A Proving Ground of the Future

30 march 2016

Russia’s Air Campaign in Syria: First Conclusions

Ruslan Pukhov is Director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), Member of the Public Council under the Russian Defense Ministry.

Resume: Whereas the short conflict with Georgia in 2008 resulted in a radical reform of Russia’s Air Force, the participation of Russian military aviation in the Syrian campaign will have even more far-reaching effects since the experience acquired during it is immeasurably greater.

Russia’s air operation in Syria is the most spectacular military-political event of our time. In its post-Soviet history, it is the first time that Russia’s Armed Forces were deployed and extensively used in real combat conditions beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union period. The Syrian campaign is the largest engagement of the Russian Air Force since the war in Afghanistan, and is unparalleled in the history of Russian and Soviet aviation in terms of complexity and intensity of warfare and the remoteness of the area of operations.

Russia’s capability to maintain a very high sortie rate for a long period of time and the absence of combat and operational losses (except for the Su-24M frontline bomber shot down by the Turkish Air Force) came as, perhaps, the biggest surprise to observers, especially abroad. This indicates that the Russian air group’s combat activities in Syria have been excellently organized at all levels and that the Russian Aerospace Forces meet modern requirements.

The situation is in stark contrast to Russia’s actions in the five-day conflict with Georgia in August 2008. Although confronted by a weak enemy, Russian aviation lost seven combat aircraft in four days (including a Tu-22M3 long-range bomber) and another four aircraft were seriously damaged. Most of these losses were caused not by the Georgian military but by “friendly fire.” For example, the 368th Assault Aviation Regiment, stationed at Budyonnovsk, had three Su-25s shot down and another two damaged, and later written off, in only 86 sorties. The loss rate was one aircraft per 17 sorties, which corresponded to the worst periods of the Soviet air campaign against Nazi Germany in 1941. On the whole, Russian Air Force operations in August 2008 were poorly coordinated and lacked effective interaction with the ground forces.

During the seven years that have passed since then, the Russian Air Force (renamed the Aerospace Forces on August 1, 2015) have progressed rapidly in all areas, ranging from technical equipment and organization to control and combat training.

 

REFORM OF THE RUSSIAN AIR FORCE

The Russian Air Force became the centerpiece of military reform started in 2008 and has changed profoundly since then. The reform was necessitated by a large number of long-standing problems in this branch of the Armed Forces. Organizationally, the pre-reform structure of the Air Force was formed in 1997-2000, during the previous large-scale consolidation and disbandment of regiments in the Air Force and the Air Defense Forces, which themselves were merged into one branch. The transfer of army aviation to the Air Force in 2003 had no major impact on the overall situation in the branch. By the beginning of the reform in the fall of 2008, the Air Force and the Air Defense Forces were a formidable power—but only on paper. The two branches had some 2,800 aircraft and helicopters and about 100 air defense battalions. In reality, however, the Air Force, like the whole of the Russian Armed Forces, was plagued by problems, and its actual combat potential was very low.

One of the main problems faced by the Air Force before 2008 was its great technological backwardness caused by a 15-year-long pause in purchasing new hardware. Supplies of new aircraft and helicopters dropped sharply in the first few years after the Soviet Union’s break-up and decreased to zero in 1994-1995. So, even the youngest aircraft were at least 15 to 20 years old by 2008. The bulk of aircraft and air defense systems were even older. Over the years when there was no replacement of materiel, aircraft and weapon systems became physically and morally obsolete and exceeded their life span. The serviceability rate by 2007 did not exceed 40 percent. Without new aircraft and modern airborne weapons, the Russian Air Force was stuck in the mid-1980s.

