Here’s the Key to Understanding the Russian Air Force’s Actions in Syria
The Russian air force is back to bombing hospitals, bakeries, mosques and roads inside areas held by Syrian insurgents
by TOM COOPER
It’s been nearly 10 months now that I’ve been closely following Russian military operations in Syria on day-by-day and blow-by-blow basis.
I admit I was skeptic right from the start — I expected Russians to indiscriminately bombard civilians in insurgent-held parts of Syria. My standpoint drew criticism not only from many of my readers, but also from most of my colleagues. My contacts who serve as professional military pilots could never imagine their Russian colleagues would do such things as bomb civilians.
I’m not the least bit pleased that my worst expectations have become truth. I’m only trying to understand why the Russian air force, known by its Russian acronym “VKS,” — is doing what it’s doing in Syria.
Decades of shame
For much of the last 30 years, what is now the VKS has vegetated in shame. Massive losses of aircraft, personnel and facilities caused by the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, followed by deep budget shortfalls, resulted in its near-collapse in the mid-1990s.
The status of Russian military flying and combat training at any level was catastrophic for most of the early 2000s, too. This began to change in the last few years, since the second government of Pres. Vladimir Putin began investing in new combat aircraft — especially different variants of the Sukhoi’s Su-27-design, such as the Su-30, Su-34 and Su-35, each with much-improved avionics, range and payload capabilities.
Reports detailed significant improvements, including intensified training and even large-scale, combined-arms exercises. Russian pilots could once again be proud of themselves, their service and their aircraft.
Such reports posed a number of questions regarding non-quantifiable factors such as the quality of the VKS’ current training — and especially about possible new developments of doctrine, strategy and tactics, leadership quality and operational prowess.
Back during the Cold War, Soviet air power had no autonomous role — and was purely supportive. It was well-known that its tactical commanders and pilots were veritable pawns. All decision-making processes lay with higher levels of command.
How would the VKS operate in an expeditionary scenario, the likes of which became practically routine for Western powers during the 1990s, with interventions in Iraq, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Libya and other conflict zones?
While Russians had never before run an expeditionary operation of that kind, their top political and military commanders repeatedly insisted their air force had the necessary know-how and equipment to deliver a performance at least analogue to that of Western air forces in such operations.
The longer the Russian military is deployed in Syria and the more its air power is bombarding, the more details about the essence of this operation become clear.
The Kremlin has justified its the current intervention in Syria on the basis of two of the 11 strategic actions encoded in the Russian government’s National Military Doctrine, published in 2010.
The doctrine lays out the eligible aims of any Russian military deployment. They include “countering external dangers,” halting the “spread of international terrorism,” limiting the “occurrence of sources of inter-ethnic/inter-faith tensions” and defeating “forcible extremism in various regions of the world.”
Therefore, the purpose of the Russian military intervention in Syria can be defined as forcing the Syrian opposition into negotiations on Moscow’s conditions, with the aim of stabilizing the position of the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.
Not only the entire Russian military strategy in Syria, but all of its tactics, too, are designed to achieve this goal. And in the Kremlin’s thinking, achieving this goal merits all methods, regardless of consequences.
The chain of command for Russian forces in Syria runs from Moscow down to the headquarters of the 58th Army, forward deployed at Hmeymim air base, 25 kilometers south of Latakia.
The latter controls about a dozen battalion-size task forces of the Russian army deployed at several hot spots in Syria. However, its primary tool is an aviation group, currently exercising control over three regiment-size formations.
One fighter-bomber wing includes a squadron operating four Su-30SMs, four Su-34s and four Su-35s. Another is equipped with 12 Su-24M/M2s and Su-24M-SVP-24s. A third unit is a helicopter regiment equipped with a total of 15 Mil Mi-8, 19 Mil Mi-24 and Mi-35Ns plus three Mi-28N helicopter gunships. This unit used to have four Kamov Ka-52 helicopter gunships, but these were all destroyed in an accident at Tiyas air base on May 14, 2016.
The VKS is using the so-called “blue-gold” aircrew arrangement, whereby the crew ratio is doubled, enabling each crew to spend one day preparing missions for the next day, while the other is flying.
