Russia says missile defences it's sending to Syria can stop the US -- here's who would win

A missile launch. Photo: Roger Ressmeyer/ Corbis/ VCG via Getty Images.
  • Russia said Wednesday it would send the S-300 advanced missile defence systems to Syria in an effort to bolster defences after repeated US missile strikes.
  • Russia says the S-300 can stop US missile attacks, but its own military deployments seem to indicate it’s not true.
  • In reality, nothing would stop the US from striking Syria if it needed to, and an expert tells Business Insider the missile defences won’t change much at all.

Russia said on Wednesday that it would give the S-300 advanced missile defence systems to Syria in an effort to bolster defences as the US continues to pressure the country to stop using chemical weapons.

Russia has previously said its S-300 system can shoot down US cruise missiles, and also maintains that Soviet-era missile defences downed 83 of 105 missiles fired by the US and its allies in the strike on Syria earlier this month.

The Pentagon maintains that’s not true, that Russia has presented no evidence, and that all 105 missiles hit.

And an expert told Business Insider that the S-300 “wouldn’t change much at all.”

“The S-300 is a fairly misunderstood strategic long-range air defence that’s very capable,” Omar Lamrani, a military analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical consulting firm, told Business Insider, adding that the system has a “general capability against all kinds of targets, but cruise missiles are not its core strength.”

The US has favoured cruise missile strikes in recent years because they’re unmanned aircraft that can fly over 1,000 miles to a target and hit it with incredible precision. This allows US platforms like bombers and Navy ships to stay out of harm’s way while punishing targets from range.

The problem with cruise missiles

The Tomahawk cruise missile, the US Navy’s munition of choice for these strikes, is just 20 inches in diameter. Without a pilot, it’s an incredibly small aircraft that can hug the terrain, weave in and out of mountains, and blow up within feet of its target. All of this makes it a nightmare to detect and track.

“The problem with cruise missiles is that they fly very low and you won’t be able to see them until they come very close,” said Lamrani, who noted that the S-300 is best at defending against high-flying aircraft.

In fact, the missile defences Russia would use against US cruise missiles, according to Lamrani, were already deployed and used in Syria, and according to the Pentagon, failed spectacularly.

According to Lamrani, Russia deploys point defences to S-300 batteries to defend against cruise missiles, as it knows the S-300 has limited capability in that arena. But the point defences, called Pantsirs, were already in use in Syria, and there’s no evidence so far they did anything but fire blindly at the sky after much of the attack had already taken place.

Days after the US’s strike, Syrian missile defences again fired blindly at nothing, this time claiming they were the victim of an electronic attack.

But even if Syria’s air defences had been operated competently against incoming cruise missiles, “the US would oversaturate these systems with Tomahawks,” Lamrani said.

If the US wants to strike, it will

The US has single submarines that can carry 150 or more Tomahawks, and it can throw down huge numbers of the missiles from ships all over the region. If Syria has 100 interceptors, the US can throw 200 missiles, and so on.

“A huge strike with dozens and dozens of cruise missiles will hit and do its damage,” said Lamrani.

In the end, while Russia and its Syrian ally may try to talk tough about its ability to keep back the US, the US has now hit Syria twice, and both times went unpunished.

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