Russia deploys some of the most powerful aircraft on earth against the Islamic State
On Tuesday Russia’s military briefed Putin on the further escalation of the air campaign in Syria.
The new air forces deployed are of a power beyond anything seen before.
They all operate from bases deep inside Russia.
There is no plan apparently to send more aircraft to Syria itself.
The air base at Latakia is full to capacity. There is no room for more aircraft there.
Apparently there are no plans for the moment to establish another base in Syria. The Russians continue to rule out sending a ground force.
The plan is that the aircraft flying to Syria from Russia will maintain the attack on the jihadis’ logistics and infrastructure - the main target of the Russian strike force at Latakia up to now.
The strike group in Latakia is now free to provide close air support to the Syrian army as it continues its offensive.
This suggests the new deployment was planned well in advance.
The additional aircraft now deployed come in three groups:
TU160 and TU95 strategic bombers flying from Engels, an airbase near Saratov in southern Russia
TU22M3 medium bomber flying from Mozdok, a giant airbase in northern Ossetia in the northern Caucasus
SU27 and SU34s tactical fighters and fighter bombers, flying from an unidentified airbase, possibly Mozdok but more probably Budyonnovsk in Stavropol Region just north of the Caucasus.
All aircraft types have the range to reach targets in Syria from their bases in Russia, though the SU27s and SU34s may have to use extra fuel tanks and fly with lighter loads.
The oldest design by far is that of the TU95.
This aircraft was designed and entered service in the 1950s. It is the Russian equivalent of the US B52 bomber, which entered service at roughly the same time.
The TU95 has a lighter bomb load than the B52 bomber. However its range is probably greater.
It looks antiquated. This is because it uses giant contra rotating turboprop engines instead of jet engines
Looks however are deceptive. The TU95 flies at barely lower speeds than subsonic jet powered aircraft.
Its extraordinary range, heavy bomb load and low operating costs have kept it in continuous service with the Russian airforce since the 1950s.
The effectiveness of this aircraft is shown by the fact the Russians actually restarted its production in the 1980s.
All B52s in US airforce service were built before 1963. All TU95s serving in Russian airforce service were built after 1981.
Amazingly, though the TU95 has been in Russian service for almost 60 years, this is the first time it has been used in action.
The other strategic bomber is the far more modern and far more powerful TU160.
The TU160 is the heaviest and fastest bomber in the world. It can fly at supersonic speeds and carries the heaviest bomb load (40,000 kgs) of any bomber flying today.
The Russians have not said how many TU95s and TU160s they have committed to the air campaign in Syria. However they have confirmed these aircraft in their first strike did not drop bombs but hit targets in Aleppo and Idlib with long range cruise missiles.
Some reports refer to the missiles launched by the TU95s as "Kh-55s".
The Kh-55 is essentially the same missile as the Kh-65. However unlike the Kh-65 it uses a nuclear warhead.
These cruise missiles are completely unrelated to the sea launched Klub/Kalibr cruise missiles used earlier in the conflict, which were launched from Russian navy ships in the Caspian Sea. They were designed by completely different design teams.
The Kh-65 and Kh-101 missiles were designed by the Raduga design bureau. The Klub/Kalibr missiles were designed by the Novator design bureau.
With ranges believed to be 3,000 km and 5,000 km respectively, the Kh-65 and Kh-101 missiles have longer ranges than the Klub/Kalibr missiles fired from the Caspian Sea.
Both the Kh-65 and the Kh-101 are long range subsonic air launched cruise missiles.
The very advanced Kh-101 is a highly stealthy missile, practically invisible to most radar. It also has more advanced targeting and is more accurate than the Kh-65.
The TU95 is believed to carry up to 16 Kh-65 missiles.
The TU160 is believed to carry up to 12 Kh-101 missiles.
The Russians say 34 cruise missiles were used in total in the first strike.
This could mean the number of TU95s and TU160s used in the first strike might have been as few as three. A good guess might be one TU160 and two TU95s.
