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The Smart Weapons Russia is Using in Syria

Reports from Syria confirm the Russians are using weapons as technologically sophisticated as anything the US has

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

More information has come to light on the Russian military deployment in Syria, making it possible to make more accurate assessments.

The size of the force of fixed wing aircraft based at Latakia is confirmed as follows:

4 SU30s

6 SU34s

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12 SU24s

12 SU25s

It is confirmed that the helicopter mix consists of MI8 transport helicopters and at least some MI24 helicopter gunships.

The base is receiving supplies from transport aircraft from central Asia, overflying Iran and Iraq.  These are AN124 and IL76 transports.  It is likely that some equipment is also being shipped to the base by sea, through the naval base at Tartus.

The bulk of the force consists of two squadrons, one of 12 supersonic SU24 strike aircraft, and one of 12 subsonic SU25 aircraft.

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The SU24 is a formidable bomb truck.  It is capable of carrying 8 tonnes of bombs and missiles, and has the necessary equipment to do so night and day.  

It is also fully capable of delivering precision guided bombs (“smart bombs”) and missiles, and - contrary to some reports - is certainly doing so.

The SU24 was designed for very high speed low level strikes, and that is what it appears it is being used for.

The SU25 is a different sort of machine, originally designed to provide aerial ground support for troops in combat.

As a result, unlike the SU24, it is subsonic.  Since it is intended to provide ground support for troops, it is designed to stay in the air (“loiter”) over the same location for lengthy periods of time.  Since this exposes it to a much higher risk of ground fire, unlike the SU24 it is heavily armoured.

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It packs a formidable punch, including a powerful 30 mm cannon, and is able to carry up to 4 tonnes of bombs and missiles.  

In its original form the SU25 was an austerely equipped daytime aircraft.  The variant used in Syria is however the highly modernised SU25SM version.  This is fully capable of night times strikes, and can also deliver precision guided bombs and missiles, and is certainly doing so.

Television film of SU25s taking off from the Latakia airfield show them doing so in darkness, and it is likely that they too have been used for night time strikes.

Obviously the range of both aircraft is reduced if they load up with the full weight of ordnance (bombs and missiles) they can carry.  However, with reduced loads, the SU24 has the range to strike anywhere in Syria.

The SU34 is an altogether more advanced aircraft, able to carry 12 tonnes of bombs and missiles, and is capable of both high speed strikes (like the SU24) and ground support (like the SU25).  Like the SU25, but unlike the SU24, it is able to loiter, and is heavily armoured.  It is of course capable, like the two older aircraft, of night flying.

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Shortly after the first attack the US military, predictably enough, claimed the Russian aircraft were flying with only “dumb” or “iron” bombs, i.e. conventional gravity as opposed to guided or “smart” bombs.

The Russians actually produce the same full range of precision guided bombs that the US does.  The Russians may have a smaller stock of such bombs than the US, but they certainly have more than enough for the needs of the relatively small-scale campaign underway in Syria.

Smart bombs are in fact simply adaptations of conventional or “iron” bombs, with guidance mechanisms added.  

The usual methods of guidance are: laser guidance, TV guidance, and satellite guidance provided by satellites - the latter using many of the same technologies used by the SatNav devices now common in civilian cars.  

Satellite guided bombs are often considered the most accurate, and unlike laser and TV guided bombs, can be used at night and in poor weather conditions.

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The Russians started producing laser and TV guided kits for their bombs in the 1970s and 1980s, at roughly the same time as the US did.  

The Syrian air campaign has now provided conclusive confirmation that they also have satellite guided bombs.  The Russians have confirmed their use in precision strikes in the Syrian air campaign.  

Russian satellite bombs use the Russian GLONASS satellite system, rather than the US GPS system.  

GLONASS is fractionally less accurate in low latitudes than GPS (it is more accurate than GPS in higher latitudes).  It is unlikely the difference in accuracy is such as to make any practical difference.

What possibly led to the early claims the Russians were not using smart bombs was film of SU24s and SU25s being loaded with 100 kg or 250 kg bombs.  

