2016-11-05 By Garth McLennan
The hell that is the Russian-backed siege of Aleppo in Syria has forced the administration of American President Barack Obama to contemplate options it otherwise wouldn’t.
In early October, as the latest U.S.-driven effort at a real ceasefire in the country was falling apart, The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported that the Obama administration was contemplating air strikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime, with airfields being the most likely targets.
The rumored strikes have not yet materialized, for reasons having as much to do with the now daunting tactical and logistical challenges involved as they do the far more publicized political difficulties long associated with the Syrian battlefield.
The day before Rogin’s piece was published, Russia completed deployment of the S-300 (or the SA-23, in NATO parlance) surface-to-air missile system to its naval base at Tartus, effectively reaching what now appears to be a long-term objective of the Kremlin’s, the establishment of an expeditionary Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) in Syria.
The result of deploying such a modern, advanced platform, equipped with radar-guided hit-to-kill interceptors, is the finalization of an imposing anti-access/area denial web that envelops almost all of Syria as well as significant portions of the Middle East and, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vow to shoot down any jets threatening the Assad regime, significantly narrows the list of American military options in the theater.
There clearly is no free ride in terms of Western air strikes.
The Russian IADS in Syria
It was a significant move; the S-300, with a range of 150 km, joins a formidable roster of already deployed Russian SAM assets in Syria, the most powerful being the S-400 Triumf. Sent to Hmeymim Air Base near Latakia on Thanksgiving last year, and with a purported range covering up to 400 km (250 km confirmed), the S-400 forms the upper-tier of Russia’s Syrian IADS and can reach the American-used Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and the United Kingdom’s Akrotiri Air Base at Cyprus.
Additionally, Russia also operates the S-300FM, the sea-based equivalent of the S-300, off a Slava-class guided-missile cruiser in the eastern Mediterranean, the S-200, and the K-300 Bastion P coastal defense system out of Tartus; these intimidating long-range SAMs are layered with shorter-ranged systems like Pantsir-S1 and the Buk-M2E. On top of Russia’s assets, Syria also fields its own range of air defense platforms, though there is some dispute over the veracity of what Damascus brings to the table.
Russia’s Syrian IADS is truly expeditionary in nature, with a clear emphasis on survivability. The systems belonging to it are modern, disparate, interchangeable, and almost all road-mobile, and have the capability to operate independently of one another or together in an integrated fashion.
Taken together, the Russian-Syrian IADS presents serious tactical challenges to any prospective opposition air campaign (which, it must be pointed out, can only mean the United States and its coalition allies.
Neither the Syrian rebel groups nor the Islamic State have air assets of note, and no other regional adversary exists that could threaten Russia’s position in Syria beyond the coalition).
What must be understood is that these deployments are part of a Russian overarching strategic framework that strives to raise the disincentive for American intervention.
This is the essence of an access/area denial strategy, and it greatly complicates how America can respond to Assad’s depravities.
The imposition of a no-fly zone, a proposal bandied about for years (though, notably, not by the Pentagon), is now impractical.
As Mike Benitez and Mike Pietrucha recently outlined for War on the Rocks, “the success of a no-fly zone relies on the premise of conventional deterrence backed by the resolve to swiftly and ferociously enforce it if challenged”. The proliferation of Russian air defense systems greatly threatens US assets, whose saftey must be assured before a no-fly zone can be established, and thereby the entire premise of that deterrence.
A successful no-fly zone requires not just air superiority, but supremacy; 15 years of counterrorisim and counterinsurgency styled combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the greater Middle East, where American aircraft have enjoyed virtually uncontested dominance, has distorted the significant differences in what these principles mean.
Historically, the United States has could further its strategic interest through the utilization of a no-fly zone when, as Benitez and Pietrucha point out, the tactical goal is containment and the opposition cannot realistically challenge it.
Washington lost two jets and had to station intelligence assets further afield when its no-fly zone was challenged by the Serbian Air Force, hardly as sophisticated a foe as Russia, and its associated air defense platforms during the Kosovo War in 1999.
Suppression of the Russian IADS in Syria would require a far greater commitment of force than Washington finds tactically, strategically, and politically acceptable.
Following this line of thinking, any meaningful attempt to impose a no-fly zone in Syria now would likely result in capacity issues for the USAF as well.
The result of this is a far greater freedom of action for Russian and Syrian forces, as well as real restrictions in how the United States can respond to situations like Aleppo.
