MOSCOW — After a week of heavy operations over Syria, Russia's Air Force is scaling back its efforts so it can analyze its progress and identify new targets after the Ministry of Defense last week claimed to have helped the Syrian regime push back opposition forces.
Moving into the third week of Russia's surprise aerial intervention in Syria's four-and-a-half-year-old civil war, Moscow has not only claimed early successes, but demonstrated that efforts to modernize its military are yielding real benefits and restoring lost capabilities.
The campaign is limited, with a force of about 30 Russian fixed-wing aircraft and 20 helicopters operating out of a regime-controlled airbase outside the coastal city of Latakia. The tactics being used are a hybrid of classic-Soviet air support missions and Western-style precision air strikes.
A former member of Russia's General Staff, retired Lt. Gen. Yevgeny Buzhinsky, told Defense News that “the Russian Air Force has started using Western tactics just to destroy separate targets with high-precision weapons,” but overall it is flying traditional ground-support missions.
Russian analysts credited the adoption of Western precision strikes to the defense industry's ability to catch up in the field of guided munitions — an area in which the West pulled far ahead of Russia in the 1990s — rather than purely an evolution of doctrine and military thought.
“It is the first time that the Russian Air Force is using high-precision weapons,” Buzhinsky said. “It lacked these for quite a long time since we are lagging behind the US, and the West in general, in high-precision weapons because of the 1990s,” Buzhinsky said.
During that time, the US and its European allies made huge strides in precision ordnance, employing them in numerous engagements since the Gulf War in 1991. The fact that Russia has caught up “is a testimony to the military modernization efforts” under President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Buzhinsky said.
Though the weapons are new, and being employed in ways similar to the West in its various interventions of the past two decades, “the air campaign in Syria is very similar to that of the Soviet Air Force in Afghanistan, except that a lower percentage of the missions are in direct support of ground troops,” said Russian military expert Mikhail Barabanov.
Barabanov, the editor in chief of Moscow Defense Brief, an English-language monthly published by the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Russian defense think tank, argued that the use of precision air strikes is not a uniquely Western doctrine.
“There is usually an inevitable advance in weapons, which was hampered in Russia by its poverty [in the 1990s],” he said.
According to Buzhinsky, air support is a comfortable role in the minds of Russian military thinkers for the Russian Air Force, which historically has been used to support ground troops, playing a limited independent tactical role.
“The Russian Air Force was never used to simply bomb separate cities, territories and infrastructure into oblivion, and since the Second World War it was used primarily to support ground operations, as well as conduct air defense,” Buzhinsky said.
That said, the Syria campaign has been an impressive demonstration of new Russian military capabilities, with a number of guided weapon systems employed for the first time in combat, including air-to-surface missiles and even the new Kalibr cruise missiles.
Much has been said about Russia's apparent political objectives in Syria — bolstering the ailing forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which in recent months have ceded swaths of territory to an array of opposition forces.
In this area, the Defense Ministry has claimed early success. In daily Facebook updates, the ministry has attempted to show what it is doing in Syria — in their narrative, fighting the Islamic State — and last week claimed they were witnessing a retreat of Assad's opposition after a government assault.
The ministry said it conducted 32 strikes during 33 sorties on Islamic State positions on 24 hours — the first time it had conducted fewer than 40 strikes in over a week — in a statement posted on Facebook on Oct. 15.
The downturn in sorties was described as being “caused by transformation of contact line as a result of offensive operations carried out by the Syrian Armed Forces.”
“The militants are retreating and trying to equip new positioning areas and change the ammunition, armament and materiel supply logistical system. ... The Russian reconnaissance means are registering these changes,” the Defense Ministry said.
The peak of Russian air activity came on Oct. 12, when the ministry claimed to have conducted 88 sorties, striking 86 Islamic State targets in the course of 24 hours. If true, this is extremely impressive considering only 30 aircraft are participating.
Though the ministry claims to be hitting Islamic State targets, Western officials insist the Russians are primarily targeting the so-called moderate Syrian opposition, which has received materiel support from the US and its Western allies.
According to Buzhinsky, Russia sees no difference between the hyper-radical Islamic State and the Western-backed moderate opposition, and has vital national security interests in destroying all extremist groups in Syria.
