Russian surface-to-air missile systems seen in Syria are now appearing much farther north
As Russia’s Northern Fleet is responsible for the security of northwestern Russia, it also plays a key role in Russia’s attempts to gain a strategic foothold in the Arctic. The Northern Fleet is regarded as a key element in Russia’s Arctic policy so has seen growing fast-paced modernization efforts. As part of these efforts, Russia is bolstering the fleet’s defense systems — most importantly with surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems.
After the U.S. attacked Syria’s Shayrat Airbase with Tomahawk missiles in April 2017, Russia stationed S-400 “Triumph” (NATO reporting name SA-21 Growler) SAM systems in Syria. These systems are designed to be able to defend against missile attacks similar to the April 2017 attack. Now, the same S-400 Triumph SAM systems guard the shipyards in Severodvinsk, one of the northernmost parts of Russia.
The S-400 Triumph surface-to-air missile system
Until the S-400 SAM systems arrived in April, S-300 “Favorit” (NATO reporting name SA-10 Grumble) systems, a previous generation of SAM technology, were used in Severodvinsk since 1981. According to Russian media sources, the new S-400 Triumph SAM system an upgraded version of the S-300 systems with significantly better tactical and technical capabilities in terms of efficiency, coverage, and diversity of targets. The S-400 Triumph SAM system is a particularly versatile weapon — it is an anti-aircraft system with the added ability to target ground forces.
The northern flank
The Northern Fleet is responsible for the defense of Russia’s northern flank. The fleet commands a number of naval bases and shipyards along the Kola Peninsula and on the shores of the White Sea. This area includes Severodvinsk, a port town in Arkhangelsk Oblast that is of upmost strategic importance to Russia. Severodvinsk is home to “SevMash” and “Zvezdochka” — some of the biggest Russian shipbuilding companies specializing in building and repairing nuclear submarines for the Russian fleet.
The city itself is protected by three major military bases, as well as by other support units: two SAM batteries (below, labeled as “SAM Battery #1” and “SAM Battery #2”), one chemical warfare unit, and one SAM radio locating system. The main purpose of this entire anti-aircraft defense complex is to ensure reliable air protection of the White Sea Naval Base and of the Severodvinsk companies SevMash and Zvezdochka.
On April 29, 2017, a news report released on various Russian media platforms stated that new S-400 Triumph SAM systems would be joining the Northern Fleet. These reports briefly mentioned that new systems would be deployed to the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk oblasts, once the operating crews received a few months of training at Khmeimim Airbase in Syria.
Video footage provided in the news reports reveals more details about the modernization of the Northern Fleet’s military capabilities:
SAM Battery #1
All of the news report’s video footage above was of SAM Battery #1. The news report shows a military formation and an official troop rotation ceremony. An S-75 “Dvina” (NATO reporting name SA-2 Guideline) rocket that was established as a monument in the area, and that can be seen in the footage, serves as a landmark for geolocating the exact coordinates of the battery.
Furthermore, satellite images of the location suggest that there are at least 12 S-400 Triumph missile launchers deployed at SAM Battery #1.
The S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft missile systems at SAM Battery #1 include: a combat control center with radar detection; up to six anti-aircraft missile systems, each with a radar system and up to 12 launchers; two types of anti-aircraft guided missiles; attached facilities including a low-level early-warning radar system (the 76N6 Clam Shell), a mobile tower for an antenna post, and a Flap Lid (40V6MR) radar to extend the radar horizon and improve use in uneven terrain.
SAM Battery #2 and radio locating system
Even though SAM Battery #2 and the radio locating system were not mentioned in the news report, open source analysis provides some insight into these defense units.
Similar to SAM Battery #1, SAM Battery #2 is equipped with a low-level early-warning radar system (the 76N6 Clam Shell), a mobile tower for an antenna post, and a Flap Lid (40V6MR) radar. Satellite images also suggest that there are at least 12 S-400 Triumph missile launchers deployed at SAM Battery #2.
The SAM radio locating system is located between the two SAM batteries. The most recognizable object at this base is the large spherical radar system RLS 5N25 “Argun” (РЛС 5Н25 Аргунь), part of an old Soviet multi-channel firing system. Whether this radar is currently active and used in conjunction with the SAM batteries is unknown. Nonetheless, based on satellite images taken within the past few years, it seems likely that the base is active.
The Khmeimim Military Airbase
The most interesting aspect of the upgrade of the Severodvinsk military bases was only briefly mentioned in the news report on the subject. The report notes that the newly deployed S-400 Triumph missiles were introduced into Severodvinsk after a training program at the Khmeimim Military Airbase in Syria.
Further evidence of the S-400 Triumph missiles’ having been in Syria appears in a Russian Military TV show. Despite the TV show host’s claim that the exact location of the missiles is classified, the video footage reveals their location to be an eastern part of the Khmeimim Military Airbase.
Russian TV show footage and satellite images suggest that the Russian military stationed considerable anti-aircraft forces in Syria. The images show at least 4 S-400 Triumph missile launchers, a low-level early-warning radar system (76N6 Clam Shell), and the aforementioned spherical radar system RLS 5N25 Argun. Aytech Bizhev, former Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force, claimed that this equipment, together with the stationed “Pantsir” SAM systems, could have significantly disrupted the U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles that hit the Syrian government airbase at Shayrat on April 7, 2017.
The Russian Northern Fleet is undoubtedly one of the key factors in Russia’s attempts to gain strategic control over the Arctic. Ongoing, fast-paced modernization program for this fleet signals how crucial the fleet is for Russia. Not only did the fleet receive new S-400 Triumph SAM systems, but these systems are of high combat-readiness — having been sent straight from their previously deployment in Syria. With every modernization step, Russia’s footprint in the Arctic region grows bigger and bigger.
Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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