Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick II: Russian and U.S. Duplicity in Syria

Turkey's confrontation with Russia and the ongoing US Presidential election have complicated the already delicate situation in Syria. Where do relations stand now, and what can be expected going forward? What capabilities does Russia still poses in Syria after withdrawing a major portion of their troops? Leksika's Sean Crowley investigates. 


Background

As Russian aircraft pounded rebel positions in Syria, the United States played the age-old game of politics. Through the course of their campaigns, many presidential candidates expressed a willingness to shoot down Russian planes in Syria should the U.S. implement a no-fly-zone. “You shoot them down, absolutely,” said retired neurosurgeon and Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson. “Whatever happens next, we deal with it.” Another contender for the GOP nomination, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, said, “I think [the United States] must be prepared” to shoot down Russian aircraft. Fiorina stated that she would not consult Russian President Vladimir Putin beforehand despite bragging about talking to him on other occasions.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) was also quite blunt, “[I] would shoot [Putin’s] planes down, I would literally shoot his planes down.” Escalating his rhetoric, Senator Graham said of President Putin, “Anybody who rides around on a horse without their shirt, I can handle that guy.” He maintained that President Putin was walking over President Barack Obama “like a small child.” He was not alone in this view as a Fox News poll indicated that 75 percent of Americans believe that President Putin has the upper hand over President Obama in Syria.

The saber-rattling did not stop with Senator Graham. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said that he would “call Putin, and tell him, ‘Listen, we’re enforcing a no-fly zone against everyone, and that includes you, so: don’t test me.’” A reporter then asked Governor Christie what he would do if Russian planes did fly into the no-fly-zone to which the governor responded, “You take [them] down.” Governor Christie clarified that he was serious about his position of shooting down Russian aircraft because “we spent untold American treasure and blood to eliminate the Soviet Union. We should not let it come back.” “Not only would I be prepared to do it, I would do it,” Doubling down during a GOP debate, Governor Christie told CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, “Not only would I be prepared to do it, I would do it.” He emphasized, “A no-fly zone means a no-fly zone.”

John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio, said, “You enter that no-fly-zone, you enter at your own peril.” Other candidates such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) referred to President Putin as a “gangster” and supported a no-fly-zone without calling for the shoot down of Russian planes. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, another Republican candidate, declared that the U.S. should not be the world’s policeman two minutes after calling for a no-fly-zone over Syria. Governor Bush also said that Russia should not be looking for conflict with the U.S. when addressing the issue of how a no-fly-zone would only escalate a conflict with Russia. He said that American leadership was “desperately needed.”

Republican frontrunner and career entrepreneur Donald Trump said of Russia’s airstrikes in Syria, “I am all for it, 100%.” Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) said that shooting down Russian planes was a dangerous idea. Democratic Party frontrunner and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton favors a no-fly-zone in cooperation with the Russians, but that would still require a significant commitment of U.S. forces to Syria. Secretary Clinton has been a strong advocate of arming the “moderate” Syrian rebels ever since her tenure as secretary of state. “We should work with the coalition and the neighbors to impose no-fly zones that will stop [Syrian strongman] Assad from slaughtering civilians and the opposition from the air,” said Secretary Clinton. “Opposition forces on the ground with material support from the coalition could then help create safe areas where Syrians could remain in the country rather than fleeing toward Europe.” Both Martin O’Malley, the former Democratic governor of Maryland, and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) opposed implementing a no-fly zone.  

The White House has rejected a no-fly-zone as impractical, and many military analysts agree. A no-fly-zone would involve the U.S. destroying the entire air defense apparatus of Syria. This would include destroying aircraft and ground-based anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) General Martin Dempsey (USA, Ret.) told Congress during his tenure that this process would involve 70,000 U.S. military personnel and cost billions of dollars. Also, most no-fly-zones in history – such as the one implemented over Libya in 2011 – have led to wars.

Proponents of the no-fly zone cite the U.S.’s experience with such actions in the 1990s, and they see it as a way to mitigate the refugee crisis and atrocities such as President Assad’s barrel bombing. However, current U.S. military officials see it as an act of war against a sovereign state that is still a member of the United Nations. Doing so, they argue, would also escalate the U.S.’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War. It would also not have any impact on Islamic State operations outside of the zone. Military officials are also seeking less difficult ways to stop the Assad regime’s barrel bombings, one of the primary justifications for a no-fly zone. 

Doctor Carson, Fiorina, Governor Christie, Senator Graham, Governor Bush, Senator Paul, Senator Rubio, and Governor O’Malley have since suspended their presidential campaigns, and despite Russia’s partial withdrawal from the Levant, it would be highly unwise for the U.S. to implement a no-fly zone in Syria or raise tensions with Russia elsewhere in the world. U.S. cooperation with Russia in Syria was by no means smooth, and at times disagreements even put the peace process in jeopardy. (However, Russia was occasionally the instigator in such instances.) Russia’s stint in Syria also saw it field test a number of advanced aircraft and air defense systems; in some cases more advanced than their U.S. counterparts. The U.S. presidential candidates calling for a no-fly zone and shooting down Russian aircraft failed to consider whether Russian weapons platforms could shoot down U.S. aircraft first.

A Janus-Faced Approach?

Despite occasional instances of cooperation in Syria, such as the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and the ceasefire deal, the shared U.S.-Russia presence in Syria was not without tensions and both sides working against each other. “I wouldn’t characterize this as a proxy war,” said Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, the top U.S. military official in Syria. “I would say that we are pursuing different goals.” Nevertheless, a number of concerns remain including the risk of information leakage from the U.S. military to the Russian military. This remains a significant possibility given that the U.S. shares intelligence with Iraq which in turn shares intelligence with Russia and Iran.

One should also note the limitations of U.S.-Russia military-to-military cooperation. The 20 October 2015 MOU, the military coordination agreement between the U.S. and Russia, does not cover combat search and rescue (CSAR) cooperation. The U.S. claims that a formal CSAR agreement is not necessary because the current agreement already has provisions dealing with communication with Russia on such issues. According to Pentagon spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Baldanza, “In the case of a downed pilot or aircraft in distress, both sides should contact each other via the newly established communication channel. Further action will be determined at the time of incident.” However, the U.S. and Russia’s refusal to sign a formal CSAR agreement could make hopes for a unified coalition more unlikely. Russia’s requests for closer coordination could also be their way of implying that the U.S. is not serious about combating terrorism or it is actively aiding such groups.