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The Russians - unlike the US - generally do not consider it cost effective to provide guidance to such small bombs, which they mainly use in an anti-personnel role as a follow-up to the first strike, which is more likely to use smart bombs.  

All reports of smart bombs being used by the Russians in Syria show these weigh no less than 500 kg.

The 500 kg bombs used so far are in two forms:  conventional high-explosive FAB-500 bombs, and concrete-piercing BetAB-500 bombs, which are used against reinforced structures.  

The FAB-500 bombs are pure gravity bombs.  The BetAB-500 bombs have solid-fuel rocket boosters to give them extra penetration.

When FAB bombs are adapted to smart bombs, the Russians re-designate them KAB bombs (“korrekteeruyemaya aviabomba”).  

The 500 kg smart bombs used in Syria are therefore called by the Russians KAB-500s.  When these bombs use laser guidance their full designation is KAB-500L.  When they use satellite guidance it is KAB-500S-E.

Bombs using both these types of guidance are confirmed as having been used in Syria.  TV guided bombs may also have been used, though so far there are no reports of this.  Their full designation is KAB-500T.

In addition to these bombs, which are known to have been used, the Russians can also draw on a huge array of other bombs if they want or need to.

The SU24 and SU34 used in the operation are fully capable of carrying much heavier bombs than the 500 kg bombs so far known to have been used.  

There are for example known to be smart bomb versions of 1,500 kg bombs - three times heavier than the 500 kg bombs so far used - which could certainly be carried by the SU24s and SU34s.  The maximum weight of any single bomb the SU34 can carry is 4,000 kg.

The Russians have even heavier bombs.  The heaviest FAB bomb known to exist weighs up to 9,500 kg (i.e. more than 9 tonnes).  It was used by the Iraqis to devastating effect in the so-called “War of the Cities” during the Iran-Iraq War.  

Use of such monsters would require deployment of much larger and heavier aircraft than those used so far.  The aircraft the Russians would use if they decided to use such bombs would be the TU22M supersonic medium bomber.

The air base in Latakia almost certainly cannot support such large aircraft.  However, if the decision were taken to use them their deployment in Latakia would be unnecessary.  TU22Ms carrying large bombs have the range with inflight refuelling to carry out strikes on Syrian targets from bases in Russia.  

So far there is no sign of such heavy aircraft being used, and it seems the Russians have concluded there is no need for them.

A perhaps more likely possibility is use of fuel/air or thermobaric bombs, first used by the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and perfected by the Russians since then.  

These bombs - sometimes called “vacuum bombs” - are filled with a high-calorie liquid fuel in place of the usual solid explosive.  Their fuse fires at a certain level above the ground, causing the bomb casing to burst, atomising the liquid content as a huge aerosol cloud, which is then ignited by a second detonator.  The almost instantaneous combustion of the cloud of fuel mist burns up all the oxygen inside the resulting fireball, creating a vacuum into which the surrounding air rushes in.

The blast effect is said to be like that of a nuclear explosion, though much less powerful.

These are devastating area weapons, capable of causing massive destruction.  

The Russians use the designation ODAB for these bombs (“obyomnodetoneeruyushchaya aviabomba” - ‘volume detonation air-dropped bomb’).  The smallest versions weigh 500 kg and have the designations ODAB-500P and ODAB-500PM.  There are known to be much bigger versions, including the colossal AVBPM, which weighs a monstrous 7,000 kg (7 tonnes) and has a blast effect equivalent to 44 tonnes of TNT, making it the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in existence.   

Should any of these bombs appear during the air campaign in Syria, it will mark a dramatic escalation of the campaign.

Gravity bombs are not the only types of precision guided weapons the Russians use.  The Russians - in contrast to the US - have in fact consistently shown a strong bias towards favouring air to ground missiles over bombs.

Two types of missiles are known to have been used in Syria, both well suited to the campaign underway there.

