Last week, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard fired 20 rockets into the Israeli controlled Golan Heights. Four of the incoming rockets were intercepted and the remaining 16 resulted in zero casualties and little damage to Israeli equipment. As ineffective as the attack was strategically, it had far-reaching symbolic implications.
In response, Israel launched a massive air offensive against Iran’s Quds, which are a branch of the Revolutionary Guard, but as they crossed into Syria, the Israeli F-16I Sufas were promptly engaged by Syrian air defenses. What followed was a broadening of Israel’s target scope to include Syrian assets as well. Israel stated,
The IDF’s wide-scale attack included Iranian intelligence sites, the Quds force logistics headquarters, an Iranian military compound in Syria, observation and military posts, et cetera. In spite of a warning from Israel, Syrian aerial defense forces fired towards the IAF aircraft as they conducted the strikes. In response, the IAF targeted several aerial interception systems (SA5, SA2, SA22, SA17) which belong to the Syrian Armed Forces. All of the IDF’s fighter jets returned to their bases safely.”
While the varied political and strategic elements of this kinetic interaction could warrant pages of analysis, one interesting aspect of the offensive to surface after the fact was footage of Israeli aircraft destroying an advanced Russian air defense system known as the Pantsir-S1, or SA-22 according to NATO.
The Pantsir-S1 is among the most advanced air defense platforms Russia has to offer — first fielded in 2007, the Pantsir-S1 didn’t see widespread deployment within the Russian military until 2010 or so. Soon thereafter, at least 40 of the 8×8 mobile SAM launchers were shipped off to Syria. The system is equipped with 12 surface-to-air missiles and a 30mm cannon, and has been touted as one of the premier short-range missile defense platforms on the planet today.
And yet it was taken out by an F-16 firing what was likely Israel’s Delilah cruise missile neither of which are notably advanced or stealthy when compared to other jets or common air-to-ground missile platforms.
Just like Russia’s decision not to intercept any incoming American, French, or British missiles as they closed with Syrian targets alleged to play a role in their manufacture and use of chemical weapons, Russia has responded to the video showing their advanced air defense system’s failure with characteristically dismissive rhetoric. In fact, Russia’s response basically boils down to saying that their air defense system failed to defend anything because they weren’t ready yet.
In the Kremlin-owned media outlet RT, Aytech Bizhev, a former deputy commander-in-chief of the Russian air force explained away the apparent failure of the Pantsir-S1 they sold to Syria with two possibilities:
“One is that it had already used up its ammunition reserve,” Bizhev explained. “The other is that it was simply turned off; it wasn’t battle ready.” He continued that there “can be no third option, as it wouldn’t have let itself to be destroyed.”
When it’s battle ready, it performs constant surveillance of enemy aircraft and has a very fast reaction time. It would’ve brought down those cruise missiles with either its cannons or own missiles.”
It’s not too common to hear such an aggressive nation defend their combat systems by saying they just “weren’t ready yet” amid an air campaign that lasted for hours and included over 70 targets; but what may be even more telling about the capabilities of Russia’s missile defense systems is their subsequent refusal to provide Syria with their advanced S-300 platform.
Days after the Israeli air campaign, Vladimir Kozhin, aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, announced, “For now, we’re not talking about any deliveries of new modern (air defense) systems,” adding that the Syrian military already has “”everything it needed.”
Russia announced that they would use their air defense capabilities to intervene if the United States and its allies attempted a missile strike within Syrian borders — then chose not to as the missiles rained down. Then, Russia claimed Syrian missile defense systems (sourced from Russia) had successfully intercepted the inbound missiles, despite commercial satellite imagery proving the statement to be false. Now, Russia claims one of their more advanced systems would have worked if it had been active and refuses to send any more technology into the fray.
One could argue that they’re attempting to mitigate the diplomatic fallout of siding with Iran in an increasingly crowded battlespace, but as these “coincidences” begin to pile up, they beg the question: are Russia air and missile defenses as good as they claim or has it all been a marketing gimmick for the export market?
Watch the IDF video of the Pantsir-S1 being destroyed below:
Image courtesy of the Israeli Defense Force on YouTube