Russian Air Defense and the US Strike on Al-Shayrat

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 50

Moscow’s reaction to the United States’ cruise missile strike on a regime target in Syria, on April 7, has proved both swift and predictable: ranging from condemning an “act of aggression,” to suspend the bilateral de-confliction agreement and promising to further boost Syria’s air defense capability (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 9). However, some Western and Russian experts have utilized the US strike to question the capability of Russia’s most advanced air defense systems, including the S-400 and S-300V4, in certain cases reaching the conclusion that such assets are ineffective. It is worth highlighting Russian claims and analyses of the US cruise missile attack to establish what issues are of real concern to Moscow and its implications for Russian air defense in Syria (Vzglyad, April 7).

Russian reporting concerning the attack establishes the following basic facts. Around 03:40 (Moscow time), on April 7, the USS Porter and USS Ross destroyers launched a massive assault by firing 59 sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM) against the Al-Shayrat airbase in Syria. Moscow had been informed two hours in advance (although mainstream US media reporting suggests the Russians were given only one hour), and measures were taken to ensure that no Russian personnel at the airbase would be harmed. At this point, many of the other details surrounding the Tomahawk cruise missile strike diverge between Moscow and Washington: the former alleges there was no delivery of chemical weapons from the airbase on Idlib earlier in the week, and suggests only 23 missiles hit the target. One issue that stands out in Russian media analysis is that the strike supposedly proved ineffective, destroying only nine aircraft, damaging hangers and airbase infrastructure but failing to cripple the airbase. Within a short period, the Syrian Air Force resumed operational use of the airbase, the Russian media reports (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 10; Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, April 7).

However, questions surrounding the possible implications of the strike on Al-Shayrat for Russian air defense systems relate to the presence of the advanced S-400 system to protect the Russian airbase in Latakia and the S-300V4 system located at the Tartus naval base. These are among a number of other Russian air defense systems deployed in Syria, largely in response to the downing of the Su-24M attack jet, in November 2015, by the Turkish Air Force. The S-400, depending on the missile used, has a range of up to 400 kilometers, while the S-300V4 uses the 9M82M missile against targets up to 200 km away. Since the reinforcement of Russia’s air defense capabilities in Syria and following the formation of the joint Russia-Syria Air Defense system, Russian officials have exaggerated the capacity of these assets, claiming Moscow has built up an air defense bubble covering the entire Syrian airspace. Nonetheless, questioning the competency of the S-400 and S-300V4 systems based on the consequences of the April 7 US cruise missile strike misreads the actual capability of these assets (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, April 10).

These systems are not principally designed to counter low-flying subsonic Tomahawks; their capacity to attempt this is limited to approximately 30–40 km. Colonel (retired) Mikhail Khodarenok, a defense correspondent for and an air defense specialist, notes the Al-Shayrat airbase is located around 200 km from Latakia, which he suggests lies at the outer limit of the S-400 range: to strike a target at this range requires it to be flying at an altitude of 8–9 km. If it flies lower, the S-400’s multifunctional radar cannot see the cruise missile due to the curvature of the Earth’s surface. Similarly, the S-300V4 at Tartus has a range of around 100 km and requires a target altitude of 6–7 km. According to Air Force Colonel General (retired) Igor Maltsev, the former chief of the Main Staff in the Air Defense Troops, since Tomahawks fly at 50–60 meters above the ground, the outer effective range for the S-300V4 system would only be around 24–26 km in cross country terrain. Maltsev concluded that the S-400 and S-300V4 located in Latakia and Tartus did not have even a theoretical chance to counter the US cruise missile strike. Moreover, to protect against a similar strike in the future, Maltsev believes Al-Shayrat would need four to five S-400 battalions, alongside a radar reconnaissance system to provide depth of detection against cruise missiles, in addition to an air regiment of Su-30SM or Su-35 fighters (, April 7).

Some of the technical aspects of the strike on Al-Shayrat were assessed by Nikolai Novichkov, in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer. Novichkov concurs with air defense specialists such as Khodarenok and Maltsev that the S-400 and S-300V4 is effective to around 40 km against cruise missile targets, but he examines details surrounding the US strike to extrapolate lessons for the Russian military. Novichkov refers to the timing of the attack, considering whether the strikes were synchronized between USS Porter and USS Ross; he concludes they probably were (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, April 10).

Noting the Russian defense ministry version, which places the attack between 03:42 (Moscow time) and 03:56, the author argues nearly 30 pairs of Tomahawks were fired almost simultaneously. The time interval from the lead pair to the final pair was about seven minutes, giving a total time interval of 14 minutes. Fired from south of Crete, in the Mediterranean Sea, at a distance of 1,100 km from the Syrian coast, Russian air defense could not have detected the launches. Novichkov highlights the use of EW-18G Growler aircraft to provide electronic warfare (EW) cover for the attack, and suggests the cruise missiles could have crossed the Syrian coast close to Tartus, allowing some degree of tracking. This would provide the Russian military with a real world lesson in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) in Syria, which can be applied elsewhere (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, April 10).

The US cruise missile strike on Al-Shayrat did not expose the Russian air defense systems to be flawed. On the contrary, US planners are well aware of the characteristics of these systems and took careful steps to circumvent them. The strikes were conducted at sufficient distance from the Syrian coast, and likely flew far enough south of Tartus to avoid Russian air defense assets, or through Lebanese airspace before entering Syria and were also supported by EW (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, April 10;, April 7).

In reality, the Russian air defense bubble never extended across Syria, but instead may be accurately denoted as a series of smaller “bubbles,” which the US Navy precisely circumvented in the attack. Creating a national air defense “no-fly zone” for Syria is doubtless seen by Moscow as far too costly and potentially dangerous.