"Highway to the Danger Zone"


Russia's entry into the Syrian fight has radically changed the country's battlefield, but exactly what kind of firepower is Moscow bringing? Leksika's Sean Crowley investigates, providing an in-depth open-source look at Russia's air campaign in Syria.


Background

On 7 September witnesses spotted multiple Antonov An-124 (NATO reporting name: “Condor”) military airlifters flying from Russia to Syria. In the weeks before, Ilyushin Il-76 (NATO reporting name: “Candid”) transport planes flew “humanitarian aid” – a term that has a tacit military connotation in regard to Russia’s conflict in Donbas – from the Domodedovo and Ramenskoe airports in Moscow to Syria. The Candids were Russian Ministry of Emergencies-registered aircraft – not Ministry of Defense. On at least one other occasion in mid-September Candids flew to Syria alongside Tupolev Tu-154 (NATO report name: “Careless”) airliners with Russian combat aircraft flying sentinel. Russian cargo aircraft still fly non-stop missions to Syria. 

Unlike the Candids, the Condors – registration numbers RA-82039, RA-82035, RA-82040, and RA-82041 – were official Russian Defense Ministry aircraft from the 224th Air Squadron. They made flights to Syria from airbases in Krymsk 30-kilometers from the Novorossiysk seaport and Mozdok in the North Caucasus. RA-82039 and RA-82035 also flew from Chkalovskiy outside of Moscow to Latakia in Syria. To keep the humanitarian aid narrative afloat, Russian national television broadcast footage of personnel loading Condors with humanitarian cargo, though the payload was rather small for such a large aircraft; Candids are better suited for such missions.

In reality, the Condors were almost certainly transporting military jets and attack helicopters. For example, observers spied personnel loading attack helicopters onto RA-82035 at Novosibirsk airport on 17 September. Most of the Condors and their cargo landed at Hmeymin Airbase adjacent to Bassel al-Assad International Airport (named for President Bashar al-Assad’s brother who died in car accident in 1994) in Latakia province, the ancestral homeland of the Assad family.

On 30 September witnesses spotted two Sukhoi Su-24 (NATO reporting name: “Fencer”) strike fighters flying over Al-Lataminah in Syria’s Hama Governorate. To the informed observer, these aircraft stood out from over 300 others launched by President Assad’s regime against rebel forces since the Syrian Civil War began four years ago. Though the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) possesses the Soviet-made strike fighter, its pilots are reported to most often fly solo rather than in pairs as seen on 30 September. The undersides of the Fencers’ wings also lacked the distinctive SyAAF roundel, a red circle surrounding a white circle which in turn surrounds a solid black circle flanked on its left and right in the white space by two green stars.

As the Fencers made their passes over Hama, Lieutenant General Sergey Kuralenko, Russia’s military attaché in Iraq, met in the country’s war-torn capital Baghdad with his United States counterpart, Colonel Hadi Petro. There, General Kuralenko issued a terse warning to the American colonel: Russia planned to conduct airstrikes in Syria in one hour; U.S. and U.S.-trained forces should immediately leave the targeted areas. Even as Russian aircraft roared over rebel-held territory, deploying their lethal packages, the U.S. refused to comply with this demand. Interestingly, eight days before General Kuralenko’s ultimatum Kremlin media insisted that reports of Russian planes operating in Syria were smears directed against President Vladimir Putin.   

At 1050 hours in Moscow both the Federation Council and the Duma, the houses of Russia’s Federal Assembly (its national legislature), unanimously approved the use of Russian forces in Syria at President Putin’s request. Following the decision, airstrikes occurred in Al Rastan, Talbiseh, Alzaafaranah, al-Tolol al-Humr, Aydon, and Deir Foul in Homs as well as Al-Lataminah and Salamiyah in Hama. Officially, the airstrikes hit all eight targets in over 20 sorties. Targets included “military materiel, communications centers, ammunition [depots], and fuel depots of [the Islamic State],” according to the Russian Defense Ministry, though later claims would dispute the presence of the Islamic State (IS) in these areas. These were the first of many Russian airstrikes against targets in Syria. Russian officials insist that the Syria air raids will last three to four months and will only intensify.

