Russia May Gift S-300 Anti-Air Missiles to Syria to Beef Up Defenses

FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 file photo, Russian air defense system missile system Antey 2500, or S-300 VM, is on display at the opening of the MAKS Air Show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 file photo, Russian air defense system missile system Antey 2500, or S-300 VM, is on display at the opening of the MAKS Air Show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his defense ministry to plan for the possible transfer of S-300 anti-air missiles to Syria following the U.S. and allied cruise missile strikes that easily penetrated Syria's Soviet-era defenses.

Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported Wednesday that the Russian defense ministry would soon deliver modern air defense systems to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but did not specify that long-range S-300s would be part of the package.

On Tuesday, Russia's Kommersant newspaper, citing sources, said that S-300s would be given -- not sold -- to Syria and that issues surrounding the transfer "have practically been resolved."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was traveling in China, said later that a final decision on the S-300s had yet to be reached, but the intent to shore up Syria's porous air defenses was clear.

"What decisions will be taken by the leadership of Russia together with the representatives of Syria have yet to be determined," Lavrov said, but "there is no secret here."

Last week, Lavrov told the BBC that Russia is no longer bound by its pledge not to supply S-300s to Syria after the April 13 strikes by the U.S., Britain and France against three suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria.

"A few years ago at the request of our partners, we decided not to supply S-300s to Syria," he said. "Now that this outrageous act of aggression was undertaken by the U.S., France and U.K., we might think how to make sure that the Syrian state is protected."

Immediately following the reports that Syria would be getting S-300s, Israel threatened to destroy the S- systems if Israeli warplanes are targeted.

"One thing should be clear: If someone fires on our planes, we will destroy them," Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview with the Israeli website Ynet.

"What's important to us is that the weapons defense systems that the Russians transfer to Syria are not used against us. If they are used against us, we will act against them," Lieberman said.

The fully automated and mobile S-300 system of missiles and radars, called the SA-10 Grumble by NATO, was first deployed in 1979 around Russian military bases and industrial centers to guard against enemy strike aircraft and cruise missiles.

Russia's more advanced S-400 system, dubbed the SA-21 Growler by NATO and called an "F-35 killer" by Moscow, was first deployed in 2004.

Russia has arrayed S-300 and S-400 systems around its main bases in Syria near northeastern Latakia and has claimed that the U.S., France and Britain deliberately avoided the area for fear of interceptions during the April 13 missile strikes.

Russia has also stuck to its claim that Syria's aging air defenses took down 71 of the 105 cruise missiles fired by the U.S. and its allies.

At an April 14 Pentagon briefing, Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the Joint Staff director, said that all 105 missiles hit their targets.

"We assess that over 40 surface-to-air missiles were employed by the Syrian regime," McKenzie said. "Most of these launches occurred after the last impact of our strike was over."

Despite U.S. sanctions, Putin and Russian arms firms have increasingly pushed worldwide sales of the S-300 and S-400 systems.

Last month, NATO-ally Turkey firmed up a $3 billion deal for the purchase of S-400 systems although the maker of the S-400, the Almaz-Antey firm, is on the sanctions list of the U.S. State and Treasury Departments.

India has also been negotiating with Russia on a proposed $5 billion sale of the S-400 systems despite the U.S. sanctions.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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