Russia’s campaign in Syria is about saving the Syrian regime by recapturing as much of the territory lost this spring as possible and translating those military gains into a much stronger negotiating hand. These strikes target the Army of Conquest and Free Syrian Army forces surrounding and inside the regime’s territory. A combined Russian, Iranian, and Syrian campaign with support from Hezbollah aims to destroy non-Islamic State rebels. Not since the Soviet war in Afghanistan has Moscow deployed for such an expeditionary operation, in even a limited fashion. Can Russia hope to achieve such ambitious gains with limited means? Does this application of military power truly stand a chance of changing the facts on the ground? The answers to these questions in large part depend on the array of weapons and platforms that Russia has deployed as a part of this campaign and how it is using them. By exploring Russia’s arsenal in, above, and off the shores of Syria, we can also learn a bit about Russia’s military modernization efforts.
Russian Air Platforms and Bombs
Russia has deployed a mix of upgraded Soviet aircraft and the latest and greatest in Russian aviation, totaling 12 Su-24M2s, 12 Su-25SMs and Su-25 UBMs, four Su-30SMs, and six Su-34s. The bulk of this force is made up of tactical bombers and ground attack aircraft, with Su-30SM multirole fighters providing air cover, presumably against any other air force in the region. The operational tempo has been moderate, starting at 20 sorties per day and increasing to over 60 per day now that ground operations are under way. Indeed, there was a spike of Russian airstrikes last week, with perhaps as many as 400 sorties carried out, but the rate appears to be slowing down again. The airstrikes were focused on known fixed targets at the outset and sought to destroy weapons caches and command and control points. In the first week, Russia targeted equipment the rebels captured from Assad’s forces to soften up the opposition ahead of the Syrian offensive. Since then, the effort has transitioned to direct air support for a ground offensive launched by Syrian forces in Latakia and Hama. Russia’s wing of Mi-24P helicopters is also engaged, strafing enemy positions at low altitude while firing off flares to avoid being hit by man portable surface-to-air missiles.
This bombing campaign has employed an array of guided and unguided weaponry. While Russia has deployed some precision-guided munitions, such as the KAB-500S GPS/GLONASS-guided bomb or the Kh-25ML laser-guided missile, the bulk of the munitions are unguided gravity bombs and high-fragmentation bombs of the OFAB 250-270 variety. These unguided munitions are supplemented by BETAB-M bunker busting munitions against buildings and RBK-500-SPBE-D cluster munitions against enemy vehicles and tanks. While such bombing from medium altitude is fraught with inaccuracies, Russia’s air force is largely going after rural targets and fixed structures with a targeting approach that can be summarized as “close enough.”
The Russian Air Force appears to be conducting a relatively economical bombing campaign by using modernized targeting equipment with older munitions while selectively combat testing its latest aircraft and precision-guided munitions. Russia has budgetary and supply constraints and may be conserving a limited supply of precision-guided munitions for the campaign, particularly since many of the putative targets do not merit the use of expensive guided munitions. Unlike the U.S. Air Force, Russia cannot afford to drop thousands of precision munitions to take out the ubiquitous Toyota trucks armed with ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft cannons that dominate this battlefield. Moscow would equally be embarrassed to run out of guided munitions shortly into its campaign, as happened with some NATO countries during the 2011 intervention in Libya.
Syria is a debut of sorts for Russia’s tactical aviation. Despite its visible limitations, watching footage from Russian drones of relatively accurate nighttime airstrikes in Syria is almost science fiction compared to what the Russian air force was capable of as recently as 2008.
Russian Ground Units
In addition to its aerial assets in Syria, Russia deployed a Pantsir-S1 air defense system, around a dozen tanks (allegedly the T-90A), and naval infantry. Supposedly as many as 1700 military personnel are now in Tartus to expand the base and rebuild its pier, which remains more a floating dock than a real port. Such expansions were being discussed as far back as 2010, but never implemented. In time, Russia may be able to dock ships from its surface fleet there. While the tanks and infantry appear detailed to base defense, Russian artillery and helicopters are engaged in supporting the ground offensive. Meanwhile, there is supposed work to further expand Russia’s military presence at military complexes in Al-Sansobar and Istamo, although these expansions seem intended to service displaced Syrian units instead. There is no significant Russian activity at either base.