According to Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook, the deal between Russia and the U.S. means that both sides will communicate and establish a hotline on the ground. However, the two states will not will not coordinate airstrikes, targets, and intelligence. (Though there are reports that this has happened.) The deal simply ensures that aircraft on both sides will maintain a “safe” distance from each other. Protocols would include maintaining professional airmanship, use of specific communications frequencies, and establishment of a communication line on the ground (a last resort if all other efforts fail). The deal also only covers flights over Syria and does not address Turkish concerns over Russia’s infringements of its airspace. According to Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria V. Zakharova, Russia has asked the U.S. to identify armed groups other than the Syrian military fighting IS; the Kremlin claims that it has not received a response. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the U.S.’s anti-IS strikes spare IS jihadists operating in areas where they most threaten the Assad regime. The foreign minister also stated that Russia wants to work with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in order to find out where they are. The FSA remains skeptical of Foreign Minister Lavrov’s offer. One FSA commander said that Russia bombed his unit. According to Liwa Suqour al-Jabal’s Hassan Haj Ali, “I will not talk to my killer.” The 13th Division’s Ahmad al-Seoud said, “We do not understand anything from Russia.” Bashar al-Zoubi of the Yarmouk Army wants Russia to force out President Assad before the FSA and Russia work together. The FSA is actually a loose coalition of groups many with Syrian nationalist ambitions. Though Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) defectors often lead these groups, there is not a central command structure. Khaled Khoja, the leader of the Syrian National Council, the main Western-backed opposition group, maintains that the West cannot trust Russia or Iran. He speculated that Russia will drag out the talks “and use that time to kill more civilians.”

Khoja believes that Russia is also inadvertently helping IS by bombing other opposition forces. He has visited Paris to draw up support for a “no-bomb-zone” to keep the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) at bay. Russia’s involvement in Syria complicated such requests. Russia and Iran have hinted that they are not fully committed to President Assad. They have yet to suggest alternatives, though. Khoja insists that the Iranians need President Assad and that Russia will try to enhance its power in Syria whether or not President Assad is its leader. Russia has asked the SNC to come to Moscow, but the opposition group refused. Khoja maintained that such talks would be “premature” which is similar to a U.S. line. Khoja is a member of Syria’s Turkmen minority and is politically close to Turkey. He maintains that the crisis will continue refugee flows and spread terrorism.

At one point, tensions between the U.S. and Russia even threatened to derail the Syrian Civil War peace talks. Leading up the Geneva talks, Russia objected to the list of opposition groups that the U.S. and its allies wanted at the negotiating table, calling them “terrorists.” Russia asked for the inclusion of government-approved opposition fighters that remained loyal to the Assad regime as well as the inclusion of the Kurds. Steffan de Mistura, the U.N. Special Envoy to Syria, would not, according to U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq, issue invitations to the talks until the U.S. and Russia agreed on which opposition groups to include.

In Geneva, de Mistura suspended the talks meant to establish a dialogue between President Assad and the opposition. When the talks collapsed, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry blamed Russia and urged Russian forces to stop bombing Syrian rebels. Secretary Kerry further emphasized the need for a ceasefire. He said that he spoke to Minister Lavrov and that the two men still agreed on a need to implement a ceasefire. He also wanted both the regime and the rebels to allow access to besieged areas in order for humanitarian aid to arrive.

Frank Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, maintained that the talks could still be salvaged. De Mistura later stated that these were not the end of the peace talks. Others were not so optimistic. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the talks “pointless.” He disagreed that there could still be a peace process while Russia was bombing opposition targets in Syria. North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also accused Russia of “undermining” the peace talks.

The primary reason for the peace talks’ suspension was a Russo-Syrian assault on the city of Aleppo. Russia’s campaign against Aleppo actually forced a number of opposition groups to walk out of the Geneva peace talks. Moscow also expressed outrage over Western accusations that it was Russia’s airstrikes that led to the collapse of the Geneva talks. Before the civil war, Aleppo was a key commercial center and home to over two million people. Intense fighting forced the division of the city into two sectors in 2012: The government-held west and the rebel-controlled east. Jihadists had a small presence in Aleppo and joined other rebel groups in Idlib province in the northwest to reinforce the city’s defense. To the south of the Aleppo rebels were the government forces, to the west were the Kurds, and to the east was IS. Though the factions in the north were strictly FSA, almost every rebel group had to work with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qa‘ida’s Syrian franchise. Most rebels cooperate out of necessity with IS, not any ideological affinity. Up to 400,000 people in the east, about the population of New Orleans, risked having no access to food.

By the time the assault on Aleppo was underway, thousands of civilians had fled the city. The SyAA also broke the rebel siege of two towns in Aleppo province and severed an opposition supply line from Turkey to Aleppo. According to an FSA spokesman, Syria along with its Russian and Shi‘a allies, had completely encircled Aleppo and cut off all humanitarian aid. Aleppo’s fall would signal a turning point for the Assad regime and its allies. David Evans, a spokesman for the aid group Mercy Corps, remarked, “It feels like a siege of Aleppo is about to begin.” Russia’s air campaign against Aleppo was one of its strongest operations in Syria. Meanwhile, regime forces and Shi’a militias surrounded the city, waiting to strike. Opposition forces in Syria scheduled to attend the Geneva peace talks condemned the Russian airstrikes against Aleppo.

The Russian offensive killed more than 500 people by early February. Experts believed that the opposition would have little chance without intervention from allied powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Though the Saudi Kingdom hinted at deploying troops to Syria, its intervention in Yemen kept them preoccupied. Some speculated that Turkey would provide man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) and other anti-air (AA) systems.

The Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War predicted that “[t]he full encirclement of Aleppo City would fuel a humanitarian catastrophe, shatter opposition morale, fundamentally challenge Turkish strategic ambitions, and deny the opposition its most valuable bargaining chip before the international community.” Northwest of the city of Aleppo, the SyAA cut off a major rebel supply route. This led to many rebels, including al-Nusra, to abandon their positions on the battlefield. The U.S. did not work to assist the Aleppo rebels.

“Moscow’s relentless, brutal targeting of the moderate opposition has positioned Assad’s forces to make significant gains near Aleppo.  It’s becoming clear that despite withstanding almost four months of Russian airstrikes and holding pro-regime forces to incremental gains, the blows are taking a toll on opposition forces in the northwest,” said one U.S. official at the time. The fall of Aleppo also concerned the U.S. because it risked transforming the Syrian Civil War into a conflict strictly between President Assad and IS.

When Russia proposed a 1 March ceasefire, the U.S. believed that it was simply a ploy by Moscow and its Syrian partners to give themselves time to eliminate certain anti-Assad opposition groups. The U.S. believed that the fighting should stop immediately. One U.S. official stated that the U.S. could not accept Russia’s offer because it would mean increased fighting and that certain opposition groups would suffer catastrophic losses. The U.S.’s proposal was that the fighting stop immediately to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian cities. Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (an alternative acronym for IS meaning “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”) , stated that Russia’s offensive against Aleppo was drawing fighters away from the fight against and into a fight with the Syrian government. He said that Russia was “enabling ISIL.”

