Russia has made a lot of noise about the modern weapons it has used during combat in Syria and how effective these new weapons are. Fresh Su-34 attack jets scream through the skies, while the latest in small arms test their mettle. But the reality is most of what Russia has used is not as shiny and advanced as Moscow would like you to believe. The vast majority of aircraft carrying out airstrikes are among the oldest in the Russian military, and it only gets worse from there.
Russia’s been involved in the Syrian civil war since 2011, and its apparent primary goal is to prop up the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, which even before the war was known for the torture, imprisonment, and execution of any political opposition. Since the multi-front, multi-party war has started, the existing Syrian government has dropped barrel bombs on civilian population centers, razed its own cities, and deployed chemical weapons against its own citizens. Throughout, the Russian military has not only stood by the regime, but actively participated in many of its atrocities.
But as a secondary goal to all of the truly horrific killing, Russia is looking at the Syrian theater as a twisted proving ground for its military equipment. As one of the largest arms dealers in the world – second only to the massive defense industrial complex of the United States – it can stand to make enormous amounts of money off of weapons sales to potential clients.
In theory. But it looks like Russia can’t even get that right.
The highly touted deployment of Russia’s only aircraft carrier to conduct operations from the coast of Syria was underwhelming and openly mocked. The Admiral Kuznetsov spent three months on deployment, lost two aircraft, belched smoke like an old-timey English factory, and failed to provide any real combat punch. In fact, the biggest concern opposing navies had was that the poorly maintained carrier might sink and they would have to respond with a rescue effort. After returning to port back in Russian the Kuznetsov is expected to undergo an extended refit period of over two years before returning to sea.
In late February Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced to the Russian parliament that Moscow had tested 162 contemporary and modern weapons in Syria and these weapons ‘showed a high level of effectiveness’. Specific weapons mentioned were the Su-34 Fullback strike fighter, the Su-30SM Flanker-H fighter, and the Mi-28 Havoc and Ka-52 Hokum attack helicopters. Sea-launched cruise missiles were also identified, and Defense Minister Shoigu had to be referring to the 3M-14 Kalibr-NK which had been launched against targets in Syria from Russian ships in the Caspian Sea, Mediterranean Sea and the 3M-14 Kalibr-PL which was also launched from the Mediterranean by a submarine.
Surprisingly, the defense minister did allude to a few weapons that did not work, specifically 10 that he deemed ‘deficient’ and production would either be stopped permanently or halted until corrections could be made. The weapons that performed poorly included communications gear, signal intelligence systems and surprisingly air-launched cruise missiles, two types of which were used over Syria, the older KH-555 and the newer, stealthy KH-101. Which missile did not meet expectations is not known though both are outgrowths of the same missile family, the KH-55 which NATO calls the AS-15 Kent.
Russia’s mission in Syria is motivated by both political and military necessity. Politically, Russia is trying to support its only true client state left in the Middle East and recapture a position of influence in the region while maintaining access to its only naval base in the Mediterranean at Tartus. Militarily it was the need to prove whether the newest weapons did in fact work on the battlefield proving their modernity and worthiness of purchase by future customers. However, the demand for Russian military weapons has stumbled after years of unsustainable growth even with the operational use of new systems. Since 2011 Russian military arms exports have remained steady at around $15 billion with nearly 70% of those sales going to India, China, Vietnam and Algeria. For 2017 exports are predicted to remain similar despite proclamations that the war effort in Syria is going to produce an extra $6-$7 billion in sales. $15 billion is indeed a lot of money spent on Russian military goods, but one report indicated that 45% of that sales figure was for aircraft engines and spare parts.
Of course, the desire to test new weapons in combat is not unique to the Russians, in fact most militaries do this given the opportunity. Why else would the U.S. have used the F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter to drop a few bombs during the 1989 invasion of Panama? It sure wasn’t needed to penetrate the integrated Panamanian air defense system because there were no air defenses to penetrate.
But Tobin Harshaw in an article for Bloomberg described Russia’s problem this way:
…Russia is struggling to churn out desirable products in an age of high-tech weaponry. Traditionally, Moscow has left the top end of the market to the U.S. and other Western producers, while focusing on…’cheap’ and ‘deadly’ weapons within the price range of buyers in the developing world. But as former clients like China and India get wealthier, Russia is being forced to go upscale. And in developing next-generation jets and missile-defense systems, Moscow is losing its competitive advantage. Given American companies’ superior reputations and track records, it makes less and less sense for aspiring powers to buy Russian. The real-world effect is clear: After a decade-long military expansion intended to solidify its rank as a global superpower, Russia is slashing its defense budget by as much as 25 percent this year. (Other estimates put the figure below 10 percent, but either way, it is a sea change.) Putin has reason to crow about his military’s performance so far in Syria, but it’s not going to do much for his bottom line.
One glaring weakness is the lack of an advanced targeting pod for the Russian aircraft. Or any targeting pod at all. Russian aircraft currently flying in Syria do not use targeting pods like those carried by the U.S. and Western militaries. American and Western aircraft have been flying with targeting pods for decades and these systems have provided an incredible advantage during combat operations. Only recently was the newest version of the MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ -the MiG-35S – sighted with the T220 targeting pod while Russian aircraft in Syria performed with a mix of organic optical systems that limited performance and prevented a full range of targets from being prosecuted. India has purchased the Su-30MKI fighter jet from Russia and managed to incorporate the Litening targeting pod with its Flankers, and has done so for nearly ten years now. Malaysia is another customer who purchased a version of the Flanker - the Su-30MKM – and has adopted the French Damocles for use. Russia’s inability to produce a targeting pod comparable to Western pods is an extremely limiting factor in their aircraft’s effectiveness and targeting flexibility.
Which is not to say Russia is without its share of modern weapons and highly advanced systems. By most accounts the performance of Russian cruise missiles, attack helicopters and electronic warfare systems used in Syria have demonstrated some very capable technology on the battlefield and the reputation of its S-300 and S-400 air defense systems is one of providing an impenetrable defense against aircraft and missiles. The S-300 and S-400 have not been used in combat, and while Russian propaganda continues to portray these systems as having no weaknesses, the Israelis are believed to found ways of defeating the S-300 during training with Cyprus, who purchased the system from Russia 20 years ago.
Russia has also combat tested four different types of cruise missiles in Syria. Sea-launched, air-launched, and ground-launched missiles have all been used in what was seemingly nothing more than the need to examine their combat performance and to demonstrate to the world that Russia indeed possesses long-range cruise missiles capable of striking targets from hundreds or thousands of miles away.
The sea launched cruise missile has become a vital component of modern war. The U.S. Navy has been launching the Tomahawk missile from ships and submarines since 1991 and Russia jumped at the opportunity to fire Kalibr cruise missiles from almost anywhere and anyway they could. The first use of the Kalibr occurred in October 2015 when a frigate and three corvettes belonging to the Caspian Sea Flotilla launched 26 of the 3M-14 Kalibr-NK missiles which flew over Iran and Iraq before hitting Islamic State targets in Syria. Six weeks later the same group of vessels launched 18 more Kalibr-NK missiles. In another first, the Improved Kilo-class submarine Rostov-on-Don submarine fired four Kalibr-PL missiles from the Mediterranean, where two Russian corvettes from their Black Sea fleet also would later launch more Kalibr-NK missiles. More than 25 years after the American Tomahawks were first used in combat Russia was finally able to fire its own cruise missile in a combat scenario.
Russia will gladly tell anyone who listens that its newest generation of fighter and attack aircraft have lead the way over Syria, using the latest technology to deliver precision weapons. The Su-34 Fullback, the Su-30SM Flanker-H and the Su-35S Flanker-E are new aircraft seeing combat for the first time in Syria. Despite the publicity surrounding them, it was the older Su-24 Fencer strike aircraft and the Su-25 Frogfoot that would do the bulk of the heavy lifting in Syria. And while there is no disputing the abilities of the Su-30SM and Su-35S in an air-to-air dogfight, without a modern targeting pod, their ability to lob anything but unguided “dumb” bombs is extremely limited.
As a result, precision weapons have only been a small fraction of the weapons employed by Russian aviation forces in Syria. On occasion Russia has provided images of Su-34s carrying guided weapons such as the KAB-1500L laser guided bomb, the Kh-25ML laser-guided missile which dates back to the Soviet era or the KAB-500S GLONASS satellite guided bomb. But those weapons are the exception rather than the norm, and almost exclusively carried by the Su-34. Instead, ‘dumb’ bombs are the absolute majority of bombs dropped, mainly the 250kg OFAB-250-270 and 500kg FAB-500M-62 as well as the RBK-500 cluster bombs. Strangely, the Russian aircraft have flown with very small weapon loads, carrying only a small portion of their available capacity.
To illustrate the difference between American and Russian attack aircraft operating in the same theater of operations, the U.S. air force published photos of an A-10C Thunderbolt II, or Warthog, during a mission over Syria. The A-10 and Su-25 attack planes entered service within five years of each other, and have very similar roles within each nation’s air force. But where the A-10 has soared technologically, the Su-25 has stalled. In the photo, the A-10, which has 11 weapon hardpoints, is carrying nothing but guided munitions and one targeting pod. Even the rocket pod is carrying the new Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System (APKWS) II laser guided rockets.
But the Su-25 has been a turkey in comparison over Syria. Carrying no more than four 250 kg bombs, the Su-25 attacked static targets using its own internal navigation and targeting system to deliver the free fall weapons. More often than not, the Su-25 targets along with those of the Su-24, were never identified visually. With no targeting pod and only flying waypoints to deliver weapons that are inherently inaccurate, it is no wonder Russia has provided very little video of weapons strikes, especially targets struck in urban areas.
Which means that Russia has killed a vast number of civilians in Syria, and unfortunately many of these deaths can be classified as intentional. According to a report published by airwars.org titled ‘A Reckless Disregard for Civilian Lives’ which only looked at the first three months of Russian air combat missions in Syria in late 2015 found Russia had been responsible for as many as 1,450 non-combatant deaths and while Russian and the American led coalition were carrying out a similar number of combat missions, civilian fatalities from Russian strikes were six times higher. Since the Russian mission in Syria began in September 2015 to February 2017, it is alleged by airwars.org that as many as 11,282 civilians have died from Russian bombs.
Russia and Syria have both been accused of targeting civilians on a wide scale, including the reported use of the chemical agent sarin by Syria in April. Reports indicate that Russian not only knew of the planned attack but were complicit in the crime especially with their quick and poor attempt to deflect blame for the attack on a bomb setting off sarin from a rebel weapons facility.
A report issued by the Atlantic Council in February titled “Breaking Aleppo,” described the Russian-led air assault on the city this way:
The siege of Aleppo brought the horrors of the twentieth century’s wars to the twenty-first century. Hospitals were bombed, not once or twice, but repeatedly; cluster bombs and incendiaries fell on residential areas; chemical weapons were used. Siege, hunger, and indiscriminate strikes brought suffering to women, children, the disabled, and the very old.
And it’s readily apparent that the indiscriminate bombing and killing of Syrian civilians was not only intentional but was part of a larger strategy, designed to push anti-Assad forces closer the Islamic extremists fighting in Syria making it harder for the West to support anyone who takes up arms against the Syrian government.
This is not the first time Russia has directly targeted civilians to accomplish political and military goals. During the war in Chechnya, Russian often targeted its own citizens in the city of Grozny with air strikes and pounding from artillery. At the start of the conflict nearly 400,000 citizens lived in Grozny, most of them ethnic Russians. By the end, one estimate of dead Russians at nearly 90,000 most of which the Russian military caused with absolute indiscriminate and reckless attacks.
Russian attack helicopters have seen the majority of combat in Syria and have performed well despite five airframe losses. The first Russian helicopters in Syria were the iconic, daylight-only Mil Mi-24P Hind-F attack helicopter – a formative image of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan much the way the UH-1 ‘Huey’ was for America in Vietnam – and the combat transport helicopter Mil Mi-8 Hip that can carry troops or deliver suppressing fire in a combat search and rescue (CSAR) mission.
It did not take long for Russia to begin the deployment of its most advanced helicopters in Syria: the Mi Mil-35M Hind, the Mil Mi-28N Havoc and the Ka-52 Hokum-B. The Mi-35M arrived in late December 2015, and the Havoc and Hokum first saw combat in March and April of 2016 respectively.
The Russian helicopters are primarily based at Hmeimim Air Base, which is located along the coast near the Syrian city of Latakia. However, the Russians have moved the helicopters to forward positions to better support combat operations, allowing for the combined effect of a faster response time to developing situations and longer on-station time over the battlefield. The forward bases identified thus far are Tias and Sharyat, which was the recipient of 59 U.S. Navy Tomahawk missiles last week. From these locations, Russian attack helicopters helped fight the battles for Palmyra and Al-Qaryatayn.
The Mi-24P has seen a lot of action in Syria and has been the workhorse thus far, at least in raw numbers of aircraft deployed. The primary weapon of the Mi-24, as it is of all the Russian attack helicopters, is the 20-round B-8V20-A packs, each loaded with S-8 80mm rockets. For closer-in work, the Mi-24P utilizes a fixed twin GSh-30K 30mm cannon on the starboard side. And for harder targets, up to four 9M120 Ataka-V or 9M114 Shturm-V radio beam anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) were usually carried.
The day-and-night-capable Mi-35, which is almost identical to the Mi-24 except for shorter wings and non-retracting landing gear, also carries the same rockets though the cannon is no longer fixed, instead being a turret mounted twin-barrel GSh-23L 23mm. The Mi-35 can also carry eight Ataka-V ATGMs. The key element of the Mi-35 is the GOES-342 electro-optical turret which houses a modern FLIR/TV system for targeting, achieving results similar to those of Western attack helicopters.
The Mi-28 and Ka-52 are the most capable platforms in the Russian military for targeting and conducting self-generated precision attacks, whether ATGMs, cannon or rockets. Both also use the 80mm rockets as their main weapons, but unlike so many other Russian aircraft, they have modern targeting systems to find and destroy targets with greater accuracy than any Russian platform before them. Utilizing the OPS-28 Tor targeting turret with TV and FLIR capability (future airframes will carry the mast mounted NO25 radar similar to the American AH-64 Apache), the Mi-28 first saw combat outside Palmyra and have been seen operating in pairs.
The Ka-52, with its counter-rotating coaxial rotor blades, is the only attack helicopter to have ejection seats, which fire after the rotor blades have been detached by explosive charges installed in the blade fastenings. For targeting the Ka-52 carries a nose mounted FH01 Myech-1U radar along with the GOES-451.2 TV/FLIR system combined with laser targeting and designation. These advanced systems of the Ka-52 were recently used to help Syrian forces liberate Palmyra, which the Syrian government had to abandon in December 2016 to ISIS. Working with Russian Air Force Su-25 Frogfoots, the KA-52s provided targeting for the ground attack aircraft, allowing for round the clock attacks on ISIS positions.
As expected, information regarding combat missions and the success or failures of these helicopters or attack aircraft is not especially forthcoming from the Russians, who are not as inclined to release daily airstrike summaries like those issued by CENTCOM. Subsequently, much information has to be gleaned from various “non-official” sources, mainly videos produced by a collection of groups inside Syria, who have managed to film scenes of Russian weapons attacking anti-Assad forces, as well as video of Russian helicopters being shot down, and burning debris.
The Russian effort in Syria really has seen small successes and underwhelming performance when measured against the capabilities of current American and Western militaries. Even the accomplishments made in Syria are nothing that has not been achieved, years if not decades earlier by Western militaries. Ever since Operation Desert Storm intoxicated everyone around the world with videos of precision guided munitions hitting their targets, that has become the standard to which a modern military attempt to realize.
Russia has a long way to go before its full military can be labeled as fully modern. Some elements are very modern, some parts of some weapons are modern and most of the military is nowhere close to being able to conduct a sustained modern war with a near-peer. Russia may say it’s impressed with its military performance in Syria and they should be considering how badly they performed during their last combat operations against the military juggernaut of Georgia in 2008. But that doesn’t mean anybody else has to be impressed with its janky old killing apparatus.
At least not yet.
Gary Wetzel is an experienced military and aviation writer who has authored two books examining the combat operations of the A-10 Warthog in Afghanistan. He also served over six years in the U.S Navy as sonar technician aboard USS Philadelphia and USS Dallas.