Much of Assad’s ground power appears to be provided by Iranian troops and Hezbollah auxiliaries, recently rallied in a speech by Qassem Soleimani himself, the commander of Iran’s Qods Force. Iran has deployed several thousand troops for an offensive near Hama and Aleppo. It remains unclear what capacity the Syrian Army can field, but no doubt it needs to be heavily supplemented by Iran to have any chance of success. Although the Russian air campaign has not yet suffered any confirmed losses, it does not appear capable of significantly altering the balance of forces. So far, the Syrian attacks in Northeast Latakia and Hama province have made only limited initial gains. While publicity has fixated on Russian aircraft, that part of the war effort appear more effective in providing morale and momentum rather than making a major difference through direct air support.
Russian Sea Power
Led by the Black Sea Fleet, Russia’s Mediterranean squadron is providing extended air defense off the Syrian coast. This squadron consists of roughly ten ships on rotation, most of which are landing, support, or intelligence vessels, along with four surface combatants. Though antiquated, the lone Slava-class missile cruiser Moskva provides the bulk of the firepower and capability of this fleet, including a naval variant of the S-300 air defense system. Given Moscow’s worries about Western aviation, this naval mission is a convenient way of keeping an S-300 near Latakia and Tartus without deploying it on the ground in the region. This squares the circle of deploying a long-range air defense without running afoul of Israel’s security concerns — an S-300 on the ground in Syria could cover all of Israel’s airspace. Deploying such a system inside Syria would aggravate Israeli Air Force, leading to problems with Tel Aviv that Russia is keen to avoid.
The rest of the ships — two Krivak-class frigates and a 46-year-old Kashin-class destroyer —are not impressive. Far from capable, they are in need of replacement. Just earlier in July a Krivak failed to successfully launch its SS-N-14 Silex missile during the parade in Crimea. Most of the Russian Black Sea Fleet remains in shipyards and planning documents. This intervention has also revealed shortages of sealift and logistics capacity in the Russian Navy, already overstrained in supporting the combat operations in Syria barely a few weeks in. Russia’s aging landing ship fleet is being hastily supplemented with commercial cargo ships bought from Turkey with their original markings not yet removed. Russia has reflagged the cargo ships as naval support vessels while reassigning additional transport vessels from other agencies that were originally intended for logistics missions as far away as the Arctic.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Caspian Flotilla, armed with rather capable Buyan-M-class corvettes and Gepard-class frigates, fired Kalibr-NK (3M-14T) land attack cruise missiles into Syria (although U.S. sources indicate some of these missiles fell somewhere over Iran). Given the complete lack of military necessity for such a strike, the action was more of an expensive publicity stunt to demonstrate Russian possession of credible long-range precision weapons comparable to the U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile. The Caspian Flotilla is new and capable compared to the Black Sea Fleet. Thus the Kalibr strike is a sign of things to come, as the ships based in Crimea will be replaced with several new frigates, corvettes, and an improved Kilo-class submarine squadron. Other boutique capabilities fielded include electronic warfare systems, such as the Krasukha-4, which can jam coalition drones or aircraft over Syrian airspace.
Thus far the Russian intervention is serving as the glue for the joint Syrian-Iranian effort, but its impact has been more to shift momentum and reinvigorate the Syrian Army On the ground, the airstrikes are no doubt denting rebel forces, but they are not yet able to punch holes in rebel positions for Syrian forces to exploit. These are fairly humble capabilities compared to that of the U.S. Air Force and Navy, but leaps and bounds ahead of where the Russians were as recently as 2008, when it lost six aircraft in the Russia-Georgia war. Military reforms, a large modernization effort, and a relentless exercise program have restored competence and capability to a percentage of the Russian military. Meanwhile Russian missile technology has not only reached parity, but in some areas leapfrogged that of Western counterparts. Its air force is attempting to emulate in a limited fashion the U.S. performance during the 1991 Gulf War, with mixed results, but nonetheless a dramatic improvement over anything Russia has been able to do in its post-Soviet history.
Michael Kofman is a Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and an analyst at the CNA Corporation. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views presented here are his own.
Image: Russian MoD