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Middle East , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

Russia's Latest Specialised Air Defences Deployed to Syria; The Effect of Air Cover on the Balance of Power in the Syrian Conflict

June 20th - 2017

Since the downing of a Russian Su-24M strike fighter by a Turkish F-16 near the Syrian-Turkish border on November 24th, 2015, Russia has taken extensive measures to protect its forces and those of its allies from air attacks from hostile NATO powers. Russian forces' primary task was and remains to target islamist insurgent forces from the numerous Al Qaeda affiliates and from Islamic State - parties which possess little to no capabilities for aerial warfare. Following Turkey's hostile action however, and with the U.S. Air Force deploying growing numbers of its forces to Syria, it became necessary to deploy anti-aircraft capabilities to deter the Turkish, American and other forces hostile to the Syrian government and operating over Syrian territory from targeting Russian or Syrian forces.

On December 1st 2015 Russia deployed its S-400 Triumf surface to air missile systems to Syria. These were at the time considered the most advanced SAM systems in the world, sought by militaries across the world from China to Turkey. According to Russian missile specialists, the S-400 is capable of targeting any and all forms of aircraft, including stealth aircraft. The S-400 has a range of 400-600km, the specific range not having been confirmed, which at minimum covers almost all of Syria as well as much of Southern Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq - as well as British military facilities in Cyprus.

To complement the S-400, a newer and more specialised SAM system was deployed to Syria shortly afterwards - the S-300VM. This was a modified version of the S-300 system developed especially to target cruise missiles. While the S-400 has anti missile capabilities, the S-300VM is superior in this role. The S-500, as of yet still under development, is expected to take over this anti missile role once developed, but as of 2017 its S-300VM remains the most advanced anti missile system in Russian service. Several shorter ranged SAM systems with specialised roles such as the BUK and Pantsir have also been deployed.

Alongside the SAM systems Russia began the deployment to equip its Su-30 and Su-35 air superiority fighters, its most advanced fighter jets in service, with air to air missiles. According to U.S. military analysts the Su-35 is second in capabilities only to the U.S. F-22 Raptor, though which aircraft is more capable remains more disputed. While the Su-34 fighter bomber had previously been deployed to Syria to target Islamist forces, the deployment of air superiority fighters with air to air missiles gave Russian forces a potent anti-aircraft capability. While Russian forces were previously highly vulnerable to any aerial or missile attacks from hostile forces, with potent capabilities deployed the balance of power over Syrian airspace has notably shifted in their favour. It was a critical factor in deterring a joint Turkish-Saudi intervention in Syria in 2016, as both of these militaries rely heavily on their air forces to operate and have threatened direct military intervention on numerous occasions.

With the downing of a Syrian Su-22 attack jet by US forces on June 18th, 2017, Russia has suspended cooperation with the U.S. Air Force and the Russian defence ministry warned that U.S. fighter jets could become targets for its anti aircraft missiles deployed to Syria. The Russian defence ministry stated: “In the areas of combat missions of the Russian air fleet in Syrian skies, any airborne objects, including aircraft and unmanned vehicles of the (US-led) international coalition, located to the west of the Euphrates River, will be tracked by Russian ground and air defence forces as air targets."

U.S. aircraft, or those of any nation hostile to the Syrian government and their Russian allies today face a significant threat and can be denied access to Syria airspace at any time. While Syrian aircraft and troop concentrations may again be targeted in future, direct aggression against Russian forces by the U.S. or its allies is highly unlikely due to the significant capabilities deployed. Under this effective air cover Syrian and Russian forces can focus their efforts on defeating Islamist insurgents. Whether they will succeed in decisively doing so, with jihadist insurgents pouring into the country and a steady flow of arms continuing to supply them, remains to be seen.

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