A Trump-Putin deal on S-400 not firing in Syria?

After President Donald Trump ordered an  air strike on the Syrian Shayrat Air Force Base in retaliation for the Syrian chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Shiekhoun, one of the biggest concerns for the USAF ops planners was the presence in the area of the deadly Russian S-400 air defence system.  Well, the slow-moving, low flying Tomahawk cruise missiles could have been shot out of the sky by the S-400. the question is why weren’t they fired?

One can speculate that there was a deal struck between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that permitted the US to carry out the strikes by 59 Tomahawks unmolested by the S-400 anti-aircraft missiles so long as the cruise missiles did not target the tarmac nor overly inconvenience the Syrian Air Force. Sure enough, as the Independent newspaper of London reports, Syrian attack aircraft, parked in hardened shelters dotting the air field, or flown out for the duration of the US attack, began staging out of this base the day after the cruise strikes. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/syria-air-strikes-us-bashar-al-assad-regime-air-base-bombed-shayrat-f-you-donald-trump-lindsey-a7675851.html)

In fact Trump lamely explained that other than the runways were targeted because modern technology facilitated very fast repairs and recovery and, implicitly, that the cruise missiles would be wasted. This raises the question: What exactly did the Tomahawks take out?

Apparently not the runways, nor the ATC paraphernalia. That leaves only the radar and communications systems. Perhaps, these were was knocked off but without destroying them fully. Otherwise, the air activity out of Shayrat couldn’t have resumed so quickly and without a decent interval for capability restoration.

Something smells here! And the odour is of a Trump-Putin deal — the US cries retribution and is allowed by Russia a minor score against Shayrat even as the Trump-Putin communications line is not endangered, kept open for future mutually beneficial transactions.  There’s no other explanation that so many cruise missile with great terminal accuracy do so little damage.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, Decision-making, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, Iran and West Asia, Missiles, Russia, russian military, United States, US., Weapons, West Asia, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to A Trump-Putin deal on S-400 not firing in Syria?

  1. raja says:


  2. mayura says:

    Bill Clinton had done the same eye wash when he is in thick of Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment proceedings..He had bombed Yogoslavia..a bomb destroyed the chinese embassy. Trump is repeating this farce by wasting Tomahawk missiles that cost 50 million a piece..poor US taxpayers are being taken to the cleaners by Trump

    • &^%$#@! says:

      The Chinese embassy in Belgrade was ostensibly bombed because bistatic radar systems were being tested there. At least that was one of the plausible reasons going around. These would have rendered the much vaunted stealth a/c employed by the US pretty ineffective. At least one F-117 Nighthawk was shot down, and some of the remains sent to Russia and China for study. Some of the pieces of the wreckage also ended up with Japanese tourists as souvenirs. It is strange (though perhaps not entirely unexpected) that India which has one of the most number of cellphone towers in the world is nowhere in the development and deployment of passive bistatic/multistatic radar systems.

  3. devraj says:

    Sir,if pakistan was neighbour of china and pak declared china as its enemy and irritate and threaten china by its nukes. I think china nuked pak years ago and wipe it from the map.not like india tolerating pak

  4. devraj says:

    Sir,if pak black mailed china by nukes and spread terror in china and mumbai like attack were done there from pak.then definitly chinese crushed pak without thinking of nuclear war.and pak used nukes then then chinese nuked them with multi megaton nukes.not like scary indian leaders and finished terrorism on cost of nuclear war and millions of deaths

  5. Siddharth Joshi says:

    I would suggest that two other factors need to be kept in mind while analyzing the U.S. Strikes in Syria.

    1) Syria had become a good testing/display theater for Russia to show off its new generation weapon systems to the world and Russia is hoping to capture a good portion of the growing world arms market through its foray into Syria. Russia is hoping that the S-400, the upgraded Pantsir and the SU-35 would become sought after weapon platforms after the world saw their deployment in a live theater. The Americans would not be too pleased with the halo the new generation Russian systems were getting and would definitely be worried that some of their old clients would consider the new generation Russian Systems in their next weapons purchase cycle. Was the Tomahawk strike also done to puncture some of the hype around the new generation Russian Systems particularly the S-400 Air defense platform marketed by the Russians as a “game changer”.

