The lead author of the report by RAND corporation, Karl Mueller, explained in an interview with Military.com that Syrian IADS are something the U.S. military would clearly want to take seriously as a threat - but they are not as formidable as some have suggested.
“Both Iraq and Syria are cases where you have air defenses that are based on Soviet hardware – with a smaller number of newer systems – they are significantly less modern than what the Russians or Chinese have,” Mueller explained. “This is exactly the type of air-defense system that the Air Force and Navy have been preparing to fight against for decades.”
The study, titled “Airpower Options for Syria: Assessing Objectives and Missions for Aerial Intervention,” details consequences for five courses of action in Syria: establishing a “no-fly-zone,” attacking and neutralizing Syria’s (IADS), creating “safe-zones” for Syrian civilians, enabling opposition forces to defeat the Assad regime, and attacking Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
Syria’s Cold War-era, Russian-built air-defense systems were a large focus of the research – as disabling or destroying them would figure prominently in most of the options entertained by the study.
“We considered how air defenses had fared in previous conflicts such as Kosovo and Libya – and we did a lot of qualitative work about issues impacting the order of battle such as how proficient the people operating the air defenses are – which makes a huge difference,” Mueller said.
Rand broke Syria's air defenses into large fixed systems and smaller mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems such as the SA-6 and its successors, the SA-11 and SA-17. Rand's research team estimates the U.S. could easily knock out Syria's larger systems early in any intervention.
Regarding mobile SAMs, Mueller said the Syrians could use the same tactics the Serbians used during the 1999 NATO action in Kosovo. The Serbians at times kept their mobile SAMs shut off and moved around in order to stay hidden, he explained.
However, Mueller pointed out the risks of Russia transferring modern, long-range S-300 (SA-10) missile systems to Syria.
“These are highly capable SAM systems that could destroy aircraft deep within Turkish or Israeli airspace,” the study writes.
“Russia appears to be using the threat of delivery as a means of deterring a Western military intervention in Syria. In the past, it has made similar threats to transfer S-300s to Iran without following through. Thus far, Moscow has calibrated its support to Damascus based on the levels of assistance Western countries are providing the opposition. Should the pro-opposition camp ratchet up its support for the FSA (Free Syria Army), it could find itself in a tit-for-tat dynamic in which Russia responds by escalating the levels of assistance it provides the Assad regime,” the study writes.
A campaign against Syrian air defenses would begin with an intense air operation attacking SAAF air bases and targets associated with the Syrian IADS, the study states.
“This would involve several hundred strike and defense suppression aircraft and hundreds of sea- and air-launched cruise missiles supported by manned and unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft; long range bombers; substantial CSAR forces; and a large contingent of intelligence analysts, targeters, and other personnel involved in campaign planning and management at the air operations center and other locations,” the report says.
Mueller said the authors carefully considered ISR technologies as a key part of the equation when it comes to attacking the Syrian air defenses.
“It would be a carefully choreographed combination of systems. For the first wave, you would rely upon Tomahawks and other sorts of stand-off weapons such as air launched cruise missiles. Also stealthy aircraft are attractive because they can get closer to enemy air defenses without being detected or effectively shot at,” Mueller said.
When it comes to destroying Assad’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, the report’s authors say while weapons could be effective from the air, a ground operation would be needed to ensure all of the hidden stockpiles were identified and destroyed.
“When you are dealing with a large chemical weapons arsenal, if you really wanted to eliminate it in a through way, you would have to do it on the ground because there are so many facilities and stuff can be hidden on the ground,” Mueller said.