The Su-57 and the F-35 have both seen first combat in Syria
For years now Syria has been the foremost proving ground for major military powers to test their equipment in real combat conditions. The first half of 2018 has proven no exception and in fact demonstrates that this trend is as, if not more so, popular as ever.
In May 2018 alone both Israel and Russia separately announced the combat debut of two different fifth-generation stealth fighter-bomber aircraft in Syria within days of each other. While both claims of these respective planes carrying out combat operations in Syria are unverified they are nevertheless worth evaluating.
Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu publicized a video showing Russia’s fifth-generation Su-57 (T-50) stealth fighter-bomber launching what appears to be a Kh-59MK2 long-range subsonic cruise missile (see video on the right), which can deliver a warhead of 700 pounds (almost 320 kg) of explosives at targets over 550 km away. Shoygu claimed the aircraft launched the missile in combat over Syria last February, which coincides with a brief two-day deployment of a pair of stealthy Sukhoi Su-57s to the country.
It remains unclear if the missile Shoygu showed on video was actually fired in Syria at an enemy target. A Syrian source cited by Al Masdar News dubiously claimed that the Su-57s targeted positions belonging to Jaysh Al-Izza (“Army of Glory”) group in the towns of Kafr Zita and Al-Lataminah in the countryside of Hama Governorate.
In a recent article in The Daily Beast, on the other hand, military analyst David Axe outlined several reasons to be extremely skeptical over the Kremlin’s claims of a February test launch, pointing out that Moscow “seems determined to portray its stealth fighters in the best possible light as prospects fade for mass-production of the troubled warplanes.” He notes that the Su-57 “currently lacks many of its planned electronics and sensors and has been cleared to carry only a few different kinds of munitions” and in its public appearances to date has only carried “dummy bombs and missiles that are strictly for display.” Citing experts Axe illustrates that there is nothing in Shoygu’s video presentation to indicate that the missile launch did indeed take place in Syria rather than “some remote air force testing site deep in Russia’s interior.”
While this may well prove the case, Russia has in the past used its deployment in Syria to gauge the effectiveness of its equipment. For example, it has launched several of its long-range 3M-54 Kalibr cruise missiles at targets across Syria since 2015, a missile it hitherto never used in a war zone before (see also Louis Martin-Vézian, “Comprehensive Infographic about the Russian Intervention in Syria — December 2015 Update“, offiziere.ch, 08.12.2015). The Syrian conflict also saw the combat debut of the flashy Su-34 Fullback fighter-bomber and marked the first time many of Russia’s strategic bombers – such as the Tupolev Tu-95 Bears and Tu-160 Blackjacks – conducted long-range bombing runs, flying directly from Russia, over an actual war zone.
The military operation in Syria certainly required certain funds […]. Some 33 billion rubles were earmarked in the Ministry’s 2015 budget for military exercises. We simply retargeted these funds to support our group in Syria, and there is hardly a better way of training and perfecting combat skills than under real combat conditions. […] I am sure these costs are reasonable and necessary, because this was a chance to test everything in combat, find faults and rectify them. — Vladimir Putin, “Meeting with Russian Armed Forces Service Personnel“, President of Russia, 17.03.2016.
The symbolic projection of power that comes with using such weapon systems is another factor, which is one reason why flying Su-57s to Syria for a mere two days and firing hitherto unused missiles at unspecified targets is a worthy endeavour in Moscow’s view, if that is in fact what they did.
“We are flying the F-35 all over the Middle East,” announced the Commander of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), Major General Amikam Norkin, during the IAF Senior Air Force Conference in Herzliya last May. “It has become part of our operational capabilities,” he added. “We are the first to attack using the F-35 in the Middle East and have already attacked twice on different fronts.” Norkin made these comments while displaying a photograph showing an F-35I or “Adir” (Hebrew for “Mighty One” or simply “Awesome”) flying high above the skies of the Lebanese capital Beirut.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper pointed out that the display “is certainly a deterrent value” against Israel’s numerous adversaries across the region, namely Hezbollah and Iran, but nevertheless added that it “comes off like an inordinate swagger” and went on to speculate that it was “perhaps also an attempt to rehabilitate the IAF’s image following the downing of an F-16 by the Syrian air defenses during the previous escalation of hostilities with Iran and Syria, in February.”