 

STRUCTURAL REFORMS

The main points of the reforms in Russia’s Air Force and Air Defense Forces in 2008-2012 were as follows:

  • changing the air army-air corps (division)-air regiment structure established in 1938 to an air base-air group structure, and gradually reducing the number of air bases. By 2012, following a series of reorganizations, a system had been created in which the few remaining air bases (eight in the Air Force, not counting army aviation) had an umbrella structure comprising several air groups, each based at its own airfield;
  • reducing the strength of the Air Force by getting rid of obsolete equipment. Simultaneously, the number of home bases was also reduced;
  • some tactical air defense units and naval aircraft were assigned to the Air Force and the Air Defense Forces;
  • as part of broader military education reform efforts, the military education system was centralized and downsized;
  • four Air and Air Defense Forces commands were established for the four new military districts set up in 2010. Tactical Air Force units were assigned to the new military districts (strategic commands), and the role of the Air Force Major Command was reduced;
  • reorganizing and reducing the Air Defense Forces; establishing Aerospace Defense brigades as the main formations of the Air Defense Forces;
  • and finally, creating a new branch of the Armed Forces—the Aerospace Defense Forces.

By the end of 2012, the Air Force and the Air Defense Forces looked different: they were much more compact and matching available resources. The reduction of the Air Force personnel and a steep increase in defense spending helped to intensify combat and flight training, improve logistic support and raise pay for the personnel. Finally, in 2009, after a 15-year pause, the Air Force began to be supplied, in increasing volumes, with new aircraft and armaments.

However, not all decisions made during the creation of a “new look” for the Armed Forces were deemed optimal. In November 2012, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was replaced by Sergei Shoigu, and the Air Force reform entered a new stage.

In 2013-2015, the main purposes of the reorganization of Russia’s Air Force and Air Defense Forces were as follows:

  • restoring, as of December 1, 2013, the air division-air regiment structure. It should be noted, however, that, in fact, this was done by renaming the existing air bases and air groups, respectively;
  • restoring army aviation regiments and forming army aviation brigades;
  • restoring armies within the Air Force and the Air Defense Forces in 2014-2015 instead of commands (while preserving their structure);
  • partially changing the deployment of Air Force units and expanding the airfield network;
  • returning part of naval aviation to the Navy;
  • decentralizing the military education system and restoring the system of independent flying schools;
  • reorganizing brigades of the Aerospace Defense (Air Defense) Forces into air defense divisions;
  • reorganizing, as of August 1, 2015, the Air Force into the Aerospace Forces.

In addition, in 2014, for the first time since the late 1980s, Russia began to build up the strength of its Air Force units by forming new combat regiments. This process was started in Crimea, where the new 27th Mixed Air Division was formed of several new regiments. Subsequently several new air regiments were formed in other Russian regions. For the first time in almost thirty years, the Russian Air Force began to increase its strength.

 

PROCUREMENT OF NEW EQUIPMENT

The procurement of new aircraft was among the main priorities of the state armaments program for 2011-2020 (SAP-2020), endorsed on December 31, 2010. Total spending for the program equals 20.7 trillion rubles, of which 19.4 trillion rubles are to be allocated to the Ministry of Defense. Of this sum, 4.7 trillion rubles will go for the purchase of new aircraft. The program provides for the acquisition of more than 600 planes and 1,100 helicopters for all branches of the Armed Forces. So far, the program has been consistently implemented as regards the Air Force.

The result was a rapid increase in aircraft deliveries to the Armed Forces. For example, in 2000-2008 the Ministry of Defense received only four (!) combat aircraft, but in 2009 alone the Air Force purchased 33 combat and combat-capable trainer aircraft. It must be noted, though, that 31 of them were MiG-29 SMT/UB fighters returned by Algeria. In 2010, manufacturers began to deliver series-produced combat and combat-capable trainer aircraft ordered by the Ministry of Defense. The Armed Forces received 19 aircraft in 2010, 24 in 2011, 35 in 2012, 51 in 2013, 102 in 2014, and 91 in 2015. In 2016, about 100 aircraft are expected to be supplied.

The Ministry of Defense has signed contracts for the construction of 387 combat aircraft for tactical and naval aviation (12 Su-27M3s, 20 Su-30M2s, 80 Su-30Sms, 129 Su-34s, 98 Su-35ss, 20 MiG-29SMT/UBs, and 24 MiG-29KR/Kubrs) and 101 Yak-130 trainer/combat aircraft. Of these, it has already received 234 aircraft (12 Su-27M3s, 24 Su-30M2s, 56 Su-30Sms, 74 Su-34s, 48 Su-35Ss, six MiG-29SMT/UBs, and 24 MiG-29KR/Kubrs) and 79 Yak-130s.