Many of the planes were covered by camouflage netting or had their insignias painted over until the airstrikes began. At the time of the first airstrikes, Russian aircraft in Syria represented a mix of Soviet-era and modern designs including 12 Fencers, 12 Su-25 (NATO reporting name: “Frogfoot”) close air support (CAS) jets, four to six Su-34 (NATO reporting name: “Fullback”) fighter-bombers (though two returned to Russia on 1 October), four Su-30SM (NATO reporting name: “Flanker-C”) air superiority fighters, and four to six Mil Mi-24 (NATO reporting name: “Hind”) helicopter gunships. These numbers have more or less remained the same.

Old Dog, New Tricks

The Fencer is a twin-engine, variable geometry wing strike fighter. It was one of the first Russian aircraft to arrive in Syria, seen in Latakia as early as 20 September. Russian Fencers also made flights over Syrian airspace on 24 September. Though originally designed in the 1960s, the newest Fencer variants are well-suited for the modern battlefield. The latest version, the Su-24M2, sports GLONASS satellite navigation systems, an upgraded glass cockpit, a modern heads-up-display (HUD), and an upgraded air-to-air self-defense capability with R-73 (NATO reporting name: AA-11 “Archer”) high-off boresight missiles. It can carry precision-guided munitions but does not appear to be employing them.

The Fencer can carry up to 8,000-kilograms of ordnance, though most configurations usually fly with a 3,000-kg payload. It is specially-designed to penetrate enemy airspace at a low altitude. The Fencer’s range without aerial refueling is about 650-km. (It has an aerial refueling capability, but there are no indications that Russia has fielded Il-78 (NATO reporting name: “Midas”) tanker aircraft in Syria.) While the Fencer is an effective long-range fighter-bomber, it is not well-suited to work in close concert with ground troops during “danger close” scenarios.

The Workhorse

Russia’s greatest asset in its fight against the Islamic State (IS) is the Frogfoot, a slow-moving, low-altitude, CAS aircraft with the ability to operate up to 278-km away from its home base. The variant deployed to Syria is most likely the Su-25SM. In addition to having an armored cockpit, the Frogfoot sports a GLONASS satellite navigation system and modern avionics compatible with precision-guided munitions. Frogfeet pilots usually fly high-risk, low-altitude missions, but because of IS’s lack of air-to-air assets and its minimal complement of anti-aircraft (AA) systems, that risk is greatly reduced.

Maximum Comfort, Maximum Firepower

The Fullback is a Generation 4+ aircraft (intended to bridge the gap between 4th and 5th Generation aircraft), and is a modernized version of the Su-27 (NATO reporting name: “Flanker”) designed primarily to destroy ground and naval forces as well as air defense systems. Russia originally conceived the Fullback as a replacement for the Fencer. On 26 September witnesses spotted Fullbacks departing Mozdok in Russia; they were seen in Latakia two days later. This is the Fullback’s first combat deployment outside of Russia. 

The Fullback can reportedly perform day and night in all weather conditions. It also has highly efficient engines (12,500-kg AL-31F turbofans), a large fuel capacity, and an air-to-air refueling capability. Its combat radius is even comparable to Russian strategic bombers such as the Soviet-era Tu-16 (NATO reporting name: “Badger”) and the currently-fielded Tu-22M (NATO reporting name: “Backfire”). Their role in Syria appears to be limited, most likely flying only two or three sorties per day.

Nevertheless, the Fullback’s on-board radar-based security systems allow it to conduct airstrikes in Syria without risk of AA systems shooting it down. It also features a suite of other air self-defense systems including Archer high off-boresight dogfighting missiles as well as long-range radar-guided R-77 (NATO reporting name: AA-12 “Adder”) air-to-air missiles (AAMs). The Su-34 also sports rearward facing radar to warn of threats approaching from behind. Its stand-off air-to-ground missiles (AGMs) include the Kh-59ME (NATO reporting name: AS-18 “Kazoo”), Kh-31A (NATO reporting name: AS-17 “Krypton”), Kh-31P, Kh-29T (NATO reporting name: AS-14 “Kedge”), Kh-29L, and S-25LD all designed to hit both ground and maritime targets. It also carries rockets, guided bombs (by either laser, electro-optical, or satellite), and unguided bombs such as the RBK-500 and SPBE-D cluster bombs.

At the core of the Fullback’s sensor suite is the Leninets B-004 passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar. Its phased array radar technology is the same as the Flanker’s albeit optimized for air-to-ground operations. Experts are still speculating on whether the Fullback is equipped with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) mapping and ground moving target indication capabilities.

