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How Russia's Syria Deployment Is Changing the Military Balance in the Eastern Mediterranean

Deployment of very advanced weapons and electronic systems, as well as talk of Latakia air base being made permanent, challenges the US domination of the Eastern Mediterranean for the first time since the Second World War

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

The Russians have provided more information about their deployment in Syria.

They have confirmed that the Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters were delivered to Syria by heavy transport aircraft.  

These would have been the An-124 and Il-76 aircraft photographed at the base in Latakia.

However it is now confirmed that the fighter and bomber aircraft flew there by themselves.

It seems that some - and perhaps all - of the fighters and bombers came from Budyonnovsk air base in the Stavropol region - an area just north of the Caucasus in southern Russia.

To reach Syria the aircraft must have flown over the Caspian Sea, Iran and Iraq. 

At an early stage in the construction of the Latakia air base the US acted to block Russian use of airspace over southern Europe so there was no other available route. 

The Su-34s have in flight air refuelling capability and the range with added fuel tanks to fly directly to Latakia from Budyonnovsk. 

The Su-30s and the Su-24s probably also have the same capability.

The Su-25s however definitely do not.

In other words the strike force not only flew over Iran and Iraq, but must have done so in stages, stopping to refuel along the way.  

That could not have happened without the help of the governments of Iran and Iraq - the countries over which the aircraft flew and where they must have made their staging stop or stops.  

This provides further proof of the careful diplomatic preparations the Russians made prior to their deployment.

The Russians say the US failed to detect the deployment whilst it was underway, which if true would be remarkable given the extent of the US intelligence gathering operation in the area.  However the Russian claim appears to be confirmed by reports originating in the US.

This supports the theory mooted by The Aviationist magazine in late September, that the Russian fighters and fighter bombers evaded US detection by trailing the Il-76 transports that were spotted flying to Latakia on 19th and 20th September 2015 - just before the Russian fighters and fighter bombers appeared there.

Apparently the aircraft flew in tight formations, each Il-76 accompanied by four fast jets, in a way that would have blurred the radar picture, thereby avoiding detection.

Such a manoeuvre would have required a very high level of pilot skill and discipline in order to ensure close flight formation and radio silence during a long flight - a fact which further bears out the high level of training of the Russian pilots involved in the operation.

The Russians have in fact confirmed that the pilots flying the aircraft in Latakia are all combat veterans.  Presumably they gained their experience in the Chechen wars and in the 2008 South Ossetia war.

The fact that the Russians felt the need to deploy their aircraft in such a stealthy way shows that they were concerned the US would try to intercept them to prevent their deployment. 

As we have discussed previously, the Russian cruise missile strike on the jihadis in Syria was intended as a warning to the US, demonstrating that the Russians have the capability to strike back if the US engages their strike force.

The stealthy way the Russians deployed their aircraft to Latakia shows that they have been concerned about this possibility from the outset.

The IL76s are known to have made at least one stop over in the Iranian city of Hamadan, and if The Aviationist’s theory is right then the Russian fighters and fighter bombers were probably refuelled there.

The Russians have also deployed very advanced electronic jamming systems to the Latakia air base.  

The Russians traditionally excel in electronic jamming.  

The system that has been deployed to Latakia is the Krasukha-4 system, which is made by Russia’s KRET corporation. 

This is a state-of-the-art, highly advanced mobile jamming system, capable of jamming not just radio communications but also airborne radars (including AWACS radars) and low orbit satellites.

Some excited commentators have spoken of the Krasukha-4 system providing the Russians with a supposedly impenetrable bubble which is allegedly “closing down” Syrian air space to US aircraft.

That is certainly an exaggeration.  There is no information that the Krasukha-4 stationed in Syria has so far been used in this way. 

Doing so would be highly provocative, and the US would surely protest.  That it has not done so suggests it has not happened. 

The Krasukha-4 system does however provide the Russians with a potent capability against US communications, airborne radars, drones and satellites if tensions with the US and its allies escalate.  

The US must now take its presence in Syria into account. 

Together with the presence of other Russian systems - the Su-30 fighter aircraft, the S-300 missiles operated by the missile cruiser Moskva stationed off the Syrian coast, and the cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea - the presence of the Krasukha-4 system explains why aggressive action by the US military against the Russian strike force is not taking place and has almost certainly been ruled out.

