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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Rumbling in Cypriot Skies




Despite continuing international pressure the Cyprus government is pressing ahead with its plan to deploy Russian


S-300 PMU1 antiaircraft missiles. Last week Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides announced that only a commitment by Turkey to fully demilitarize the island and withdraw the 30,000 Turkish troops that have occupied northern Cyprus since 1974 may prevent the deployment.


The Greek government opposes the deployment of the missiles in Cyprus to avoid being dragged into hostilities with Turkey, which has threatened to use military force to prevent it. Instead the Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis has proposed to deploy the Russian S-300s out of harm's way on the Greek island of Crete. Last week a high-ranking Greek diplomat told me: "We are pressing Clerides very hard. He is still resisting, but I believe he will agree in the end. We have also told the Russian authorities not to worry - the missiles will be bought by Greeks and paid in full no matter where they are deployed. The Greek government's position is firm - the S-300 contract will be honored."


Deploying the S-300s on Crete is strategically senseless, but Russia is today no longer playing the Big Game in the Mediterranean as it was during the Cold War. Today Russia sells arms to earn money, no more, no less. From Moscow's point of view, the Greeks can take those rockets and put them any place they wish, as long as they pay in full. Since 1996 Russian authorities and arms traders have been afraid that outside pressure will in the end curtail the deal. The Russian government has used all means available, diplomatic and unofficial, to push the sale of the S-300s. Now Russian arms traders can, apparently, relax and see what happens next.


However, for the Greeks and Turks the show may just be beginning. Hard pressed by anti-Turkish public opinion back home, Clerides has not only rejected Greek pressure to put the S-300s on Crete, but also said last week that the final deployment of the new antiaircraft missiles may be announced in the coming weeks, maybe even by the New Year.


The Turkish military has pledged to attack the new Russian missiles immediately. Turkey has a formidable air force of 200 new F-16s and 140 older F-4 jets. But all these aircraft cannot attack in one pack. The time of massive close formation air rides has long passed. So the S-300s have a chance to distinguish themselves by decimating the waves of attacking F-16s. An unprecedented clash of the most modern military technology seems to be in the offing.


In Vietnam and in the Middle East war of 1973, Soviet-made antiaircraft missiles successfully decimated Western-made air forces. In more recent wars in the Persian Gulf in 1991 and in Bosnia in 1995 modern Western warplanes paid retribution by successfully destroying old Soviet-made, Vietnam-era SAMs. But immediately after the 1991 war Russian air defense officers were telling me: "If there had been a few S-300 batteries around Baghdad, the U.S. airmen would have noted the difference."


The Turkish air force is modern, but not as sophisticated as the U.S.-led joint forces that launched successful attacks on Bosnia and Iraq. The Turks do not have stealth bombers or long-range cruise missiles. Turkish electronic warfare capabilities are limited. If the S-300 are as good as the Russian military say they are, the Greeks may have a chance to fight back efficiently.


The main problem is that the S-300 has never been tested in battle. At test ranges the S-300 is quoted to shoot down over 90 percent of all targets. But in real battle pre-war efficiency ratings of military hardware always fall dramatically. Russian officers say that the S-300 antiaircraft system is controlled by ancient mainframe computers that tend to be moody and crash from time to time. Russian officers that man the S-300s in the Russian armed forces say that the quality and training of the crew that runs the command center of a S-300 battery is most important. Greek-Cypriot officers and men have been training for more than a year in Russia to master the S-300, but Russian officers say this may be not enough.


However, many Russians are hoping that in Cyprus the S-300 will in the end knock some modern Western planes out of the sky. Up to now China has bought four batteries of S-300s and Cyprus has bought one battery (each battery has up to 12 launchers and each launcher has four ready-use rockets). Syria is considering a possible purchase of S-300s, but all other potential buyers are hesitant. The S-300 badly needs a real-time promotion in the skies over Cyprus.


Pavel Felgenhauer is the chief defense correspondent of Segodnya.