The Fullback has a 1,127-km combat radius on its internal fuel, and is capable of aerial refueling with a probe and drogue system. It can engage air-to-air targets up to 113-km and air-to-ground targets up to 97-km. It can also carry up to 8,000-kg of ordnance on 12 hardpoints. The Fullback is equipped with an electro-optical fire control system and supposedly has a Geofizika forward-looking infrared (FLIR) targeting pod. However, the poor quality of the Russian defense industry’s targeting pods has caused Moscow to seek them from customers abroad. At one point, Russia considered acquiring the French Damocles targeting pods, though it was unclear if they ever procured them. India, a major Russian defense partner, has purchased the Israeli-made LITENINO pod.  

Sukhoi designed the Fullback for maximum crew comfort as the jets often remain in the air for hours at a time. The aircraft features side-by-side seating (as does the Fencer), an overhead space behind the ejection seats that allows the pilots to stand up and move around to extent, and even an onboard toilet. 

The Fullback has already proven itself, in at least one scenario, to be a superior aircraft to the U.S. Air Force’s primary strike fighter, the Boeing F-15 Eagle. Like the F-15, the Fullback is capable of “self-escorted” strike missions. In one incident, six Fullbacks encountered four Israeli F-15s observing Russian weapons shipments to Latakia. The Fullbacks managed to achieve radar lock first, forcing the Israeli jets to withdraw. 

To Own the Skies

Most of the Flankers in Syria belong to the 120th Mixed Regiment of the 303rd Guards Mixed Air Division, 3rd Air Force and Air Defense Command, Eastern Military District, based at Domna Airbase in the Russian Far East (military unit No 63559). Witnesses also spotted Flankers assembling at Novosibirsk Airbase on 14 September. The Flanker is primarily an air-superiority fighter, but it is capable of engaging at least some ground targets.

The Flanker-C’s maneuverability is an improvement over the original Flanker’s. The Su-30MK has canard forewings and thrust-vectoring nozzles which have improved its agility. Its engine power and superb aerodynamics make the Flanker-C a superior dogfighter. The Flanker-C carries Archer short-range infrared (IR) missiles. These weapons link to the pilot’s helmet fire control system and can fire at targets until 45 degrees off the axis of the aircraft. The Flanker-C is equipped with PESA radar, Bars radar, fly-by-wire flight controls, modern electronic countermeasures (ECM), and thrust vectoring which gives its high maneuverability. 

IS’s lack of an air force makes the Flanker’s presence in Syria rather peculiar. The Russian military most likely wants to use Syria as a sort of testing ground for the both the Flanker and the Fullback. The U.S. is doing the same with its 5th Generation stealth-capable air superiority fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Russian Flanker-C pilots could use flights as an opportunity to “characterize” F-22 radar emissions on their radar warning receivers (RWRs). Flankers could also ward off Western airborne intelligence assets that attempt to gather information on Russian forces in Syria.

Knowledge of American aerial assets and tactics in Syria could prove advantageous for the Kremlin given the fact that though Russia and the West appear to be leaning toward a political solution in Syria, tensions remain high between them in other areas such as the Ukraine conflict.  Continued U.S. air activity in Syria risks the exposure of American aerial technology and tactics to Russia. However, Russia will most likely keep its Flankers on alert/scramble notice to provide overwatch for air-to-ground aircraft. Russia can only fly so many sorties given the small number of Flankers stationed in Syria. However, the recent downing of a Fencer by Turkey and Russia’s subsequent announcement that all its strike fighters in Syria will fly with an escort could provide an increased role for the Flanker, perhaps causing Russia to increase its numbers in Syria.

Flying Tank

Russia primarily uses its Hinds in Syria to patrol the perimeter of the Latakia airbase. The Hinds deployed to Syria by Russia differ from their Syrian counterparts in that they are not the Mi-25D export variant. One Hind in Syria, numbered “22 Yellow” and registered as RF-96860, was originally based at the 562nd Army aviation Tolmachevo airbase of the Central Military District (military unit No 12739). Russia recently moved some of the Hinds – as well as some transport helicopters – from Latakia to another base in Homs about 160-km away. Hind gunships can accelerate up to 300-km per hour and can rise to altitude of about 4.5-km. They fly low at about 10 to 15 meters. Each Hind carries four blocks of 20 unguided air-to-ground rockets and 30-milimeter cannons.  

