It is hard to overestimate how much experience the Russian military has gained from the war in Syria. It has been a perfect stage for testing and adjusting concepts and new equipment.
Anton Lavrov has taken a look at the air campaign in this report for CNA. There are some really interesting findings, and since most people won’t find the time to read the whole report, I thought I’d make a summary.
I want to add a comment about the reliability of Lavrov’s sources. The report is largely based on data from news articles or public statements from the Russian government. I think Lavrov does a good job of aggregating and analyzing the information, but please treat it with the same sound skepticism that you would treat the original source.
But with that word of caution, on to the summary of some interesting points about Russia’s lessons from the air campaign in Syria.
Background for Russia’s air campaign in Syria
When Russia engaged in Syria, the aerospace forces had not been in a real war for about 15 years. The last time was the air campaign in Chechnya which ended in 2000. They were shortly engaged in Georgia in 2008, but that short war included fewer than 200 air strikes. Since then, the Russian armed forces had undergone a major technical modernization. From 2008 to 2015 they received:
- More than 350 new combat planes.
- About 1,000 new helicopters.
- Hundreds of new and modern air defense systems.
- Technical upgrades of older aircraft with interesting new equipment like the SVP-24 Gefest guidance system which allegedly would give remarkable precision with otherwise unguided munitions.
To this comes substantial reorganizing as part of the military reforms. In fact, the Russian Aerospace Forces had been formed only about a month before the campaign in Syria began through a merger of the Air Force and the Aerospace Defense Forces.
So the Russian Aerospace Forces needed practical experience when the Syria campaign began in 2015.
Optimizing numbers of engagements per sortie
During the first month of the Russian air campaign in Syria, the 32 deployed combat aircraft at Khmeimim air base carried out 1,292 combat missions on 1,623 targets.
Initially, the number of targets hit was approximately half the number of sorties. This indicates that the strikes were carried out in the traditional Russian fashion with pairs of aircraft attacking the same target. After some time they changed to single aircraft missions to increase the number of targets that could be covered per day. Within about four months they had improved the efficiency even further so one aircraft could cover more than one target during a sortie. This increased the number of targets to about three to four times the number of sorties.
This demonstrates a remarkable refinement of tactics. By switching to single aircraft missions and by using more complex flight plans, they were able to achieve a six to eight times increase in the number of engaged targets per sortie.
Unguided bombs would remain the most important munition
It quickly became clear that unguided bombs would be the primary ammunition for the bombing campaign. Russia has done a lot to advertise their precision-guided missiles in Syria, but by far the greatest number of deployed weapons have been unguided.
The SVP-24 Gefest guidance system, which essentially is a computer that drops the unguided bomb automatically based on careful calculations of ballistic and meteorological data, proved to be reasonably precise. The accuracy suffered from a requirement of aircraft to stay above an altitude of 4 kilometers, so Russia did not achieve the same kind of precision that a guided missile would give. But it appears that SVP-24 performed as well as can be expected given the altitude restrictions.
Russia utilized a tactic where targets were observed with UAVs during the strike, and if the unguided bomb missed the target, the bomber aircraft would repeat the strike about five to six minutes later. This close coordination of air operations between manned aircraft and drones was new for the Russian military.
Development of force structure
The number and types of deployed aircraft fluctuated throughout the campaign. As a general trend there were between 20 and 40 fighter aircraft of different kinds stationed at Khmeimim. In the beginning, most of the sorties were flown with older Su-24Ms, but gradually more modern types of aircraft began to take over.
Long range bombers like Tu-95MS (Bear) and Tu-160 (Blackjack) participated in the campaign at times of increased intensity. They were operated from bases on Russian territory. Combat and transport helicopters were also used after the initial bombing campaign – in the beginning for protection of the bases but later also for offensive action.
