Conflicts in Ukraine, and in Syria and Iraq, illustrate the threat posed to current, and future air operations exemplified by medium-range/medium-altitude and long-range/high-altitude SAM systems and MANPADS.
On 22 June 2012, Flight Lieutenant (Flt. Lt.) Gökhan Ertan and Flying Officer (F/O) Hasan Hüseyin Aksoy climbed aboard their Türk Hava Kuvvetleri (Turkish Air Force/TAF) McDonnell Douglas/Boeing RF-4E Phantom reconnaissance aircraft and departed the TAF’s Erhaç airbase in the eastern central region of Turkey. The aircraft disappeared from TAF radar screens at 1202 local time. On 4 July, the bodies of Flt. Lt. Ertan and F/O Aksoy were recovered from the depths of the Mediterranean by remotely operated vehicles from the EV Nautilus research vessel operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust.
The crew of the RF-4E had been briefed to help test the radars operated as part of the TAF’s integrated air defence system. After departing from Erhaç airbase, they had flown their jet between the southern Turkish province of Hatay and the island of Cyprus. At around 1142 local time, the aircraft reportedly violated Syrian air space, remaining in that airspace for five minutes before being warned by TAF air traffic controllers to immediately leave the area, which the RF-4E did at 1147 local time. Much of what happened to the RF-4E between 1147 and 1202 local time remains shrouded in mystery and is a matter of conjecture. It is known that at some point the aircraft was shot out of the sky by the Syrian military. It has not been possible to determine precisely which SAM system was responsible for downing the jet, but the rumoured culprits, according to authoritative open sources, are either the Russian-origin Pantsir-S1E/S2 short-to-medium range air defence system which has an engagement range of circa 10.2 nautical miles/nm (19 kilometres/km), using its 57E6 SAMs, or possibly the Russian Almaz-Antey Buk-M2E SAM system, which has an engagement range of 22.6nm (42km). Both of these systems are operated by the Syrian armed forces, either with the Syrian Army, the Syrian Air Defence Force, or both.
The shoot down of the TKK RF-4E shows that the airspace above Syria is becoming more dangerous. NATO and United States allies in general have enjoyed an increasingly more benign environment for air operations as regarding the surface-to-air threat since the Persian Gulf War of 1991 when circa 44 coalition aircraft were destroyed by surface-to-air threats, principally Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA). This reduced to three NATO aircraft losses from surface-to-air threats during NATO’s Operation DELIBERATE FORCE, mounted in 1995 to degrade the Bosnian-Serb armed forces to thus prevent further attacks against United Nations-mandated safe areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Balkans. These loss rates fell to two airframes during Operation ALLIED FORCE, mounted to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians by Serbian army and special police units in the Balkans province of Kosovo in 1998. A single coalition aircraft was lost to surface-to-air attack during the US-led Operation IRAQI FREEDOM in 2003, with no coalition aircraft lost during Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR/ODYSSEY DAWN over Libya in 2011. Thus, one trend which can be observed is that, with the exception of the threat which MANPADS continue to pose at relatively low altitudes and short ranges, air operations involving US and Allied powers are facing progressively less of a threat from medium-range/medium-altitude and long-range/high-altitude SAM systems.
Yet such a conclusion would be dangerous. The downing of the TKK RF-4E discussed above indicates that the skies above current and potential future conflicts are far from sanitised. For example, Torez in eastern Ukraine became a scene of horror on 17 July 2014 when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, a Boeing 777-200ER with 298 passengers and crew aboard, was shot down by what is strongly believed to have been a Russian 9K37 Buk SAM system believed to have been supplied to Russian separatists fighting the Ukrainian government in that country’s civil war, with the loss of everybody onboard. Independent investigators from the Bellingcat citizen journalist website claimed that the 9K37 system belonged to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Rocket Brigade of the Russian Army. Although the Malaysian Airlines 777-300ER was a civilian airliner and hence bereft of the Integrated Self-Defence Systems (ISDSs) usually found on military aircraft, this was not thought to be the case for the RF-4E which may have been shot down by the same system. Presumably, the RF-4E was outfitted with an ISDS. One would expect that an aircraft operating so close to a war zone, in this case Syria, which was known to possess robust surface-to-air defences, would have been equipped with a functioning ISDS. This has raised the questions as to whether the ISDS was functioning on the RF-4E, or whether it was unable to defeat the threat posed by the 9K37 system or whichever SAM system may have attacked the aircraft.
