What Do We Know About Syria’s Air Defenses?

Given last week’s downing of a Turkish RF-4 Phantom, that was likely on a recconaissance mission, by the Syrian military, we thought it would be an appropriate time to look at Syria’s air defenses.

We frequently hear White House and Pentagon officials citing Syria’s advanced air defenses as a reason for thinking twice about starting an air campaign against the government of Bashar al Assad. Ask an American intel officer and I bet he’ll tell you that he’s spent plenty of time looking at how the U.S. would penetrate Syria’s integrated air defenses, which are some of the thickest and most advanced in the region, some claim they are tougher to penetrate than Iran’s.

Remember a few years ago when Israeli war planes managed to take out a suspected nuclear facility inside Syria? Well, that prompted Damascus to buy some advanced weaponry from Russia — a move that may have allowed it to give its older 1970s-vintage Soviet-made air defense gear to Hezbollah in Lebanon. (If you want to read about how effective those systems were, just read this.)

So, what has the Syrian air defense corps been upgrading its old SA-2s and SA-6s with? Well, rumors about that the RF-4 was shot down by a brand new Russian-made SA-22 system. The SA-22 is a mobile antiaircraft system the equipped with its own target acquisition and tracking radars and it carries 12 medium range 57E6 radio-guided surface-to-air missiles and two 30 mm autocannon. Yeah, it’s a nasty little system designed to protect ground troops, cities and even more advanced, high-altitude surface to air missile systems.

Speaking of high-altitude Russian-built SAM systems, dubbed triple digit SAMS, that keep American planners awake at night, Syria’s probably got them.

Specifically, Damascus reportedly has the S-300 air defense system that has long been considered one of the world’s most advance SAM systems.

Still, as this Seattle Times article points out, just because Syria has some fancy — and threatening — Russian hardware doesn’t mean that it’s military is fully adept at operating it, nor does it mean that the United States hasn’t figured out how it will deal with such SAM threats.

“We can deal with the Syrian integrated air defenses,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who oversaw Air Force intelligence efforts in the Pentagon. “It is much, much more challenging than Libya. They have some of the most recent surface-to-air missiles out there. But before we address the how, we need to address the why.”

The article goes on to say:

Even a relatively sophisticated air-defense system has potential weaknesses. Although Syria’s looks good on paper, it’s not clear the Syrians have the trained personnel to operate it effectively, analysts said.

U.S. officials said they are also unsure whether the Syrians can maintain and repair the system.

The U.S. and NATO forces would also employ jammers and other sophisticated technology to disrupt Syria’s radar and communications systems not in use by the Turkish aircraft.

Remember, Russia may have stopped deliveries of S-300 systems and it may have pulled out its technicians advising Syrians on how to use the systems.


  • Andy

    Can F22 take out these targets?

    • JJanson

      It depends, only some F-22’s are even equipped with ground attack equipment.

    • Af Ekhad

      So far, whenever the Syrians got into air battle, it rained Migs…Getting through their air defenses should not take any western air force more than a few hours.

    • tiger

      Better question is can the pilots fly the F-22 without Hypoxia before they get there.

      • Anonymous

        The jets are fine – it’s the pilots fault! Support the troops!!

  • Tribulationtime

    What “probably got them” means? Can not say intel if Russia sold it?. Israel take a walk over Syria in 2007 (5 years), How quickly a integrate AirDef can be build in real world?. Are we talking about a harder nutshell than Iraq defenses in Desert Storm (keeping in mind what assaulter was less advanced tech than today)?

    • BigGuy97

      We are talking about “Hooked on Phonics” book 2.

    • Nenad

      there’s a catch: Russian or other Eastern European mercenaries might be operating some of those. If that rumors true modern systems can be deadly, and those old can do more if being mobile, as seen above Serbia in 1999. So it’s all about how far will Russia goes to stop the US, just selling guns or sending mercs too.
      The US can destroy those systems either way, but there’s a question of cost, even loss of few aircraft and capture of 10 pilots can be huge problem.
      And finally the political questions, since those rebels are linked to Al Qaeda, and Assad is linked with Hezbollah, Hamas, Russia and Iran. No good guys there. If we speak about women rights for instance than Assad is less fanatical.

  • DGR

    What are cruise missles for again? O ya, this!

    We also have the combat proven B-2, and my self preservation instinct tells me id rather not be in a S-300 site when those things start arriving. But again, its not if we can destroy them, its why.

  • blight_

    SA-22’s can be truck mounted, though the other possibility is an AFV like the 2S6 (which is used for the older Tunguska). This platform is meant more for local air defense. 12 mile range to the Stinger’s 4 but it appears that it depends on the launch vehicle to guide them in, whereas Stinger (having MANPAD origins) is fire and forget.

    Not sure why there are no seekers in those missiles. It would make sense to use a vehicle’s mounted sensor systems to find long range targets, direct a missile to the target and then let the missile sort it out at close range (or turn off radars and displace)

    This suggests that they need a way to conceal wireless transmission, lest a HARM missile find its way into the target. This unit is more of a medium air defense, between short ranged stuff like Iglas, Strelas and Stingers and larger items like the Patriot, the S-300 et al.

    Frankly, I’m a little surprised that something with 12 mile range dropped an RF-4. Perhaps they kept systems off until an observer reported spotting it, causing them to activate radars to find, acquire and destroy. Or perhaps someone had already attempted to operate against the Syrian border forces, causing Air Defense systems to be on alert and trigger-happy.

    Hypothetical: Israel or Turkey are running clandestine resupply or intimidation flights just off the border. Assad wishes to put a stop to resupply efforts, and issues orders to destroy aircraft once they cross the border, especially if any adjacent nation-state decides to open military intervention with aircraft. However, one RF-4 crosses the border, and gets shot down for its trouble.

    • Few cents

      How funny, nobody considered russian personnel operating those SAM’s.
      If you dig, you will find some clues to prove this is very realistic scenario. Just my few cents into topic. Also not so many knows that 100k russia citizens are on Syrian soil.
      How many are military personell, I dont know. But its known that their military is strongly represented, not mentioning their naval base and Specnaz troops.

      • blight_

        Good point. They did send techs to operate SAM systems in Vietnam, pilots in Korea and technicians to keep the Afghan Army (when it was theirs) operational. They even had Scuds…so definitely required Soviet techs.

        That said, I wouldn’t discount Russian techs. Civilians of course, and technical representatives. (or sheepdipped, but it’s all the same).

    • Stratege

      “Not sure why there are no seekers in those missiles. It would make sense to use a vehicle’s mounted sensor systems to find long range targets, direct a missile to the target and then let the missile sort it out at close range (or turn off radars and displace)”

      The main reason is cost of those missiles.
      As for HARM, Syria has “Gazetchik-E” defense systems which are pretty effective against a anti-Radar Missiles.

  • Lance

    Most of Syria’s Air defenses are obsolete SA-2 and SA-3 SAMs and they do have a number of older SA-6s. They are buying a number of SA-10 and SA-20s new from Russia which are new and deadly SAM, but they are in smaller numbers. Overall low altitude sames are all over from older SA-8 and 9s to newer SA-13s. And many MANPADS from SA-14s threw SA-18s. Its dangerous to say it be easy never underestimate a opponent in battle. Plus I think its not worth the time supporting a Islamist rebelling trying to set up a AL Queada like state any way.

    Overall the Syrian Air Force has everything from 60s era MiG-21s to new MiG-29s but there pilots suck so that’s the main thing air to air no real challenge to F-15 pilots but the Army’s SAMs may prove to be deadly.

  • tiger

    What is this “WE” stuff? The US has looked the other way for a year. “We” are not changing that policy any time soon. NATO has called no joy & Russia & China have vetoed any UN serious action. So the stuff goes on……

    • ghostwhowalksnz

      Exactly, the real problem is Iran.

  • STemplar

    The US can easily overwhelm and annihilate Syria if we chose to. The question is political, not military. Would we without a UN mandate? Not likely since many of the NATO countries balk at the idea. Why would we change a policy that’s basically been group hugs by politicians over the last year in one city or another, we won’t. It’s an election year and it is close. The American public is tired of war and the last poll #s say no way to that option, which pretty much means it’s ‘off the table’. Some new massacre isn’t going to change that, there are already pushing upwards of 100 reported deaths a day in Syria so that’s not going to change the equation either.

  • Mike

    This is an ugly situation and it will only deteriorate. Russian civilians on the ground in Syria during a revolution means Russian Marines, Speznaz, Airborne…you name it. If the shoe were on the other foot, we would do the same (Witness: Saigon 1975). Nonetheless, this is NOT the time to become militarily embroiled any further in this part of the world. There’s too much going on elsewhere that really does require our undivided attention, such as the Pacific theater of operations.

  • LEP

    The article omits some very important details regarding the upgrade of Syria’s air defenses. There is too much focus on what Russian short-range air defense systems (SHORADS) Syria has acquired from Russia since the Israeli Defense Force-Aerospace Force (IDF-AF) bombed the alleged Syrian nuclear reactor in Sept. 2007. What is missing are the North Korean upgrades to the Syrian air defense search and fire control radars of the older Soviet SAM systems that Syria still operates (e.g., SA-2, SA-3, SA-6). The replacement of older Soviet vacuum tube technology with digital circuitry increases the lethality of these older missile batteries. The shooting down of the USAF F-117 Nighthawk by a Serbian SA-3 battery – albeit with a “locally modified” radar was not an accident during the 1999 Kosovo crisis.

    • blight_

      The other problem is marketing.

      Within each SA designation, we generally gloss over the surveillance radar and targeting radars.

      • ghostwhowalksnz

        Even the U2 was shot down when it was thought invulnerable at the time.
        You can make small improvements to your missiles and tactics each time you try while improving an aircraft takes a complete new version.
        Knowing what SAM threat you are up against is only half the problem, knowing how they use it is much harder

        • blight_

          Which illustrates complacency. The Soviets deployed extended range missiles to that battery, then ripple-fired Powers.

          Then again, there is that conspiracy theory that Powers was set up to make Eisenhower look bad on the eve of a summit with the Soviets….

          However, Rolf Andersen was killed over Cuba during the Missile Crisis, and by then we knew that it was game over for the U-2.

  • LEP

    Because the crew of the Turkish Air Force (THK) did not survive, I tend to believe the Turkish government theory that this aircraft was hit by one or more unspecified SAMs (the Turks allege heat seeking SAMs). The Syrians allege that this aircraft was so close to their coast line that it was hit by conventional 23 mm and 57 mm AAA. Since the THK RF-4E was in a “race track” pattern within Syrian air space for about 15 minutes and at low height, the Syrian theory is plausible but, then, at least one crew member could have successfully ejected and survived. It is totally unclear why the Turkish crew chose to stay in the area if they were first illuminated by Syrian air defense search radars and then by fire control radars as well. The THK RF-4E was adequately equipped with RWR-ECM equipment possibly of Israeli origin.

    • Mitch S.

      They may have been doing this for a while and got used to being painted by Syrian radars. When they realized missiles were launched it would be too late.

  • oli

    Sgorsky first you don’t have the level of sophistication in computing power to know if a missile/drone is armed or not. That’s why you need the French to build u ships that’s why that’s why you need to acquire western tech. That’s why your in the paranoid state that your in. That’s why your trying to copy the western model example Darpa its all so obvious. I could come up with so many strategies to defeat your systems that you would have to create one for ever strategy and go bankrupt you wouldn’t be able to keep up. I’m one man.

  • dino

    I had an idea that I would like to share with homeland security, Nsa, and FBI. This would be more of law then a technological breakthrough. It would be mandatory for all business that have a security system to have it tied into a cloud server. From every bodega to every toys r us and mc Donald’s. The server would then be tied to a supercomputer with face, and fingerprint recognition. THe supercomputer will not only match up faces of suspected criminals as well as fingerprints but would also monitor peeps or civilians who are about to commit a criminal act. Business owned would get a tax break for installing the camera equipment or existing equipment can be modified with little expense to send real time info to the cloud. People could say this is an invasion of there privacy but when you walk into a store or a parking lot isn’t there a camera that’s already recording. This has major advantages. It not only helps CIA NSA FBI and local police find the bad guys. You can further tie this in with people’s cell phones. I’m not going into details. Lets say hypothetically someone was trying to plant a bomb or the license plates didn’t match up it would bring up a red flag all this can be done with cloud, supercomputers and new or existing cameras in every store and traffic lights. A simple law has to be put in place with incentives for this to work.