While Norkin did not mention which two fronts the F-35Is saw combat one of them was doubtlessly Syria. On May 11, Israel bombed no fewer than 30 sites believed to form part of the military infrastructure used by Iranian paramilitaries and their Shiite militia proxies in the country. IAF F-35s likely participated, but in what capacity remains unclear.
Israel’s single squadron of F-35s became combat operational in December 2017. As per tradition Israel’s variant of the plane has been outfitted with Israeli avionics and technology, most noticeably a domestically-developed command, control, communications, computer and intelligence (C4I) system.
Writing in Popular Mechanics Kyle Mizokami reasonably speculates that the F-35Is likely took part in the May 11 strike either by participating in the extensive bombing of the numerous targets or using “its advanced sensors to identify targets on the ground for other warplanes to attack, then coordinated the entire attack via [the] airplane’s C4I system.” In other words, the F-35I may have operated as a stealthy mini-AWACS platform that oversaw the numerous attacks across the Syrian battlefield below.
The United States (as well as France and the United Kingdom)
At 4am on the morning of April 14 the United States, France and the United Kingdom launched 105 air and ship-launched cruise missiles against three sites connected to the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons program in retaliation over a suspected regime gas attack in the town of Douma near Damascus the week before. The British and French launched Storm Shadow cruise missiles / SCALP EG while the Americans launched barrages of their Tomahawks.
In addition to the Tomahawks, however, the US also launched 19 subsonic AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile) cruise missiles from B-1 Lancer bombers, flying from the al-Udeid airbase in Qatar, for the first time ever in combat. The JASSM’s were all directed at the Barzeh scientific research centre in Damascus.
As with the Russians the United States, France and the United Kingdom seized the opportunity to live fire test their new missile. The JASSM entered service back in 2006 and has a range of 370 km and can deliver a 1,000 pound warhead (almost 455 kg). An extended version of the missile, simply called the JASSM-ER, can hit targets from over 900 km away. However, in the Syria strike, the US used only the original JASSM. The massive April strike was also the first time France fired their naval variant of the Storm Shadow, the Missile de Croisière Naval (MdCN). Three of the missiles were launched from the FREMM multipurpose frigate Languedoc in the Mediterranean. 
Syria was also the first conflict zone in which the US deployed the F-22 Raptor, when it began bombing Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria back in September 2014, which continues to fly over the country today. Rather than just function as another bomber the F-22 has primarily used its powerful sensors to gather information for other US and coalition aircraft operating over Syria and helped guide them to their targets – performing a not so dissimilar function to what Mizokami speculated Israel’s F-35s might have done.
The Raptors have also helped ensure no clashes occurred between US-led coalition and Russian aircraft and successfully deterred Syrian Su-24s from bombing Kurdish forces in the city of Al-Hasakah in late August 2016 a second time. As military analyst Robert Beckhusen put it: “Think of the F-22 like a sniper – it can use force if needed, but its primary job in the Middle East is to provide overwatch.”
Ankara utilized its invasion of the northwestern Syrian Kurdish Afrin region earlier this year to try out some of its new military gear in combat. Pro-government newspapers all published several almost identical articles showcasing the type of equipment being used. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım was cited arguing that Ankara’s use of drones over Afrin was a “game-changer that ensured the operations success.”
More than half of the weapons system and vehicles the Turkish military deployed in its Afrin operation were domestically developed and produced platforms […]. — “Drones Turned Fortune of Afrin Operation, Prime Minister Says“, DailySabah, 22.03.2018.
The Afrin operation was the first time Turkey deployed its domestically-produced T129 ATAK attack helicopter in combat. The helicopters fired laser-guided 70mm Cirit missiles, also produced in Turkey, at Kurdish fighters. The T129 was developed as part of a joint effort between Turkish Aerospace Industries and AgustaWestland, which is why the T129 is basically a variant of the Agusta A129 Mangusta outfitted with Turkish-made avionics and weapon systems.
The combat debut of the T129s resulted in one being lost to Kurdish ground fire killing both crew-members. Despite that incident Turkey has successfully marketed the T129 and other domestically-produced gear as evidenced by the fact Pakistan is buying 30 T129s in what will amount to the largest Turkish-Pakistani arms deal in history.