In late September 2015, the scenario that had seemed to be a sci-fi story or a computer game’s script became real. The Russian Air Force launched an air operation against militants of the so-called “Islamic State” (the terrorist organization banned in Russia).
By Pavel Rumyantsev and Leonid Nersisyan
Since late August, the events were developing rapidly. The Internet was flooded with videos and photos indicating Russian combat aircraft in Syria’s sky. During September 2015, users got free access to satellite images and photos from the Hmeimim airbase in Latakia, indicating a constantly growing number of Russian warplanes. Eventually, on September 30, 2015 the Russian Air Force launched the “official” air operation against the IS groups. That day, the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation published the first videos showing the results of bomb attacks on different facilities of IS.
Before discussing different aspects of the Russian military operation in Syria, let us give an overview of the preceding political situation. The war in Syria has been lasting for the last four years with its levels of scale and violence surpassing all the other armed conflicts in the Middle East. The conflict was triggered between Syrian government forces and various opposition groups with various goals, political opinions, and different levels of radicalism. During this non-stop fighting, sustaining a lot of casualties, Syrian government forces had managed to reach the turning point in the war by early 2014 and cleaned up over 70% of the country territory from armed opposition groups. But soon the situation for Syria has dramatically changed – a new and monstrous force named ISIS (later transformed into IS (Islamic State)) appeared on the scene.
The key reason for a phenomenal increase in the number of this radical group’s members and for their military success is the absence of a force able to provide the effective strategic opposition to ISIS. The Iraqi Army collapsed in a few weeks, allowing a relatively small army of radical Islamists (at that moment) to capture an enormous part of the country territory and to get control over oil bearing areas along with the oil-producing and oil-processing infrastructure. Moreover, this rapid collapse of the Iraqi troops allowed the IS fighters to capture gigantic arsenals of various weapons and military equipment.
As soon as ISIS established its own “order” in the northern part of Iraq and adjacent territories, its enormous forces rushed to Syria. The situation was getting worse in spite of an intense support by Hezbollah, a Lebanon militant group that always demonstrated a loyal attitude to Syrian Alawites and in spite of Iran’s military support including the active participation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in combat operations.
By the end of the summer 2015, terrorist groups got over 60% of Syria’s territory under control and approached the key and strategically important Syrian cities such as Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus.
That was a dead end: the Syrian Armed Forces defended the key sea ports such as Latakia and Tartus that were used to replenish the Syrian troops with weapons and military equipment mainly supplied by Russia while IS controlled the oil-bearing territories if the country. The threat of the total collapse loomed over Syria due to its economic situation and depleted mobilization resource. Under these circumstances, the Syrian government had to make an official request for Russia’s military assistance.
Russian Aerospace Defense Force group in Syria
At the beginning of the military operation Russia had the following military units in Syria:
The main aviation group included one Sukhoi Su-24M frontline bomber squadron (12 aircrafts), one Su-25 fighter-bomber squadron plus six advanced Su-34 frontline bombers and four Su-30SM fighters. The helicopter group included nearly one Mi-24 attach helicopter squadron. Moreover, various support aircraft and UAVs were also available. Presumably, the Western and the Southern Military District aviation take part in air operations in Syria. Besides, the strategic fighter-bombers and long-range aircraft such as the Tupolev Tu-160, T-95MS and Tu-22M3 bombers are regularly used.
At least one battalion including the S-400 long-range AA systems, the Tor short-range AA missile systems and the Pantsir-S1 missile and anti-aircraft defence system provides air defence protection for the Russian airbase in Latakia. Special force units, airborne and marine troops are responsible for security of the air group personnel. Syrian coastal areas are patrolled by a naval force including 10 warships with its flag ship, the Varyag cruiser (recently, it has replaced the Moskva cruiser that has returned to Sevastopol). By the way, the Varyag cruiser features impressive air defence functions and is equipped with the ship-based S-300F Fort missile system with the operational stock of 64 missiles.
Combat effectiveness of the Russian Airspace Defence Force group
Initially, when the possibility to use Russian combat aircraft in Syria was discussed as the hypothetical probability, expert estimated the level of the Russian aviation’s combat effectiveness as a quire low. Actually, such underestimation was based on the combat experience of the Russian Air Force during both military campaigns in Chechnya and during operations in South Ossetia. Many experts unreasonably predicted heavy combat casualties and low probability of hit.
However, the first sorties made by Russian warplanes completely dispelled all skeptical predictions. On September 30, 2015 the Russian Ministry of Defence published the first videos indicating a high accuracy of Russian aviation’s air attacks on enemy ground targets.
The intensity of Russian combat aircraft sorties was rapidly growing. Russian aircraft made over 100 sorties and hit 112 militants’ facilities for the first week of the air operation, while the total amount of sorties reached 669, including 115 night missions, by the mid October 2015. And 456 enemy facilities were destroyed. In January 2016, the amount of sorties was over 6,000.