Beyond the loss of the TKK RF-4E and flight MH-17, other air operations have been threatened by systems such as the 9K37. For example, on 7 December 2015, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) performed several air strikes against Hezbollah Palestinian insurgent weapons storage sites using McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-15A/B/C/D/I fighters. Open source reports state that, despite heavy electronic jamming being deployed by the IAF aircraft, a Syrian Army/Air Defence Force 9K317 Buk-M2 SAM system that was deployed at Mezzeh airbase, in the southwest of the Syrian capital Damascus, was able to fire two missiles at the first formation of two F-15 aircraft, which avoided being shot down by using evasive action. The second F-15 formation was attacked by two Syrian Almaz-Antey S-125 Neva/Pechora SAMs. Although these two jets avoided being shot down, one of the Rafael Advanced Defence Systems Popeye INS (Inertial Navigation System)/Television guided air-to-surface stand-off missiles was reportedly destroyed by one of the SAMs fired from the S-125 battery. The IAF’s targets had reportedly been arms storage sites at Damascus International Airport, to the southeast of the city, and similar facilities in the town of Al-Dimas, to the northwest of the city, close to the Syrian-Lebanon border.
Systems such as the 9K37/9K317 family clearly remain a cause for concern, yet US and allied militaries are also increasingly concerned by the Almaz-Antey S-400 Triumf long-range/high-altitude SAM system. The S-400 has yet to be used in anger against the US or any of her allies, yet the system is being treated with considerable respect by these actors.
Having entered service in 2007 with the Russian Army, the S-400 has an operational range of up to 215.9nm (400km) with its integral 40N6 SAM. Although the S-400 has been deployed in Russia for almost a decade, it made its operational debut in the Syrian theatre of operations when it reportedly completed its deployment on 26 November 2015. The Russian government, which had commenced its air campaign against Syrian rebel groups opposing the government of President Bashir al-Assad on 30 September 2015, deployed the S-400 in response to a shoot down of a Russian Air Force Sukhoi Su-24M fighter bomber on 24 November by two TKK General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcon fighters employing Raytheon AIM-9X infrared/semi-active radar homing air-to-air missiles. The attack followed a reported violation by the Su-24M of Turkish airspace.
The S-400, and its deployment to Syria, is a major concern for the US and her allies. As noted above, the key threat posed by the system is its reach, with the operational range of the 40N6 missile being an example of the radius of territory which it can protect. In addition to the 40N6, the S-400 can deploy the 48N6E2 SAM which uses Semi-Active Radar Homing (SARH) guidance (like the 40N6 which can also use Active Radar Homing/ARH) with a range of 107.9nm (200km), the 48N6DM/E3 employing SARH with a range of 134.9nm (250km), the 9M96E SAM with a range of 21.5nm (40km), and the 9M96/E2 with a 64nm (120km) range. Also of concern is the 91N6E S-band (2.3-2.5/2.7-3.7 Gigahertz/GHz) ground-based air surveillance radar which has a reported instrumented range of 323.9nm (600km) and is capable of tracking 300 targets, plus the S-400’s 92N6E target engagement radar. This latter system has an instrumented range of 215.9nm and the capability of tracking 100 targets, while engaging six of those targets simultaneously.
