The very statement Russia makes by sending the S-300 surface-to-air defense system to Syria and the implications for the countries involved is greater magnitude than the system’s capabilities, with which the Israel Air Force knows how to deal.
The S-300 system, and the more advanced S-400, have been deployed in Syria since 2016. So far, the Russian army has used them to protect its aircraft and Russian assets in Syria. But now, Russia’s decision to supply the system means it will be handed over to the Assad regime.
The S-300 surface-to-air missile system’s earliest version was deployed as far back as 1979 by the Russian army. By 2000, the system had undergone several upgrades. The advanced version is still considered one of the most sophisticated in the world. It has state-of-the-art radar that can identify and track dozens of targets simultaneously at particularly long ranges, which could threaten Israeli aircraft deep inside of Israel.
The system can be operational fairly quickly – in between three to six months. An S-300 battery includes engagement radar, long-range detection radar, low-altitude detection radar, a command center and a wheeled launch vehicle. Response time of the system from detection to launch is only a few minutes, which makes it much faster than systems in Syria at present, and it can also better intercept cruise missiles as well as combat aircraft.
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Russia has sold the system to various countries over the years, including Armenia, China, India, Ukraine, Belarus, Slovakia, Greece, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Turkey, Algeria and Libya. In 2015 it was also supplied to Iran. It was only due to diplomatic pressure that the system has not yet been offered to Syria.
Syria, which already has one of the most dense air defense systems in the world relative to its size, expressed an interest in the S-300 as far back as the 1980s after the first Lebanon war, but it was forced to make do with the older S-200 (SA5) system, which is still trying to threaten Israeli planes during their sorties in Syria.
Israeli defense officials have in the past discussed the possible introduction of the S-300 system to Syria. It is undoubtedly a worrisome upgrade in Syria’s air defenses, but its ability to prevent the IAF from operating if it wants to is limited, and the army can deal with the system if need be.
Moreover, according to some opinions, the introduction of this system to Syria today is not what Assad needs. The Syrian army will need to train Syrian technicians and operators to a higher level than they are today, which will require major funding and manpower. Israel has also warned in the past that Assad’s army could obtain the system, and that if the missiles are directed against Israel or IAF aircraft, it will destroy the system, and the economic and military damage would be borne by Syria, not Russia – damage that Assad will have trouble dealing with these days.
The system has more evolved versions, the S-400, which came into use in 2000, and the S-500, which intercepts ballistic missiles. Development of the S-500 is expected to be completed after 2020.