Since the beginning of the air operation, Russian warplanes had started to use precision-guided weapons. They basically used the Kh-25 and Kh-29 air-to-surface missiles, but the main surprise was the large-scale application of new KAB-500S satellite-guided bombs.
Application of Precision-Guided Weapons (PGWs)
The opinion that a modern army must conduct military operations, using precision guided weapons only has been widely spread for recent years. However, such a rule cannot be accepted as the fundamental truth. If you have to perform large-scale combat operations, it will be difficult to use guided bombs or air-to-ground missiles to hit each target. The Russian military concept of the PGW application assumes that such weapons should be used to attack only the most critical targets that are hard-to-reach targets for unguided munitions. This approach allows to compensate a great value of such munitions, otherwise, the cost loading may be very heavy. For example, during the air operation in Libya in 2011, Great Britain and France (major participants in this operation) had completely emptied their operational PWS stock in the first two months. During the UN operation against Yugoslavia in 1999, where the application of PGWs reached really gigantic levels, the operational costs were comparable to the enemy’s losses.
The application of PGWs by Russian warplanes reached its peak level in the first month of the air operation when the most important IS military facilities and infrastructure were successfully hit. The Russian Air Force obviously demonstrated that it had the required stock of precision-guided munitions and was able to use them in large amounts.
Successful Advertising Campaign
It is also obvious that while hitting ground facilities of the so-called Islamic State, Russia uses this situation for testing its newest weapons in real combat conditions and to demonstrate its capabilities. Special emphasis may be placed on the application of the Tu-160 and Tu-95MS long-range bombers in November 2015. For these air strikes, the Kh-555 and the newest Kh-101 cruise missiles were used for the first time (it was the first demonstration of this missile). Using long-range cruise missiles launched by bomber aircraft along with the salvo launching of the Kalibr family’s cruise missiles by the Caspian Flotilla’s ships has demonstrated that the Russian Armed Forces are able to reach any enemy target at a distance of more than 1,000 km.
During the air operation, the Russian Aerospace Force has demonstrated the possibility to conduct extremely intense combat operations, sometimes performing 80–100 sorties per day. In fact, this performance is the “theoretical efficiency limit” for an aviation group consisting of 22 airplanes. The air operation planning and management may be considered perfect. Russian combat aircraft are hitting targets detected due to proper reconnaissance, using surveillance data acquired by UAVs, satellites, and Syrian government forces. Usually, a target is hit by a pair of airplanes that attack at attitudes of 5–6 km while remaining out-of-range for any man-portable SAM weapons and short-range AA missile systems that may fall into militants’ hands. Even dumb bombs provide a high hitting accuracy, due to new sighting systems installed on the aircraft operating in Syria. These systems are installed on all new and modified aircraft operated by the Russian Aerospace Defence Force.
The events in the Crimea in February-March 2014 have demonstrated an absolutely new appearance of the Russian Army for the world and, most importantly, for Russians. The air operation in Syria has shown the capabilities of today’s Russian Air Force as an effective air striking force that is as good as air forces of the NATO members. With over 6,000 sorties completed, the Russian Air Force has lost only one Su-24M aircraft due to “a stab in the back” by Turkey. No aircraft has been shot down by militants and not a single non-battle casualty has been registered. Taking into account the number of sorties and the intensity of air strikes, this outcome may be considered excellent.
The Russian Aerospace Defence Force have made a great contribution to fighting against IS. During two first weeks of the air operation, the ISIS militants had to cancel any serious offensive actions while the Syrian Army launched its very slow but persistent offensive operation in the territories captured by militants. During combat operations, the Russian Aerospace Defence Force managed to inflict substantial damage to the ISIS infrastructure, destroying their ammunition and fuel depots, weapons and military equipment repair facilities and badly injured militants’ logistics support and the capabilities for operational deployment of reinforcements. For the first week of combat operations, Russian air forces had achieved better results than the NATO members that had bombed IS in Iraq for a year. Due to regular air strikes on the oil infrastructure and destruction of oil tank trucks driven to Turkey, the enemy sustained major economic losses.
Below are listed the main interim results of the air operating performed by the Russian Aerospace Defence Force:
– Syrian government forces have managed to completely seize the initiative in the war (despite a slow offensive operation);
– perfect tests of Russian arms: many weapons ranging from long-range bombers to precision-guided tactical munitions have been tested in real combat conditions for the first time;
– advanced aircraft intensely supplied for the Russian Aerospace Defence Force have successfully demonstrated and proved their design performance. These achievements have made a great contribution to the export future of the Su-24 frontline bomber and other Russian weapon systems. Russian Aerospace Defence Force’s operation is the best advertising campaign for the Russian defence industry.
– air support in hybrid wars does not have an immediate effect. The war in Syria may take a lot of time, but it is clear that there is no military solution to remove Bashar al-Assad from power until he is supported by the Russian Aerospace Defence Force.