Secretary Kerry also suggested at a press conference that Russia was targeting “moderate” opposition groups with its airstrikes. Meanwhile, the so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition felt abandoned by the U.S. and its allies. They alleged that the U.S. was not willing to provide them with the arms necessary to counteract the Russian and Syrian offensive. “For the last year we haven’t received anything. The US is preventing everyone from supplying the opposition with weapons out of fear they will fall in the hands of Islamic State,” said Bassam Hajji, a rebel with a CIA-backed opposition group in Aleppo. His group, Nour al-Din al-Zinki, was one of the few rebel groups to receive anti-tank missiles from the Central Intelligence Agency. The missiles were easy to transport and use. The supply of the missiles dried up before they could tip the balance on the battlefield.

In the weeks leading up to the eventual ceasefire, the Russian air force lashed out in a fury against anti-Assad groups delivering double the number of airstrikes that the U.S. launched. The assault was meant to pave the way for a Syrian regime counterattack. Russia, at one point, was launching an airstrike every 20 minutes. “From Feb. 10 to 16, aircraft of the Russian aviation group in the Syrian Arab Republic have performed 444 combat sorties engaging 1,593 terrorist objects in the provinces of Deir Ez Zor, Daraa, Homs, Hama, Latakia and Aleppo,” said a Russian Ministry of Defense statement.

The Syrian government eventually accepted a ceasefire, but it insisted that it wanted the fight against terrorist groups such as IS to continue. Syrian authorities would cooperate with Russia in determining which groups would be included the ceasefire. The Syrian government also stated that it was priority to seal the borders in order prevent opposition groups from being resupplied with outside help. This was a likely reference to Turkey.

Closer examination reveals that the new ceasefire deal is actually a similar deal drafted in October 2015 by both Kerry and Lavrov. Even though the ceasefire excludes IS and al-Nusra, IS still has 20,000 to 30,000 fighters and al-Nusra has around 10,000. Even if rival rebel groups lay down their arms, the SyAA will still be able to combat them.

Al-Nusra’s close cooperation with other rebel groups could allow Russia some flexibility in ensuring that Syrians will be forced to choose between IS and the Assad regime. Some rebel leaders believe that the Syrian government may use the presence of al-Nusra as a pretext to continue hitting certain rebel groups. Because of the al-Nusra loophole, Russia can continue airstrikes in support of Syrian forces while U.S. allies are required to stop fighting the Assad regime. Russia wants to make sure that Damascus remains an ally even after the political transition is complete. President Assad recently said that he plans to reassert control over all of Syria. Russia will have to support Syria in its effort to dislodge the jihadists. Russia and its allies will turn their attention to IS in the east once they eliminate the opposition in the West. The takeover of Palmyra indicates that this next phase has already begun.

President Assad has vowed to take back “all of his country”. “[I]f we negotiate, it does not mean that we stop fighting terrorism,” he said. According to the Dutch peace group PAX and the Washington, D.C.-based Syria Institute, “Even in cases where violent attacks cease, humanitarian access is generally minimal, movement restrictions remain, and living conditions do not improve—and sometimes worsen—following ceasefire implementation. UN participation in these agreements, particularly in assisting with forced population transfers, appears to have validated the Syrian government’s strategy of besieging civilians in order to subjugate or depopulate an area.”

Still, the U.S. and its regional partners remain insistent that President Assad can only temporarily remain the ruler of Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu maintained that his state would accept President Assad remaining in power for six months during a transitionary period but that he must step down as president of Syrian afterward. However, opposition groups and some of the U.S.’s other regional allies reject any role for President Assad even in a transition period. 

Bad Blood 

The conflict between the U.S. and Russia in Syria extended beyond diplomatic bickering. Reports indicate that missiles provided by the U.S. to the Syrian opposition have been responsible for the deaths of Russian officers. Video footage released by the CIA-backed FSA shows militiamen firing a laser-guided BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided) anti-tank missile at a rooftop where uniformed officers of an unknown faction were gathered. The attack took place somewhere near Syria’s coast with observers speculating that the location was Latakia. Sources indicated that the missile’s impact killed at least one high-ranking Russia officer.  

The FSA’s Northern Division, one of 39 anti-Assad militias backed by the CIA, produced the video. There were at least a dozen uniformed men gathered on the rooftop. The video named the targets as Russian officers. Russian media also reported that IS jihadists killed a Russian officer in a mortar attack, though there was no mention of where the attack took place. The mortars reportedly hit a military garrison. Another opposition group, the Revolutionary Forces of Syria, backed up the Northern Division’s claim, stating that the attack took place in the Jabal al-Akrad mountain region of northern Latakia.

The pro-opposition Local Coordination Committees reported that 15 officials including three Russian officers and four Syrian officers were killed in the town of Salma, recently recaptured by SyAA forces. The casualties resulted from a TOW attack in Marj Khawka, a village juts outside of Salma. Other sources suggested that four Russian generals were among those hit. One was identified only as “Yuriy.”

A pro-Russian paper cited “unofficial reports” that a Russian officer serving as a military adviser for the Syrian regime died from multiple shrapnel wounds in a mortar attack outside Salma. However, the paper attributed the attack to Turkish forces. The reporters received this information from the Syrian foreign minister. Another Russia journalist stated that the officer was a lieutenant colonel who had bene sent to Syria in 2012 to instruct SyAA forces on the use of heavy weapons.

General Igor Konashenkov, an MoD spokesman, said that the soldier died in a hospital from an IS mortar attack which also killed four SyAA trainees. Other reports indicate that this attack took place on 26 January and that it took place in Homs City, a considerable distance from Latakia. There is no IS presence in Homs. Finally the Northern Division released a follow-up video with one of its fighters, the TOW gunner, saying, “The Anti-Aircraft Battalion affiliated with the Northern Division got information from the battalion commander that some Russians were scouting in the Turkmen Mountains. We took the [TOW] base and, following the reconnaissance mission, we found a number of Russian soldiers gathered on the rooftop of a building. I dealt with them and one of the dead was a high-ranking Russian officer, alongside some Russian officers and Syrian officers.”

The number of TOW launches in Syria has also increased after a multi-month hiatus. Saudi Arabia receives massive stocks of TOWs from the U.S. and then supplies them directly to the rebels. The U.S. can decide where and by who they used as part of an agreement with the Saudis. Rebels are trained in teams of 50 in Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, but mostly in the first two states. “After this training, they get back to the border, they get inside Syria, and then they get their gear,” said a rebel source. “With the TOW, each 50-man team gets one launcher and five missiles. They’re told to make a video verifying the missiles’ use and bring the spent missile casings to show they haven’t sold them or whatever.” 

Over 4,000 anti-Assad rebels have gone through this training meaning that over 4,000 TOWs have seen service in Syria. The TOW deliveries are part of a CIA program coordinated out of joint operations centers (JOCs) in Turkey and Jordan manned by intelligence personnel from several Western states. TOWs have been incredibly effective against the SyAA’s arsenal of Soviet-made armored vehicles. However, many Syrian vehicles now carry a panoramic turret that could serve as a missile detection system. Russia has also deployed T-90 tanks with missile protection systems alongside Syrian and Hizbullah personnel. TOWs have also killed Syrian and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers.

