The US Government claims that 100% of the 100 plus cruise missiles launched by the coalition it heads reached their targets on Syrian government chemical warfare connected sites.
Who should we believe?
The extreme nature of the US claim should inspire caution. No system functions at 100% efficiency and effectiveness. None. A very senior civilian colleague in DIA once asked me why sophisticated weapons so often malfunction or are otherwise defeated. I told her that it was simply a fact of life that in actual warfare “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” She resolutely stated that this should not be. “The manufacturers guarantee that they will work as advertised,” she insisted. “They lie,” I told her. “That’s business.” She was not happy with that answer, but it was the truth. There is no such thing as a perfectly functioning weapon system.
System malfunctions are only one of the many things that can and will go wrong in war.
Complex air defense systems like that in Syria should not be thought of as merely a collection of Surface to Air Missiles (SAM), air defense guns, radars and Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) jammers for use against the cruise missiles from ships or air launched missiles from aircraft.
These tools are not successfully used separately. In a well-designed system they are employed holistically as integrated parts of a whole linked together electronically with centralized air defense computers coordinating their effects. The radars detect their incoming targets, the jammers disrupt the navigation systems of the missiles and in many Russian systems then give the missiles a new and harmless target. The SAMS and Anti-Aircraft guns are tasked by the air defense computers and the hope on the defense side is that one does not run out of SAMS and ammunition before the attackers run out of missiles. In bygone years the Syrians were unable to integrate all these various systems to defeat their great enemy, Israel. That time has now passed and the Russo-Syrian air defense has become one integrated whole functioning according to the standards and discipline brought by the Russians even though the best of the Russian equipment present in Syria has not yet been committed to the fight.
It has been noted that a lot of the SAM systems presently in the hands of the Syrians are old Soviet era materiel. This is largely irrelevant. Such weapons systems are subject to repeated product improvement projects that essentially make them into new and more modern instruments of war.
This takes place in the supply chain of every military equipment manufacturing country in the world. If they do not do that, their equipment will have a short service life and is not worth buying when others do better. Good examples of product improvements are the service cycle of warships. These are repeatedly programmed for a year or so in a shipyard being modernized. Another is the venerable US B-52 heavy bomber. Named for the year they first went into service (1952) they continue to “soldier on” having been repeatedly made into modern aircraft through re-fits. On that model of design the Russo-Syrian air defense force should not be thought of as backward at all.
Russia has dedicated a lot of its limited industrial resources to refining old Soviet systems and developing many new ones. These have a great export potential as we have seen in Iran, Turkey and India so it is easy to justify the expenditure of so much in these projects,
The US has been committed to global war for seventeen years. This has been a special kind of war waged against Islamist guerrillas and terrorists worldwide. Such a war often demands equipment quite different from that used against states, especially a peer state. In that context relatively scarce funds have not been devoted to product improvement on things like TLAM (Tomahawk). Instead the funds available have been devoted to UAVs (drones) and the incredible costs of large ground forces in the absence of conscription. The Obama Administration liked to use the armed forces but did not think of them with anything like the high priority it gave to its social programs. The resulting sequester of defense funding played a role in the decline of US equipment efficacy against that of the Russians. There will be a change in that funding.
So what happened?
I am told by several foreign sources with access to the information needed to make a valid judgment that the Russians are correct. These people are friendly to the United States as are their governments. Over two thirds of the US coalition missiles failed to reach their targets. Why? All the reasons cited above must have played a role in this aerial defeat. Obsolescent weapons, a fully integrated air defense and skill brought to the fight.
There is an ongoing investigation to determine what is to be done to rectify the situation.
At the same time it is clear that there was an understanding between the governments to insure that Russian red lines were not crossed. The evidence for the Douma gas attack is non-existent. The film evidence has now been thoroughly de-bunked as part of the information operations (propaganda) of the White Helmets scheme funded by the Saudis and largely conducted by the UK info warriors of 77 Regiment. It seems clear that US DoD was not privy to that IO project and for that Reason SECDEF Mattis was blind-sided by the deception. The struck targets (successful or not) have long been known to the US IC as facilities of the former Syrian Government chemical warfare programs. The Russians were told to stay out of those areas and so a reasonable compromise was made with a president easily fooled by social media and under heavy pressure by a population equally easy to deceive.
Nevertheless, most of the missiles failed and that failure must be dealt with.