In addition, the Russian Air Force has received one new strategic bomber, Tu-160, and four long-range surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft (two Tu-214ONs and two Tu-214Rs).

The most important priority for Russia’s combat aviation is the creation of a Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation (PAK FA)—the T-50 fifth-generation fighter. Since 2010, five prototypes of the T-50 have been built, now undergoing testing, and another four prototypes are to be tested in 2016. In all, it is planned to build 14 experimental and pre-production T-50 prototypes, and 12 series-produced T-50s before 2020. Their mass production will begin in the next decade.

After 2020, Russia expects to see the first results from two other programs to build completely new aircraft—a Prospective Airborne Complex of Long-Range Aviation (PAK DA, a new strategic bomber) and a Prospective Airborne Complex of Transport Aviation (PAK TA, a heavy transport aircraft). Until then Russia intends to resume the production of the Tu-160m2 modernized strategic bomber, and to transfer the production of the Il-76MD-90A modernized military transport aircraft from Tashkent to Ulyanovsk. Thirty-nine Il-76MD-90As have been ordered for the Defense Ministry, and there are plans to procure Il-78M-90A aerial refueling tankers based on them.

Another key purpose of the reform was the modernization of the fleet of combat aircraft. By 2020, the upgrade program is to cover up to 100 Su-27 fighters, 150 MiG-31 fighters, 200 Su-24M tactical bombers and their reconnaissance versions Su-24MR, 180 Su-25 assault aircraft, 30 Tu-22M3 long-range bombers, and 60 Tu-95MS and Tu-160 strategic bombers. The Air Force has also begun to modernize the A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft. Simultaneously, work is underway to develop a new generation of this type of aircraft, A-100.

The modernization has been going particularly rapidly in army aviation units. Over the last few years, the Defense Ministry has received more than 100 new helicopters per year. Contracts have been signed for the delivery of over 450 new Mi-28N, Mi-35M and Ka-52 combat helicopters, of which more than 250 have already been supplied. New transport helicopters of the Mi-17 series are purchased on a constant basis. The Defense Ministry has also procured 18 new Mi-26 heavy transport helicopters and more than 70 Ka-226 and Ansat light helicopters. Starting from 2012, a wide range of new guided air weapons has been purchased for the Air Force, including RVV-SD and RVV-MD air-to-air missiles.

Much attention is given to the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). At first, the Ministry of Defense purchased a large number of Russian-made light short-range UAVs and some Israeli-made tactical UAVs, and licensed production of the latter was started. Simultaneously, Russia launched extensive programs to develop various types of long-range UAVs with a takeoff weight of one to five tons, although practical results will apparently be available only by the end of the decade, upon which it will be decided whether they can be made operational. Also, Russia has begun the development of jet-powered attack drones.

In all, given the current procurement plans,, Russia’s Air Force and naval aviation may have up to 1,500 combat aircraft by 2020 under the best-case scenario:

  • up to 130 bombers (16 Tu-160s, 50 Tu-96MSs, and 70 Tu-22M3s);
  • up to 820 fighters (12 T-50s, 100 Su-35s, 200 Su-30SMs, 20 Su-30M2s, 100 modernized and new Su-27SM/SM3s, 120 non-upgraded Su-27s and Su-33s, 150 upgraded MiG-31s, 36 MiG-35s, 50 MiG-29SMTs, and 24 MiG-29KR/Kubrs);
  • up to 350 strike and reconnaissance aircraft (150 Su-34s, and 200 upgraded Su-24Ms and Su-24MRs);
  • up to 180 ground attack aircraft (modernized Su-25SMs/Su-25UBs).

This will mean that the Russian Air Force will continue to rank second in the world after the United States Air Force in terms of combat capabilities.