The CIA program is distinct and predates the now-defunct Pentagon program. The USD 500 million plan attempted to create teams of anti-IS Sunni Arabs and Syrian Turkmens known collectively as the New Syrian Forces. The trainees came from U.S.-approved FSA groups. The program ended in failure in October 2015 when these forces crossed into Syria and surrendered their gear to al-Nusra. The gear included machine-gun mounted pick-up trucks (known as technicals) and U.S. Colt M4 carbines. The group’s second graduating class passed along the weapons to al-Nusra. The Pentagon vetted but did not train the group’s commander, Abu Zayd, according to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Zayd commanded the Division 30 rebel group.

Given their limited range, Syrian rebels mostly employ TOWs in rural areas against Syrian tanks and BMPs (a type of Russian infantry fighting vehicle or IFV). The TOWs that the rebels use can travel up to 3.7 km. Russian Konkurs (NATO reporting name: AT-5 “Spandrel”) and Kornet (NATO reporting name: AT-14 “Spriggan”) missiles can be easily stolen from regime warehouses, are more readily available, and have longer ranges. (The Spandrel has a 5-km range.)

Upping the Ante

Also worthy of note is the substantial presence of Russian electronic warfare (EW) and intelligence-gathering assets in Syria that appear more tailored to focus on the U.S. and its allies rather than IS and other rebel groups. Russia is reportedly using EW systems to jam IS communications and prevent NATO from monitoring its own activities. EW is the ability to manipulate the electromagnetic system to enable the attacker to see where enemy targets are. It also prevents the enemy from attacking. Examples of EW include communications jamming, radar jamming, and reconnaissance and countermeasures using infrared (IR), radio, and electro-optical frequencies. After the downing of a Sukhoi Su-24 (NATO reporting name: “Fencer”) fighter-bomber by Turkey, Russian Lieutenant General Evgeniy Buzhinskiy announced that Russia would begin employing "electronic jamming systems that are based both on the ground and installed on special aircraft."

One platform is the R-330P “Piramida-I”. The system, based on the Soviet-made MT-LBu APC, first entered service with the SyAA in the late 1980s, but it appears that Russia recently restocked Damascus’s arsenal. The new R-330Ps sport green camouflage and are a stark contrast to the older, rustier models which still bear their original camouflage. 

The R-330P’s purpose is to detect, intercept, and jam voice and data communications. It sports two antennae with one used to detect very high frequency (VHF) bands used by communication systems and the other used to jam these frequencies, disabling any communications systems that use these frequencies in a 25-kilometer range. However, the system can also be used against anti-Assad rebels. The R-330P could make it virtually impossible for rebel groups to communicate by radio, thwarting possible offensives against the Syrian regime. Pro-Russian rebel offensives in eastern Ukraine reportedly used the R-330P for such purposes.

Russia has deployed another mobile, ground-based EW system to Syria, the Krasukha-4. On 5 October 2015, observers spotted the Krasukha-4 in Syria. It is a broadband multifunctional jamming station designed primarily to neutralize low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites such as the U.S.’s Lacrosse/Onyx series, airborne surveillance radars (namely airborne early warning and control systems or AWACS), and radar-guided ordnance between 150 km and 300 km. It can cause permanent damage to targeted radio-electronic devices. Ground-based radars are also vulnerable. The platform is being used to deny IS surveillance information and radio communication. The system entered into service with the Russian military in 2013. It is based on the BAZ-6910-022 four-axle-chassis. The Krasukha-4 was first spotted when the U.S. was considering implementing a no-fly zone. Russian and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine to disrupt cell services.

Another EW platform, the R-166-0.5 signals vehicle, provides command and control (C2) functions for a battalion of Russian ground troops. This implies that Russian troop levels in Syria are at least at battalion level. (This number may have decreased given Russia’s recent “withdrawal” from Syria.) Anti-Assad rebels employ simplified communications tools which are easy to tackle for this system. The Syrian rebels are not a hard signals intelligence (SIGINT) target.

Pictures have appeared on social media of Russian four-engine Ilyushin Il-20M (NATO reporting name: “Coot-A”) spy planes, based on the Il-18 (which also uses the NATO reporting name “Coot”) turboprop airliner. They are in the same vein as the U.S.’s Boeing EC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft. The Coot is apparently present even though no observers have spied it on the Hmeymim apron. It is an electronic intelligence (ELINT) aircraft equipped with a variety of antennas, infrared (IR) and optical sensors, a side-looking airborne radar (SLAR), and satellite communication equipment for real-time data sharing.

Coots regularly perform long-range reconnaissance missions in the Baltic Sea, flying in international airspace with their transponders off; this is a standard practice for all intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft. However, this also means that Coots operating in the Baltics often nearly collide with Western commercial airliners. In Syria, there remains a chance of close encounter between a Coot and a coalition aircraft. In Syria, the Coot performs intelligence-gathering missions. These include eavesdropping on IS communications, detecting their systems’ emissions to build an electronic order of battle (EOB) of IS in the region, and pinpointing the jihadists’ positions. Footage has also emerged of an Il-22 (NATO reporting name: “Coot-B”) in Syria. This is the airborne command post derivative of the standard Coot. 

Russia has recently deployed the Tu-214R to Syria. This is Russia’s most advanced SIGINT and ELINT aircraft. It is equipped with all weather radar systems and electro optical sensors that produce photo-like images of large areas of the ground. These images can map then locations of enemy forces even if they are hidden or camouflaged.

It also carries sensor packages for SIGINT and ELINT missions. Its antennae allow the Tu-214R to intercept signals emitted by enemy systems such as radars, aircraft, radios, combat vehicles, and mobile phones. This allows for the construction of an EOB which allows Russian forces to determine enemy locations, equipment types, and intentions.

The Kazan Aircraft Production Association (KAPO) manufactures the Tu-214R, and the aircraft operates out of the company’s airfield in Kazan as opposed to an official air force installation. One of the Tu-214Rs in Syria has the registration number RA-64514 and the serial number 42305014. It flew from Russia over the Caspian Sea through Iranian and Iraqi airspace to Syria. The Tu-214R is technically still in development and is not in service with the Russian air force. Therefore, the aircraft’s deployment to a combat zone is quite peculiar.  

However, while the Tu-214R was still in development, it flew a mission on 18 June 2015 from Kazan to Crimea and then back. It followed the border between Russia and Ukraine during its flight and likely tested its sensors against real targets if they were active. Also, while flying over the Caspian Sea, the Tu-214R made a few 360° turns at 33,000 feet. David Cenciotti of The Aviationist website speculates that it could have been working on obtaining a diplomatic clearance from Iran.  