The targeting cell issues daily tasking orders some 24 to 36 hours in advance, ordering crews to bomb specific geographic coordinates. Crews then spend lots of time planning missions and programming their navigation and attack systems correspondingly.Safety is a paramount issue — not only because Russian military commanders dislike the idea of losing aircraft, regardless if in training or in combat, but because their political masters, ever mindful of the propaganda value of Russian operations, cannot afford bad news.
Therefore, well above 95 percent of combat sorties by Russian fighter-bombers are flown at medium altitudes between 15,000 and 20,000 feet, where aircraft remain outside the reach of enemy defenses — especially man-portable air-defense systems.
Once airborne, aircraft are usually flown on auto-pilot until bombs are released under computer control. Overall, a majority of sorties are quite straightforward and seldom last longer than 45 minutes. Longer sorties include attacks on more than one target and sometimes last up to 1.5 hours, but their essence is still the same — and they still result in computer-controlled bomb-release from medium altitude against geographic coordinates.
Whether the mission is flown by day or by night, more than 80 percent of weaponry deployed by the VKS is so-called “dumb” bombs. Obviously, when dropped from medium altitudes against geographic coordinates — frequently through cloud cover — such weapons are grossly inaccurate.
The VKS is perfectly aware of this and has partially attempted to overcome this problem through deployment of cluster bombs, the effects of which are supposed to cover a bigger area. However — and irrespective of often catastrophic repercussions for the local population — nearly all of the ordnance deployed in Syria dates from the 1980s, and thus frequently fails to detonate.
Because hardly anybody in the West is complaining, and because it’s unlikely that any Russian is ever going to be held accountable for dozens of massacres perpetrated by the VKS in Syria, Moscow needs not care about negative consequences.
On the contrary, the Kremlin has found it rather easy to disparage as “fabrications” any reports of it bombarding hospitals, bakeries, water purification plants and similar civilian facilities — or to explain away the problem by writing press releases about the seemingly mythical precision of Russian navigation and attack systems. According to Moscow, physical laws and weather do not matter to the VKS.
Some of the target-selection can only be described as “caused by frustration.” In more than 9,000 combat sorties flown between late September 2015 and late February 2016, the VKS managed to kill only about a dozen local insurgent commanders, a handful of Al Nusrah officers and not a single ISIS leader.
Actually, most of the successful “decapitation” operations flown during the same period — including the December 2015 strike that killed Zahran Alloush, the famous leader of the Islamic Front — were undertaken by the Syrian Arab Air Force. Except for the Su-24MK2s, most of aircraft operated by the latter are obsolete, but the SyAAF’s targeting is based on much more efficient and experienced intelligence services, with plentiful informers among the opposition.
The mentality of the VKS’ operations in Syria must be understood within a uniquely Russian context, in a fundamentally different conception of warfare and the role of air power in it.
Russian commanders and their pilots are not dumb — they are knowledgeable about the performance parameters, and limitations, of their aircraft and about the effects their weapons have. Similarly, the intelligence services providing them with targeting data know what are they doing and why.
However, what might appear to Westerners as unimaginative tactics and a complete disregard for human life are — in the eyes of Russian political and military commanders — serving the purpose of achieving a political aim by military means.
Russian leaders, commanders and frontline pilots are all convinced that what they are doing is the way to “win” the war in Syria.
The main problem is that when they launched their military intervention in Syria, top Russian political and military leaders fell for their own illusions. They expected to achieve their goals in with relatively cheap and easy, if brutal, methods.
However, Western experiences from the wars in the Balkans and the Middle East have clearly showed that air power alone can never work its reputed magic. Indeed, Russian experiences from the wars in Chechnya have shown that even the most robust use of air power — one without concern for civilian casualties — can never have more than a near-term effect.
Nevertheless, because failure in Syria is completely unacceptable for Moscow — and by now it’s obvious that the VKS has failed to enforce the desired political outcome — Russian leaders have ordered VKS aircrews to bombard areas held by the Syrian opposition. The intention is to make life unbearable in those areas so that oppositions leaders accept Moscow’s conditions. This is the reason for the all-around human tragedy we are witnessing in Syria these days.
Only time will tell how the professionalism and self-respect of Russia’s aviators will be affected by the high rate of non-combatant casualties they are causing.
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