 

PROBLEMS

However, there are serious problems complicating the reform and functioning of the Air Force, such as:

  • instability of the organizational structure in recent years, caused by ceaseless reforms since 2008;
  • unconfirmed effectiveness of the existing structure, where the larger part of the Air Force is subordinated to operational-strategic commands (military districts). In particular, it remains unclear whether this may lead to regionalization of air power, instead of its concentration;
  • unclear status and development prospects of the newly formed Aerospace Defense Forces;
  • largely outdated methods of using the Air Force at operational and tactical levels; lack of experience in conducting major modern air operations while meeting aggressive enemy counteraction;
  • shortage of modern airborne weapons, which is likely to continue for a long time;
  • weakness of modern surveillance and target acquisition assets—in particular, the absence of targeting pods in the Air Force;
  • insufficient maturity of many new types of modern aircraft coming into service is likely to remain an issue for a long time;
  • a large number of outdated aircraft in the Air Force, which causes  maintenance, service life, flight safety, and other problems;
  • weak long-range UAV and attack drone  capabilities are unlikely to be improved in the near future.

 

RUSSIA’S AIR OPERATION IN SYRIA

With all its strengths and weaknesses, Russia’s Aerospace Forces surprised many by intervening in the war in Syria. The operation was the first major practical test for Russia’s overhauled and reborn military aviation. It would be safe to say that it has successfully passed this test.

I will not focus on political problems raised by Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian war, as they have been widely discussed in recent months. I will only note that in military-political terms the main problem concerning the Russian operation in Syria is its ambiguity. On the one hand, the official goal of the campaign is to fight the Islamic State (ISIS), which has emerged from the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, which threatens to reshape the map of the Middle East, and which has become an overt terrorist state entity. On the other hand, it is obvious that one of the main goals of the Russian intervention in Syria is to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia seeks if not to drastically improve the military status of his regime (which is hardly possible), then at least to consolidate its military and territorial positions, which will create prerequisites for achieving a peaceful settlement in Syria and dropping the issue of al-Assad’s exit as a precondition for settlement.

Although the presence of the Russian air group in Syria will obviously continue for months, it is highly important for Russia not to get involved in a protracted war, to minimize its own losses by all means, to carefully and flexibly choose “political” targets for air strikes, to avoid a military confrontation with Western military powers in the region, and finally, to make a timely exit.

The operation in Syria is of paramount importance for Russia’s Aerospace Forces, which have for the first time gained the experience of a broad offensive campaign involving different types of aircraft in coordination with the ground forces and foreign partners (Syria, Iran and Iraq). Equally valuable, and unique for the Russian Armed Forces, is the experience, of deploying and supporting an expeditionary air group at a considerable distance from the national territory.

Russia’s air group in Syria was deployed at the Khmeimim airbase (which had earlier been used by Syria’s sea-based helicopters) near Latakia in September 2015. Initially, the group included 12 Su-24M tactical bombers (M2 and Gefest-T upgrades), 12 modernized Su-25SM and Su-25UB attack aircraft, four new Su-34 tactical bombers, four new Su-30SM multirole fighters, one IL-20M1 reconnaissance aircraft, 12 Mi-24P combat helicopters, and five Mi-8AMTSh military transport helicopters. All the planes and helicopters arrived with their crews from various combat units of the Aerospace Forces, that is, the air group was manned by ordinary pilots flying in-service aircraft.

Later, the group was enhanced. On December 6, 2015, four more Su-34 tactical bombers were sent over to Syria from Russia, and on January 30, 2016, the group received four Su-35S multirole fighters, which had just entered into service in Russia. The Su-24M bomber, shot downed by a Turkish fighter on November 24, was replaced by a bomber of the same type which arrived at the Khmeimim airbase in January 2016. by February 2016, the total number of Russian combat aircraft in Syria had reached 40. The helicopter group had been increased, too: four new Mi-35M combat helicopters and several Mi-8 transport helicopters were delivered to the base in late 2015.

On November 17, 2015, Russia’s Aerospace Forces group at Khmeimim airbase was renamed a special-purpose air brigade, with its headquarters also controlling aircraft operating against targets in Syria from the territory of Russia. The Russian air group in Syria has been commanded by Major-General Alexander Maximtsev.

Russia has deployed a large ground force to defend the Khmeimim airbase—initially 1,500 and now possibly 3,000 troops, including units of special forces, the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade of the Black Sea, the 7th Air Assault Division from Novorossiisk, and several units of the ground forces. The group has T-90A main battle tanks, various types of armored vehicles, and 152-mm Msta-B towed howitzers. To defend the airfield from air attacks, modern air defense weapons have been deployed, including Buk-M2 surface-to-air missile systems, and Pantsir-S gun/SAM systems. In late November, this group was reinforced with an S-400 air defense battalion.

The Russian military group is supplied by air—via Iran and Iraq—by IL-76 and An-124 military transport aircraft, and by sea—by the Navy’s large landing ships and auxiliary and transport vessels which constantly shuttle between Novorossiisk or Sevastopol and the Syrian port of Tartus. Because of  intensive traffic, this sea route has been called “Syrian Express.” Military transport aircraft are also widely used. Between September and December 2015, An-124 aircraft of the Aerospace Forces made 113 flights to Khmeimim and delivered 10,200 tons of cargo.

One of the special features of the Russian air operation in Syria is a large-scale use of precision-guided air-to-surface weapons. In particular, Russia for the first time used KAB-500S precision-guided bombs with a satellite-aided guidance system. Yet, unguided air munitions continue to play the main role in destroying terrorist targets. But as Mi-24P and Mi-35M combat helicopters and Su-25SM attack aircraft use unguided missiles, they inevitably come under fire from low-altitude air defense systems used by rebels and Islamists.

By the beginning of February 2016, the total number of sorties made by Russian aircraft in Syria had reached an estimated 6,600. The limited air group conducted intensive operations with up to 100 sorties a day, and increased their number to 150 by the end of November (including those made by aircraft from the Russian territory). On October 7, 2015, Russia’s operation in Syria for the first time involved Navy ships. The missile ships Dagestan, Grad Sviyazhsk, Velikiy Ustyug, and Uglich fired Kalibr precision cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea to hit targets some 1,500 kilometers away. In all, they launched 26 missiles against 11 targets in Syria. Later, Kalibr missiles were fired from the same ships on November 20 (18 missiles) and from the Rostov-on-Don diesel-electric submarine (December 8, four missiles). During the three attacks, 48 Kalibr missiles were launched. This was the first time ever the Russian Navy used this weapon.

On November 17, 2015, Russia for the first time since the beginning of the operation in Syria used its Tu-160, Tu-95MS, and Tu-22M3 long-range aircraft. Tu-95MS and Tu-160 aircraft took off from the Engels airfield in the Saratov Region, and Tu-22M3 aircraft flew out of the Mozdok base in North Ossetia. This was a truly historic day for the Russian Armed Forces: Tu-160 and Tu-95MS strategic bombers, which had never participated in combat operations before, received the baptism of fire.

During their combat missions in Syria, Tu-160 aircraft use modern Kh-101 cruise missiles; Tu-95MS aircraft use X-555 cruise missiles (a conventionally armed version of the Kh-55 missile); and Tu-22M3 bombers use free-fall bombs. In all, Russian long-range aircraft have made 187 sorties to Syria from the Russian territory. Tu-95MS and Tu-160 aircraft have launched 97 cruise missiles.

Undoubtedly, the attacks by sea- and air-launched cruise missiles against targets in Syria were not a military necessity but a purely military-political demonstration of the Russian Armed Forces’ capabilities.

To support long-range bombers, Su-27SM and Su-30SM fighters were used with in-flight refueling. Since December 2015, the A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft has been operating in Syrian skies to control the airspace. It may also serve as a flying command post. The aircraft makes flights from the Mozdok airfield.

 

SOME RESULTS AND ASSESSMENTS OF RUSSIA’S AIR OPERATION IN SYRIA

The Russian air group’s activities have not led to a defeat of ISIS or the Syrian opposition yet. However, it is obvious that Russian air attacks do have a slow but real effect and are gradually tipping the balance in favor of the Syrian government forces, which have moved from strategic defense to offensive operations, largely tactical so far.

Despite the unprecedentedly intensive combat actions, Russia’s air group has not suffered combat or non-combat losses yet. The only exception was the Su-24M2 tactical bomber shot down by a Turkish F-16s fighter in an incident near the Syrian-Turkish border on November 24, 2015. Russia’s Mi-8AMTSh helicopter, sent to find and rescue the pilots from the crash site, was attacked by pro-Turkish rebels and destroyed after an emergency landing. Those have been the only losses of Russian aviation during the Syrian campaign.

Russia’s Aerospace Forces have for the first time in their history used precision-guided weapons in relatively large amounts, including new KAB-500S precision-guided bombs with a satellite-aided guidance system. For the first time, conventional cruise missiles are used in military operations, including new Kh-101 air-launched missiles, modified Kh-555 missiles, and sea-launched Kalibr missiles. In addition, Russia actively uses UAVs, both domestic and Iranian-made, for reconnaissance, fire adjustment, target designation, and evaluation of strike effectiveness during the air campaign in Syria.

In general, the Aerospace Forces have demonstrated an unprecedentedly high level of combat and operational readiness and their capability to conduct highly intensive combat operations far away from the Russian territory. The absence of combat and operational losses during the air campaign is impressive.

On the other hand, the effectiveness of combat actions is rather moderate. Apparently, the attacks have inflicted less damage on the rebels than was expected, and the Syrian government army has been slow in exploiting the effects of the air strikes. The interaction between the Russian Aerospace Forces and Syrian government forces on the ground leaves much to be desired. Russia’s air support for ground troops does not appear to be quite effective. On the whole, the Aerospace Forces’ operation has demonstrated the limits of air power—something Western powers encountered earlier, too.

Despite the obvious progress, the technological level of Russia’s Aerospace Forces in the Syrian campaign matches that of the U.S. Air Force during Operation Desert Storm of 1991. In other words, they are far behind U.S. and, generally, Western military aviation. Speaking of precision-guided weapons, Russia uses in Syria mainly munitions with satellite-aided guidance. This type of guidance has certain limitations, including in terms of accuracy. KAB-500S bombs, which weigh 500 kg, and cruise missiles are often too powerful to be used against typical targets in this war. Russian aviation has few (if any) high-precision weapons for use against moving, small-sized and well-fortified targets.

Russian aviation is experiencing an acute shortage of target designation assets for precision-guided weapons. The only exception is the Platan electro-optical targeting system used by new Su-34 tactical bombers. Russian UAVs do not have a target designation capability, either. Russia’s Aerospace Forces still do not have targeting pods, which have been used by Western military aviation for the last 25 to 30 years.

Apparently, the effectiveness of Russia’s combat actions in Syria is limited mainly by deficient reconnaissance capabilities, rather than a lack of aircraft or weapons. Russian aviation urgently needs specialized reconnaissance aircraft, UAVs with a wide range of equipment and a long-range capability, and efficient space-based reconnaissance systems. There is also a complete lack of drones with strike capabilities. Also, Russia has not yet sent its new Mi-28N and Ka-52 combat helicopters to Syria due to their insufficient maturity.

Despite these inadequacies, Syria has become a perfect proving ground for trying out new tactics and new weapons of Russia’s Aerospace Forces on a large scale. Russia has for the first time used its most advanced aircraft Su-30SM and Su-34 (and now also Su-35S), cruise missiles, precision-guided weapons, and UAVs, and practiced intricate forms of interaction between various forces. Russia’s Aerospace Forces have been gaining rich combat and operational experience. The operation in Syria seems to have cost Russia relatively little so far.

Whereas the short conflict with Georgia in 2008 resulted in a radical reform of Russia’s Air Force, the participation of Russian military aviation in the Syrian campaign will have even more far-reaching effects since the experience acquired during it is immeasurably greater. This will result, among other things, in more intensive development of the Aerospace Forces in the next few years.

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