In December 2015 Russia introduced the Beriev A-50E (NATO reporting name: “Mainstay”) airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft to the Syrian battlespace. The AWACS aircraft are in Syrian to support the Russian aircraft already deployed there. Mainstays have been spotted flying over Syria at altitudes of over 20,000 feet. The Mainstay is a modified version of the Il-76 (NATO reporting name: “Candid”) transport aircraft. It is equipped with a massive rotating radar dome above its fuselage.

The Mainstay’s missions include: detection, tracking, and identification friend or foe (IFF) determination of both air and surface targets; surveillance; command, control, and communications functions for command posts and automatic control systems; and guidance of fighters to air targets and attack craft to surface targets. The German Defense Ministry announced that NATO was preparing to relocate E-3 Sentry AWACS craft from Germany to Turkey’s Konya air base. The craft will be used to monitor airspace at the Turkey-Syria border, and at least one-third of the crew will be German.   

Russia also dispatched a spy ship to Syria which, according to a Russian military source, is meant to “reinforce the Russian naval group in the eastern part of the Mediterranean.” The source said that the ship’s mission is to observe the situation in Syria by monitoring airwaves both there and in neighboring states as well as over their territorial waters. Spy ships from Russia’s Baltic Fleet reportedly used such tactics to monitor the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The ship is the Vasiliy Nikitich Tatishchev, a Vishnya-class (also known by the designations Project 864 or Meridian) intelligence ship from Russia’s Baltic Sea Fleet. It departed Baltiysk around 5 October.

Built for the Soviet Union in the 1980s by the Stocznia Polnocna company in Gdansk, Poland, the vessel is configured for SIGINT and communications intelligence (COMINT) sporting two satellite communications antennae and a radome. Protection on board the spy ship includes two AK-630 30-milimeter guns and two 9K34 Strela-3 (NATO reporting name: SA-N-8 “Gremlin”) surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers. Both are meant to counter airborne threats, the type of threat that the Syrian rebels do not pose. The Vasiliy Tatishchev has a displacement  of 3,470 tons and is 94.4 meters in length. Its maximum cruising distance is 7,000 nautical miles with a maximum speed of 16 knots. This is because of its twin 4,400-bhp diesel engines. The ship has a 146-man crew.

Of far greater consequence, however, is the deployment of advanced Russian fighter craft to Syria. The number of Russian aircraft in Syria do not indicate that Russia is preparing to fight a NATO invasion of Syria, but they could still be used as insurance against any rash moves on Turkey’s part. Russian aircraft frequently shadow German Luftwaffe Tornado performing reconnaissance missions in Syria. Lieutenant General Joachim Wundrak, a Luftwaffe official who recently returned from the coalition’s Qatar-based anti-IS coordination center, stated that the Russian aircraft behaved “professionally” and took no aggressive actions. General Wundrak stated that he believed the purpose of the flights were for the Russian pilots to show that “unlike the international (US-led) anti-IS coalition, they operate at the invitation of the legitimate Syrian government.” 

Also, thanks to Germany’s role in the Baltic Air Policing mission, Luftwaffe pilots know how to interact with their Russian counterparts. Germany provides interceptor fighters for this NATO mission because the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia lack such craft of their own. Germany also has six Tornados and one Airbus tanker stationed at Turkey’s Incirlik air base. 

A recently-released video a Russian jet – most likely a Su-30 (NATO reporting name “Flanker-C”) – overflew a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The MOU signed by Russia and the U.S. is meant to regulate the flight operations of both manned and unmanned aircraft. The agreement calls for round-the-clock communications between Russian and U.S. command and control centers. The rules also apply to other air forces conducting operations against IS. 

Russian fighter jets have shadowed U.S. MQ-1 Predator UAVs on at least three occasions. The incidents took place over the airspace in the IS-controlled areas of Raqqa, Kobani near the Syrian-Turkish border, and Aleppo. The Predator is relatively easy to detect on radar. The Russians flew “intercept tracks,” flying close enough to make their presence known. However, they did not fly close enough to impede the UAVs’ missions. In two incidents Russian aircraft flew within 1,500 and 500 feet of U.S. warplanes. As Russian launched a cruise missile barrage against targets in Syria, the U.S. had to divert one of its aircraft to ensure that it maintained a safe flying distance from a Russian fighter. U.S. pilots are under orders to change their flight path if a Russian plane is within 20 nautical miles.   

More disturbing is the Kremlin’s deployment of aircraft to Syria allows it to observe advanced U.S. aircraft operating in Syria such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Kremlin aircraft can track the stealth jet’s radar emissions. Russia is using its air campaign in Syria as an opportunity to gather intelligence on U.S. forces. According to one U.S. Air Force official, Russia is using its newer air-to-air assets as a form of “operational testing” in an actual combat environment. Russia wants to do this with the Su-34 (NATO reporting name: “Fullback”) and Flanker-C while the U.S. is doing the same with the F-22. These Russian aircraft characterize the F-22’s radar emissions on their radar warning receivers (RWRs). Russia’s Flanker-Cs and other air superiority fighters (ASFs) may also be present to ward off Western intelligence assets from spying on Russian forces.

Observers reported a Russian civilian airliner, a Tupolev Tu-154 (NATO reporting name: “Careless”) with the tail number RA-85042. It flew along flight route RFF7087 (Privolzhskiy airfield, Astrakhan to Hmeymim air base, Syria). This information was published on 30 January. The next day, images emerged of fighters (with the side numbers “red” 03, 04, 05, 06, and, reportedly, 08) flying as an escort for the Careless airliner. This marked the deployment to Syria of the Su-35S (NATO reporting name: “Flanker-E”), Russia’s most advanced fighter plane. The aircraft, capable of both air-to-air and air-to-ground engagements, is reportedly a match for even the U.S.’s F-22 Raptor.

The planes, photographed from the Careless had a light camouflage pattern. Flanker-Es built after 2014 use this light camo pattern. These five fighters reportedly came from the 23rd Fighter Aviation Regiment of the 303rd guard combined aviation division of the 11th Air Force and Air Defense Army of the Eastern Military district stationed at the Dzengi airfield and relocated to the Privolzhskiy airfield in Astrakhan later. They deployed to Syria via the route along the Caspian Sea-Iran-Iraq route.  

The addition of Flanker-Es to the Syrian battlespace provides Russia with more fighter escorts for its Fencers and Su-25s (NATO reporting name: “Frogfoot”) close air support (CAS) aircraft. These aircraft have limited self-defense capabilities against aerial threats and relied only on Flanker-Cs for fighter escort before the Flanker-E’s arrival in Syria. The Flanker-C is in the same vein as the U.S.’s Boeing F-15C Eagle. The Fullback fighter-bombers that Russia has deployed to Syria also have an excellent air-to-air self-defense capability.

Russia also has Su-30SM (NATO reporting name: “Flanker-H”) aircraft in Syria. The Flanker-H has greater weight, drag, less powerful engines, and somewhat inferior avionics. It was the most proficient Russian dogfighter in Syria before the arrival of the Flanker-E. However, it is still a more capable fighter than the Flanker-E in many regards especially because it has a second crewmember.

