Operating Near Each Other in Syria the American and Russian Forces Have Learned Much About the Other

This is another reason a US-Russian clash in Syria now would be so costly (for both). There are no secrets left

Russia’s military intervention in Syria, staged since late 2015 and involving a sizeable air contingent and special forces, has reported provided the United States military with an invaluable opportunity to study the operations of the country's armed forces and gain valuable information.

As one of the four countries named a ‘great power adversary’ by U.S. defence planners, and with one of the largest most advanced military industrial capabilities in the world, intelligence on Russian capabilities and the performance of its latest hardware are highly prized by the United States and other Western powers - relations with which have continued to deteriorate since 2014. Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, head of U.S. Air Force Central Command, noted regarding the opportunity presented by observing Russian forces in action:

“Certainly, we’ve learned a lot about some of the capabilities that the Russians have brought to Syria. Could we have learned more? There are probably some areas out there that we need to make sure we watch. We are a learning organisation. I won’t go into all the details but there were things that we knew we had to take advantage of, and ensure, feed that back (to) not only the intel community but back into those systems that we needed to improve.”

Regarding Russia’s own gains from the conflict in Syria, namely its armed forces’ use of the conflict to test new hardware and provide air crews with valuable combat experience, General Harrigian stated:

“It’s pretty clear to me the Russians have leveraged Syria as an opportunity to look at their capabilities and get a sense of where they’re at. Not only from the weapon system perspective, but also with their people, rotating their forces in and out of there, frankly to get some combat time on them.

And take not only some of those folks that may be operating on the ground, but also their aviators, and get some combat time on them to deliver weapons, or frankly to see what we were doing up there. So I think we need to be cognizant of that as a nation and recognize that they’ve leveraged that.”

While Russia’s air contingent in the Middle East is small relative to those of rival powers, it has been comprised of widely used elite combat jets including the Su-24, Su-30, MiG-29SMT, Su-34 and Su-35 fighters, Su-25 attack jets and a number of helicopter and support assets.

The Russian Navy’s sole carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, also briefly deployed to Syria’s coast and launched air sorties against positions held by Islamist insurgents - and though its performance was considered underwhelming it provided Russian naval aviators as well as the crew of the warship itself with experience operating under combat conditions.

Other Russian assets have also been leveraged in the conflict, including long range bombers and cruise missile armed submarines - leading a wide variety of weapons platforms to make their debut in the war from Pantsir-S1 air defence combat vehicles to the Navy’s Kalibr cruise missiles, the Tu-160 bombers’ long range Kh-101 missiles and untested new fighters such as the Su-34.

While operating alongside Russian forces has granted the U.S. military an opportunity to assess its capabilities, Russia’s armed forces have themselves gained considerably from the ability to observe American forces in action. One key example was the case of the F-22 Raptor, the U.S. Air Force’s prime air superiority fighter, which was pressed into service as a strike fighter for operations over Syria and Iraq. A small continent of the elite combat jets based in the United Arab Emirates were tasked with these operations.  

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. VeraLinn Jamieson noted in January 2018 with some dismay that the F-22's operations in Syria have given Russian forces an invaluable opportunity to observe how the Raptor operates. The General stated: "The skies over Iraq and specifically Syria have really just been a treasure trove for them to see how we operate. Our adversaries are watching us, they're learning from us." Jamieson continued:

"Russian has gained invaluable insights and information with operating in a contested airspace alongside of us in Syria."

With the F-22 banned from export, a measure enacted specifically to protect its valuable technological secrets - notably at the expense of the security of U.S. allies - the ability to study the next generation combat jet, particularly while Russia has been developing an analogue of its own, the Su-57, was a truly unique and invaluable opportunity. 

The Russian military has also reportedly acquired valuable American hardware, namely Tomahawk and JASSM cruise missiles, which failed to explode during strikes on Syrian government positions in April 2018 and were recovered by Syrian forces and delivered to Russia for study. 

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