Russia Just Sent Four of Its Best Warplanes to Syria
And that could be a big problem
The Institute for the Study of War had spotted four Russian fighter jets at Al Assad International Airport in Damascus. The Kremlin may have sent air-to-air missiles to Syria along with the aircraft, the D.C.-based think tank added.
But Washington area consultant and War Is Boring contributor Chris Biggers pointed out on the blog Offiziere that ISW had misidentified the jets. As it turns out, Russia sent its maneuverable and deadly Su-30SM multi-role jets.
Recent satellite imagery acquired by Airbus of al-Assad International airport in Syria shows four Su-30SM aircraft, not four SU-27 Flanker as originally reported by the Institute for [the] Study of War. The aircraft are easily mistaken for the SU-27 due to the modern variant’s use of the same airframe. The only predominant identifier on satellite imagery separating these aircraft from the earlier model is the canards positioned forward on the fuselage which assist with the aircraft’s thrust vectoring capability.
Located on the north side of the runway at Latakia, the Su-30SM multi-role fighters are one of Russia’s more advanced 4+ generation aircraft, often compared to the U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle. This variant is equipped with a passive electronically scanned array (PESA) BARS radar, fly-by-wire flight controls, modern ECM as well as thrust vectoring, making this a highly maneuverable and capable fighter.
In March 2012, Russia hired the Irkut Corporation to build a total of 60 Su-30SM fighters. While the new model was the first for the Kremlin’s air arms to feature the small canard positioned behind the cockpit, Irkut had already sold similar MKI and MKM versions to India and Malaysia, respectively.
The Su-27 Flanker family, which includes the two-seat Su-30 and the Su-35 “Super Flanker,” is capable of impressive acrobatics without the two miniature wings. The Russian planes regularly perform “Pugachev’s Cobra” — a move where the plane pitches up vertically more than 90 degrees before leveling out again — during air shows and other demonstrations.
With the extra foreplanes, a pilot has even more control over the jet during tight turns and other maneuvers. The Su-30SM also has thrust vectoring exhaust nozzles making the jet even more agile.
In a close-in fight, these features could give Moscow’s warplanes and edge over comparable Western types including the American F-16C Viper, European Typhoon and Swedish Gripen. The updated Flankers might also be more sprightly than certain upcoming designs … like the troublesome F-35 stealth fighter.
But the Kremlin’s jets in Syria could be problematic no matter how graceful they are in the sky. After years of civil strife, Syria has become home to a myriad factions, often with their own goals and allegiances. Mixing Russian aircraft and troops in with various Kurdish factions, Al Qaeda’s affiliate Al Nusra, what remains of the nominally Western-backed Free Syrian Army and many more could be a recipe for disaster.
Then there’s the U.S.-led coalition, which is bombing Islamic State in Syria.
The appearance of the Su-30s is just the latest Russian support to the embattled Syrian regime. Close partners for more than four decades, Moscow has been stepping up shipments of weapons and equipment — along with advisers and actual troops — to Syria since late in August. The Kremlin denies it is actively fighting in either the country’s civil war or the fight against Islamic State.
On Sept. 15, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook fielded questions about potential conflicts with Russian forces in the region at a daily press conference:
We’re tracking their developments closely. I’m not going to get into intelligence assessments from up here. You can be sure that our coalition aircraft, U.S. aircraft flying into Syria will take into account everything that we see as a potential threat.
And I’m not talking about what we see specifically with the Russian presence in Syria. I’m just talking in general.
We are — those coalition aircraft, everything is being done to reduce the threat to our crews. And that’s understandable and that’s going to continue to be the case going forward.
Pressed about whether the American commanders would have to “deconflict” with their Russian counterparts in the sky to avoid accidents or worse, Cook added:
We’re not talking about deconfliction right now, because we’re not seeing those flights at this moment in time and we’re not talking about hypotheticals at this point.
The day before the Flankers popped up in Damascus, defense secretary Ashton Carter was on the phone with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoygu trying to get answers, according to an official press release:
This morning, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter had a constructive conversation with the Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoygu on the situation in Syria. The secretary and the minister talked about areas where the United States and Russia’s perspectives overlap and areas of divergence. They agreed to further discuss mechanisms for deconfliction in Syria and the counter-Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) campaign. The secretary emphasized the importance of pursuing such consultations in parallel with diplomatic talks that would ensure a political transition in Syria. He noted that defeating ISIL and ensuring a political transition are objectives that need to be pursued at the same time. Both the secretary and the minister agreed to continue their dialogue.
Until Moscow and Washington find some sort of agreement or set up a firm communications channel, the addition of another, largely ambiguous player to the region’s airspace could be a big problem.