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Russia's Air War in Syria: Its Organisation and Purpose

Satellite photos and information from the Russian Defence Ministry confirm a potent strike force able to provide powerful air support to the Syrian military

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Satellite pictures and reports from the Russian Defence Ministry make it possible to identify the Russian aircraft involved in the Syrian operation.

It appears that 50 aircraft are involved, of which a proportion are helicopters.  All the aircraft appear to be operating from the newly expanded air base at Latakia.

It is not certain at this point what type of helicopters are being used.  The probability is they are transport helicopters intended to provide support for the fixed wing wing aircraft, rather than gunships.

The aircraft that are actually carrying out the strikes are heavy SU24 supersonic strike aircraft and SU25 subsonic ground attack aircraft.

These types of aircraft were both developed in the 1960s and entered service in the 1970s.  

Claims that they are outdated are however certainly wrong.  

Both types of aircraft have been heavily and repeatedly updated, and are formidable machines, fully proficient for their roles. 

Since these are strike and ground attack aircraft, whose task is to carry and drop bombs, they do not require the very high performance and manoeuvrability or the complex avionics of the latest fighter aircraft, and comparisons with such aircraft are therefore wrong.

The Western aircraft these Russian aircraft most closely resemble are the European Panavia Tornado strike aircraft (in the case of the SU24) and the US A10 Thunderbolt ground attack aircraft (in the case of the SU25).

The Tornado and the A10 were also conceived in the 1960s and entered service in the 1970s.  Both are however still in service, and the SU24 and SU25 are technically and technologically comparable to both of them.

As is always the case when Russian military capabilities are concerned, claims are already being made that the electronic and targeting systems of the Russian aircraft are technologically inferior to those of the West, and that the Russians do not have the precision guided munitions the Western powers have.

As I wrote recently, these claims of Russian technological backwardness are perennially made, and are perennially proved wrong.  

The Russians do have large stocks of precision guided munitions, which are at least comparable in effectiveness to similar Western weapons.  

As for targeting equipment, the Russians did indeed fall behind the West in the 1990s because of the systemic crisis that overcame their defence industry during that decade.  However, sorting out this deficiency will have been given high priority, and whatever problems there once were will by now have certainly been sorted out.

Since exports of targeting systems are sensitive because of their highly classified nature, it is wrong to make assumptions about the capabilities of Russian aircraft in this area based upon the deficiencies - real or imagined - of aircraft the Russians export.

In summary, the SU24 and SU25 are perfectly suited to their role in the Syrian campaign, and there is no reason to think the Russian airforce is any less capable of conducting precision strikes than Western airforces are.  Whether such strikes are ever as precise as airforces - Western or Russian - claim, is another matter.

The third fixed wing aircraft positively identified at the air base in Latakia is the far more modern SU30.

Unlike the SU24 and SU25 this is a modern super manoeuvrable multi role aircraft.  

It is fully capable of carrying out strikes on ground targets, but there is no film so far showing it actually doing so, and given the weak air defences of the jihadi militias, use of such an advanced aircraft in such a role hardly seems worthwhile.

The same incidentally is true of claims of the deployment to Syria of the SU34.  

This is a very advanced strike and ground attack aircraft that uses the same planform (based on the earlier SU27) as the SU30.  Though a highly potent aircraft, for the sort of campaign the Russians are conducting in Syria it appears over sophisticated and excessive, offering little in practical terms that is not already being provided by the older SU24 at much lower cost.

If the Russians really have deployed SU34s to Syria it is not because they are needed there.  It is because the Syrian conflict provides an ideal opportunity to test them.

Evidence SU34s have actually been deployed to Syria is sketchy.   Further speculation on their deployment is unwise until positive news of their presence is provided.

As for the SU30s, they are almost certainly not intended to be used in air strikes.  

Rather they are there to provide air cover for the SU24s and SU25s, and to deter others (the US, the Israelis and the Turks) from interfering with the Russian campaign.  

Reports the US agreed with France and Turkey a few weeks ago to create a no-fly zone over Syria is sufficient to explain their presence.  

