Robert Hewson, editor of IHS Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons, said it was plausible that some parts of the S-300s had already arrived in Syria, as the president, Bashar al-Assad, claimed on Thursday. “The whole thing is a collection of vehicles. You have a launcher, radar and a command and control vehicle. You need all of that working together.” He described the system as formidable and respected by western military planners: “If your plan is to waltz into Syrian airspace and start bombing things this is a big wrinkle.”
Hewson said he expected the Russians to supply military advisers who would work closely with their Syrian counterparts and train them how to use the system: “There is a big danger that if you blow the SA-300 up you will kill a lot of Russians. I don’t think the Israelis want to do that. This is Russia operating at a big international level and saying: ‘Assad is still our guy and we stand beside him.’”
The S-300s are similar to the US Patriot surface-to-air missile system. Last December Nato authorised the deployment of Patriots in Turkey to protect the country from missiles fired by Syrian government forces. Unlike the Patriots, however, the S-300s have not been tested in combat situations. Nonetheless, Hewson said they were a serious military threat. “If you are someone who wants to roam around Syrian airspace with impunity this makes it harder for you,” he said.
The Soviet Union developed a forerunner of the current system, the S-300P, back in the 1960s. The latest export version – the S-300PMU-1 and 2 – was devised in the late 1990s. The missiles are highly mobile and launched from all-terrain trucks. Each launcher vehicle carries four missile containers, with two missiles for each target; typically six vehicles operate together. The missiles are fired vertically and according to experts are “very fast”, fly very high and can be launched in just five minutes. Syria will almost certainly attempt to integrate the new S-300s into its existing air defence systems, they add.
The timeline for the anticipated Syrian deployment of the S-300 remains hazy. Hewson said it could be “up and running within a minimum of a few weeks” once all components were in, and provided qualified Syrian personnel were available.
But a source in Russia’s defence ministry told Reuters he knew of no Syrians who had already been trained by Moscow, and put the completion of the S-300 delivery at “six to 12 months from now”.
Assuming Assad survives in power, such a delay could allow Israel ample opportunity to destroy the S-300s – an option Israel’s defence minister said earlier this week was very real.
Hewson said the truck-towed S-300 would be physically hard to conceal. Its “distinctive radar signal” makes it relatively easy to identify and target, he added.