But, according to Barabanov, “the main problem Russia faces is that the air campaign is not an end in itself, but should create conditions for a successful offensive of Syrian government troops.”
New Weapons and Capabilities
Removed from Russia's targeting and political objectives, the Syria campaign is noteworthy in that Russia is using it to display new capabilities. While the majority of strikes appear to be conducted with so-called “dumb bombs” and other munitions, for the first time Russian aircraft are using guided munitions in combat. Two weapons in particular have been seen: the Kh-25 laser-guided missile and the KAB-500S Glonass satellite-guided bomb.
It is not clear what proportion of strikes are conducted with these guided munitions, and the Defense Ministry's statements are focused on presenting a campaign that used mostly guided munitions.
But according to data provided by international defense consultancy IHS, the majority of Russian munitions being used are older, unguided weapons, such as the OFAB-100 and OFAB-200 anti-personnel fragmentation bombs.
Russia has also been seen to use a cluster bomb known as the RBK-500-SPBE-D, a thermobaric bomb known as the ODAB-500PMB and the BetAB-500 M62 penetration (or bunker-buster) bomb.
“It is difficult to judge without knowing exactly the effectiveness and results of the strikes, but for now at least it looks good enough,” Barabanov said.
“There have been no casualties, the intensity of action is quite high, and new types of weapons — such as satellite-guided bombs, cluster munitions with smart elements, and cruise missiles — have been tested,” he said,
Barabanov added that this has been accompanied by a clever PR campaign, referring to the Defense Ministry's other new capability: the ability to use social media to forward its own narrative of events, similar to the Pentagon's PR blitz during the Gulf War in 1991.
Sea-Launched Cruise Missile Strikes
The Russians demonstrated another major capability on President Vladimir Putin's birthday, Oct. 7.
While US Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute was giving a briefing to journalists on the Russian moves in Syria at NATO headquarters in Brussels, ships from Russia's Caspian flotilla launched a massive cruise missile strike on targets in Syria.
The flotilla launched a reported 26 cruise missiles, which traversed Iranian airspace before hitting their targets in Syria. Though US officials later said that four of the missiles failed in flight over Iran, the majority of the strike appeared to hit their targets, demonstrating a new Russian military capability.
“The cruise missile attacks from the Caspian Sea were mostly a demonstration, and it was a very successful demonstration, comparable to the effect of the sinking of the Israeli Eilat destroyer with a Soviet-built anti-ship missile launched by the Egyptians in 1967,” Barabanov argued.
This was the first time the Caspian flotilla, which Buzhinsky said was Russia's most modern naval force, featuring new ships, was used for its intended purpose — to project Russian military power in the Middle East.
But Buzhinsky said this is probably the extent to which Russia's new capabilities matter.
“Frankly speaking, I don't see a global role of Russia with force projection everywhere in all corners of the world, like the United States," Buzinsky said.
On Oct. 16, Col.-Gen. Andrey Kartapolov, the head of the Main Operations Directorate of Russia's General Staff, held a press conference in which he claimed Russia's air contingent has attacked 456 Islamic State targets since launching operations on Sept. 30.
A total of 669 sorties have been launched, 115 of which were night raids, and 272 opposition strongholds were destroyed, according to Russian state media accounts of Kartapolov's press conference.
Under the cover of Russian warplanes late on Oct. 15, Syria launched an offensive north of the city of Homs, the BBC reported.
“The Russians are making wide use of a range of different weapons including cluster bombs, thermobaric bombs, dumb bombs, rockets, cruise missiles, satellite guided bombs and electro-optically guided bombs, this dispels the notion that the Russian Air force is limited to basic munitions," said Ben Moores, a senior analyst at IHS Jane’s.
The Su-25s are only using unguided rocket pods, according to IHS and available photos of the plane loadouts.
"Their planes have been dropping from medium altitudes but their attack helicopters have been seen pressing home highly aggressive low level attacks. There is no doubt that Russia's Air Force has been able to inflict serious damage to rebel groups before they geographically dispersed but we have also seen that large numbers of vehicles were destroyed in the subsequent ground offensive suggesting that many rebel heavy weapons survived the air attacks."