Power Projection in a Hostile Air Defense Environment: Lessons Learned from Syria

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, UK Defence Attaché Air Vice Marshal Gavin Parker and French Defence Attaché Brigadier General Jean-Pierre Montague discuss the military response to the suspected chemical-weapons attack in Syria.

By Katie Earle, Columnist

Photo By: AP

Last weekend, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France bombed Syria with more than 100 sea and air-launched cruise missiles. The attack aimed to punish President Bashar al-Assad for a suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma—which killed more than 40 people earlier this month—as well as to deter their future use. The Pentagon has flatly rejected Syrian and Russian claims that Syria’s air defense systems intercepted a significant percentage of the allied missiles.[i] Moreover, despite Moscow’s prior threats to shoot down any US missiles used in retaliation against the Assad regime, Russia’s advanced S-300 and S-400 air defense systems deployed at its Hmeimim airbase and Tartus naval base did not engage allied missiles.[ii] Even if these systems had engaged, this weekend’s attack demonstrated clearly that the United States and its allies maintain the military capacity to conduct stand-off precision strikes in Syria. Even so, the United States should consider forward deploying its fifth-generation F-35 stealth multirole fighter–which, given its enhanced sensors and state-of-the-art stealth capability, can operate effectively in the face of advanced hostile air defense systems–to bolster its own and its allies’ ability to reach into contested airspace. Credibly ensuring the United States and its allies can neutralize the A2/AD effect of the S-300 and S-400, as well as Syria’s national air defense systems, is critical to deterring the Syrian president from operating with even greater impunity.

Syria has been a showcase for Russian weapons and capabilities since Russia’s 2015 entrance into its conflict. In this weekend’s attack, the allied force showed off some of its most advanced weaponry. A closer look at US, UK, and French assets used demonstrates that the allied attack was designed in part to expose the vulnerabilities in Russia’s advanced air defense systems:

  • According to the Pentagon, the United States fired 66 Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles, each with a range of over 1,000 miles, from three US warships and one submarine. The cruiser USS Monterey and destroyer USS Laboon fired from the Red Sea, and the destroyer USS Higgins fired from the Northern Arabian Gulf. The attack submarine USS John Warner launched its assault from the eastern Mediterranean.[iii] The destroyer USS Donald Cook was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea as a decoy, to divert attention away from the main attack.[iv]
  • The United States also fired 19 Joint Air-to-Surface Staff Missiles (JASSM-A), which can hit targets over 200 miles away, from two B-1B Lancer bombers.[v] A single EA-6B Prowler–a tactical jamming aircraft that can disrupt and deceive surface-based air defenses through electronic warfare—accompanied the bombers while an F-22 raptor stealth fighter provided overwatch for US and allied ground forces during and after the attack.[vi]
  • The United Kingdom fired eight Storm Shadow low-observable, air-launched cruise missiles from a combination of Royal Air Force (RAF) Tornado and Typhoon jets, which took off from an RAF base in Cyprus. These bunker-busting missiles, which have a range of over 150 miles, were used to penetrate the Assad regime’s underground chemical weapons stockpiles.[vii]
  • France fired nine SCALP missiles (the French version of the Storm Shadow) from Mirage and Rafale fighter jets, as well as three naval versions of the SCALP missile from the French Frigate Languedoc.[viii]

The success of this sophisticated attack demonstrates that Russia’s much-touted air defense systems in Syria cannot deter the United States and its allies from carrying out precision, long-range strikes in the war-torn country. Tomahawks are well-suited to conduct precision strikes in heavily defended airspace, as they fly quickly at very low altitudes and do not require a pilot to be anywhere near the target.[ix] In fact, the Russian S-400 system is better equipped to hit high-altitude missiles and would likely struggle to engage a cruise missile as it traveled through Syria’s mountainous terrain.[x] Furthermore, the multinational strike emphasized that Russian air defenses can be overwhelmed by a barrage of US and allied missiles. Western sources claim the S-400 can track up to 300 targets and engage a maximum of 36 at any one time. The S-300 can fire on 16 targets simultaneously.[xi] To reload both systems would take around 40 minutes, during which time Russia’s bases in Syria would be vulnerable. Accordingly, the allied attack fired more than double the Tomahawk missiles Russia’s air defense systems could attempt to intercept before needing to reload. The Tomahawk strike was also notable in that missiles flew toward their targets from multiple angles. The USS Donald Cook in the Mediterranean served to distract Russia and Syria from the majority of cruise missiles fired from the Red Sea; those missiles that did fly from the Mediterranean were fired instead from the attack submarine USS John Warner, a much more difficult target than a destroyer.

The long range of the JASSM-A and Storm Shadow/SCALP stand-off precision missiles ensured none of the French and British fighter jets or US bombers needed to enter Syrian airspace in range of Syrian air defenses to launch their attack. This also meant that all the non-stealthy allied aircraft could fire from beyond, or at the outer limits of, the range of the S-400.

It is worth noting that not a single aircraft was deployed in last year’s attack on Syria’s Shayrat air base—in which the United States responded to another suspected chemical weapons attack with 59 sea-launched Tomahawk missiles—so as not to risk putting US pilots in range of Russia’s advanced air defense systems. The use of aircraft in this weekend’s attack was likely meant to signal that the US, UK, and France are confident in their ability to conduct strikes with stand-off precision missiles, despite the increasingly contested airspace over Syria.

However, the operational success of this attack does not mean Russian air defense systems lack strategic significance. During deliberations on how to respond to the chemical weapons attack, Secretary of Defense Mattis reportedly called for restraint, advising against a more expansive strike on President Assad’s military capabilities.[xii] The deployment of Russia’s advanced S-300 and S-400 air defense systems likely played an important role in the ultimate decision to limit targets to chemical facilities. Seeing that Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015 to prevent the imminent collapse of the Assad regime, it is hard to imagine that the Russians would not have attempted to use surface-to-air missiles to engage allied cruise missiles or even aircraft if the attack’s aim had been to cripple Mr. Assad’s key command and control nodes or his war plane and helicopter fleet, for example. This means that neutralization of Russian air defense systems might have been the required first step of a broader attack, risking Russian casualties and a dangerous escalation in the seven-year conflict.

Russia cannot be permitted to prevent or degrade American presence over Syria if the Trump administration’s goals of deterring the Assad regime from using chemical weapons and eradicating remaining Islamist extremist pockets in the country are to remain credible. The United States and its allies, therefore, need to maintain the capability to conduct not only long-range strikes with stand-off missiles, but also deep bombing raids and close air support missions. In February, a fourth-generation F-16 Israeli fighter jet, which was conducting strikes in response to an Iranian drone violating Israeli airspace, was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire; this served as a stark reminder of the dangers even less capable air defense systems pose.[xiii] The airspace will become even more dangerous to the United States and its allies if Russia follows through on its threat to upgrade Syria’s national air defenses with the more advanced S-300 because President Assad, unlike Moscow, does not have to worry that engaging US aircraft or missiles could escalate into a conflict between two nuclear great powers.[xiv] The S-300 poses a less credible threat to more advanced fifth generation stealth fighters and bombers, but currently the F-22 is the only allied airframe truly capable of operating within range of the more advanced hostile air defense systems in Syria. It is critical, therefore, that the United States ensures its own and its allies’ ability to field and operate sufficient numbers of the newest, stealthiest, and most lethal aircraft: The F-35 stealth multirole fighter. The F-35 can trace and attack sophisticated surface-to-air threats with pinpoint accuracy, creating gaps in enemy air defenses through which non-stealthy aircraft can advance.[xv] An increased US Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit presence in the Mediterranean that deploys with F-35Bs, for example, could enhance the combat-credibility of our posture in the region by providing assured access and freedom of maneuver. Put another way, such a forward presence would help ensure the United States could strike critical targets from both beyond and within the contested area, casting additional doubt on the potency of Assad’s air defense systems as well as the A2/AD effect of Russia’s deployed advanced missile defense systems.[xvi]








[i] “Syrian air defenses repel missile strikes targeting two airbases – media,” RT, April 16, 2018, https://www.rt.com/news/424333-syria-missiles-defense-homs/.

