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A Most Informative Combat Demonstration; What the West’s Missile Strike on Syria Will Mean for North Korea's Security

April 19th - 2018

In the early morning of April 14th the United States, Britain and France launched a joint missile attack on a number of Syrian government and military facilities across the country, which the Western powers claimed was in retaliation for a Syrian chemical weapons attack against Islamist militant controlled territories in Eastern Ghouta which had caused large numbers of civilian casualties. While the attack is set to have serious and longstanding implications for Syria’s future, for Western-Russian relations and for the security of neighbouring Israel, implications for the Korean Peninsula and North Korea’s ongoing tensions with the United States are also very significant and must be taken into consideration.

Syria has long been a close North Korean military partner, with Korean specialists having played key advisory and combat roles in a number of Syria’s wars from the 1973 Yom Kippur War to the country’s ongoing internal conflict 45 years later. Both have in much the same way been termed ”˜rogue states’ and potential targets of U.S. and Western military attacks, and each can arguably be termed the other’s most reliable and longstanding defence partner. Syria in 2015 opened a Kim Il Sung Park in Damascus, likely a tribute in thanks for North Korea’s extensive assistance in the country’s ongoing war effort, and Syrian state media has reported that North Korea has also provided extensive support for the country's health sector to help alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis. North Korean technicians have played a key role both in Syria’s nuclear program in the early 2000s and in the upgrading of Syria’s Cold War era arms. Perhaps most significantly, North Korea has been largely responsible for the upgrading of Syria’s Soviet era surface to air missile defence batteries and radar systems which form the country’s air defence missile network. The performance of these weapons systems, which were relied on to intercept Western missile attacks, thus has important consequences for Pyongyang which largely relies on similar systems for its own defence.

With Syrian air defences reported to have downed a number of hostile combat aircraft, including Turkish and Israeli fighters and U.S. drones, the Western powers' attack on Syrian territory was carried out from well beyond the country’s airspace using long range air and sea launched cruise missiles - thus remaining beyond the range of the country's surface to air missiles. While the air defence systems operated by Syria are similar to the Cold War era platforms operated by Libya and Iraq, from which Western aircraft perceived little threat and showed little caution, the upgrades to these old missile and radar systems and the competence of their far better trained operators have made them a far greater threat to hostile aircraft over Syrian airspace. The United States and its European partners reportedly launched 103 missiles at a number of military and government facilities across Syria, deploying them from a number of warships, fighters and U.S. B-1B bombers, of which according to a number of reports 71 were successfully intercepted by Syria’s air defence network.

Syria’s air defences have primarily been comprised of systems such as the S-125 and S-200 dating back to the Vietnam War era, which have long been derided as obsolete by Western analysts. Without sufficient upgrades they are effectively useless against modern aircraft and missiles. When adequately modernised and in the hands of competent operators however, these Cold War era missile platforms can prove highly effective. Indeed, the continued service of both Russian and U.S. Cold War era SAM systems, such as pre Vietnam War era American MIM-23 Hawk which dates back to 1959, in a number of modern militaries including Sweden, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and the UAE among others bears testament to the continued viability of older air defence platforms in modern warfare.

With Syria’s surface to air missile batteries, largely reliant on North Korean upgrades, having proven highly effective in combat against modern Western aerial and naval attacks, the implications for North Korea’s own armed forces are significant indeed. North Korea’s Air Defence Forces operate similar systems to their Syrian counterparts, alongside a number of newer and more sophisticated systems. The KN-06 which entered mass production in early 2017 has capabilities comparable to the Russian S-300, while Russian state run media outlet Sputnik has reported that Pyongyang has also acquired Russian made S-300 missile batteries to protect its airspace. North Korean systems are not only more advanced than those of Syria, but are fielded in greater numbers and operated extensively from underground or heavily fortified installations which make effective use of the country’s mountainous terrain. These fortified SAM and radar installations are not only lethal, but they are also far more survivable than those deployed by Syria, Iraq, Vietnam, Libya, Yugoslavia or any other state the U.S. has yet to wage an air campaign against. While a strike against Syria therefore may have been intended partly as a demonstration of strength just weeks before U.S. President Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the success of Syria’s air defences in intercepting the threat could well have had quite the opposite effect and left Pyongyang feeling more secure than ever against the threat of American airstrikes.

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