The Krasukha-4 system does not just have a deterrent value.  It is also undoubtedly being used to support the ongoing air operation.

Alongside the naval docking facility at Tartus the Russians have long operated an electronic listening (“SIGINT”) station at Latakia. 

Like the Tartus docking facility this SIGINT station was set up during the Cold War and has been in continuous operation since at least as far back as the 1980s.  

The Russians have doubtless updated this facility, which almost certainly gives them the ability to listen in not just to the communications of the various jihadi groups fighting in Syria but also to the communications of the various Western, Israeli, Turkish and Arab militaries that are also deployed in the area.  

The extent to which the Russians are able to decrypt this signals traffic is another matter.

Decrypting US and Israeli communications may be beyond them - though the Russians have a long history of success in decryption.

However the Russians have almost certainly decrypted the communications of the various jihadi groups, which are unlikely to use very sophisticated methods of encryption.  

Whilst the Krasukha-4 is primarily designed to jam airborne radars and systems, it is undoubtedly fully capable of jamming radio and cellphone communications, as well as those that use satellite uplinks.  

The combination of the SIGINT station in Latakia and the Krasukha-4 therefore give the Russians the ability to listen in to the communications of the various jihadi groups - and of Western special forces units operating in Syria -  and to jam them as well.

Since the jihadis do not use landlines to any great degree but rely heavily on radio and cellphones, this gives the Russians a potent capability (if the jihadis switch to using landlines the Russians would have little difficulty monitoring and jamming them as well).

Alongside the SIGINT and electronic jamming equipment the Russians undoubtedly also have powerful radars observing Syrian airspace.

We know far less about these.  The radars at the Latakia base the Russians have shown in their television broadcasts are simple ground control radars.  It is a certainty however that more advanced radars have been deployed as well.

The Russian navy’s Moskva missile cruiser, which is stationed off the Syrian coast, has a Voskhod RM800 3D search radar, which is believed to have a range of 275 km.  

This is a powerful radar.  However it dates from the 1970s, though it has doubtless been updated since then, as has the Moskva's data processing and communications equipment.  

Its technology has however been compromised.  US intelligence has access to a Voskhod RM800 radar deployed on the Ukraina - Moskva’s unfinished sister ship - which is berthed in Nikolaev in Ukraine.  

Whilst this radar is unused and incomplete and has not been updated since 1990 - and is not therefore comparable to the fully operational and updated radar deployed on the Moskva - it uses the same basic architecture, which will have provided US intelligence with a significant amount of information about the system’s capabilities.

However the Moskva’s Voskhod RM800 radar is almost certainly being supplemented by other more modern radars deployed by the Russians on the ground in Syria, and possibly in the air on AWACS aircraft.

The Russians have traditionally excelled in developing powerful and rugged ground based radars. 

They have recently perfected design of advanced prefabricated radars, as well advanced mobile search radars such as the new Nebo-M, which is said to be capable of tracking hypersonic missiles, stealth aircraft and drones in a high jamming environment.

The Russians may feel that deploying a radar as advanced as the Nebo-M to Syria is unnecessary. 

The possibility cannot however be excluded.  The fact the Russians have deployed top-of-the-line systems such as the SU30 fighter, the SU34 fighter bomber and the Krasukha-4 electronic warfare system to Latakia shows that they are fully prepared to deploy their most advanced systems there in order to secure their base in an area historically dominated by the US.

If the Russians decide that radars as advanced as the Nebo-M are not needed in Syria, then they have an abundance of less sophisticated but still very powerful radars to choose from.

The Russians also have the option of deploying radar on AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) aircraft.

The Beriev A-50 AWACS aircraft would certainly be capable of monitoring air movements in Syrian air space. 

Though there are no reports of these aircraft operating from the Latakia air base, given their range there would be no difficulty in their monitoring Syrian air space from bases in Russia.  It is in fact a certainty that they are doing so.

Lastly, some reports have been treating the Krasukha-4 as if it was a radar capable of carrying out air surveillance.  That is not its designed role and it is certainly not being used that way. 

Lastly the Russians have confirmed that surface to air missiles have also been deployed to the Latakia air base.

There have been some suggestions that this is a new deployment consisting of ground based S300 missiles sent from Russia.

There are no reports confirming this.  

The US, Turkey and Israel have said nothing of such a deployment.

