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.
«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…