When in the early morning hours of April 7 the US destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross fired 59 Tomahawk missiles against Syrian air base Shayrat, the big question wasn’t if the US had violated international law (which they had). What was of real concern to most analysts was if a military operation by a nuclear superpower could bring the death of military personnel of another nuclear power, thus creating a classical casus belli, or case for war. It seemed, though, that the Russian command in Syria had been warned in advance before the attack, so the chances of direct confrontation and spiraling escalation in the Cuban crisis sort of way was prevented pretty neatly.
Now the more interesting question about this attack is different, and it could have serious consequences for Russia both in geopolitical and military sense. I’m talking of the widely heralded myth about the impenetrable air defense system, the last-generation C-400. Elements of that system are installed around the air bases in Tatrus and Lattakia, hosting the Russian warplanes in Syria. In theory, C-400 is an air defense system with mid- to long-range that could intercept targets within 600 km and destroy them at a 400 km distance. It should be able to destroy planes, drones, ballistic and other missiles. But during the Tomahawk assault in Shayrat, for some reason all C-400 stations remained silent. All 59 missiles, based on 40-year old technology, flew unimpeded across the entire defense line. So far no one has come up with an official explanation of what really happened.
These systems have a special place in the modern Russian doctrine for military dominance. By installing C-400 in a zone, the Russians are capable of isolating huge chunks of air space, where any movement of enemy aircraft could be blocked at any given time. And if they put such a system near the border with another country, they can control all air traffic up to 400 km inside that country’s territory. It was the Russian air defense system that has forced Daesh to review their plans for air support of allied units on the ground.
In NATO language, such zones of blocked access are called Anti Access / Anti Denial or A2/AD. Such “domes” of blocked airspace are currently present not just over Syria but also Kaliningrad (covering parts of Poland and the Baltics), and Crimea (reaching as far as the shores of Romania and Bulgaria). Because of these zones, the NATO strategists were forced to seriously re-think their defense plans in case of aggression on the eastern flank of the alliance. Practically, the presence of such air defense systems seriously undermines the allies’ ability to quickly deploy reinforcements by air in case of sudden crisis, or to support the logistical networks of their defense forces in case of a protracted conflict.
The fundamental problem with C-400 is that so far no one has seen its true capabilities in real battle conditions. So any future customers of the Russian military-industrial complex would surely be looking very closely into what happened during the US air strike against Syria. There are military giants like China and India among those customers, and soon Turkey could also join that list (itself a NATO member). That’s probably the reason for the strange and enigmatic statement by the Russian chiefs of command, which said only 23 out of the 59 Tomahawk missiles had reached their target, without specifying why exactly. If that’s a hint that the remaining 36 missiles had been downed by C-400, the Russians might still be having a problem: this way they’re admitting their system is too porous in case of a swarm-like attack of low-flying missiles.
Still, the likeliest explanation is that the Russian air defense system in Syria was merely kept inactive – partly to conceal its true capabilities, partly to deliberately allow an escalation of tensions with the US. An argument in support of this assumption is the “evolution” of statements coming from various Russian officials. For instance, the chairman of the defense committee at the Russian parliament Victor Ozerov said the C-300 and C-400 systems are in Syria “to guarantee the safety of our armed forces”. In other words, about a fortnight ago Assad’s army might have suddenly found itself outside the list of Russian-protected puppet regimes, at least as far as attacks from the sky are concerned. Whatever the Russian military officials say from here on, there’ll always be a question hanging around the qualities of the “impenetrable” C-400 system: could it really eliminate a 40-year old US Tomahawk missile flying at subsonic speed – or not?