When the United States, Britain, and France launched their coordinated airstrikes against the chemical weapons facilities in Syria, all of the missiles hit their mark. Despite the warnings from Russia, not one of the incoming missiles was shot down. Considering the defenses in place, this was a stunning feat. Why was the attack so hard to counter?
A complete picture is emerging. Analysts believe the Syrian regime fired 40 interceptor missiles. Those left the launchpads too late. By the time most were in the air, the incoming missiles had hit their targets.
“Nearly every one was launched after the last of our missiles hit their targets,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White noted.
Pentagon officials say the interceptor missiles may not have been equipped with guidance systems.
The failure is a serious problem for Syria. Forces loyal to Bashar al Assad have relied on weapons systems from Iran and Russia, and have risked international retaliation while presuming that these protections would be effective.
.@mod_russia : of 103 missiles, 71 intercepted by Syria’s air defences. No serious damage at airfields. Two former industrial sites hit with no people or equipment in place.https://t.co/7g05zNTWoX pic.twitter.com/0qqNZ2Pfvu
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) April 14, 2018
The attack last week proved otherwise. Russia claims 71 of the missiles were shot down. That would be an astounding number for the 40 interceptors Syria managed to fire.
“It’s not just about the physical capability of the air defense system,” David Deptula, a retired, three-star Air Force general, said. “It’s about the people who are operating the system.” Deptula is echoing a sentiment many share. The Syrian regime, even if properly equipped, lacks the training to handle their equipment.
Yet the Pentagon has said that the Russian S-400 defense system was not deployed in last week’s attack. “Russian air defenses were energized,” said Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the joint staff. “They did not choose to engage.”
Exactly how Syria is choosing to defend itself remains a mystery. They are using a version of the S-200 system, a platform first put into service by the Soviets in the 1960s.
In the end, the cruise missiles launched last week completely overwhelmed the Syrian defenses. “The cruise missiles fly low and emit little heat for interceptor missiles to lock on to,” USA Today writes. “They can also be programmed on a flight path that makes it difficult to predict where they will appear.” With more than 100 coming in in a short period of time, the available defense resources would have no chance of hitting all of them.
Or any of them, it seems.