    • platypusfriend

      Everyone gets their day to be an idiot. Today, it’s your day.

    • mac101

      What the f*** has your post got to do with Syria’s air defens

    • blight_

      Goodbye civil libs.

      The Thought Police is protecting your free will: to love big brother

    • guest

      Alright…Who let this moron in?

  • Ripberger

    If the US or NATO does intervene like in Libya, then what? Much of the fighting is taking place in the cities. Airstrikes against Syrian ground troops would cause more civilian casualties. Assad’s forces would likely concentrate near civilian centers (like orphanages, hospitals, etc.) knowing that Western forces try to avoid civilian casualties. Also, I knew some things about the Libyan rebels during their civil war, but I know absolutely nothing from media reports about the goals of the Syrian rebels except to kill Assad. I’m not even sure if they are united except in having a common enemy. Is the US/NATO aiding them going to bring peace and stability or not? Is aiding them a net positive for the US in the War on Terror?

    There are so many human rights abuses and massacres committed by foreign governments throughout the world. Is the US going to intervene in all those cases? Can we? Should we? When France was going through its revolution in the late 1700s, there was pressure from France (which helped the US in its revolution) and within the US to help the French revolutionaries. President Washington decided against intervention. He didn’t want the US getting involved in a chaotic situation, even to help a friend and ally. As selfish as it seems, I think I agree with Washington’s stance that a country has to consider its own national interests and cost-risk analysis before intervening in another country’s conflict. Colin Powell put it another way: “You break it, you bought it.”

    The general is right that the US/NATO could take out Assad’s air defense network. The real question is “why?”

    • ghostwhowalksnz

      Syrian army hitting civilians?, hey the Israelis do it all the time. Remember the Beirut suburb they flattened, using US equipment or Apaches doing the same on parts of Palestinian cities.
      No time to get worked up over ‘the other side’ being the bad guys

      • blight_

        Don’t forget Sabra and Shatilla. That’s the fun part about auxillaries, you can absolve yourself if they go off the reservation.

  • Hampton Stephens

    On expert says NATO could achieve air superiority over Syria in 48 hours: http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/12

  • Rob

    Interesting discussion gents… __The Turkish F-4 was shot down by the SA-22 (Pantsir-S1).

  • kski

    Well I’m willing to wagger that the OPPLAN for Syria is already made and given out to the key commands i.e. Navy Strike Groups of all types and the big guns of the Air Force, B1Bs, B2s, and our old but reliable pal the the B-52, as well as the needed fighter and support wings needed to fulfill a proper air campaign. I’d give our forces a good long month before they can roam the skys without having to fear for anything thats guided. But people shooting SA-7s or just filling the air with Triple AAA is another story. But thats why we train and plan for it.

    • orly?

      You speak heresy lol

    • blight_

      We may have overflight issues with neighbors who disagree about striking against Syria, just as the US had to face in ’86. Aircraft had to fly around Europe to strike at Libya instead of going over Spain (or was it France?)

  • LEP

    And after the “air campaign” that you contemplate against Syria, then what? I am not an apologist for the Assad regime and its murderous campaign against its own citizens, but nobody is going to be happy (that includes Israel, Lebanon and Jordan) if and when Al Qaeda will get a permanent foothold in a disintegrating Syria (a repeat of the 2003-2008 Iraq experience). Turkey has the potential strategic goal of a “land grab” in a dissolving Syria given the undersea natural gas deposits that exist in the area (e.g., Leviathan gas field and Field 12 in the exclusive economic zones of respectively Israel and the independent island Republic of Cyprus), but that is not necessarily consistent with our national security goals or those of Israel, Lebanon and Jordan.