The Flanker-E incorporates the latest Russian military technology. Many U.S. defense officials are impressed with it. “It’s a great airplane and very dangerous, especially if they make a lot of them,” said one senior U.S. military official with extensive experience on fifth-generation fighters. “I think even an AESA [active electronically scanned array-radar equipped F-15C] Eagle and [Boeing F/A-18E/F] Super Hornet would both have their hands full.”

This deployment will allow Russia to test the Flanker-E’s operational effectiveness. It also serves as a marketing tool. Russia has already sold the fighter to China and is looking for more potential customers. With Russia working closely with Iran in Syria and sanctions being lifted as a result of the recent nuclear deal, the Islamic Republic could serve as a potential customer.

The Flanker-E is an advanced derivative of the Su-27. The F-22 may be the only fighter that can counter it thanks to the Flanker-E’s advanced suite of avionics, high flying capabilities, high speed, and a large weapons payload. “When taken as a singular platform, I like the Su-35’s chances against most of our platforms, with perhaps the exception of the F-22 and F-15C,” said a U.S. Navy aviator from the famous Top Gun fighter tactics school. “I suspect the F/A-18E/F can hold it’s [sic] own and F-35 has presumed stealth and sensor management on its side.”

An Air Force official, however, stated that the Flanker-E could pose a serious problem for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The F-35 is a strike fighter and does not possess the speed and altitude abilities of the Flanker-E or the F-22. The Flanker-E has high speed and altitude capabilities because of its role as an ASF. It can fly at an altitude of around 45,000 feet with a speed of about Mach 1.5. The F-35 operates at around 30,000 feet at a speed of about Mach 0.9. The Flanker-E has supermaneuvrability and while it is not a stealth aircraft it can reportedly detect stealth aircraft such as the F-35 JSF at distances of over 90 km. When the Flanker-E gets within visual range (WVR) it can freely maneuver in almost any direction to intercept its target.

The Flanker frame, which the Su-35S is based on, is already superior in many regards compared to fighters such as the F-15. The Flanker-E improves on the original airframe with a lighter airframe, three-dimensional thrust vectoring, advanced avionics and a powerful jamming capability.  “Large powerful engines, the ability to supercruise for a long time and very good avionics make this a tough platform on paper,” said one F-22 pilot. “It's considered a fourth gen plus-plus, as in it has more inherent capability on the aircraft. It possesses a passive [electronically-scanned array and it] has a big off boresight capability and a very good jamming suite.”

The Flanker-E’s electronic attack (EA) capability is also a problem for Western fighters. Its advanced digital radio frequency memory jammers can degrade hostile radars. It can also blind the onboard radars on U.S. air-to-air missiles (AAMs0 such as the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM). Even modernized versions of Fourth Generation fighters would have trouble fighting against the Flanker-E.

“We—the U.S. Department of Defense—haven't been pursuing appropriate methods to counter EA for years,” said an Air Force official. “So, while we are stealthy, we will have a hard time working our way through the EA to target the Su-35s and our missiles will have a hard time killing them.” The Flanker-E also has an infrared search and track capability. These non-electromagnetic (EM) sensors can help them detect other aircraft. 

The Flanker-E carries a massive payload of air-to-air missiles. However, the real question is, whether Russian pilots have the tactics to make this weapons platform effective. Effective fighter aircraft are only part of the puzzle. U.S. pilots remain confident that they have the upper hand. “The secret sauce is probably in our fighters and commensurate ‘strike’ or employment packages, to include AWACS, refueling [sic], and EM-capable platforms,” said a Naval aviator.

“You really don't know the capabilities of the weapons system or the skill level of the other side's pilots or their battle management system,” added a former Air Force pilot. “A physical platform is a shell of capability. It's what's inside that counts along with the command and control to execute. Our fifth-gen is pretty good. Weapons reliability and defensive suites might make the difference.” Nevertheless, Russian pilots also likely have a similar sureness of their aerial combat abilities.

Russia is not the only state preparing for an air-to-air confrontation over Syria. In November, the Pentagon announced it was sending over a dozen jets to Turkey’s Incirlik air base, specifically F-15Cs. The planes came from U.S. European Command (EUCOM). EUCOM released a statement saying that the deployment was “in response to the government of Turkey’s request for support in securing the sovereignty of Turkish airspace.” Given the eight AAMs that it carries, the F-15C’s primary role is as an ASF, defending allied aircraft from hostile fighters – which, again, the Syrian rebels do not have. DoD spokesperson Laura Seal said that the deployment of F-15Cs to Turkey was meant to “ensure the safety” of America’s NATO allies. When pressed further on the issue by journalist, she responded, “I didn’t say it was about Russia.” 

There is some speculation that the U.S. will use the single-seat fighters to assist Turkey in patrolling the Turkish-Syrian border to intercept Syrian – not to mention Russian – planes and helicopters that stray into Turkish territory. A more likely use for the planes, however, would be to escort U.S. strike aircraft on anti-IS sorties. Some of these strikes occur in close proximity to Syrian military forces and Russia’s own aerial task force in Syria. 

It should be noted that the F-15C is the first strictly air-to-air combat aircraft that the U.S. has sent to Syria, and that its deployment comes after Russia’s aerial intervention. Their pilots train exclusively in shooting down enemy warplanes. Almost all other attack aircraft that the U.S. has deployed to Syria have been focused on targeting the caliphate – the F-22, Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon, Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II, and Boeing B-1B Lancer. F-15Cs did not participate in Operation Enduring Freedom or the occupation phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, both conflicts in which the U.S. fought jihadist groups lacking any air force. The U.S. is supposedly fighting the same type of enemy in Syria.

The deployment of F-15Cs to Turkey now means that the U.S. has aircraft positioned in Jordan, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. The Air Force also sent A-10s along with helicopters and Lockheed Martin C-130J Combat King personnel recovery planes to Incirlik. The buildup of aircraft at Incirlik, according to the Pentagon, is part of a new strategy to put pressure on IS from the north. Nevertheless, the Pentagon maintains that it will not enforce a no-fly zone to protect pro-U.S. rebels from the Syrian and Russian air forces. If the U.S. did enact such a strategy, F-15Cs, would play a key role, and it would only encourage them to confront Russian aircraft.

Following the shoot down of a Russian Fencer by Turkish F-16s, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that its Fullback fighter-bombers made their first sorties over Syria carrying a new, deadly cargo. The MoD stated that the planes now carried short- and medium-range air-to-air missiles (SRAAMs and MRAAMs respectively) to be used “for defensive purposes.” The missiles are equipped with heat-seeking devices and have a 60-km range.

