Hard rain: In Syria, with the SA-23 missile system, Russia is realizing a 300-year-old dream

Hard rain: In Syria, with the SA-23 missile system, Russia is realizing a 300-year-old dream
Gnarly Russian brass visit troops launching military exercise near St. Petersburg, Mar 2015. (Image: AP/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)

The brief period of perfunctory “cooperation” between the U.S. and Russia in Syria is well and truly over, and nothing signals that quite as clearly as the deployment of the SA-23 air defense missile system.

We already knew this, to a large extent.  Russia and her coalition launched a concerted campaign to retake western Syria in mid-September, and they’re fighting it now, without regard for life or property.  They’re fighting to win: to gain control of the territory and push the rebels out of it, no matter what it takes.

The Obama administration warned peevishly last week that the Russians are finding themselves in a quagmire.  But that’s only if the Russian coalition fails to simply obliterate everything it has to, to reclaim the territory held by the rebels.

The coalition will not fail to do that.  The reason is that no one is going to stop it.  Obama and the media seem to be slow learners in this regard, still fondly imagining that some unenforced, artificial compunction about what happens to the Syrians will act as a brake on the Russian coalition’s intentions.  Can the Western left really be that thick?

Apparently so.  Obama’s lackadaisical irrelevance has allowed the Russians to push this far.  Now Putin is pushing farther, with the deployment to Syria of the SA-23 (the NATO designation) – referred to also as the Antey-2500 and the S-300VM.  (The most modern version, the S-300V4, is reportedly what has been deployed to Syria.)

It’s a version of the S-300 air defense system made by Antey for the Russian army.  The S-300 version most people are familiar with is the S-300PMU, which is the air defense forces version (coming in multiple variants).  The “V” in the SA-23’s Russian designations means the Antey-2500 S-300 is used by the Russian army.  It’s the land forces version, and besides being highly capable – newer and more capable than any other S-300 in service – its purpose is to defend battle space for a ground war over large areas.

To state the title proposition up front, this is what Putin has just done.  He has changed his war in Syria from one of limited expeditionary goals to one of controlling and defending territory against the most modern military forces on the planet.

The S-400 was already there

Alert readers will remember that the S-400 Triumf (SA-21) air defense system has been in Syria for a while now.  It too is a highly capable system, and I have written before about how deploying it or the S-300PMU in Syria, and potentially in Iraq, would enable Russia to exercise veto control over the entire air space from Iraq to the Eastern Mediterranean.  (Even just putting the air search radars associated with one of these systems in Iraq would give Russia an important controlling lever on the air space – one that competed quite effectively with U.S. airborne command and control platforms.)

[Note on the maps: I am reusing maps from previous posts to illustrate the points in this one.  The map numbering and captions won’t line up cleanly, but I think you’ll be able to discern why the maps are relevant.  I’ve been tracking Putin’s build-up, and its visible intentions, since before last summer, so these maps are ready to hand.  The intercept range — not the radar effectiveness, but the actual threat envelope — of the S-300V4 is similar to the S-400’s.]

Map 3. Potential scope of air surveillance coverage Russia can achieve in as little as 1-3 months, depending on what Iraq is willing to have deployed. (The additional coverage west of Baghdad would depend on seizing territory in the Euphrates Corridor back from ISIS.) It is especially important that the presence of Russian forces for central battle management will change the whole character of the battle space for any aircraft flying through it. Note on range rings for Russian-deployed systems: these are rough depictions of performance of S-300PMU1/2 associated radars against F-15s (large radar cross-section) up to 25-30K feet. At lower F-15 altitudes the range rings will gradually contract. The Iranian rings are for S-200 surveillance radar. (Google map; author annotation)
Map 3. Potential scope of air surveillance coverage Russia can achieve in as little as 1-3 months, depending on what Iraq is willing to have deployed. (The additional coverage west of Baghdad would depend on seizing territory in the Euphrates Corridor back from ISIS.) It is especially important that the presence of Russian forces for central battle management will change the whole character of the battle space for any aircraft flying through it. Note on range rings for Russian-deployed systems: these are rough depictions of performance of S-300PMU1/2 associated radars against F-15s (large radar cross-section) up to 25-30K feet. At lower F-15 altitudes the range rings will gradually contract. The Iranian rings are for S-200 surveillance radar. (Google map; author annotation)

But it’s not just a fun science experiment for Russia to add the SA-23, or S-300V4.  It’s a sign that Russia – as I have explained many times now – cannot be in a quagmire in Syria: because Russia has no desire to get out of Syria.  Russia is preparing to conquer and hold Syrian territory to all intents and purposes as if it’s Russian.

The S-400 in Syria meant Russia wanted to broaden area access and gain advantage – openness to expeditionary action – in her near abroad.  The S-300V4 in Syria means Russia intends to treat Syria like an extension of Russia: to be defended like Russia, and to be used for projecting power as if it were Russia.

