This is the first Russian military operation beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War. But the US and it’s coalition partners have already conducted 7,000 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq against the so called Islamic State. And even on the most optimistic assessment, their impact has been limited. IS is contained but in no sense defeated. So why should Russia be able to do any better? Russia of course is restricting it’s strikes to Syria. It’s initial combat missions suggest that it’s fundamental aim is to relieve pressure upon President Assad’s embattled forces and that it’s list of targets will go well beyond those exclusively linked to IS. But what capabilities do the Russians actually have at Latakia? What weapons can they use? How does the Russian Air Force compare to its western equivalents? And what ultimately can it achieve?
The air expeditionary force that has been despatched to Syria represents a microcosm of the Russian Air Force as a whole. As Michael Kofman, a US based analyst with the CNA Corporation notes, Russia has some 34 fixed wing aircrafts based at Latakia- a mixture of types comprising: 12 Su-25’s; 12 Su-24M2’s; four Su-30SM’s; and six Su-34’s. “This,” he said, “represents both the older generation of venerable Soviet strike aircraft and the new, most modern, multi-role strike aircraft Russia has to offer.” He continued: “The Su-25 is a close ground support and strike platform, used throughout Russia’s wars, including Chechnya and the Russia-Georgia war. This aircraft is quite capable of close support, but rather vulnerable and easy to lose, particularly to MANPADS (man-portable or shoulder-fired surface to air missiles) which have proliferation across the Syrian battle space,” he said. “The Su-24M2 is the classic tactical bomber, modernised from Soviet days and capable of a variety of strike missions but a rather worn and older aircraft.” The more interesting elements of the deployment, says Kofman, are the Su-30SM’s and the Su-34’s. “The Su-30SM is a heavy multi-role fighter, capable of both air-to-air combat and a variety of precision strike missions at higher altitudes,” The recent arrival of Su-34 (“Fullbacks” according to their NATO code name) completes the picture. “These are much more advanced strike aircraft, essentially replacements for the Su-24M2, and are able to conduct the full spectrum of bombing and defending themselves in air-to-air. These have never been to war and Russia may not just be using them, but indeed testing them.”
So much for the Russian aircraft then, but what about the munitions they can deliver? According to Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London: “The Russian Air Force today lacks the breadth of precision weapons and targeting systems fielded by the most capable of its western counterparts.” This is not a new problem for the airforce, since the issue was exposed during the Georgian war in 2008. “Since then, Russia’s air force and industry have re-invigorated efforts to finish development and acquire weapons and target designation systems akin to those fielded by the likes of the US and leading European countries. The problem originated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and almost decades of little investment in developing advanced weapons systems.” There are some other notable differences in technology. While the Russians do have semi-active laser and electro-optically guided bombs and missiles, and laser target marker systems on the Su-25 Frogfoot and Su-24 Fencer, they do not deploy the kind of targeting pods carried by western aircraft which help both to acquire a target and guide weapons to it. Though some drones have been deployed to Syria, Barrie notes that the Russians “also lack the level of unmanned aerial systems for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that the US and its allies used widely in Afghanistan. Nor has it had the same level of experience of air-ground integration in recent years.”
The Russian Air Force may in some respects be behind it’s most advanced western contemporaries but it certainly has the capacity to mount an effective air campaign. So what then exactly is its mission in Syria? It is here that there are perhaps the greatest differences between the Russian and US-led air campaigns. A fundamental weakness afflicting the US and its allies is the absence of credible forces on the ground. Air power can achieve a lot in concert with troops to occupy and hold territory but in the absence of ground power its impact is limited. Not so for the Russians. The Syrian government army may not be what it was, having suffered serious losses and defections, but in local terms it is still a force to be reckoned with. Bolstered with new Russian equipment and now backed up by Russian air power, it could hold its own against most of the opposition forces. Russia does not have the elaborate intelligence gathering panoply of the US. But much of its targeting will be based upon tactical intelligence obtained from Syrian units on the ground. This then is the key to Russia’s strategy. It is to consolidate the Assad regime to relieve the pressure points and to ensure that its ally remains a factor in any future diplomatic settlement. To this end- and there are strong indications of this even from Russia’s initial air strikes- Moscow will hit any opponents of the Syrian regime where necessary. Russian Air power is not there to roll back the opposition forces and enable the Assad regime to regain control over the large areas of the country that it has lost. It is about buying President Assad time; changing the regional and diplomatic calculations. And to this extent Russian Air power could prove a decisive factor.