The latest escalation in Syria – what is really going on?
This article was written for the Unz Review.
By now most of you have heard the latest bad news of out Syria: on June 18th a US F/A-18E Super Hornet (1999) used a AIM-120 AMRAAM (1991) to shoot down a Syrian Air Force Su-22 (1970). Two days later, June 20th, a US F-15E Strike Eagle shot down an Iranian IRGC Shahed 129 drone. The excuse used each time was that there was a threat to US and US supported forces. The reality is, of course, that the US are simply trying to stop the advance of the Syrian army. This was thus a typical American “show of force”. Except that, of course, shooting a 47 year old Soviet era Su-22 fighter-bomber is hardly an impressive feat. Neither is shooting a unmanned drone. There is a pattern here, however, and that pattern is that all US actions so far have been solely for show: the basically failed bombing of the Syria military airbase, the bombing of the Syrian army column, the shooting down of the Syrian fighter-bomber and of the Iranian drone – all these actions have no real military value. They do, however, have a provocative value as each time all the eyes turn to Russia to see if the Russians will respond or not.
Russia did respond this time again, but in a very ambiguous and misunderstood manner. The Russians announced, amongst other measure that from now on “any airborne objects, including aircraft and unmanned vehicles of the [US-led] international coalition, located to the west of the Euphrates River, will be tracked by Russian ground and air defense forces as air targets” which I reported as “Russian MoD declares it will shoot down any aircraft flying west of the Euphrates river”. While I gave the exact Russian quote, I did not explain why I paraphrased the Russian words the way I did. Now is a good time to explain this.
First, here is the exact original Russian text:
«В районах выполнения боевых задач российской авиацией в небе Сирии любые воздушные объекты, включая самолёты и беспилотные аппараты международной коалиции, обнаруженные западнее реки Евфрат, будут приниматься на сопровождение российскими наземными и воздушными средствами противовоздушной обороны в качестве воздушных целей»
A literal translation would be:
“In areas of the combat missions of Russian aviation in the skies of Syria any airborne objects, including aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicle of the international coalition discovered to the West of the Euphrates river, will be tracked by Russian ground based an airborne assets as air targets”
So what does this exactly mean in technical-military terms?
A quick look inside a US fighter’s cockpit
When an F/A-18 flies over Syria the on-board emission detectors (called radar warning receivers or RWR) inform the pilot of the kind of radar signals the aircraft is detecting. Over Syria that means that the pilot would see a lot of search radars looking in all directions trying to get a complete picture of what is happening in the Syrian skies. The US pilot will be informed that a certain number of Syrian S-300 and Russian S-400 batteries are scanning the skies and most probably see him. So far so good. If there are deconfliction zones or any type of bilateral agreements to warn each other about planned sorties then that kind of radar emissions are no big deal. Likewise US radars (ground, sea or air based) are also scanning the skies and “seeing” the Russian Aerospace Forces’ aircraft on their radars and the Russians know that. In this situation neither side is treating anybody as “air targets”. When a decision is made to treat an object as an “air target” a completely different type of radar signal is used and a much narrower energy beam is directed at the target which can now be tracked and engaged. The pilot is, of course, immediately informed of this. At this point the pilot is in a very uncomfortable position: he knows that he is being tracked, but he has no way of knowing if a missile has already been launched against him or not. Depending on a number of factors, an AWACS might be able to detect a missile launch, but this might not be enough and it might also be too late.
