Russian S-400 in Syria: What Does it Mean for US Air Assets?

S-400 equipment deployed to Khmeimim Air Base in Syria. Dmitriy Vinogradov / Sputnik International photo.

On Thanksgiving Day, Russia deployed elements of its S-400 TRIUMF surface-to-air missile (SAM) system (NATO Designator: SA-21 GROWLER) to Hmeymim Air Base near Latakia, Syria. The deployment timeline was impressive in its speed. Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 FENCER over Syria on November 24th and a day later Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Russia would deploy the S-400 to protect its air assets. On November 26th a Russian news agency posted photos and video of S-400 equipment being unloaded and set up in Syria. US air planners were not caught completely off guard since handheld photos showing the S-400’s target acquisition radar, the 96L6 (NATO Designator: CHEESE BOARD), began appearing on the internet in early November. These photos sparked speculation the S-400 had already been deployed or would be deployed imminently. However, US and coalition pilots received very un-welcome news when they got to their operations buildings on Thanksgiving morning: many sorties over Syria would now be flown inside of an SA-21 missile engagement zone (MEZ).

What is the S-400 / SA-21?

Quite simply, the SA-21 is the most dangerous operationally deployed modern long-range SAM (MLR SAM) in the world. According to Air Power Australia, the maximum effective range of the SA-21 is either 215 nautical miles (nm) or 130 nm based on missile variant. The system can track 100 airborne targets and engage six of them simultaneously.[1] The longer-range missile MEZ would blanket all but the eastern-most tip of Syria, including the Royal Air Force operating location at Akrotiri Air Base on the island of Cyprus and the USAF operating location at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. Even the shorter-range missile MEZ would cover half of Syria, nearly reaching, the headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Al-Raqqah. The SA-21 is claimed to have counter-low observable and counter-precision-guided munitions engagement capabilities, and is extremely mobile. Of US and coalition airborne assets deployed in theater, only the F-22 Raptor has any ability to operate and survive inside the SA-21 MEZ.

S-400 / SA-21 worst-case Missile Engagement Zone covers most of Syria. IMAGE: GOOGLE MAPS / INSERBIA

US Air Force aircrew and intelligence professionals have been warning senior uniformed and civilian leaders for years about the risk posed by MLR SAMs such as the SA-21. The target engagement capabilities of the missile and the system’s rapid mobility make finding, fixing and killing the SA-21 one of the most difficult tactical problems facing US and coalition air power. Now, for the first time, US aircrew will be flying inside the MEZ of an SA-21 in a combat environment. Operating inside an SA-21 MEZ is a nightmare that will keep many US and coalition aircrew up nights in the coming days, weeks, and months.

What Does the SA-21 Deployment Mean for Counter-ISIL Air Operations?

The deployment of the SA-21 was clearly designed to intimidate Turkey. The move appears to have worked as Turkey immediately suspended air operations over Syria after word of the SA-21 deployment spread.[2] Russia has shown no intention of using the SA-21 to engage US or coalition (excluding Turkey) aircraft over Syria. However, air operations planners at the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar are likely developing new procedures and guidelines for manned and unmanned aircraft operating inside the SA-21 MEZ. US and coalition aircraft are already working to avoid close contact with Russian fighter aircraft, and the deployment of the SA-21 will likely lead to more restrictive airspace control measures. Restrictive rules of engagement have already severely limited US air operations, prompting Lieutenant General David Deptula (ret.) to nickname the air campaign “DESERT DRIZZLE.[3]” Further restrictions on US air power will likely ease the pressure on ISIL, which, despite the spectacular terrorist attacks in Egypt and Paris, has had its territorial gains in Iraq and Syria halted or minimized.

US air planners could choose to escort every strike package with F-22s for threat identification and location, and EA-18Gs and F-16s for suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), but there simply are not enough of those platforms to support multiple large-force strike packages each day. There certainly are not enough SEAD aircraft available for protection of every manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft operating over Syria. Which leaves these air planners with an unenviable “Sophie’s Choice;” limit air operations over western and central Syria, or leave manned strike and ISR platforms without dedicated SEAD support, neither of which is in appealing option.

The Future of Counter-ISIL Air Operations

Though one can argue about the efficacy of air power in the destruction of ISIL, it would be nearly impossible to find anyone who believes a reduction in air strikes and airborne reconnaissance would help stem the tide of ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Thus, a new strategy must be developed that allows American and coalition aircraft to have the freedom of movement to develop and prosecute ISIL targets in Syria. Such a strategy must include not only the US and its coalition partners, but Russia as well. It has been said war makes strange bedfellows, and the counter-ISIL campaign is the epitome of that axiom. The US and its partners must engage Russia and develop guidance for a combined air campaign against ISIL. It is unlikely the coalition would be willing to enter into an intelligence-sharing agreement with Russia, and it seems equally unlikely the coalition would delegate targets for the Russians to strike. However, a plan to deconflict strike areas or killboxes could be developed to maximize firepower against ISIL and keep their organization on the run and weakened.

There are a multitude of risks associated with this type of tenuous US-Russia agreement on air power employment against ISIL. The Russians, despite their protests to the contrary, have conducted few strikes against ISIL, instead focusing the bulk of their air and missile strikes on anti-Assad rebels in Syria. Additionally, placing any trust in the actions of Vladimir Putin is a risky proposition at best. But what is the alternative…a precipitous decline in US ISR and strike sorties over ISIL strongholds in central and northern Syria? If air power is to have any hope of inflicting real damage on ISIL it must be concentrated, robust, and sustained. In the last two weeks the US has ramped up its attacks on ISIL to the highest point since the bombing campaign began.[4] France, eager to avenge the horrific attacks in Paris, has employed significant air assets against ISIL. Even President Putin has declared Russia is willing to join the US-led air campaign on ISIL.[5] The time is now to strike an agreement between the coalition and Russia. A combined effort may be able to bring enough air power to bear to cause real damage to ISIL. The most dangerous course of action would be to allow the deployment of the SA-21 to slow the already limited flow of coalition air assets into Syrian airspace, releasing the pressure on ISIL and causing significant damage to the military objectives of the coalition air campaign. ISIL’s recent terrorist activity has shown how dangerous and evil their organization can be. The current air campaign has not failed, nor has it been an overwhelming success. Only a comprehensive, resolute and sustained air campaign will have the desired effects on ISIL.

[1] Air Power Australia, Almaz-Antey 40R6 / S-400 Triumf, updated 27 January 2014, http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-S-400-Triumf.html.

[2] Cenciotti, David, “The Turkish Air Force is No Longer Supporting the Air War on ISIS,” The Avionist, 27 November 2015, http://theaviationist.com/2015/11/27/tuaf-suspends-flights-over-syria/.

[3] Deptula, Lt Gen (ret.) David A, “We can’t stop the Islamic State with a ‘Desert Drizzle’”, USA Today, 15 November 2015.

[4] Schogol, Jeff, “U.S. dropping more bombs on Islamic State than ever before,” Air Force Times, 25 November 2015, http://www.airforcetimes.com/story/military/2015/11/25/commander-us-dropping-more-bombs-islamic-state-than-ever-before/76361886/

[5] Associated Press, “Putin: Russia to cooperate with US-led coalition,” 27 November 2015, http://news.yahoo.com/putin-criticizes-turkey-not-apologizing-jet-downing-112802132.html.

Tyson Wetzel is an Air Force officer and a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School where he was also an instructor. Tyson has deployed multiple times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and NOBLE EAGLE. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.

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