The U.S. stopped flying manned missions in certain areas of northern Syria because of the air defenses that Russia placed there. The area is the Turkish-Syria border just west of the Euphrates River. The area, referred to as Box 4 by the U.S. military, is where numerous rebel groups have been fighting IS under U.S. air cover. Russia deployed Buk-M2 (NATO reporting name (SA-17 “Grizzly”) anti-air (AA) systems in the area which having been “painting” U.S. aircraft, targeting them with their radar. The Pentagon is still flying unmanned flights in the area. Russia is also bombing the U.S.-supported rebels. Russia also reportedly has 9K331 Tor (NATO reporting name: SA-15 “Gauntlet”) SAMS in Syria. This could indicate that Russia is trying to set up an “anti-access, aerial-denial” (A2AD) zone. This would ensure absolute protection for Russian forces operating in Syria and the greater Mediterranean. 

CJCS and Marine Corps Major General Joseph Dunford raised the issue with his Russian counterpart and Secretary Kerry did the same with President Putin. The U.S. is currently considering how to respond to the increased presence of Russian air defenses. Some simply want to resume flights, but this could risk an incident with the Russian military. Russia is trying to define the military landscape in Syria to its own benefit and create zones where U.S. aircraft would have to abide by its rules.

The Grizzly is not the only AA system present in Syria. Russia also deployed the highly-advanced Pantsir-S2 (NATO reporting name: SA-22 “Greyhound”) to Syria. This is an upgraded version of the Pantsir-S1 system. The S2 variant entered service with the Russian military in 2015. The Pantsir-S2 is reportedly “absolutely superior” to the S1 version. The system has a 40-km radius and a 60,000-foot height meaning that it can shoot down a variety of targets with its missile and 30-mm cannon combination. The Greyhound is equipped with a pair of 2A38M 30-mm cannons and 12 57E6 SAMs. The Grizzly, on the other hand, has a range of 97 km and a maximum altitude of 82,000 feet allowing to engage targets at longer ranges and higher altitudes than the Greyhound.

Targets of the Greyhound include aircraft, cruise missiles, helicopters, anti-radiation missiles, ballistic missiles, artillery shells, and rockets. It can also reportedly take down UAVs and stealth aircraft thanks to its multi-band targeting system. Greyhounds have shot down targets flying at 3,600-km/h. The Greyhound currently protects Moscow in concert with the S-400 Triumf (NATO reporting name: SA-21 “Growler”) AA missile system. Russia believes in layered AA defense. Growlers form the outer perimeter, targeting long-range threats. If a projectile slips past the Growlers, it then falls to the Grizzlies to take it out. Should that fail, the Greyhounds and their point-defense weapons form the last line of defense.

Russia has had Pantsir-S1s in Syria since 3 October 2015. However, RT footage from 2016 has shown Pantsir-S2 systems present in Syria. A Greyhound pair can be set up with their radars orientated in opposite directions in order to jointly provide 360o target scanning coverage. However, the radar on the system seen in RT the footage was rotating, indicating that it was likely not working with a second system with the same radar. Greyhound systems support the Growlers as point defense systems to protect against cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions (PGMs).

Russia has also stationed the aforementioned Growler AA missile system in Syria. The Growler is the most capable lethal long-range air defense system on the planet. The Almaz-Antey Central Design Bureau developed the Growler. It has been in service with the Russian military since 2007. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu announced the deployment of the Growler to Syria on 25 November. It only took 24 hours after the announcement for Russian Antonov An-124 (NATO reporting name: “Condor”) airlifters to deliver the AA missile system to Syria. Photos have emerged of the Growler’s 96L6 (NATO reporting name: “Cheese Board”) radar deployed to Syria. There no confirmed reports that the Growler has been deployed with the new 40N6 long-range missile. Russia has issued the following orders for all of its Growler forces in Syria:

1) ALL surface attack sorties would have fighter escorts

2) Air defense batteries would be standing up the S-400, with orders to engage all aircraft deemed to be hostile to Russian air operations.

With the introduction of Growler and possibly S-300 (NATO reporting name: SA-10 “Grumble”) systems in Syria, it is important to determine their effectiveness against U.S. aircraft. The Grumble may even be able to counter the F-35. Only the Northrup Grumman B-2 Spirit and F-22 Raptor, both of which have stealth capabilities, may be able to penetrate a Growler network.

The Grumble and Growler are designed to protect strategically important areas. The S-300PMU-1, for example, has a range of over 192 km and is able to engage targets at altitudes of up to 100,000 feet. These systems are mobile and change position with little notice. Weapons like the Grumble are typically controlled by the Russian air force which includes the Russian – formerly Soviet – air defense forces, the Voyska PVO. “A complete game changer for all fourth-gen aircraft [like the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18]. That thing is a beast and you don’t want to get near it,” said one former Marine Corps aviator about the Grumble. The Grumble represents a serious challenge for fighter aircraft such as the F-16 and F-15. B-2 Spirits and F-22 Raptors are the best chances to defeat it, but even they may have some difficulty. Only the nuclear warhead of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that travel at speeds of up to 6-7 kilometers per second would be a difficult target for the Growler to take out.

The U.S. nevertheless remains confident that F-22s and B-2s are the best chance to counter Russia’s networked air defense systems. According to U.S. officials, F-22s “kick down the door” using a combination of stealth, high altitude and speed to target the nodes of an integrated air defense system. Next, B-2s proceed to their targets without risk of shoot down. The F-22’s recent Increment 3.1 upgrade that allows the jet to geo-locate emitters with greater precision only makes it more capable of such missions. The F-22’s forthcoming Increment 3.2B upgrade with only enhance that capability even further.

There is another way that U.S. forces can eliminate an integrated air defense system. It involves using a combination of standoff weapons such the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and JASSM-ER (Extended Range) missiles in concert with electronic attacks from a platform such as the Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic warfare jet. The EA-18G can jam enemy radar and generate an ellipse to target the missile site. However, this requires precisely updating the cruise missile with current track data before the enemy moves as the missile closes in on it.

Russian media has boasted that no U.S. airstrikes have been conducted in Syria since Russia deployed its Growler missile system in Syria. Despite these claims, U.S. air assets have actually flown since the Growlers were deployed. “SA-21’s [sic] haven’t changed our fly rates or the areas we operate in,” according to one U.S. pilot. “We’ve been flying in SA-5 MEZs for a year now and they have known we have been there the entire time.” Though there was a brief halt in coalition airstrikes, a spokesman for the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) stated that the Growler’s deployment has nothing to do with the cessation of coalition airstrikes in Syria. The coalition has continued its airstrikes against IS in Iraq.

U.S. pilots were informed that many of their sorties would be flown inside of a Growler missile engagement zone (MEZ) upon the system’s deployment to Syria. The Growler MEZ covers the Royal Air Force (RAF) air base at Akrotiri in Cyprus and the U.S. air base at Incirlik, Turkey. This marked the first time that U.S. pilots would have to fly inside of a Growler MEZ.