    2) Did the S-400 system stand down during the strike (as claimed by the Russians) or was it unable to do anything because the S-400 has a defensive perimeter of around 40 km for terrain hugging cruise missiles and the airbase/naval base where the S-400/300 are located are approximately 75-125 km from the airbase where the Tomahawks struck. If this is true-then did the Americans want to highlight this fact before the world i.e. that the effective range of the S-400 is 400 km or more for aircraft and ballistic missiles but against low flying cruise missiles it is only a perimeter of 40 km and that the S-400 is vulnerable to a swarm cruise/anti-radiation missile attack and more importantly is not the impregnable air defense system as hyped by the Russians.

    After all, thousands of jobs and billions of dollars are involved in the high stakes air defense market for the military-industrial complexes of both the United States and Russia. Traditional U.S. Clients like Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and some other GCC countries were as per press reports taking a serious look at the S-400 and the U.S. could not simply stand by and let the Russians muscle in on their clients. Thus undermining the credibility of the S-400 had become imperative. Whether that has been achieved is an issue open for discussion

  6. Siddharth Joshi says:

    To take your point a bit further
    1-A Putin-Trump deal however may not be cost free for Russia. Russia will appear like a unreliable ally who will ditch his client at the first sign of a face-off with a superpower. Iran will certainly take note of this and may moderate its behavior towards the United States. The “Strategic Resurgence” which Russia hopes to achieve on the basis of increased arms sales and the accompanying leverage that it brings to Russia all over of the world may be curtailed as Russia’s reputation will be tarnished
    2-If there was no deal between Trump and Putin then the Americans will use the opportunity to proclaim that they called the S-400 bluff of the Russians plus Mr Trump can show his domestic critics that he is no Russian puppet but rather has stared down the Russian leader on Syria

    Either way it looks that the American National Security team at the White House has played its cards well in the opening round. Russia will have to think of a creative response to this as in the weapons business “perception is reality”
    Siddharth Joshi

    • Russia become world’s laughingstock. Tomorrow USA will launch missiles into Russia and will say it is an accident. Earlier Obama was sissy. Putin the vlad. Putin didn’t nothing on Turkish shoot down on Russian plane. Trump again proved might is right. Reagan proved to Gorbie USSR can be finished, Now Trump shows he means business.Can Russia withstand a combined, joint US, NATO attack from the west and simultaneous Chinese invasion of Siberia?

  7. S3 says:

    Money quote here:

    “What happened to that Donald Trump — the one I voted for last November? How did we end up with George W. Bush the Second, with all this World Policeman stuff and God language and emoting?

    One possibility being aired: The President has been captured by his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, who is one of his senior advisors. Well, that Thursday night address was definitely more girly than guyish and more Gen-X than Boomer.” [1]

    I think we are heading for World War 3.

    [1] http://www.unz.com/jderbyshire/collapse-of-trumpism-on-war-and-immigration/

  8. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    @Siddharth Joshi

    The S-400 can be integrated to Pantsyr S-1 and the datalinks can be established upto 100 km away and such an integration would be redundant for a pure point defence role which Pantsyr S-1 already does. So I guess you can guess what for what role the integration is desirable.

    More importantly the S-400 in Syria are not for Syrian protection. They are there for Russian protection primarily and secondarily for protection of joint interests of Russians and Syrians. Syrians should have known this before playing hanky-panky at the world stage. This is similar to the P-8I which is useless for Indian Navy but very useful for a navy that is reconciled to a fate of a sidekick and the foreign masters that control such a sidekick navy. Hope you got the general idea.

    In the Indian context if we actually end up buying S-400 then a half-breed Indian system will get to fully replicate the Russian version by an integration of Indian BMD+Akash+Spyders+QRSAMs with the S-400. It is another matter that India will essentially have nothing at the other end to aim its S-400 at.

  9. Xi in Mar-a-Lago
    USA rains Tomahawks on Syria
    USA mulls F35 for Taiwan
    India invites DalaiLama to ‘SouthTibet’

    Was this coordinated? Probably, we will never know.

    Simultaneously USA also had another sub-matter – apart from cutting down China. It was to use China to soften up North Korea.

