Can Russia Really Shoot Down US Missiles And Warplanes?

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The Allies called the Kremlin’s bluff over sabre rattling that warplanes and missiles carrying out the recent strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons facilities would be shot down because they knew Russia lacked the capability to fight back.

The Allies claim that no missiles or fighter planes were launched in response to the blitz of cruise missile and bomber blasts that rocked several targets.

That’s because the Russians lack the technology and number of missile defence systems to knock out the Allied threat in the skies, argues defence analyst Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

The questions

Bronk explored two questions:

  • Does Russia have the military might in Syria to respond to the Allied air strikes?
  • Do Russian missile batteries have the capability to hit warships in the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea and Arabian Gulf?

His opinion on both counts is no – unless they have a lucky hit.

The main Russian missile defence is the S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM), which are land-based air defence systems with radar that is limited to the range of the horizon. That’s generally 30 to 40 kilometres away.

Basically, if the radar cannot track a target within the distance of the horizon, then it can’t hit it.

The coastal Bastion defence system is more of a threat. They have a range of between 120 and 350 kilometres, depending on attack mode. The closer they skim the sea the shorter the range. Bronk reckons to put a warship out of action, they would have to hit at least two or three times – and that rises to eight strikes to disable an aircraft carrier.

“Syrian government forces have no more than four to six launchers with two missiles for each launcher, so they lack the capacity to seriously attack US warships,” says Bronk.

Air defence would struggle

SAM missiles are effective against aircraft or cruise missiles flying at more than 30,000 feet.

“Cruise missiles have a flight altitude of around 30 –100 metres and low-flying aircraft are limited to their radar horizon, which for such low-flying targets is approximately 30- 40 kilometres. That means that Russian systems deployed in Syria cannot protect targets further than 40 kilometres or so from their positions at Khmeimim and Masyaf, as well as Tartus naval base,” said Bronk.

It is possible then to say that, as a rule, every ten S-400s launched would intercept between four and six incoming cruise missiles within the effective engagement zone of approximately 30-­40 kilometres, he explains.

“In case of any massive cruise missile attack, the Syria-based Russian S-400s would struggle, if tasked to break down the attack, to deal with missiles coming from the Mediterranean and the Gulf centred on the combat radar’s location,” said Bronk.

“Russia has many other capabilities that can threaten the US, and plenty of capabilities that could be prepositioned on Syria’s soil. All that can be said at this stage is that the existing Russian air defence systems there cannot protect the country against sustained Western military actions.”

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