Map 2. Strategic view of how Russia enlarges theater and expands her options by opening air space into Syria from the east. (Google map; author annotation)
Map 2. Strategic view of how Russia enlarges theater and expands her options by opening air space into Syria from the east. (Google map; author annotation)
An increasingly complex, an increasingly Russian-directed, military picture in Syria. (Google map; author annotation)
An increasingly complex, an increasingly Russian-directed, military picture in Syria. (Google map; author annotation)

This move is about a fundamental shift in Russia’s geostrategic posture

Be clear on this.  Nothing about the fight against the rebels in Syria requires an S-300V4-enabled, full-scale land war according to Russian doctrine.  Nothing about it requires the level of air defense represented by the S-400, for that matter.  The rebels don’t have anything at all that requires bringing either system to the fight.

No matter how recalcitrant the rebels are, the S-400 and the S-300V4 are not the systems to address the military problem the rebels (and ISIS) present.  The air defense systems aren’t there for the rebels.  They’re there because Russia is truly developing Syria as a forward Russian position – much as China is developing the reefs in the South China Sea as extensions of Chinese territory.

Consider this description of the SA-23’s purpose with the Russian land forces:

The SA-23’s extended range engagement capability is aimed at degrading an opponent’s ability to exercise effective command and control over its air assets during mass strikes against ground troops on the battlefield and rear areas, as well as efforts to conduct ISR and jamming from standoff ranges.

The rebels have no capability to do any of the things the SA-23 is aimed at degrading.  They can’t force Russia to fight with massed troops, and they can’t conduct mass strikes against ground troops.  They have no command and control for which the air defense system would have any relevance.

Who does?  Let’s see:

The Almaz-Antey S-300V4…is capable of countering intermediate and short range ballistic missiles, including the Lockheed-Martin MGM-140/-164/-168 Army Tactical Missile System [i.e., U.S. Army’s ATACMS], in addition to manned and unmanned aircraft at all altitudes.

The system uses two types of missile.  The smaller 9M83M…can reach targets at up to 54nm (100km) range.  A much larger missile, dubbed ‘40N6’…has a maximum speed equating to Mach 7.4 [sic] and its range extends to 216nm (400km) when fired against high-altitude targets such as the [U.S. Air Force’s] E-3, E-8 JSTARS, U-2, and RQ-4 Global Hawk. …

Each S-300V4 system can track up to 200 targets and engage 24 simultaneously, at altitudes between 82,000ft and 98,400ft (25,000m and 30,000m)…

The system is being put there to mark and hold Russian territory against the U.S., our most advanced allies, and (potentially, someday) China.

And what that means, again, is that Putin’s Russia has no intention of ever leaving – no matter what happens after the November election in the United States.  Putin is taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by Obama’s passivity to realize a dream of Russian strongmen before him that is more than 300 years old: to hold territory with which to flank Europe in the Eastern Mediterranean.  That territory also gives him a slice right through the Middle East, and a potentially dominating position over the Suez Canal and Red Sea chokepoints.  Russia can do far more from Syria than merely flank Turkey and Southeastern Europe.

Russia's vulnerable access to the Mediterranean and the waters beyond. (Google map; author annotation)
Russia’s vulnerable access to the Mediterranean and the waters beyond. (Google map; author annotation)

Between them, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman instituted Western alliance policies that prevented Russia from accomplishing that, from World War I to today. (If it had been up to FDR, Stalin would have achieved the goal by about 1948.)  An oddly matched pair on either side of the Atlantic forestalled this Russian gambit for a century.

Putin is now getting it done before our eyes.  And he’s making sure that it would take a very ugly war, modern force on modern force, to undo it – once someone is sufficiently provoked to try.

Don’t assume we can’t be so provoked, in the not too distant future.  The nature of moves like the one Putin is making is that they set other things in motion.  Putin has already, just in the last few months, made equally epic moves elsewhere on the same perimeter, by operating theater-strike bombers from Iran, and deploying the S-400 to the Crimean Peninsula, where it dominates and cuts off the Black Sea.

The new game of leapfrog: flanking, hopping, zooming chokepoints. (Google map; author annotation)
The new game of leapfrog: flanking, hopping, zooming chokepoints. (Google map; author annotation)

Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia; Poland, the “Visegrad Group”; Germany, France, the UK; China, India – all will have reasons to be discontented with a Great Crossroads dominated by Russia, and roamed free by Iran.  The balance of power in major waterways – the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea – will shift.  The disturbance will ripple out to America’s nearest interests sooner than you may imagine.  This is not an end in sight, but a beginning, of something almost everyone will have to react to.

That’s enough for now, but just understand: this is real.  Victor Davis Hanson wrote a few days ago that a hard rain is going to fall.  It’s already started.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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