[ii] United States European Command, “U.S. European Command Supports Joint Strikes on Syria Chemical Weapons Sites,” EUCOM News Release, April 15, 2018, https://www.defense.gov/portals/1/features/2018/0418_syria/img/EUCOM-Release-Syria-Strikes-18-09.pdf.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Alex Lockie, “The US Navy appears to have fooled Russia and Syria with a warship ruse before the strike,” Business Insider, April 16, 2018, http://www.businessinsider.com/us-navy-fooled-russia-and-syria-with-a-warship-ruse-before-the-strike-2018-4.

[v] Aaron Mehta and Tara Copp, “Coalition launched 105 weapons against Syria, with none intercepted, DoD says,” Military Times, April 15, 2018, https://www.militarytimes.com/pentagon/2018/04/14/us-launched-105-weapons-against-syria-with-none-intercepted-dod-says/.

“AGM-158 JASSM: Lockheed’s Family of Stealthy Cruise Missiles,” Defense Industry Daily, April 17, 2018, https://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/agm-158-jassm-lockheeds-family-of-stealthy-cruise-missiles-014343/.

[vi] Oriana Pawlyk, “DoD Officials Erred About Weapons, Fighters Used in Syria Strike Mission,” Military.com, https://www.military.com/defensetech/2018/04/19/dod-officials-erred-about-weapons-fighters-used-syria-strike-mission.html.

[vii] “Storm Shadow / SCALP Long-Range, Air-Launched, Stand-Off Attack Missile,” Airforce Technology, https://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/storm-shadow-missile/.

[viii] United States European Command, “U.S. European Command Supports Joint Strikes.”

[ix] “Raytheon Enhances Tomahawk Cruise Missile to Hit Moving Targets at Sea,” Raytheon Media Room, September 12, 2017, http://raytheon.mediaroom.com/2017-09-12-Raytheon-enhances-Tomahawk-cruise-missile-to-hit-moving-targets-at-sea.

[x] Susan Crabtree, “Experts: Assad’s Missile Defense No ‘Ring of Steel’,” The Washington Free Beacon, April 11, 2018, http://freebeacon.com/national-security/experts-assads-missile-defense-no-ring-steel/.

[xi] Alex Lockie, “Here’s what would happen if US tried to strike Russian-backed targets in Syria,” Business Insider, October 12, 2016, http://www.businessinsider.com/what-would-happen-us-strike-russia-targets-syria-2016-10?r=UK&IR=T.

[xii] Gordon Lubold and Dion Nissenbaum, “Trump Bowed to Pentagon Restraint on Syria Strikes,” The Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-bowed-to-pentagon-restraint-on-syria-strikes-1523837509.

[xiii] Isabel Kershner, Anne Barnard and Eric Schmitt, “Israel Strikes Iran in Syria and Loses a Jet,” New York Times, February 10, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/10/world/middleeast/israel-iran-syria.html.

[xiv] Anna Ahronheim, “Russian Supply of S-300 Sytem to Syria Major Threat to IAF,” The Jerusalem Post, April 15, 2018, http://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Russian-supply-of-S-300-systems-to-Syria-major-threat-to-IAF-549837.

[xv] Dan Goure, “Lockheed Martin’s F-35: How the Joint Strike Fighter is Becoming a Key Missile Defense Sensor,” The National Interest, January 29, 2018, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/lockheed-martins-f-35-how-the-joint-strike-fighter-becoming-24259.

[xvi] Thomas Donnelly et al., To rebuild America’s military, American Enterprise Institute, October 7, 2015, http://www.aei.org/publication/to-rebuild-americas-military/.

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