    • ghostwhowalksnz

      Exactly. If the locals are doing the fighting against their government, logistical and intel help done covertly goes a very long way.
      My guess is that it will be quicker than Libya because of the more compact geography , bigger population and Alawites minority status

  • Rob

    SIGINIT and cruise missiles is all you need to make the S300/S400 obsolete. Suggesting the use of HARMs in a risky air defense environment like that is a bit premature. The US is not going to risk any aircraft until they know the threat is neutralized. And those anti-air missiles and the systems that go with them aren’t exactly easy to hide.

  • Dan

    It is far cheaper to just bribe some underpaid Russian programmer for a back door that will make the radar say whatever you want it to. “Run for your life, you fool” in Arabic comes immediately to mind.

  • Jacob

    The S-3 has been around since the 1980’s. If the USAF doesn’t have a way of dealing with it yet then something is very wrong.

    • blight_

      SA-3’s took out a F-16 in GW1, an F-16 and a F-117 in Serbia. However, I don’t have immediate access to how many missiles were actually fired to bring about those losses. However, it suggests that the missiles remain capable of doing their jobs, even if they are old.

  • Yanshuf

    The IDF has flown against the S-300 in a full scale simulation of an attack on Iran.
    Greece contributed the radar. You better bet that Israelis were crawling over the S-300 as the IAF was flying around.

    • Stratege

      Thats strictly depends on what S-300 version Greece have used in simulation. There a lot of differencess between S-300’s type (varied with versions from “P” and “V” family) and its generation.

      • blight_

        From evil wikipedia, which cites Balkan Defense Overview: http://www.balkanalysis.com/blog/2005/12/11/balka

        “Cyprus signed an agreement to buy S-300 systems in 1996. Eventually buying the S-300PMU-1 version, however due to political tension between Cyprus and Turkey and intense Turkish pressure[…], the system was instead transferred to the Greek Island of Crete. Later, Cyprus acquired Tor-M1 and Buk-M1 systems. Finally, on 19/12/07 the missiles were officially transferred to the Greek government in return for further Tor-M1 and Buk-M1 systems.”

    • LEP

      The joint Israeli Defense Force – Aerospace Force (IDF-AF) and the Hellenic Air Force (HAF) joint exercise “Glorious Spartan 2008” around the Greek island of Crete did NOT involve the HAF S-300 PMU1 radars or missile batteries.

  • blight_

    Speaking of Turks and the RF-4’s, some old news:

  • Mitch

    How good is Syria’s air defenses compared to Iraq’s air defenses during the 1st Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom?

  • Valentino

    As for modern SAM systems now Syria has only:

    – 200 SA-24 MANPADS
    – 12 SA-22 systems
    – four SA-17 batteries
    – four SA-3 batteries were modernized by Russians to more mobile Pechora-2M standard

    That’s basically all. Remaining Syrian anti-aircraft stuff is very old Soviet era crap smashed by IAF thirty years ago in the Bekaa Valley.

  • Gajver

    You forget Russians air forces. 30 SU37 are ready to go from an air carrier there. Who can give guarantees that they will not involve if us attack Syria.

  • DarylGrimes22

    Though I’m not that positive on how their defense system is like, I’m sure that they took time in straightening their air monitoring movement. This will be an important part of their defense, because a lot of their enemy attack may come from above.

    • blight_

      The Syrians should focus on SEAD capability, especially as foreigners try to funnel MANPADS and perhaps defecting military units bring some ZSUs into the Free Syrian Army.

      Pull a Serbia and start putting up decoy systems and practice frequent displacement…you never know when foreign intervention with airpower will begin.

  • Gazzoo

    This scenario assumes Syria would remain on the defense. It has tens of thousands of missiles it can lob onto USA bases and Israeli occupation forces in the Golan Heights.

  • patrick

    america are war mongers and support terrorism world wide….keep out of syria and iran …..when a bomb goes off in america …more than likely C.I.A you cry about it but give no thought to bombing innocent women and children in other countries…what you sow …so shall you reap

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