distance required for “comfortable” firing is 30-35 km). Although, of course, in the case of a mass strike, the air defense missile systems would probably still have the time to fire at a certain proportion of the attacking Tomahawks.

However, the Tomahawk’s guidance system uses a flight route pre-loaded into the missile. In other words, the missile flies along a route that has already been mapped out in its electronic brain, while simultaneously checking it against the passing terrain. Its flight path is adjusted according to so-called control points, included into the flight specifications prior to launch. That is why the Tomahawk does not depend on the GPS satellite navigation system when seeking its target, contrary to the mistaken opinion of some Russian “experts.” It is therefore very difficult to overtake control of the missile, and it is only possible to "knock it off course" by significantly changing the terrain along its flight path.

But the most lethal characteristic of these American missiles to Russian air-defense-missile systems is their ability to match the contour of the terrain - in other words, to fly at an altitude of merely 20-50 meters above the surface, which is too low for the effective operation of Russian air-defense missile systems. This quality allows the Tomahawks to exploit the contours of the terrain, conceal their approach, and destroy, effectively and without warning, both the target defended by the multi-layered air-defense system, and components of the air-defense system itself. In other words, Tomahawks (even a single missile, let alone a large number of them) act like a “jack in the box” for the Russian air-defense systems, always appearing suddenly, at too close a distance, and from unexpected directions. This is true not only for S-300/400 anti-aircraft defense systems, but also for "Pantsir S1" gun-missile air-defense systems, specifically designed to combat cruise missiles.

Of course, the Russian arsenal includes assets capable of substantially negating this particular characteristic of American cruise missiles, by identifying small-sized cruise missiles against the earth’s surface, in the presence of strong radar interference and from a great distance (e.g. A-50 long-range airborne early warning and control aircraft and supersonic MiG-31 interceptor-fighters). However, using them in Syria intensively and en masse would be very costly for the Russian budget right now, and therefore, they cannot constantly patrol the airspace over every Syrian airfield. (There are no more than seven combat-ready A-50 aircraft remaining in the entire Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, while the patrolling autonomy of a fully armed MiG-31 is less than two hours.) The Russians would therefore be well advised to think seriously about the purpose of their military adventures in the Middle East: there is no hint of their "national interests" there, while a Tomahawk can arrive at any moment.