Alongside its capabilities in terms of missile engagement and instrumented radar ranges, the S-400 has been designed to be mobile greatly easing its deployment. As the deployment to Syria in 2015 illustrated, it was declared deployed and ready by the Russian Ministry of Defence two days after the Su-24M shoot down. Mobile systems tend to be harder to detect and destroy compared to fixed SAM systems such as the S-125 Neva/Pechora, the Almaz-Antey S-200 Angara/Vega/Dubna and the S-75 Dvina weapons which NATO faced during its intervention in Libya in 2011 (see above).
The S-400 is a cause for concern for the US and her allies. Since June 2014, the US-led Operation INHERENT RESOLVE has been targeting the presence of ISIS insurgent organisation which has occupied significant parts of north-western Iraq and eastern Syria. Alongside the US, Australia, Belgium, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Jordan, Morocco, the Netherlands, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom have all contributed air forces and in some cases ground forces (mainly special forces) to the anti-ISIS effort. The S-400 unit deployed at Khemeimim airbase, collocated at Bassel Al-Assad International Airport on Syria’s northern Mediterranean coast, has sufficient range to place any aircraft flying over much of Syria, particularly the western and central parts of the country in danger. In tandem, a significant part of southern Turkey falls under the weapon’s coverage along with all of Cyprus and Lebanon, plus a significant part of northern Israel and Jordan.
The deployment of the S-400 is no coincidence given that it was performed shortly after the Su-24M shoot down discussed above. Meanwhile, relations between Russia, the United States and NATO remain frosty. During the NATO summit held in Warsaw, Poland on 8 July, involving the alliance’s heads of government, it agreed to deploy 4000 troops to Poland, and to the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to deter any Russian aggression against these nations. The deployment indicates that tensions between Russia and NATO remain high, particularly since Russia’s annexation of Crimea on 18 March 2014, and the country’s continued involvement in the Ukrainian Civil War supporting pro-Russian separatists. The existence of the S-400 in Syria means that a potent weapon could potentially be used against US and allied warplanes in the future, should relations deteriorate from their current tense characteristic into a shooting war.
However, military aviation does not only face a re-energised surface-to-air threat in the form of new systems such as the S-400 and existing platforms like the 9K37/9K317 systems. MANPADS continue to pose a clear and present danger, particularly to aircraft operating at altitudes of below circa 20000 feet/ft (6096 metres/m). Ongoing conflicts have witnessed several notable uses of MANPADS. For example, on 13 May, a Bell AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter gunship of the Türk Kara Kuvvetleri (Turkish Army) was shot down by the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (Kurdish Worker’s Party) in south-eastern Turkey using a KBP 9K38 Igla infrared-guided MANPADS. Meanwhile, on 12 March, a Syrian Air Force MiG-21bis fighter was reportedly shot down by a MANPADS of an unknown type, although it has also been reported that the aircraft was shot down using AAA. Just under one month later on 5 April, the Al-Nusra Front, a militant Islamist insurgency organisation fighting the regime of Mr. Assad, reportedly shot down a Syrian Air Force Sukhoi Su-22 fighter using a MANPADS of an unknown type close to the city of Aleppo in northern Syria.
The Ukrainian civil war has seen its share of aircraft shoot downs beyond the loss of flight MH17. To this end, a Ukrainian Air Force (UAF) Sukhoi Su-25M1 ground attack aircraft was shot down by pro-Russian separatists using a SAM of an unknown type on 29 August 2014 in eastern Ukraine. Nine days previously, a Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunship, also belonging to the UAF, was shot down near the city of Horlivka, in eastern Ukraine, with a UAF Su-24M ground attack aircraft shot down by pro-Russian separatists near the city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. It has not been reported which weapon was responsible for downing either the Su-24M and Mi-24 on 20 August, or the Su25M1 on 29 August.
Thus the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and the ongoing Ukrainian Civil War are illustrative of the threat posed to air operations from MANPADS and also from advanced medium-range/medium-altitude and long-range/high altitude SAMs. Although it is impossible to completely eliminate the threat that such systems pose, electronic warfare, and in particular electronic countermeasures are helping to not only reduce the risk posed by these current threats, but also potential future threats.