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After U.S. Strikes Syrian Air Base, Russians Ask: 'Where Were Our Vaunted Air Defense Systems?'

Part of an S-400 antiaircraft system deployed at a Russian military base in Syria, in November 2015.
Part of an S-400 antiaircraft system deployed at a Russian military base in Syria, in November 2015.

MOSCOW -- In confirming the deployment of its S-300 and state-of-the art S-400 missile-defense systems in Syria, the Kremlin boasted six months ago that it had secured the country's air bases from American cruise missiles.

But after a barrage of U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles hit the Syrian government air base at Shayrat on April 7, where some Russian military personnel were stationed, consternated Russians took to social networks asking: "Where the hell were the vaunted S-400s?"

“Am I the only one who doesn’t understand why our S-400s…. didn’t shoot down the American rockets?” asked one Twitter user.

The Kremlin first deployed the "Triumph" S-400 system in Syria in 2015 after Turkey in November that year shot down a Russian warplane Ankara said had strayed into Turkish airspace. The system uses a package of four different types of missiles to account for various incoming weapons and aircraft: one has a long range of 400 kilometers, and another a range of only 40 kilometers, providing overlapping blanket coverage. The system is capable of downing aircraft, drones, and cruise missiles including Tomahawks, the RIA state news agency reported at the time.

Russian and Western military analysts, however, say that the system was positioned too far away from the Shayrat air base to be effective against the April 7 strike, which used cruise missiles that skim the earth at about five meters off the ground, fly at subsonic speed, and follow their own flight paths.

"All this talk that we have secured the whole of Syrian airspace is artistic whistling," said Pavel Felgengauer, a Moscow-based military analyst, and suggested this boasting was intended to boost the sale of arms showcased in Syria.

"They certainly can't [intercept cruise missiles] at that distance from their location. At the very most, they can defend the nearest approach of the base where they are located," he said.

The S-400 air-defense systems are located at Russia's air base at Latakia and its naval base at Tartus. The strike, which hit the Shayrat air base near Homs more than 75 kilometers away from the city of Tartus and more than 120 kilometers from Latakia, meant the American cruise missiles were safely out of the Russian air-defense system's effective range for cruise missiles, he said. "You can more or less defend a perimeter of about 40 kilometers."

Justin Bronk, a defense analyst at the London-based think tank Royal United Services Institute, agreed, saying that despite the sophistication of the S-400’s radar -- which covers up to 400 kilometers at higher altitudes -- the system would encounter problemswith targets at low altitudes farther away. "Any rough terrain between the radar and the flight path of the cruise missiles will prevent that system, in this case at Latakia and Tartus, engaging," said Bronk.

"Also, while the S-400 is advertised as having an anti-cruise missile capability, it is more geared toward ballistic missiles coming in from very high angles, very quickly, and other tactical aircraft," he said. "It's more geared toward those kinds of targets than subsonic, land-skimming missiles."

Another observer, however, left open the possibility that the system very well could have worked, but that Moscow opted not to activate it.

Moscow-based military analyst Aleksandr Golts noted that U.S. officials notified Russian forces of the strike ahead of time in order to minimize losses to Russian and Syrian personnel -- in compliance with an airspace safety memorandum between Russia and the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, which is conducting separate air campaigns in the country.

"We don't know whether the Russian military was not able [to intercept it] or if it did not want to," Golts said. "As far as we can see, the memorandum on preventing incidents was operating. The Americans complied with it by informing the Russians two hours before the attack. In such a situation, again, we don't know if Russia wanted to or didn't want to use their air-defense system."

'Not Idiots'

Aytech Bizhev, the former deputy commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Force, told Interfax that the "flight path was set to bypass our missile-defense system so that they would not enter our strike range. The Americans are also not idiots."

He told the Russian news agency that the Tomahawks would have been much less effective had they entered the range of Russian air defense. "We can't rule out that a part of the rockets would be able to get through with such a huge mass strike, but we have not only S-400s there, but also Pantsirs that are very effective against these kinds of cruise missiles at low altitudes. It would have been an entirely different picture."

Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on April 7 that Russia would beef up Syria’s air defenses "very soon in order to defend the most vulnerable objects of Syrian infrastructure," Interfax reported.

Nonetheless, the perceived inefficacy of the S-400s prompted an outburst of snarky commentary on Russian language social networks, with one Twitter user writing: "Listen, I just want to check -- is Moscow also secured by S-300 and S-400s?"

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