Missiles in Crete: the logistics

By Anthony O. Miller

THE PRESENCE of a giant US Navy air base in Crete, and the Greek island’s distance from Turkish coastline, could make deploying Cyprus’ S-300 anti- aircraft missiles there an exercise in both redundancy and futility.

The US Naval Air Station at Souda Bay in Crete, a deep-water port of America’s mighty Mediterranean 6th Fleet, is some 175 kilometres in a straight line west of Sitia, the reported deployment site of the S-300s the Cyprus Republic has declined to deploy at home. Both sites are on Crete’s northern coast.

The huge Souda Bay US naval air station is not only capable of handling US warships of the deepest draught – aircraft carriers, for instance – but it can launch and land any US warplane that a US aircraft carrier can handle, and much, much more.

Additionally, Souda Bay is a major US naval communications station and serves as a staging point for a US Navy Mobile Mine Assembly Group and a Naval Inshore Warfare Detachment, according to the US Military’s European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.

With all that US firepower available on Crete, the Cyprus government’s decision to deploy the S-300 missiles there, rather than keep them in their packing crates, seems redundant, as neither Crete nor the Greek mainland appear to need any more anti-aircraft defences than the giant US naval air base there implies.

And it seems highly unlikely that the Turks would ever strike so close to such a large American Nato base.

Despite this, Cyprus Defence Secretary Yiannakis Omirou last night confirmed to the Cyprus Mail that the S-300 missiles would be “deployed for action,” not merely stored, in Crete.

Furthermore, Sitia, almost Crete’s easternmost tip, is some 160 km from the closest western Turkish coastline; about 770 km from the Turkish mainland city of Adana, where Ankara’s military aircraft of closest potential menace to Cyprus are based; and more than 500 km from Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus.

With a maximum range of 150 km, if fired from Sitia, the S-300s could not even crash harmlessly into the sand of the closest Turkish beach, much less pose any shoot-down threat to Turkish aircraft launched against Cyprus from either Turkey’s mainland or its occupation regime in northern Cyprus.

Omirou could not confirm Sitia as the final deployment site.

The S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system was developed in the mid- 1980s as the Soviet Union’s answer to the US Patriot missile. It is considered the Patriot’s equal, if not superior.

With a 150 km range, if based in the Republic, the S-300s could have blanketed Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, the sea between Cyprus and Turkey, and a good part of Turkey’s southern underbelly – including the Adana military air bases.

For this reason – and because Ankara claimed the S-300s could be modified to become surface-to-surface missiles – Turkey had threatened to attack them if they were deployed in Cyprus.

Besides being able to shoot down aircraft at a range of 150kms, the S-300s, according to Jane’s Land-Based Air Defence, can also shoot down incoming ballistic-type missiles at distances of up to 40km. They fly at speeds of 2, 800 metres per second, or 10,000 km/hour – faster than a rifle bullet.

The high-tech Russian batteries – each of which carries a maximum of 32 missiles – can be deployed in five minutes and fire one radar-guided surface-to-air missile every three seconds.

They were seen as crucial to protecting the Andreas Papandreou Air Base outside Paphos, a platform for Greek Air Force planes defending Cyprus, from attack by Turkish jet fighters.

With the S-300s’ deployment in Cyprus cancelled, reports say Greece is now willing to provide Cyprus with anti-aircraft missiles of lesser range to protect the Paphos airfield. Omirou was unable to confirm this report last night.

In Moscow, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said yesterday it was up to the Republic to decide where the missiles are delivered, as long as Cyprus respected the terms of its £200-million deal with Russia.

“The Russian side is fulfilling all the terms of the deal,” the ministry said. “It is important that the buyer… also abide by the obligations. We feel the Cyprus side has the same opinion.”

The ministry said Russia’s main arms exporter, Rosvooruzheniye, would renegotiate with the Cyprus government the missiles’ delivery conditions. The missiles were in a Russian port awaiting shipment when Cyprus announced diverting delivery to Crete.

Omirou said he could not say anything about reports the Greek government planned to reimburse Cyprus part of the £200 million it paid Russia for the missiles. “We have to wait to see the news from Athens” about this, he said last night.

“The Cyprus government paid for the missiles, so it will be an agreement between the two governments what is going to happen to the amount that has already been paid,” Omirou said.

“In the National Council, nobody mentioned such things,” when deciding on Tuesday not to take delivery of the missiles.