Russia has delivered an S-300 system to Syria. It has promised “up to” 8 batteries in all to be delivered later. An S-300 battery is composed of launcher units with Flap Lid B radar and a command post.
The delivery of one battalion was made in response to the involvement of Israeli fighters in the shoot-down of a Russian Il-20 recon plane off the coast of Syria near Russia’s Khmeimim air base south-east of Latakia. The official report of the Russian Ministry of Defense is that Israel, while attacking Syrian targets near Latakia, used the Il-20 as cover in a deliberate attempt to induce Syrian air defences to down the plane, and consequently, the Il-20 was indeed downed by mistake by Syrian air defence troops firing at the Israeli planes behind it. There are various other versions, including one postulated by Fort Russ claiming the plane was hit by a missile that was observed by Russian radar operators to be launched around this time from the French frigate Auvergne. But the point is that the Israelis not only are not fighting terror, they are endangering the Syrians and Iranians who are genuinely fighting it and at best, are getting in the way.
Now the Isaeli response to this delivery has been ambivalent. On the one hand, Israeli officials immediately threatened to bomb the newly delivered Russian air defences. On the other hand, Israel immediately wanted to send a top-level delegation including defence minister Lieberman and Netanyahu himself. This offer was spurned. Moscow wanted to deal on a professional level – with military technical brass who understood the real threats everyone was facing and not with diplomats intent on damage control. Air Force head Maj. General Norkin wound up going. Apparently he understood the nitty-gritty explanations of his Russian counterparts because following the visit, the top brass and Netanyahu suddenly became very conciliatory and remembered their valuable relationship with Moscow. Norkin understood the nuts and bolts. Netanyahu understood the power.
So is everything hunky-dory now? Not exactly. People on all sides, notably the US, Russia, Syria and Israel, know that the S-300 is not a magic bullet. Indeed, there are questions about the radar incorporated in that system. Although the detection range reportedly exceeds that of the US Patriot System, for example, no one knows what kind of radar we are dealing with and exactly what it can do.
You like dark humour? Remember that the Israeli defence ministry had admitted to firing over 200 missiles into Syria since 2017 on the pretext of targeting Iranians (who were, however, there legally at the request of the Syrian people), killing an untold number of combatants and bystanders alike, and on at least one occasion, it fired missiles into the vicinity of the Damascus International Airport. No amount of spin can honestly make this action anything but irresponsible and criminal. But after the Russians announced they would be sending the S-300 to Syria, can you guess what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response? Yes, he said these purely defensive S-300 systems would “endanger the region.” So, Mr. Prime Minister, your approval of the attack on an airport full of international passengers, all non-combatants, none deserving of your intended punishment of Syrians and Iranians whose only “wrongdoing” was the elimination of terrorists to keep the Syrian people safe and secure, did not endanger the region, right? But defending against these missiles and the aircraft that irresponsibly fire them is a danger? Sure.
Shortly after the latest Israeli-Russian pow-wow in Moscow, Israel’s Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said the S-300 system would not limit Israel’s freedom of operations. He stated, according to Haaretz, “You know that we have stealth fighters, the best planes in the world. These batteries are not even able to detect them.” He was referring to US-supplied F-35 stealth fighters.
He was, however, not necessarily correct. No one knows what kind of radar the S-300s in Syria are using. The Russians have almost certainly updated them. Russia has developed and apparently fielded, for example, the Struna-1 bistatic radar system, which at relatively low altitudes, not exceeding 7 km, can “see” the F-35 quite well. The only catch is that this system is not well adapted for guiding missiles to its target. On the other hand, if a system analogous to the Struna-1 could detect the rough position, speed and trajectory of a threat, it could perhaps be used to launch a heat-seeking missile in the general direction of the threat and bring it down. The threat could turn out to be an F-35. It would cost the Israelis a cool $125 million and a fine pilot who might better have been engaged in fighting ISIS or Al-Qaeda or one of their numerous rebrandings.
So what do we know about Russian air defence capabilities? A clue came in when the Syrian army fired an antiquated Soviet-era S-200 at an “invisible” Israeli F-35 and the plane had to make a forced landing. The Israeli air force did some quick damage control, claiming that the damage was only slight and explaining the direct hit by claiming that this plane had hit a bird not long ago and its stealth coating was damaged as a result. And the punch line? Don’t be drinking coffee as you read this — as the National Interest reported, “The plane reportedly landed safely, but the Israeli Air Force did admit that it wasn’t sure whether the plane will fly again.“
Sort of like: “our son took the family car out last night and grazed a stop sign, slightly scratching the paint on the left fender. He made it home safely but we aren’t sure the car will be drivable again!” LOL LOL LOL!
As you see, this whole story is both surrealistic and genuinely funny. It could have come from a novel co-authored, say, by Franz Kafka and Groucho Marx.
Let’s hope the sequel is also more entertaining than tragic.