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Syria’s Air Defenses: Formidable or Not?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

It seems doubtful that Pentagon planners truly believe that Syria’s air defenses are a significant hurdle to intervening in that country’s civil war.

Ever since the debate in the United States began over whether to intervene in some fashion in Syria’s civil war, senior military and Pentagon officials have cautioned that Syria’s air defenses would pose a formidable hurdle to such an intervention. Such caution was particularly common last spring, when the issue of whether to create a “no-fly zone” over Syria or to establish a “safe haven” within the country was being debated. Then-CENTCOM Commander General James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, and then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta all suggested that conducting a military operation in or over Syria would be far more difficult than the air campaign conducted against Libya in the spring and summer of 2011. Although General Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee in testimony that “we can do anything,” he is also on record as saying that Syria’s air defenses are “five times more sophisticated” than those faced in Libya — suggesting American airstrikes or air cover would involve far more risk and would be far more complicated. Is this an accurate picture?

Substantial but Vulnerable

In general, it is true that Syria’s air defense network is far more substantial than Libya’s was. Although it is difficult to pin down precise numbers on Syria’s air defense resources from unclassified materials, there is general agreement that Syria has one of the most robust surface-to-air-missile [SAM] networks in the world. The air defense command is larger than the Syrian air force, with a strength of some 40,000 active and 20,000 reserve forces, more than two dozen air defense brigades, anywhere from 130 to150 SAM batteries, several thousand air defense guns, and thousands of shoulder-fired, man-portable SA-7s. Most of the SAM sites are equipped with static-site SA-2, SA-3, and SA-5 launchers, giving Syria low-to-medium and medium-to-high altitude air coverage. In addition, Syria has a significant number of mobile SA-6 launchers. The multiple SAM sites, along with numerous early warning radars, provide redundancy and overlapping coverage of key strategic and population centers in Syria.

However, the fact that Syria relies overwhelmingly on aging and well-known Soviet-era SAM systems — many of whose original designs date from the 1950s and 1960s, and against which the U.S. and Israeli air forces have been operating or planning to operate for years — means that Syria’s air defense network is less impressive than its sheer numbers and density might otherwise suggest. In addition, at least in the case of the SA-7s, -2s, and -3s, various versions of these systems have been captured, analyzed, and exploited in the past by the United States, Israel, and other Western states.

Moreover, as can be seen by the accompanying maps, Syria’s air defense network is designed to cover traditional ingress routes into Syria — from the Mediterranean in the west and from Israel in the south. There is little to no coverage from other directions, either along the border with Turkey or Iraq. And while the large concentrations of SAM systems around the cities of Halab, Homs, and Damascus — running essentially north to south along Syria’s western border — provide dense coverage of the areas surrounding those population centers, there is an apparent gap between Damascus and Homs, a virtual gap between Halab and the port city of Latakia, and an increasing number of gaps as opposition forces have moved into new areas and destroyed existing air defense batteries and equipment. Further, the extended coverage provided by the longer-range SA-5 batteries is undermined by the fact that the system was designed to handle high-altitude threats and is vulnerable to low-altitude systems, such as land-attack cruise missiles.

In addition, the majority of Syrian SAM sites are limited to engaging one target per site or, in the case of the SA-5 sites where more than one engagement radar might be deployed, one target per radar, leaving the network vulnerable to being overwhelmed by a saturation attack. Also, the bulk of Syria’s air defense batteries are fixed, making them easier to avoid, apply electronic countermeasures against, or use anti-radiation or GPS-assisted air-to-surface missiles to destroy. And finally, Syrian air defenses are still largely centralized and dependent on dedicated but vulnerable HF and VHF communication networks.

Israel and Syrian Air Defenses

The Obama administration’s concerns about Syrian air defenses appear odd given Israel’s continual successes against those defenses. Thirty years ago, in the Lebanon War, Israel swept the skies of Syrian jets and completely suppressed the effectiveness of Syrian air defenses with electronic countermeasures — all without the loss of a single Israeli fighter jet. The 2007 Israeli bombing of the nuclear facility under construction near Dayr az-Zawr was also accomplished without the loss of a single aircraft.

Unclassified accounts of the 2007 strike provide a number of operational reasons for the Israelis’ success. Most prosaic, the suspect site was in the eastern part of the country, which, as noted above, has nowhere near the same level of air defense capabilities as does western Syria. Various accounts have the Israelis using remote air-to-ground electronic attacks on local radars and “hacking” into the Syrian network in order to spoof its radars. According to Aviation Week, U.S. intelligence analysts also reported that the whole of the Syrian air defense system went off the air during the time period of the strike.

Syria’s air defense network is less impressive than its sheer numbers and density might otherwise suggest.

Since that raid in 2007, however, reports have the Russians selling new air defense systems to Syria and making some efforts to upgrade existing early warning radars. In particular, Syria has, if press reports are accurate, acquired three batteries of SA-17s, eight upgraded SA-6s, and three dozen SA-22 systems, both mobile and advanced point air defense systems. To be effective, however, these systems require crews that are proficient in mobile operations and willing to keep their radars off until enemy planes are well within range; if that is not done, stand-off weapons, such as anti-radiation missiles that hone in on active radars, are especially deadly against such systems.

Undoubtedly, these new systems and upgrades increase the threat level posed by Syria’s air defense network, but not to the degree that one might think. The fact is that, both this past week and earlier in January, Israel’s air force was able to conduct strike operations well within Syria without the loss of a single aircraft. The U.S. Air Force would surely be no less capable.


The typical operation to suppress Syria’s air defense network would, at a minimum, include electronic warfare assets, conventional defense suppression with standoff weapons to attack command-and-control nodes and fixed radar sites, and the use of stealthy aircraft to carry out strikes on smaller air defense elements and mobile targets. Presumably, the United States has electronic and cyber warfare capabilities that are at least as good as those of the Israel Defense Forces. The key issues here would be the level of existing stocks of U.S. stand-off munitions, the deployment of a sufficient number of F-22s to the region to conduct a campaign of this sort, and possibly the need to deploy a carrier task force to the eastern Mediterranean to help sustain a no-fly zone over Syria.

Bottom line: General Dempsey is right that controlling the skies over Syria presents a more formidable task than Libya. However, Libya is a low bar with which to compare Syria. While one should never be cavalier about the deployment of American forces, it seems doubtful that Pentagon planners truly believe that Syria’s air defenses are a formidable hurdle to intervening in Syria’s civil war. More likely, the argument reflects the U.S. military’s reading of what the White House would like it to say and, in a time of declining budgets and potential conflict in the Persian Gulf, a desire to avoid another resource-draining operation.

Gary Schmitt is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-directs AEI’s Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

FURTHER READING: Schmitt also writes “Cameron the Neo-Con?,” “Playing with Fire?” and “Taiwan: China, Inc.’s Newest Subsidiary?” Michael Barone notes “Obama's Blink on Syria Could Bring Peril to Allies,” Danielle Pletka comments “Israeli Airstrikes Prove Stopping Assad Is a Matter of Will, Not Ability,” and Lazar Berman asks “Might Israel Know What It’s Doing?


Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group


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