    Also we have to remember that most BMD systems including S300-/400-500 family are all designed for parabolic ballistic missiles. They are pretty ineffective against sub-sonic, lumbering terrain-hugging, Tomahawks, that have nearly a nearly zero IR heat signature.

    • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

      CM killers usually do not rely on the IR channel. Pantsyr has for example one EO channel which handles only 1 threat. EO channel may instead be a data fusing line. Radars, especially if the network of sensors are properly deployed, are still great at killing a lot of things.

      • Pantsyr’s capabilities, while impressive, also has significant shortcomings against cruise missiles.

        EO depends on weather-related visibility, altitude of incoming missile, terrain in the vicinity, target location, especially if ground-based. Which boils down to limited applications.

        IR will depends on temperature differential – which on hot day, with a cool running Tomahawk will be ineffective.

        Data-fusion again depends on EO-IR-Radar inputs. A super-dense, short-range-low-altitude radar network could be effective against a limited cruise missile firing. Do any of the Syria players have that?

        If 60-Tomahawks converge from differing vectors – kaput! And we are still talking of ancient, slow-speed, lumbering Tomahawks.

        Against, slightly faster, terrain-hugging, non-linear cruise-missile, in real life has, there is no real defense.

      • Also all these complex scenarios play out differently in the fog-of-war.

        Recall how INS-Hanit shut off its missile defense system as it was prone to fire missiles at fraternal objects. The IFF seemingly does not work perfectly with missile defense systems.

        So, the soldier in the firing line takes his own decision.

        In the Hanit incident, shut down such complex systems that may malfunction in battle conditions was the firing line decision.

  10. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Re. @Anuraag – “Data-fusion again depends on EO-IR-Radar inputs. A super-dense, short-range-low-altitude radar network could be effective against a limited cruise missile firing. Do any of the Syria players have that?”
    There are 3 separate issues here that need clarifying.

    First is that in the Syrian war which is a 4th Gen Hybrid war imposed by Americans, nobody needs or intends to bring along the kind of network you mention. Managing that kind of dense short-range-low-altitude network is out of the capability set of Syrians. From the information I last gleaned on the net the radars that Russians brought along are deployed on the bases they themselves control, completely outside the control of the Syrians.

    Second issue is the defending of Syria like land-mass (750 km from south of Damascus to north west of Mosul) from swarm-CM attacks, with or without terrain masking benefits. For this later requirement, there is no need to rely on any of the EO/IR channels.

    For active hunting of a swarm-CM attack most likely and basic deployment of radars would be a combination of:
    1) Forward scatter trip wire system working on less than 10 watt RF output in a thin 3 km x 40 km corridor designed to cue the VHF radars.

    2) VHF/UHF radars with a range of 150-250 km (bubble of 300-500 km) which will go active for a very small time slice in a very small region of the atmosphere. VHF in turn would provide the early warning to the Pantsyr.

    3) Pantsyr itself would rely on the on-board PESA which in turn would go active only for the a few seconds of engagement in a very thin slice of the atmosphere. Ultimately hunting down 3 targets of HARM sized missiles. All the while working in either overlapping SAM fields (in the plains) or lying in ambush along probable approach paths (in the mountains).

    This is a very sparse network that works only when needed. You could additionally deploy low altitude radars to achieve a very dense sensor coverage too. But that would be necessary only when say China and India decide to slug it out. Syrians do not deserve that much defending.

    Third issue is the Pantsyr EO/IR channel. Which is a 3-5 micron band sensor and will work only against very hot targets (aircraft engines). It may be for silent kills of aircrafts which are expected to bring along very high powered jammers, sufficient to flummox the Pantsyr on-board PESA. The kind of jammer that the Swarm-CM will most likely not deploy till 10-15 years into the future when the CHAMP will get deployed.