The lack of air supremacy is a tactical reality with major strategic implications for Washington; no-fly zone advocates have touted the humanitarian safe areas for Syrian civilians that could be created if the skies overhead are guaranteed (Turkey has long pushed for this).
Russian air defense made this impractical, which in turn forced America’s European allies, desperate to staunch the flow of Middle Eastern refugees streaming across their borders, to strike a dubious refugee bargain with Turkey that has greatly accelerated Ankara’s slide toward unchecked authoritarianism.
Policy prescriptions uninformed of this history and strategic complexity are both misleading in what is needed to accomplish the mission and likely to fail.
This is not 2013, when President Barack Obama’s threat to strike the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons was operationally credible. Russia was a central player in what passed for a resolution to that drama, and undoubtedly looked to the danger it posed to Russian interests in Syria when Moscow intervened in 2015 and began laying the groundwork for its air defense architecture.
A Wider Strategy
Typically, anti-access/area denial scenarios are almost always associated with China, and understandably so. International headlines have for years been filled with dramatic island reclamations in the South China Sea that have served as a direct way to organize and conceptualize such principles. Russia however, has instituted these principles across several regions that constitute the former Soviet periphery.
Most recently, the border regions of Ukraine have seen their own substantial Russian military buildup over the last several months. Groundless accusations of Ukrainian special forces infiltrating Crimea on August 7 were used as a pretext to rapidly deploy forces to Ukraine’s northern, eastern, and southern frontiers, as well as to the Crimean Peninsula; The S-400 was sent to Crimea on August 12, and the Peninsula was soon equipped with a K-300 coastal defense system alongside additional air, ground, and naval units and assets. It also has a powerful IADS network centered on the heavily fortified Russian exclave at Kaliningrad that covers large portions of the Baltics and northern Poland.
If one widens the lens, a familiar pattern has emerged all along the Russian near-abroad that has turned several such regions into effective A2/AD exclusion zones.
Moscow has carved out an integrated and layered missile defense web that dominates large swaths of not only the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, but the Baltics, Eastern Europe, the Black Sea, and parts of the Caucuses (through the Joint Air Defense Network with Armenia, of which Belarus is also a member) and Central Asia as well.
One of Russia’s core reasons for intervening in Syria involved establishing a reinforced base for power projection into the Middle East. The year-long process of building a layered IADS on the Syrian coast has accomplished this by denying the American-led coalition its accustomed air supremacy and, to a certain degree at least, boxing out Washington’s influence.
The Kremlin has sought to do this through several regional exclusion zones in areas it considers to be in the core Russian interest, of which air defense is just one component.
From the direct military support it provides to separatist rebels in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, to the heavy conventional force buildup on its southwestern border with Ukraine, to entrenched troop presences in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Transdniestria in Moldova, to its perennial pot-stirring in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan to, now, its intervention in Syria, Russia has built a political-military architecture for Russian relations with its near abroad that allows for substantial power-projection. This architecture is organized around a strategy of creating effective speed bumps that deter western influence and intervention, in whatever form it may take.
Garth McLennan is a freelance strategic analyst who has written on missile defense issues for The Diplomat, 38 North, International Policy Digest, and Second Line of Defense: Delivering Capabilities to the Warfighter. He graduated from Arizona State University in 2015.
Editor’s Note: The Chief of Naval Operations recently challenged the use of the anti-access/area denial concept as one which significantly overstates the capability of adversaries to deny U.S. entrance into an area of interest.
This is undoubtedly true if the area of interest is really of SIGNIFICANT interest and one involving strategic clarity, something that certainly is not the case in Syria.
But what has happened is that Russia has shifted its resources to shape a more expeditionary military within which air defenses are seen as a chess piece which indicates their strategic interest and to raise the threshold of force necessary to displace them.
In this sense, modern air defenses are viewed by Russian leaders as an effective chess piece, but, of course, when they are destroyed in combat they become less effective. The Bekaa valley experience in the early 1980s is never far away from the Russian leader’s memory bank.
Also of note is how the Russians have supported their air campaign. They have a limited airlift fleet but have not simply relied on that fleet to support operations, but have used their various naval assets to ship supplies to Syria.
Clearly, the Inside the Beltway discussions which assert concepts such as “no fly zones” as solution sets in the Middle East, need to be put aside in favor of understanding the Russians are not only back but that there has been significant air power modernization in the region which is non-American.