If the US strikes Syria, China would get to see just how well some of its radars and electronic warfare (EW) emitters perform in combat.
Among the Chinese systems deployed by the Syrian military are the JYL-1 3-D long-range surveillance radar, Type 120 (LLQ120) 2D low-altitude acquisition radar, and JY-27 VHF long-range surveillance radar, according to Richard Fisher, a senior fellow with the US-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.
China would no doubt digest any performance data for use in a potential conflict with the US, which could be sparked by disputes over Taiwan, Senkaku Island or the South China Sea.
But the lessons would flow both ways. The Pentagon would scoop up wartime electronic emissions from the Chinese systems, and moreover, could test its own methods of countering the kind of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies and technologies that China is developing.
Fisher said the multiple types of Chinese radar strongly suggest that Beijing has been “providing much of the secure electronic infrastructure critical to the regime’s survival.”
He said Beijing has in the past used Chinese telecommunications firms to “militarily support its dictator clients” against the US. In the late 1990s, such firms linked Saddam Hussein’s radars via fiberoptic cables to better target US aircraft enforcing the U.S. no-fly zone.
“American fighter-bombers were actually bombing these cable nodes, that the Chinese would then rebuild,” he said.
A more urgent question is just how much of a threat the Chinese-augmented air-defense system would pose to attacking US planes.
Syria has 120 surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites armed with a mix of Russian and old Soviet systems: SA-2, SA-3, SA-5, and SA-6. It has 50 EW facilities with a mix of Chinese and Russian systems, said Sean O’Connor, editor of IMINT & Analysis, a US-based newsletter.
Modern Chinese EW radars can detect US low-observable aircraft and perhaps even very-low-observable ones, O’Connor said. Particularly effective are the two 500-km JY-27 radars delivered in 2006, now deployed north and south of the city of Palmyra in central Syria.
“The range of the JY-27 permits either site to monitor the bulk of Syrian airspace, along with a significant amount of the surrounding region,” he said.
Little is known directly about the less-capable Type 120 radar, but it is a derivative of the JY-29/LSS-1 2D radar, which can track 72 targets out to 200 km.
“The more refined Type 120 may improve on these specifications, but they are a logical baseline,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor said the Type 120 likely acquires only range and azimuth data, making it best suited to supporting other radars. He said that China itself deploys the 120 with the HQ-9 and HQ-12 SAM systems, but that Syria might use it as a dedicated EW asset.
Syria has four Type 120 radar sites: Dar Ta`izzah, Baniyas, Tartus, and Kafr Buhum, O’Connor said. The JY-29s were initially misidentified in Syria as the F-band radar JY-11B Hunter-1 radars.
The 320-km JYL-1 3D radar is deployed at Kafr Buhum, O’Connor said. The radar has been misidentified in the past as the Chinese-built YLC-2V High Guard 3D long-range surveillance radar.
There is some question as to whether the Chinese sensors can pass data directly to the Soviet-era weapons, O’Connor said.
“A lack of interoperability would require voice transmission of target track data between nodes, a potential source for error and a signal likely to be targeted for interference if transmitted openly,” he said.
The US has reasonable information about Chinese radars, but what the US most likely lacks is an understanding on “Chinese EW game play,” said John Wise, UK-based radar analyst and creator of the radars.org.uk website.
Wise said the US and NATO have a distinct advantage in their ability to exercise hostile EW through the remit of the NATO Joint Electronic Warfare Core Staff.
“Tactical EW exercising is held as a very high priority in Western maritime operations, game play which has been extended to tactical exercises on land and NATO forces have the advantage of the experience from these exercises,” he said. “We do not know how the Syrian land army might respond in the face of hardhitting EW, assuming it recognizes it soon enough to actually respond.”
But there are no guarantees, he said.
“It would be wholly wrong of me to suggest that US jamming against any particular Chinese radar would be successful because of the variable factors,” which include range between jammer and target, element of surprise, and available jamming power per Mhz.
“As to false target generation, that can fox the best of radar operators if sensibly applied when least expected.” he said. “Timing of EW applications can be a critical factor.”
A key question is “whether Syria has come to grips with the operation of its Chinese equipment sufficiently to understand the difference between the results of black and noise jamming on radar displays,” Wise said.
Another question is whether Assad might have learned from Libya’s unsuccessful EW and air-defense efforts against NATO forces in 2011.
Ultimately, O’Connor believes Syria’s integrated air defense system cannot defeat a large-scale attack by the US and NATO. Despite the new Chinese systems, Syria still relies heavily on aging Russian and Soviet technology that has been encountered before by US and NATO forces.
“The bulk of the network does not represent a significant threat to modern combat aircraft, although any threat system should be regarded as potentially dangerous,” O’Connor said.
For example, the 250-km SA-5 SAM system can threaten intelligence-surveillance-radar aircraft and aerial tankers, he said.
O’Connor also said no one should expect Syrian rebels to degrade the government’s integrated air defense. The civil war has so far had little impact on the overall network, and the Syrian military retains control of the bulk of EW and SAM assets.
Will the US lose aircraft over Syria? In December 1983, two US Navy aircraft, one A-7E Corsair and an A-6E Intruder, were shot down while attacking Syrian air defense sites.