The Role of Airpower in International Relations: The S300/S400 SAM and the Offence-Defence Balance

There are three types of airpower; (1) close air support for large scale ground operations (2) strategic bombing of urban-industrial-command and control targets (3) colonial use of airpower in support of military interventionism.

All three have been enduring features of international relations since the advent of airpower.

Russia has completed delivery of the export version of the S300 surface to air missile system to Iran, and has deployed the S400 system to Syria in support of its own military operations. Other states have expressed interest in the new generation of Russian surface to air missile systems.

Both systems are highly capable, but how they would fare in combat against US aircraft is not terribly well known.

The October War of 1973 demonstrated the ability of Soviet surface to air missiles to shoot down Israeli aircraft, that is advanced Western aircraft, to good effect as the IAF arrogantly charged Egyptian airspace.

In 1973 the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal under the protection of SA2 and SA6 surface to air missiles, and they did a good job of protecting Egyptian ground forces from Israeli air attack. Egypt’s ground forces crossed the Canal but did not advance beyond its SAM cover. For political reasons, to support Syrian armour coming under Israeli counter attack in the Golan Heights, Egyptian ground forces advanced beyond the cover of its surface to air missiles and the tide of war decisively changed.

The Sagger wire guided anti-tank missiles did the same to Israeli armour.

By the early 1980s the offence-defence balance changed. This was demonstrated in a decisive fashion during the battle of the SAMs in the Bekaa Valley, that is during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Here the Israeli air force effortlessly destroyed Syrian SA2, SA3 and SA6 SAM batteries, using anti-radiation missiles among other new technological advances.

In part, this shift in the balance was the reason why the United States Air Force has enjoyed absolute air superiority in every conflict that the United States armed forces have been engaged in from the 1980s onward. From the Gulf War of 1991 to today, the United States Air Force has skies the ruled much like in yesteryear Britannia waved the rules.

During NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999 this superiority was qualified. The Yugoslav air defence command did not have access to systems any more advanced than the SA2 and the SA6, but it did manage to deny NATO a tactical objective, namely the destruction of Belgrade’s integrated air defence system (integrated as in integrated C3I).

This meant that US-NATO air power did not venture much below a definite floor, which prevented the attrition of Yugoslav ground forces in Kosovo. Even though the regular Albanian army, and UCK, forces, backed by NATO air power, attacked Yugoslav army positions at Kosare nonetheless the front did not collapse and the battle resulted in stalemate. The inability to knock out Yugoslavia’s integrated air defence system had, additionally, important political effects that influenced the evolution of the war.

The commander of Yugoslavia’s air force and air defence command, General Spasoje Smiljanic, has published a book about the war, Agresija NATO, which I am due to get in the mail (it’s in Serbo-Croat but it should be translated).

US absolute air superiority, surely, has been an important structural feature of contemporary international relations. It makes it easier for the United States to employ military firepower, both with respect to the enemy but also with respect to domestic politics. This is most especially so with regard to the third type of airpower, i.e. colonial.

What would happen if, should US-Russian relations continue to deteriorate, S300 and S400 SAM batteries proliferate?

US strategic planners understand that domestic support for military interventionism is thin. Matters are not like the early 1960s when Kennedy, LBJ and the action intellectuals could bomb South Vietnam at will, that is without fear of arousing a concerned citizenry.

That is why, in part, the Pentagon adopted the strategy of “rapid dominance” or, as popularly known “shock and awe” from the late 90s onward. With the cold war pretext gone it became harder to garner and maintain support for interventionism. It is understood that US armed forces need to achieve rapid dominance before antiwar political movements mobilise in the United States.

I personally doubt whether, as some claim, especially Russians, that the S300 and S400 can pluck from the sky F-35, F-22 and B2 aircraft at will. However, by altering the offence-defence balance that has prevailed since the early 1980s the political calculus that has supported military interventionism changes.

We won’t know how this will play out until we get our generation’s battle of wits between offensive airpower and defensive surface to air missiles.

Will it be like the Sinai 1973 or the Bekaa in 1982?

We might get an answer to that question sooner than we think.

Here’s a cool Al Jazeera documentary on the October War of 1973.