In total, Russia lost seven planes and 12 helicopters from September 2015 to May 2018. More than 34,000 combat sorties were carried out from September 2015 to January 2018, averaging 42 per day. At peak times, Russia conducted more than 100 sorties per day, and over longer periods of time they seemed capable of sustaining 70-80 daily missions. That was two to three flights per airplane, and since some aircraft were out for maintenance that was three to four daily sorties per operable aircraft.
That is a high number which was achieved by having at least two crews per aircraft and significantly more technicians than the standard number at home.
A somewhat surprising restraint to the possible number of sorties was Russia’s ability to find enough relevant targets to hit. At times of very high intensity, the quality of target allocation suffered. For example, during a retaliation campaign against ISIS for the terrorist attack on Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 in October 2015, there was a large number of confirmed errors. Quite simply, the demand for things to blow up was so big that there wasn’t time to double check information about possible targets.
The role of fighter planes
From the start, Russia enjoyed undisputed freedom in the air. As long as they stayed above a given altitude, they were safe from the few man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) that the opposition had. That gave freedom to use all the different kinds of fighter planes in the role of bombers during the initial bombing campaign.
As the operation progressed, the complexity also increased. Russian forward air controllers were integrated with the Syrian ground forces or Russian mercenaries (private contractors), and planes started to provide air support during the fight rather than merely hitting stationary targets that had been predesignated.
When a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24M in November 2015, Russia had to rethink its role and approach to air defense. Fighters were equipped with self defense air-to-air missiles, and a more clear division of labor was introduced so the fighters were mostly used for air patrols and escorts of attack aircraft instead of bombing. Ground based air defenses were also improved with the introduction of S-400 in Syria.
Around the same time, deconfliction measures between Russia and the U.S. were introduced to guarantee the safety of air operations.
Deployment of Admiral Kuznetsov
In 2016, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov deployed to the mission. Russia had never before used carrier-based aviation in real combat, so it was a good opportunity to test the concept.
The deployment of Kuznetsov was mostly intended to satisfy the navy. The Russian Navy has ambitious dreams about new aircraft carriers, and a successful contribution by Kuznetsov in Syria would further that case.
The Admiral Kuznetsov campaign was an utter failure. The carrier-based fighters delivered substantially less air time than the aircraft based in Khmeimim. Together, the 15 fighters from the carrier could only make eight to nine sorties per day. Two fighters crashed during landings. After some time it was decided to move Kuznetsov’s aircraft to Khmeimim air base to stop the ongoing disaster.
Russia has withdrawn three times
A somewhat curious phenomenon is that Vladimir Putin from time to time declares victory and orders a withdrawal of Russian troops.
First time he did this was in March 2016, apparently out of a desire to reduce the commitment and avoid mission creep. The number of planes at Khmeimim was reduced from 44 to 24, and it took until the end of the year before the composition of the Khmeimim air group changed again. In the meantime, however, the air campaign continued, Russia still conducted long range bombing raids from Russian or Iranian bases, and they deployed Admiral Kuznetsov to the region.
The second withdrawal was announced in December 2016 after the capture of Aleppo. It was basically an excuse for an early recall of Admiral Kuznetsov. Putin announced the third withdrawal in December 2017. This time, Russia withdrew around half their aircraft, but the fighting didn’t stop.
It seems that Russia uses public announcements of withdrawal as a tool to control the commitment and to give the appearance of progress.
Rapid crew rotations
A final point is that Russia not only tested new equipment and developed ned doctrines in Syria. They have also methodically made sure that as much personnel as possible would gain personal war experience. An astonishing 80 percent of Russia’s tactical aviation crews and 95 percent of army aviation helicopter crews have flown at least 100-120 sorties in Syria. This was possible through a scheme of rapid rotations.
When the air campaign in Syria began in 2015, the Russian Aerospace Forces had much new equipment and a new organization, but they had little practical experience on which to base their doctrines. Throughout the campaign, Russia has refined tactics and principles, and they have demonstrated a capability to deliver sustained air power with relatively modest means.
The Russians have skillfully exploited the opportunity to test all kinds of equipment and rotate personnel so everybody would get real war experience.