Given the size of the S300 system - with bulky missiles, launchers, radar and command vehicles - its deployment would be impossible to conceal.

Given how politically sensitive the possible deployment of S-300 missiles in the Middle East has been in the past - with the US and Israel reacting furiously whenever plans for their deployment in Syria and Iran are discussed, and with Turkey reacting equally furiously to plans for their deployment in Cyprus - it is difficult  to believe that these countries would remain silent if the Russians were actually deploying S-300s to their Latakia air base.

It is more likely that the surface to air missiles the Russians are talking about are the Pantsir-S1 short range missiles, which are deployed on wheeled and tracked vehicles as part of a combined missile and cannon anti aircraft system.

Pantsir-S1 systems are known to have been deployed to the Latakia air base and have been filmed and photographed there.

Their purpose is to provide point defence of the air base, not to control the whole of Syria’s airspace.  

Deployment of point defence systems like the Pantsir-S1 to protect an air base is standard Russian procedure.  Their deployment is a routine precaution the Russians always take.

No Russian air base is without them - even air bases located deep inside Russian territory.  

The Russians would certainly not dispense with the protection afforded by such systems for their Latakia base given that it is located in a war zone. 

Though it is unlikely that the very large and powerful S-300 system has so far been deployed on the ground in Latakia, it is not impossible that it or a system like it might eventually be deployed there.

For the moment area air defence is being provided by the S-300 missiles on board the Moskva missile cruiser, which is currently off the Syrian coast.  

Keeping the Moskva indefinitely off the Syrian coast is however hardly an attractive option, and it would not be surprising if the Russians are considering alternative ways of providing their base with medium and long range area air defence.

Given the political sensitivity involved in deploying S-300 missile systems to the Middle East, if the Russians do eventually decide to deploy more powerful surface to air missile systems to Latakia than the Pantsir-1, they might choose to deploy one of several less visible - though hardly less potent - systems, which they also possess in their armoury.

One possibility is the BUK missile system, the very latest versions of which are believed to have a range and capability comparable that of the S-300.  

Another possibility is the shorter range - but very advanced - TOR-M1 system.

Either of these systems would provide the Latakia base and its surrounding area with similar or even better levels of protection than is currently provided by the Moskva, whose S-300s - though still potent - are early generation and rather elderly.  

As they are much smaller than the S-300, missile systems like the BUK or the TOR-M1 could be easily and quickly transported to Latakia by transport aircraft like the IL76.  

The fact that they are both fully mobile systems - unlike the S-300 which is only partially mobile - would probably also make their deployment easier and simpler.  

Their deployment would be less controversial than that of the S-300, which might make it politically attractive.

In summary, we are witnessing in Syria a Russian military deployment of great potency.  

In addition to the previously existing SIGINT station at Latakia and the naval dockyard at Tartus, there is now an air base capable of servicing large transport aircraft such as the An-124 and the Il-76, which is hosting a strike force roughly comparable to that of a US navy carrier.

This complex of facilities and bases is being provided with very sophisticated electronic systems, and probably before long with powerful surface to air missiles.

It has also led to the deployment of an infantry force of perhaps battalion strength.

Unlike earlier bases the USSR tried to deploy in the Mediterranean area - in places like Albania and Egypt - all of which proved ephemeral - this one has secure land and air communications to Russia across countries that are friendly to Russia and likely to remain so.

Unsurprisingly, some members of the Russian military are calling for this base complex to be enlarged and made permanent . 

That is something the current Syrian government would certainly welcome since it would provide Syria with what would amount to a Russian guarantee against the sort of attack Syria has suffered.

The presence of such a Russian base would also spell the end of Israel's unchallenged dominance of the skies over Syria and Lebanon. For the first time since 1970 - when Russian air defence forces were deployed to Egypt during what the Russians call Operation Kavkaz and the Israelis call the War of Attrition - Israel would find itself outmatched in technology and resources in its own region by the air force of a stronger power.

Such a base complex could also in time come to rival US bases in the eastern Mediterranean, such as the ones at Incirlik and in Souda Bay.  

That would be an entirely new situation, creating a potential challenge to US control of the eastern Mediterranean of a sort the US has not faced since the end of the Second World War.

Whether the Russian political leadership entertains such far reaching plans is an entirely different matter. 

The potential however is for the first there - a fact which more than anything explains the alarm and dismay in Washington.

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