We’ve Made Some Adjustments…

Russia has also deployed Mi-8AMTSh (the NATO reporting name of its base variant is “Hip,” but this variant is better known by its Russian nickname, “Terminator”) assault helicopters. The Terminator’s armaments are derived from the Hind as are some components of its armor. It has a crew of three with one serving as the gunner, and can carry up to 4,000-kg of cargo and 26 troops.

The Terminator can perform both combat search and rescue (CSAR; Russia is reportedly using the Hind for the same purposes) and medical evacuation (MEDEVAC). Configured for MEDEVAC, the Terminator carries 12 stretchers and one medical attendant. Employed in in Syria, the Terminator (and the Hind) could provide MEDEVAC and CSAR for Syrian government troops, Iranian commandos, Shi’ite militias, and even Russian troops should Moscow commit them to the Civil War. Photographs indicate that Russia has already employed the Terminator in a CSAR capacity, using it to search for a Fencer pilot shot down by Turkey.

The Terminator sports improved avionics, GPS (Global Positioning System) and GLONASS satellite navigation systems, a modernized electronics core, and weather radar. It can operate at night and in all weather conditions.

The Terminators’ weapons allow it to soften up enemy defenses before deploying its troop payload. The Terminator can engage infantry, armored vehicles, and main battle tanks (MBTs). It also has a secondary air-to-air capability against low-flying aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and other helicopters. The 12 hardpoints on the Terminator’s wings carry a variety of weapons including guided missiles, unguided rockets, podded cannons, and machine guns. The standard armaments are Shturm-V (NATO reporting name: AT-6 “Spiral”) or more advanced Ataka  (NATO reporting name: AT-9 “Spiral”) anti-tank missiles (ATMs), Igla-V (NATO reporting name: SA-18 “Grouse”) AAMs, and two 7.62-mm machine guns hidden behind doors and operated by the passengers.

Sandstorm

Experts remain divided on how many sorties Russian aircraft can fly over Syria. Some estimates range as high as 96, but 20 is likely more realistic. Russia flew 25 sorties on 4 and 5 October overnight after an average of 20 airstrikes per day in the first four days of the bombing campaign. U.S. defense officials believe Russia could fly 96 sorties in a surge but not for an extended period of time. It all depends on the number of air crewmen and maintainers (many of whom are conscripts instead of contract personnel), aerial refueling capabilities, distance from the airfield to the target, and amount of intelligence on deliberate targets. Some missions are simple combat air patrols (CAPs), waiting for targets and flying longer missions. Other aircraft take off on deliberate missions with predestined targets.

There are no reports of Russian strike aircraft flying at night. Instead, they choose to operate during the day mostly in pairs with sporadic Flanker escort. They likely fly during the day because they primarily drop dumb bombs. The Frogfoot can manage more sorties than any other Russian aircraft; at least three per day. The U.S. can manage 70-percent mission availability during combat surges but Russia is unlikely to be able to generate more than that. Some U.S. defense officials maintain that even a readiness rate below 80-percent would attract attention. U.S. aircraft combat readiness has reached 90-percent on some occasions, but the U.S. has more experience conducting aerial combat operations in the Middle East than Russia does.

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the aerospace consulting group the Teal Firm also speculates that the Russians “could have had bad operating procedures, inadequate supplies of spare parts, and support crews.” Russia faces logistics difficulties as it has not conducted combat operations overseas deployments since the fall of the Soviet Union. The closest Russia came to doing this in the post-Soviet world was when it deployed military forces to its immediate neighbors, Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. 

Syrian environmental conditions present another obstacle for Russian aircraft. As a result of desert conditions, one-third of Russian attack planes and about half of its transports are grounded at any given time. The aircraft have faced so many mechanical issues that they are unable to hit targets. Additionally, what combat missions Russia has flown appear to have provided only minimal support for the Syrian government at least in terms of concrete territorial gains. Starting on 30 September Syrian government forces made net gains of 240-km2 while suffering net losses of 120-km2 leading to territorial gains of only 120-km2 by 16 November. The Syrian military made major gains in Aleppo and were able to break the IS siege of the Rasin al-Aboud Airbase, but it suffered setbacks in Hama and experienced a heightened IS presence on the vital M5 highway that links Damascus to Homs. Russia’s focus on non-IS rebels has simply allowed IS to fill the void left by those groups, negating most Syrian military gains.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

All Information derived from open-sources