The first is the Kh-29 guided missile, which is sometimes compared to the US Maverick.  Its warhead (320 kg) is however much heavier (depending on the subtype the Maverick’s warhead ranges from 60 kg to 140 kg).

The Kh-29 is designed for use against larger battlefield targets and infrastructure such as industrial buildings, depots and bridges.  It has a range of 10-30 km, depending on the variant, and comes with a variety of guidance systems, including laser, infrared, active radar or TV guidance.

The Russians have confirmed use of the laser guided version of this potent missile during the Syrian campaign - launched probably by SU34 or SU24 aircraft.  It is likely other forms of this missile will be used as well.

The other missile that has apparently been seen in use in Syria (though reports of its use are less reliable) is the much simpler S-25L.  

This is a shorter ranged missile with a range of 3-8 km, which originated as an unguided rocket that was adapted to laser guidance (there is also said to be another version that uses infrared guidance).  It carries a potent warhead of 190 kg.  Pictures of this missile published some years ago show that it is capable of being carried by the SU25.

The Russians possess many other air to ground missiles they could deploy in Syria if they were minded to do so.

These include any of the very extensive family of Kh-25 missiles, which are smaller but cheaper than the Kh-29, and which have been produced in very large quantities.  All the aircraft present in Syria - the SU34, SU24 and SU25 - can carry these missiles.

The Russians are in the process of replacing their Kh-25 missiles with a new family of more advanced missiles designated Kh-38. These too can be launched by any of the aircraft currently stationed in Syria.  There are no reports however of the Russians so far having used these missiles.

In summary, the Russians possess the full range of precision guided weapons (smart bombs and missiles) the US and the Western powers have, and reports from Syria confirm they are using them.  

Perhaps they have fewer such weapons than the US does (though there is little in the way of hard evidence of this), and the tactics may differ.  

However there is no reason to think the Russian weapons are in any way inferior to those of the US, and the Russians undoubtedly have many more of these weapons than any European air force does (including those of Britain and France).  

Certainly the Russians have more than enough of these weapons to see them through the present campaign.  Indeed, as we have seen, they have immensely powerful and very sophisticated weapons such as fuel/air bombs they have chosen so far not to use, but which they could use if they chose to.  No other power possesses such weapons in such numbers, save for the US.

These weapons are of course only as effective as the personnel who use them, and the surveillance and targeting systems that are needed to make them work.

Of the high level of training of the Russian pilots and ground crews there is no doubt, and film of their operations at the base provided by RT TV confirms this.

Of the surveillance and targeting systems the Russians are using we know far less.  The Russians are understandably unwilling to disclose information about these systems.   

The Russians are especially secretive about the capabilities of their surveillance drones.  There are in fact many reports coming out of Syria of the presence of large numbers of Russian drones there.  This is logical, and there is no reason to doubt these reports, and that Russian drones are present in Syria in large numbers.

There would in fact be little point in developing technologically advanced precision guided weapons if the surveillance and targeting systems - including drones - to use them effectively did not exist.  There is no doubt the Russians do possess such systems, even if we know little about them.  The information about the Russian strikes that is coming out of Syria confirms their effectiveness.

The Russians therefore have all the capabilities they need to sustain or even escalate their bombing campaign for as long as they want to.  Indeed they are more than capable of sustaining it indefinitely, if that is what they decide to do.

POSTSCRIPT: After the above was written the Russians confirmed use of two more precision guided weapons in the air campaign.

One is - not surprisingly - the laser guided version of the well-known Kh-25 missile.

The other is a previously little known precision guided bomb, the KAB-250S-E, which uses satellite guidance.

This is a new guided bomb developed originally for use on the new SU T50 fifth generation fighter and strike aircraft, that is now in advanced development.

It seems that the Russians - like the US - have concluded that the pinpoint accuracy provided by satellite guidance makes the development of a small satellite guided 250 kg bomb worthwhile.

This development by the Russians of a 250 kg satellite guided smart bomb provides further confirmation of the underlying point: the Russians have the same range and capabilities in precision guided weapons that the US has.   Perennial claims of US superiority in this area are wrong.

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