Since the Kh-65 and Kh-101 are long range missiles, it is likely the TU95s and TU160s launched their missile strikes from outside Syrian airspace - probably whilst flying over Iran or Iraq.
The Russians say the total number of TU95s, TU160s and TU22M3s bombing the jihadis in Syria is 25. Most of these are probably TU22M3s.
The TU22M3 is a very powerful medium range supersonic bomber.
It entered service in the 1970s. However it has been continuously updated since.
TU22M3s would have no difficulty reaching targets in Syria from their base in Mozdok with a full bomb load. They can carry up to 24,000 kgs of missiles and bombs
Though capable of launching cruise missiles, Russian reports suggest the TU22M3s used in the first strike dropped bombs in early morning bombing raids on Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor.
The Russians say 12 TU22M3s took part.
The point of using such powerful aircraft with bomb loads of 24,000 tonnes is not just that they have the range to reach targets in Syria from Russia.
It is that they can carry the heaviest bombs in the Russian arsenal.
These include the 9,500 kg FAB-9000 high explosive bomb - currently the heaviest bomb in the world - or the truly monstrous 7,000 kg AVBP (“the father of all bombs”) - a fuel air bomb which is the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in existence, with a blast effect of 44,000 kg of TNT.
Either of these bombs would have an utterly devastating effect on the Islamic State’s facilities. They could effortlessly destroy even the most heavily hardened bunkers or shelters.
It is in order to use such bombs that the TU22M3s have probably been deployed.
Reports are circulating that in response to the growing number of Russian air raids the Islamic State is trying to hunker down.
Deploying heavy bombers with gigantic bombs is Russia’s response.
What of the 6 SU27s and 8 SU34s also flying to Syria from bases in Russia?
The SU27 is a fighter aircraft.
The variant being used is the SU27SM.
Unlike the SU30, which has a pilot and navigator, the SU27SM is a single seat fighter.
It is a much more advanced aircraft with better radar and engines than the original SU27 of the 1980s.
It does not however have the super manoeuvrability of the SU30 deployed in Latakia.
It is nonetheless a formidable fighter aircraft with a longer range than the SU30 and able to carry the same sophisticated air to air missiles as the SU30.
Its job is to provide air protection (“top cover”) for the SU34s and TU22M3s that are carrying out the bombing missions.
The Russians have released film showing the SU27SMs doing this: escorting the TU22M3s.
Deployment of the SU27SM - like that of the SU30 - shows that the Russians are taking no risks.
Though the Islamic State has no air force, the Russians clearly think there is a risk other fighter aircraft might try to interfere with their bombing raids.
These other aircraft can only be those of the US, Turkey and Israel.
Deployment of the SU27SM - like that of the SU30 - reduces that risk, whilst providing protection if things go wrong.
As for the 8 new SU34s, their purpose is to carry out precision strikes on smaller targets where use of the big TU22M3s would be overkill and not cost effective.
The Russians have said the additional aircraft double the striking power of their strike force in Latakia.
This is untrue.
The maximum theoretical bomb load of all the aircraft that form the strike group in Latakia taken together is around 200 tonnes.
The maximum theoretical bomb load of all the aircraft now flying to Syria from Russia is around 600 tonnes.
Obviously neither the aircraft at Latakia nor the aircraft flying from Russia always or even usually carry their total theoretical bomb loads.
Nonetheless this comparison gives an idea of the extent to which the force the Russians are using in Syria has multiplied.
Ir has not doubled as the Russians say. It has at least quadrupled.
To this should be added the force multiplier effect of the giant bombs the TU22M3s are almost certainly carrying.
The Russians have released film of all of the aircraft discussed in this article engaging in the first strike. The TU95s and TU160 can been seen launching their missiles. The film can be seen here
Putin has said the Russian operation is not time limited.
The Russians have confirmed they have no fewer than 10 satellites watching Syria. The whole operation is controlled from the Russian General Staff's war room in Moscow.
The Islamic State and the other jihadi groups fighting alongside it in Syria are now experiencing bombing the like of which they have never known before or could probably even imagine.
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