They are also the means whereby the Russians are able to make effective the threat implicit in their demand that the US and Israel desist from overflights of Syria whilst Russian bombing is underway.

The SU30s give the Russians a potent air superiority fighter and interceptor with which to challenge US and Israeli fighters should there ever be the risk of a clash.  Its deterrent effect is almost certainly sufficient to ensure such a clash never happens.

The Russian campaign in Syria is the first occasion the Russian military has gone into action in the Middle East since the end of the so-called “War of Attrition” in 1970.

It has led to speculation that the Russians may have difficulty sustaining the logistics of such an operation.

Once again we see the influence of stereotypical assumptions about the supposed inferiority of Russian military capabilities as compared to Western ones.

This contrasts with the reality of the lighting speed with which the operation was organised and the deployment took place, which has thrown the US completely off-balance.

It seems it took the Russians just a few weeks to carry out a deep enlargement of the Latakia airfield to convert it into a fully operational air base, and to deploy a powerful strike group there.  

The time between the decision to act and the action itself appears to have been astonishingly short, and contrasts with the painstaking preparations requiring weeks and months that it can take the US to undertake similar deployments (for example those against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, or those against Saddam Hussein in 1990 and 2003).

Even allowing for the fact that the Russians were able to draw on equipment pre-positioned at their base in Tartus (something the Russian military has admitted), it is an impressive logistical feat, and puts paid to the idea the Russians lack the logistical ability to sustain the campaign at its present tempo for very long.

The strike group only represents the “teeth” of the deployment.

As well as the aircraft and their personnel, there is an infantry force of possibly battalion strength defending the Latakia air base.  The Russians have confirmed these are paratroopers drawn from their Airborne Forces.  Their role is strictly defensive and the Russians have ruled out their being used in any offensive action.

The Russians will however have supported their strike group with an elaborate intelligence and surveillance infrastructure.  Details of this are highly classified but will include satellites, drones and  other methods of electronic intelligence, as well as spies.

There will also be forward air controllers and officers embedded at various levels of the Syrian armed forces, including at the highest command levels, but also on the ground in combat units.

There will also be an operations headquarters to process the intelligence and coordinate and plan the air strikes.  This will have an elaborate and secure communications net, connecting it to the Syrian military, the various intelligence sources, the strike force in Latakia, and Moscow, and will also have analysts and processing equipment, to process the intelligence, plan the air strikes and assess their effectiveness.  

It appears to be located in Baghdad - well away from the fighting as such a headquarters should be.  Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi officers are undoubtedly present in a liaison role.   

This headquarters is almost certainly the same as the “anti-terrorist information centre” in Baghdad whose existence the Russians have disclosed, and which has been referred to in news reports. 

The US says a Russian “three-star” General (presumably that means a Lieutenant General) visited the US embassy in Baghdad an hour before the first strikes to warn the US to stay away.  That is a clear indication that the operations headquarters is in Baghdad, and that it is a proper headquarters, not just a centre for information exchange.

We do not yet know anything about the Russian commanders of the force.  This is in keeping with the traditions of the Russian General Staff which like the Prussian General Staff of former times believes General Staff officers should be nameless.  Over time we will doubtless learn more.

There remains the claim that the Russian strike force is too small to make an effective difference, and is purely a “token force”.

This is however to misunderstand its purpose. 

If the Russians intended to conduct in Syria the sort of air campaign the US routinely undertakes, seeking victory through air power, then the force would indeed be too small.

The Russians however have never sought at any time in their history to win victory in this way, it being completely contrary to their military philosophy, which is based on the concept of combined arms.

Once this is understood then the true purpose of the strike force becomes clear - to provide air support to the Syrian army and Hezbollah, which are the forces that are actually doing the fighting on the ground.

For that role the Russian strike force is more than adequate.

POSTSCRIPT: After the above was written the Russian Defence Ministry confirmed the presence of SU34s as part of the strike group operating in Syria. They are apparently being used to carry out night time strikes, for which their advanced electronics make them more suitable than the SU24.

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