Nevertheless, the Growler’s deployment primarily designed to intimidate Turkey. Russia has shown no intention of using the Growler against U.S. or non-Turkish coalition aircraft. Air planners at the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar are likely developing new procedures for pilots operating in the Growler MEZ. These guidelines would cover manned and unmanned aircraft. The Growler’s deployment could also lead to more restrictive airspace control measures. Restrictive rules of engagement (ROEs) have already limited U.S. air operations in Operation Inherent Resolve with Lieutenant General David Deptula (USAF, Ret.) nicknaming the campaign “Desert Drizzle.” Restrictions implemented as a result of the Growler’s deployment could only further limit U.S. air action against IS.

The Growlers have not departed as a result of Russia’s drawdown in Syria, meaning that the U.S. will have to establish precautionary measures against them if it does not want to neuter its anti-IS campaign. One option could be for the U.S. to provide each of its F-22s with threat identification and location and give them an escort of F-16s or EA-18Gs for suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD). However, there are not enough SEAD aircraft to provide support to every manned and unmanned ISR platform operating in Syria. The U.S. can either limit air operations over central and western Syria or not provide dedicated SEAD to its strike and ISR assets. Another solution would be for the U.S. to increase its cooperation with Russia. A joint U.S.-Russia plan to deconflict killboxes could actually increase the coalition’s combat effectiveness against IS.  

Russia’s deployment of strategic bombers, however, has perhaps the greatest implication for U.S. forces in Syria even though they are not permanently stationed at Hmyemim. The majority of sorties involving Russian strategic bombers involved the Tu-22M3 (NATO reporting name: “Backfire”) bomber. Though the Backfires dropped OFAB 250-270 free-fall bombs during the Syria strikes, the planes were originally designed during the Cold War to destroy U.S. aircraft carriers based in the Atlantic Ocean as well as other high-value NATO targets in Europe. The U.S. has no equivalent of the Backfire. Many compare it to the B-1B Lancer, which no longer carries nuclear weapons. Another apt comparison is the FB-111, the strategic bomber variant of the retired F-111 Aardvark. Russia has deployed Tu-22M3 bombers to Crimea.

The Tu-22M3 is latest variant of the Backfire, which was originally designed as an upgrade to a much less sophisticated aircraft, the Tu-22 (NATO reporting name: “Blinder”). The Tu-22M3 variant has been in operational service since 1989. As its purpose was to carry a variety of anti-ship cruise missiles, it caused great concern for the U.S. Navy.

It carries 53,000 pounds worth of weapons. These include up to 10 Raduga Kh-15 (NATO reporting name: AS-16 “Kickback”) anti-ship missiles and three Raduga Kh-22  (NATO reporting name: AS-4 “Kitchen”) missiles. Both of these weapons can reach speeds of up to Mach 5. The Kitchen weighs 13,000 pounds, has a 320-nautical mile range, and a 2,200- pound warhead that can disable an aircraft carrier with one hit.

The Backfire can also carry conventional bombs such as the FAB-250 class weapons (usually 70 onboard) or the FAB-1500 (usually eight onboard). Dunarit, the FAB-250-270’s manufacturer says that the weapon “is intended for destruction of military-industrial sites, railway junctions, field facilities and personnel in open terrain as well as in light armored vehicles and trucks on the march or during attack within the main concentration perimeter.”

The Backfire is also incredibly fast. It has a top speed of Mach 1.88 and can travel at Mach 1.6 for extended periods. The Backfire is a swept-wing, strategic bomber. It is a supersonic, variable-sweep wing, long-range strategic and maritime strike bomber designed by the Tupolev Design Bureau. There are more than 100 Backfires in service with the Russian military. The Tu-22M3 is a modernized version that includes upgraded avionics, Shompol side looking airborne radar, and other ELINT equipment.

The Backfire’s Kickback missile is the fastest anti-ship missile in service today. It can reach an altitude of up to 40,000 m and then it dives back on target, accelerating to a speed of Mach 5. It can cause considerable damage to ships even without its high explosive contents; this damage would result from kinetic energy. It has a 300-km operational range and U.S. carriers have no defenses against them before they get in range.

The Backfire’s Kitchen missile is a ship-destroying cruise missile that flies toward its targets at speeds of up to Mach 4.6. It uses an Isayev liquid-fuel rocket engine, filled with TG-02 (Tonka-250) and IRFNA (inhibited red fuming nitric acid), giving it a maximum speed of Mach 4.6 and a range of 600 km. It is launched at either high or low altitudes. Backfires would use these missiles in swarm attacks in which several of the bombers launch missiles in various modes, overwhelming their target. In high-altitude mode, the Kitchen climbs to an altitude of 24,000 m and then dives toward its target at Mach 4.6. In low-altitude mode the missile climbs to only 12,000 m and makes a shallow dive at about Mach 3.5 with its final approach at an altitude of under 500 m. It is guided by a gyro-stabilized autopilot in conjunction with a radio altimeter.

Since the Backfire’s missiles can destroy aircraft carriers, the Russian military has made no attempt to match the U.S. in carrier strength. The only effective counter to the Backfire’s missiles is the Northrup Grumman F-14 Tomcat. The F-14 can provide cover for carrier groups and is capable of speeds up to Mach 1.6. Since the Tomcat’s retirement, the Navy has relied on the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet for defense and attack capabilities.

U.S. carriers now lack the stand-off defense capability that the F-14 offered. No ordnance carried by the F/A-18 can combat a Backfire squadron before it launches its missiles against a carrier group. The Backfire can fly along Russia’s borders, achieve its top speed, launch its beyond visual range (BVR) missiles at the carriers, and then retreat back to safety behind a Russian air defense network.

The only lethal counter to the Backfire is the F-14’s AIM-54 Phoenix missile. The Phoenix is a radar-guided, long-range AAM. F-14s carried them in clusters of up to six. The AIM-54 achieves its longest range by using mid-course updates from the F-14A/B AWG-9 radar (or the APG-71 radar on the F-14D) as it climbs to between 24,000 meters and 30,000 meters at close to Mach 5. The missile then uses its high altitude to gain gravitational potential energy, later converted into kinetic energy as the missile dives at high velocity toward its target. At around 18 km from its target, the AIM-54 activates its own radar to provide terminal guidance. The minimum engagement range (minimal distance for missile to hit its target efficiently) for the AIM-54 is 3.7 km. Active homing initiates upon launch. It is operational for a range of up to 190 km.

Though many of Russia’s strike fighters have been replaced with helicopter gunships as a result of its so-called “draw-down” in Syria, there remains the risk that Russia could reintroduce these advanced fighter craft into the Levant should that U.S. undertake a course of action that makes Moscow uncomfortable. Russia’s AAA systems remain in Syria as well. However, this should not be a risk as long as Russo-American cooperation continues on its current course and improves. Of far greater concern, however, are the actions against Russia of another NATO power: Turkey.

This will be further elaborated on in the two-part series “The Tsar and the Sultan.”

 Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons