Russia has now integrated its strategic bomber assets into its air campaign in Syria. Tu-22M3s Backfires, Tu-95MS Bears, and even Russia’s precious handful of Tu-160 Blackjack bombers have all delivered ordinance onto targets in Syria. This comes as Putin himself has announced that a bomb did indeed take down Metrojet 9268.
The backlash is just beginning from Russia as the Metrojet investigation seems to be moving forward, with two suspects, both airport workers, being arrested who may be directly connected to the plot.
It is not clear how much Russia knows about who took down the airliner or when they knew that a bomb was conclusively the cause of the loss. As such, we cannot be certain that today’s’s heavy bombing raids in Syria were related to these findings. Still, the powerful “optics” that resulted from Russia’s heavy bomber raids sure were clear, regardless of if they were by design or just coincidence.
In all, some 25 bombers were used, 14 Tu-22M3s, six Tu-95MSs, and five Tu-160s. At this point in time, it seems that both the Tu-95s and the Tu-160s fired long-range cruise missiles (likely KH-101 for the Blackjacks and KH-555 for the Bears) at targets in Syria, while it appears that the Tu-22M3s used dumb bombs to directly strike their targets from above.
Some of these aircraft are said to have launched from Mozdok airbase, in Ossetia, namely the Tu-22s, while the other types likely originated their strikes from Russia proper, at Engels Air Base. It is also highly likely that all the bomber aircraft involved made their way to Syria via the Caspian Sea-Iran-Iraq-Syria route.
These flights were also bolstered by sorties flown by Russian tactical attack and fighter aircraft out of Latakia Air Base in Syria. Russia has since made it clear that they are looking to greatly boost their air campaign, which has already been running at an incredible fast pace with 2,300 sorties flown in just 48 days. This is roughly equal to 28% of all the sorties flown over the last 450 days by U.S. aircraft over Iraq and Syria thus far.
“We are conducting a mass airstrike campaign against Islamic State targets in Syria. We have now doubled the number of sorties, which is allowing us to conduct operations throughout the length and breadth of the country.”
Putin also chimed in about today’s strikes and possibly their relation to the bombing of Metrojet 9268:
“By conducting military missions in Syria, you are protecting Russia and her citizens, our air campaign in Syria must not only be continued, it must be boosted, in such a way that the criminals are made aware that retribution is inevitable.”
Firing expensive cruise missiles at targets in Syria, a country which Russia has total unfettered aerial access to and has combat aircraft based locally, is an odd move. It can only be justified as another showcase of Russian combat capability, to remind potential enemies what Russia is capable of and for domestic nationalist consumption, as well as for potential export sales of Russian long-range strike weapons. This is similar to Russia’s strange choice of launching advanced cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea to hit targets in Syria last month.
Also of interest are the targets that the bombers hit. Russia’s jets and helicopters have almost exclusively focused on anti-Assad targets that were in the country’s western half, with only a handful of sorties attacking targets in ISIS-held territory. If today’s heavy bombing raids mainly struck in the country’s western half, their efforts would have not been concentrated toward ISIS, the most likely culprit of the Metrojet bombing. If indeed the bombers struck targets in the eastern half of Syria it would signal that their intent was to retaliate against ISIS and it could be a sign that Russia’s targeting focus may be changing.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.