    The EO channel works cooperatively &/or independently the PESA radar and used only to cue the solitary SAM that the EO/IR channel can guide, most likely in a cooperative fashion alongwith other Pantsyr units. For example, two/three fourships of F-16s try to enter the airspace defended by you, me and several others. You are deployed with your Pantsyr unit about 10-20-30 km further ahead of me at the edge of the battlefield and your radar was evaded by the on-board jammer and your EO/IR channel was messed up by counter measures. You hit none. But you are able to provide basic sketchy information to me and the NEBO behind me before being bombed out of existence by the F-16s. The NEBO behind me tells me that there are no F-117 or B-2 or F-35 around me and only the incoming bogie is the one that needs to be taken care of. So I open up my PESA and the EO channel. I fire four missiles 3 guided by my on board radar (backed up by ECCM) and 1 by my EO channel. The aircrafts are able to evade the 2 radar guided SAMs despite my counter-counter-measures but the 1 EO guided SAM and the 1 radar guided SAM get their targets for good. There is another guy behind me who gets similarly cued in and does all of the same again. By the time the fourship reaches our base, the density of Pantsyr reaches a crescendo while the fourships have thinned out to two ships or less and the two ships decides to abort mission.

    Something like this is also possible for Akash SAM if it is developed into Akash-2 and Akash-3 etc.

    • Unrelated to earlier comments, but what in your estimate is the:

      1. Pakistani
      2. Chinese

      capacity to bring CMs to an anti-India battlefield?

      Any range?

      100-300; 250-500; 400-800; 760-1250; 1000-1500; 1250-2000…?

      Coming to comments above:

      Many undefined assumptions above:

      1. Swarm like CM: Which CM; over what distance; fired at whom; moving at speed?

      2. That would define the distance from where ‘Forward scatter trip wire system’ that you describe.

      3. This would of course be based on the speed of interceptor missiles.

      4. Also the probable CM missile target and the location of the missile interceptors?

      5. All of this again needs a definition if the defended area is a static or a dynamic battlefield situation.

      6. But this is getting out of context.

      7. The context here is clearly and limited to 59 Tomahawks from USA fired at Syrian targets; with warning given to Russia; based on which the airfield was probably secured; allowing a rather anodyne chest-thumping by USA and placating USA neo-cons lobby.

      My comments is related to that. You rather informed rejoinders are more general.

      • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

        I don’t keep track of the equipment and force levels. That level of detailing is best left to professionals.

        But to hazard a guess, I would expect the Pakis to bring along at least 1/10th the CM+SRBM inventory of China.

        The Chinese numbers have been very sketchy. For example on Page 47-48 (pages 87-88 of following pdf) the estimates of just the CM are given as 450–1,250:
        A note also says:
        In 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense reported that, in total, China had “at least 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles.”12
        12 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015, April 2015 p. 8.

        A note in the accompanying executive brief says:
        “1 We assume that it takes eight hours to repair a single runway cut, 75 percent
        of missiles reach their targets, the missiles have a 50-meter circular error
        probable, China has perfect intelligence about the results of the attacks, and
        the entire missile inventory is used in runway attacks. Because the number of
        missiles available in 2010 and the projected number in 2017 are uncertain, we
        provide a range of estimates for each year.”

        I would readily admit that the Americans in their studies can begin to speak both ways to forward whatever emerging agenda they may have. Thus I would not like to comment on the estimates.

      • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

        Also, not strictly CM but :

        According to the U.S. Department of Defense, China possesses up to 1,800 theater-range landbased ballistic and cruise missiles, most of which are mounted on road-mobile transportererector-launchers and are thus capable of hiding and relocating in China’s complex terrain.9

        9 U.S. Department of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2012,” May 2012, 29,

        If I presume Pakis at 1/10th the CM+SRBM levels of China (all directed against India) and for China, to match Pakis, in the chinese stance against us then the CMs ranged against India could be:
        Lower side = 450/10*2 = 90
        Higher side = 1750/10*2 = 350
        Per the RAND study the SRBMs would be over and above the CM count. The RAND study estimated the SRBM at a further 1200 in 2017.

        But per the report to US congress it could be about 1,800 BM+CM in 2015.

        May be we should go with the arthematic mean for no good reason and that would bring us to an equally no good number of 220 = (350+90)/2.

  11. Old report says #India has already deployed 200 Brahmos!

    If China has about 2000 missiles and Pakistan has 200; China wont use up more than 200; Pakistan may use all 200; so in a 2-front war, we are talking of about countering ~500 missiles!

    Non-nuclear of course. This excludes things like
    MBRL (SMERCH; Pinaka; types)
    Older missiles: Buk, OSA
    Manpads: Strela; IGLA etc.

    So the radar, BMD, Anti-missile sheild etc will need to keep this kind of figure I guess!

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