On 23 September, a coalition led by the United States began an aerial bombardment campaign against ISIS targets in Syria. The strikes come as a response from the Obama Administration to the growing threat of both ISIS and other extremist groups training and operating out of Syria.
A video released by the Department of Defense following the initial push into Syria gave a glimpse into the mindset of the AFCENT planners as they selected the assets required for the mission. With the exception of employing the Lockheed-Martin F-22A Raptor for the first time in combat, perhaps most notable were the F-16CJs loaded for SEAD/DEAD with AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARMs), GBU-12 laser-guided 500-pound bombs, and GBU-38 500-pound JDAMs. Don’t forget the Lockheed-Martin Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod and the HTS pod.
Why was there the need for Wild Weasels when going after a group like ISIS? Do they have their own Integrated Air Defense System (IADS), complete with SAMs, MANPADS, and Triple-A?
No, they don’t. But the Syrian military does. The same Syrian military under the control of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad–who we all know is not the most trustworthy guy on the planet.
If we take a look at all the countries in the eastern Mediterranean area, the one with the most extensive and well-equipped IADS is indeed Syria. There are more than twenty sites providing the Syrian Air Defense Command with early warning capability. They’ve placed a huge focus on their air defense; approximately two thousand Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) batteries dot the landscape, in addition to more than twice as many Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs)–including the more capable SA-5 “Gammon” and SA-6 “Gainful.”
As a result of getting their asses handed to them by the Israelis on different occasions, most notably during the Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot of 1982, the Syrians re-structured and re-deployed an air defense system based on Russian-designed (and supplied) command and control systems, computerized air defense centers coordinating both the SAM batteries and fighter interceptors in classic, GCI-based fashion.
As one might expect, the prioritization of the Syrian IADS is directed to the south and west–especially around the capitol of Damascus, thereby addressing potential threats originating in Israel or coming from the direction of the Mediterranean sea. In the last decade or so, the Assad regime has seen fit to prepare for aerial incursion from the direction of Iraq, given the dominating presence of western air power over that country during Operation Iraqi Freedom/New Dawn.
The main concern was the potential for itchy trigger-fingers on the part of the Assad regime, so AFCENT planners elected to mitigate the risk by employing a robust SEAD/DEAD contingency, as well as calling on the 5th-Generation capabilities of the F-22. The initial wave of the mission was conducted exclusively with standoff weaponry–Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles fired by U.S. Navy destroyers. The next wave was predominantly U.S. aircraft, with the Raptors up front for the obvious reason: no one knew exactly how Assad would react once push came to shove and the United States made good on its promise to act against ISIS.
“While the United States did inform the Syrian regime through our U.N. ambassador of our intent to take action, there was no coordination and no military-to-military communication,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations and DoD Spokesman, said on 23 September in his initial post-strike briefing to members of the media.
The strikers following in behind the F-22s, among them Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles, Rockwell B-1B Lancer strategic bombers, Lockheed-Martin F-16Cs, and other assets, were no-doubt under the watchful eye of the Block 50/52 F-16s and their specialized Wild Weasel mission. The video below shows them taking on gas from a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker.
The third wave of aircraft included carrier-based platorms–Super Hornets as strikers and EA-6B Prowlers (also carrying HARMs to deal with the potential IADS threat) for jamming and suppression. These aircraft struck targets in the far eastern portions of the Syrian frontier.
Thankfully, the air defense radars never came up, and the aircraft taking part in the campaign were able to operation with impunity as they delivered their precision-guided munitions on their ISIS targets.
“The target acquisition last night, radar acquisition on the part of Syria I would characterize as passive,” Lieutenant General William Mayville, Director for Operations (J-3) for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated in a response to questions about the activity of the Syrian IADS during the first night of airstrikes.
Thanks to three years of civil war, the air defense structure inside Syria has been significantly degraded, with Assad pulling the ADC troops to augment other forces fighting against the rebels. In that process, several SAM sites and Triple-A batteries had been compromised, falling into the hands of the rebels. Had the IADS been full-up and active, we would have seen a much, much different approach to the air campaign, and it probably would have taken some time for the SEAD/DEAD mission to run its course before the airspace would have been safe enough for other, non-LO assets to prosecute their missions.