Dr. Can Kasapoglu
In the course of the civil war, Syria has become a testing ground for missiles. Assad’s forces, the Russian Navy, and recently, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) combat tested very important missiles in their arsenals. Implications of this trend could shape the regional military balance in the years to come.
Russian Navy’s Kalibr Revolution
Shortly after its Syria intervention kicked off, Russia caught the global defense community off-guard by launching Kalibr cruise missiles from the Caspian Flotilla. The missiles traveled some 1,500 kilometers and passed through Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian airspace to hit their targets. To date, these strikes have continued from surface and submarine platforms.
The recent Kalibr breakthrough of the Russian Navy should be analyzed in light of several key parameters. Firstly, the operational concept itself is considered a turning point for the Russian military doctrine, since Moscow’s traditional approach to long-range missiles had been centered on either nuclear warheads delivery or strategic defensive weapon systems. On the other hand, through the Kalibr launches, Russia is building and testing its burgeoning long-range precision strike capabilities.
Secondly, Kalibr missiles are gaining even more importance for Russia’s growing submarine presence in the Mediterranean. The Russian Navy’s first submarine launch of Kalibr missiles into Syrian territory took place in December 2015. Since then, this trend has continued. Furthermore, coupled with the missile developments, the Russian Navy’s rising strategic posture is noteworthy. In this respect, in early 2016, NATO’s Maritime Commander stated that reports suggest that Russian submarine activity is at its peak level since the Cold War. The Mediterranean is no exception to this. Some experts even claimed that the 5th Eskadra, the Soviet Mediterranean Squadron, might be rejuvenating.
Technologically, one of the biggest achievements of the Russian defense industry with the Kalibr family is the missile’s advanced guidance, which allows it to be used as a long-range precision strike weapon of choice. According to open-source military assessments, Kalibr cruise missiles’ accuracy relies on a combination of GLONASS-based satellite navigation systems, a terrain profile component, and an inertial navigation system. This complex is augmented with advanced capabilities in the terminal homing phase when the missile makes its final dive on the target.
In sum, the Russian Navy, both its surface combatants and submarines, have shown their new strategic role in the Syrian theater. From now on, any Kalibr-related modernization would go well beyond the scope of the Syrian civil war. Rather, it would be about the Russian-NATO military balance in a broader sense.
Baathist regime’s Scuds
The Syrian Baathist regime has also gained a notorious but militarily important experience in missile and rocket operations in the course of the civil war. Apart from other missiles and rockets, Assad’s forces conducted their first Scud-type short-range ballistic missile launch by the end of 2012. In early 2013, the regime continued to hit Aleppo with Scud missiles that were mostly launched from mobile platforms deployed in Damascus. The problematic circular error probability (CEP) of the Scud family of missiles, which makes them highly inaccurate in conventional missions, as well as the regime’s intentional targeting of populated areas, caused massive civilian casualties resulting from these strikes.
At this point, the critical question is how the Syrian Arab Armed Forces will digest lessons learned from its missile operations, and how they will shape their future strategic weapons modernization trends. For instance, two decades ago, another Baathist military machine of the Middle East, Saddam Hussein’s missile forces, managed to master their experience in Scud-derivatives in light of the experience gained from the Iran-Iraq War. Baghdad launched hundreds of ballistic missiles at the time. Consequently, Iraq developed two main Scud variants, al-Hussein with a range of around 600 kilometers, and al-Abbas with a longer range of 750-900 km. Furthermore, military assessments estimated that by the beginning of the 1990s, Iraqi forces managed to reduce the Soviet–manufactured liquid-fuel Scud-B missile’s 90-minute launch cycle to some 30 minutes. Coupled with the fact that Scud missiles are carried by mobile transporter-erector-launchers (TEL), the reduced launch cycle points to a grave risk factor by minimizing the reaction time for the target country.
When it comes to the Syrian Baathist regime’s Scuds, we have three important problems. Firstly, there is no comprehensive open-source assessment of the Assad’s forces’ progress in launch cycles and accuracy. Secondly, the chemical disarmament deal has proved a failure in practice. The Syrian Baath’s military apparatus managed to retain offensive chemical warfare capabilities, including nerve agents. Moreover, the regime’s biological warfare program remained intact. Therefore, there are firm grounds to take chemical, and possibly biological warhead-tipped ballistic missiles into consideration, if not now, then for the near future. And thirdly, Syria’s ballistic missile arsenal falls under the tight control of the regime’s praetorian units, primarily the 4th Armored Division. Thus, they are regarded as the crown jewels of regime security. Most probably, Assad and his entourage would strive to maintain the missile capabilities in any reconciliation scenarios. In fact, Syria’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) disarmament roadmap drastically differed from that of Iraq, as there has been no international pressure on Damascus regarding either its missile arsenal -- as delivery means for WMDs -- or the biological weapons research program.
Iran’s missile breakthrough
On June 18, 2017, the Revolutionary Guards launched six Zolfiqar ballistic missiles -- the latest derivative of the solid-fueled tactical Fateh-110 line -- from western Iran into Deir ez-Zor, Syria. The strike marked Tehran’s first combat missile operation since the Iran-Iraq War.
Apart from political-military muscle-flexing amid regional escalations in the Middle East, Iran was able to actually judge the performance of one of its newest missiles, which was first displayed in September 2016. Although the flight path of the missiles is estimated to be 500-600 km, contrary to some speculations suggesting 800 km, still the strike showed Iran’s sophistication in solid-fueled missile design, flight characteristics, and possibly propellant. The lesson learned from the recent operation could be translated into tangible military gains for Iranian missile forces at both tactical (Fateh-110, Fateh-313 and Zolfiqar missiles) and strategic (Sejjil-2 and under-development Sejjil-3 missiles) levels.
For many aspects of defense modernization, no tests can compensate for combat record. Assad’s forces, the Russian Navy, and finally, the IRG have all employed key missiles in their arsenals in the “Syrian testbed’”. As a result, Moscow is building its long-range conventional precision strike concepts in light of the Kalibr cruise missile launches; the Syrian regime combat-tested its Scuds; and the Iranians gained a real reference in judging the potential of Fateh-110 derivative tactical ballistic missiles. In order to see the broader effects of this uptrend, it remains to be seen how regional missile defense programs will be shaped to adapt to burgeoning threats.
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