The kind of missiles fired by S-300/S-400 batteries are extremely fast, over 4’000mph (four thousand miles per hour) which means that a missile launched as far away as 120 miles will reach you in 2 minutes or that a missile launched 30 miles away will reach you in 30 seconds. And just to make things worse, the S-300 can use a special radar mode called “track via missile” where the radar emits a pulse towards the target whose reflection is then received not by the ground based radar, but by the rapidly approaching missile itself, which then sends its reading back to the ground radar which then sends guidance corrections back to the missile. Why is that bad for the aircraft? Because there is no way to tell from the emissions whether a missile has been launched and is already approaching at over 4’000mph or not. The S-300 and S-400 also have other modes, including the Seeker Aided Ground Guidance (SAGG) where the missile also computes a guidance solution (not just the ground radar) and then the two are compared and a Home On Jam (HOJ) mode when the jammed missile then homes directly on the source of the jamming (such as an onboard jamming pod). Furthermore, there are other radar modes available such as the Ground Aided Inertial (GAI) which guides the missile in the immediate proximity of the target where the missile switches on its own radar just before hitting the target. Finally, there is some pretty good evidence that the Russians have perfected a complex datalink system which allows them to fuse into one all the signals they acquire from their missiles, airborne aircraft (fighter, interceptor or AWACS) and ground radars and that means that, in theory, if a US aircraft is outside the flight envelope (reach) of the ground based missiles the signals acquired by the ground base radars could be used to fire an air-to-air missile at the US aircraft (we know that their MiG-31s are capable of such engagements, so I don’t see why their much more recent Su-30/Su-35 could not). This would serve to further complicate the situational awareness of the pilot as a missile could be coming from literally any direction. At this point the only logical reaction would be for the US pilot to inform his commanders and get out, fast. Sure, in theory, he could simply continue his mission, but that would be very hard, especially if he suspects that the Syrians might have other, mobile, air defense on the way to, or near, his intended target.
Just try to imagine this: you are flying, in total illegality, over hostile territory and preparing to strike a target when suddenly your radar warning receiver goes off and tells you “you got 30 seconds or (much?) less to decide whether there is a 300lbs (150kg) warhead coming at you at 4000mph (6400kmh) or not”. How would you feel if it was you sitting in that cockpit? Would you still be thinking about executing your planned attack?
The normal US strategy is to achieve what is called “air superiority/supremacy” by completely suppressing enemy air defenses and taking control of the skies. If I am not mistaken, the last time the US fighters operated in a meaningfully contested air space was in Vietnam…
By the way, these technologies are not uniquely Russian, they are well known in the West, for example the US Patriot SAM also uses TVM, but the Russians have very nicely integrated them into one formidable air defense system.
The bottom line is this: once the US aircraft is “treated like a target” he has no way of knowing if the Syrians, or the Russians, are just being cheeky or whether has has seconds left to live. Put differently, “treating like a target” is tantamount to somebody putting a gun to your head and letting you guess if/when he will pull the trigger.
So yes, the Russian statement most definitely was a “threat to shoot down”!
Next, a look into the Russian side of the equation
To understand why the Russians used the words “threat like an air target” rather than “will shoot down” you need to remember that Russia is still the weaker party here. There is nothing worse than not delivering on a threat. If the Russians had said “we will shoot down” and then had not done so, they would have made an empty threat. Instead, they said “will treat as an air target” because that leaves them an “out” should they decided not to pull the trigger. However, for the US Navy or Air Force pilot, these considerations are all irrelevant once his detectors report to him that he is being “painted” with the beam of an engagement radar!
So what the Russians did is to greatly unnerve the US crews without actually having to shoot down anybody. It is not a coincidence that the Americans almost immediately stop flying West of the Euphrates river while the Australians officially decided to bow out from any further air sorties.
It cannot be overemphasized that the very last thing Russia needs is to shoot down a US aircraft over Syria which is exactly what some elements of the Pentagon seem to want. Not only is Russia the weaker side in this conflict, but the Russians also understand the wider political consequences of what would happen if they took the dramatic step to shoot down a US aircraft: a dream come true for the Neocons and a disaster for everybody else.
A quick look from the US Neoconistan and the quest for a “tepid war”
The dynamic in Syria is not fundamentally different from the dynamic in the Ukraine: the Neocons know that they have failed to achieve their primary objective: to control the entire country. They also know that their various related financial schemes have collapsed. Finally, they are fully aware that they owe this defeat to Russia and, especially, to Vladimir Putin. So they fell back on plan B. Plan B is almost as good as Plan A (full control) because Plan B has much wider consequences. Plan B is also very simple: trigger a major crisis with Russia but stay short from a full-scale war. Ideally, Plan B should revolve around a “firm” “reaction” to the Russian “aggression” and a “defense” of the US “allies” in the region. In practical terms this simply means: get the Russians to openly send forces into Novorussia or get the Russians to take military actions against the US or its allies in Syria. Once you get this you can easily see that the latest us attacks in Syria have a minor local purpose – to scare or slow down the Syrians- and a major global purpose – to bait the Russians into using forces against the US or an ally. It bears repeating here that what the Neocons really want is what I call a “tepid” war with Russia: an escalation of tensions to levels even not seen in the Cold War, but not a full-scale “hot” WWIII either. A tepid war would finally re-grant NATO at least some kind of purpose (to protect “our European friends and allies” from the “Russian threat”): the already terminally spineless EU politicians would all be brought into an even more advanced state of subservience, the military budgets would go even higher and Trump would be able to say that he made “America” “great” again. And, who knows, maybe the Russian people would *finally* rise against Putin, you never know! (They wouldn’t – but the Neocons have never been deterred from their goofy theories by such minor and altogether irrelevant things as facts or logic).
[Sidebar: I noticed this time again that each time the US tries to bait Russia into some kind of harsh reaction and Russia declines to take the bait, this triggers in immediate surge into the number of comments which vehemently complain that Russia is acting like a pussy, that Putin is a fake, that he is “in cahoots” with the US and/or Israel and that the Russians are weak or that they have “sold out”. I am getting a sense that we are dealing with paid US PSYOP operatives whose mission is to use the social media to try to put the Kremlin under pressure with these endless accusations of weakness and selling-out. Since I have no interest in rewarding these folks in any way, I mostly send their recriminations where they belong: to the trash]
Does the Russian strategy work?
To reply to this, don’t look at what the Russians do or do not do in the immediate aftermath of a US provocation. Take a higher level look and just see what happens in the mid to long term. Just like in a game of chess, taking the Gambit is not always the correct strategy.
I submit that to evaluate whether Putin’s policies are effective or not, to see whether he has “sold out” or “caved in” you need to, for example, look at the situation in Syria (or the Ukraine, for that matter) as it was 2 years ago and then compare with what it is today. Or, alternatively, look at the situation as it is today and come back to re-visit it in 6 months.
One huge difference between the western culture and the way the Russians (or the Chinese for that matter) look at geostrategy is that westerners always look at everything in the short term and tactical level. This is basically the single main reason why both Napoleon and Hitler lost their wars against Russia: an almost exclusive focus on the short term and tactical. In contrast, the Russians are the undisputed masters of operational art (in a purely military sense) and, just like the Chinese, they tend to always keep their eyes on the long-term horizon. Just look at the Turkish downing of a Russian Su-24: everybody bemoaned the lack of “forceful” reaction from Moscow. And then, six months later – what do we have? Exactly.
The modern western culture is centered on various forms of instant gratification, and that is also true for geopolitics. If the other guy does something, western leaders always deliver a “firm” response. They like to “send messages” and they firmly believe that doing something, no matter how symbolic, is better than even the *appearance* of doing nothing. As for the appearance of doing nothing, it is universally interpreted as a sign of weakness. Russians don’t think that way. They don’t care about instant gratification, they care only about one thing: victory. And if that means to look weak, that is fine. From a Russian perspective, sending “messages” or taking symbolic actions (like all 4 of the recent US attacks in Syria) are not signs of strength, but signs of weakness. Generally, the Russians don’t like to use force which they consider inherently dangerous. But when they do, they never threaten or warn, they take immediate and pragmatic (non-symbolic) action which gets them closer to a specific goal.
The Russian reaction to the latest US attack on Syria was not designed to maximize the approval of the many Internet armchair strategists. It was designed to maximize the discomfort of the US lead “coalition” in Syria while minimizing the risks for Russia. It is precisely by using an ambiguous language which civilians would interpret in one way, and military personnel in another, that the Russians introduced a very disruptive element of unpredictability into the planning of US air operations in Syria.
The Russians are not without they own faults and bad habits and they make mistakes (recognizing the Ukronazi junta in Kiev after the coup was probably such a mistake), but it is important to differentiate between their real weaknesses and mistakes and their very carefully designed strategies. Just because they don’t act in the way their putative “supporters” in the West would does not mean that they have “caved in”, “blinked first” or any other such nonsense. The first step towards understanding how the Russians function is to stop expecting that they would act just like Americans would.
PS: by the way, the Syrian pilot shot down made it out alive. Here is a photo of him following his rescue by Syrian special forces: