Russian Heavy Bombers Fly Huge Raid in Syria
Moscow sends the best of its aerial arsenal into combat
On Nov. 17, Russia sent nearly 40 heavy bombers and escorting fighter jets on a massive air raid in Syria. Moscow has now showed off almost all of its aerial arsenal in strikes in the embattled Middle Eastern country.
Flying from bases in Russia, 25 Tu-160, Tu-95MS and Tu-22M3 bombers launched more than 30 cruise missiles and dropped dumb bombs on targets in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. A dozen Su-34 and Su-27SM fighter jets escorted the bombers on their mission.
“The targets destroyed include command posts that were used to coordinate ISIL activities [and] munition and supply depots in the northwestern part of Syria,” chief of the Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov said, using a common acronym for the Islamic State terrorist group.
The operation is the first ever combat mission for the massive Tu-160 Blackjack bomber. Similar in their basic configuration to the American B-1 “Bone,” the larger four-engine swing-wing bombers can fly twice as fast as the speed of sound and carry some 40 tons of bombs and missiles in two internal bomb bays.
The smaller, twin-engine Tu-22M3 Backfires can lug more than 50,000 pounds of weapons – similar to the B-1. The huge turboprop Tu-95MS Bears have the smallest maximum load – more than 30,000 pounds – of Moscow’s bomber fleet.
Already flying missions over Syria, the Su-34 Fullbacks are among Russia’s most advanced fighter jets, combining a highly maneuverable design with powerful radars and other gear. The Su-27SMs are the latest members of Moscow’s Flanker fleet and the most recent upgrades incorporate technology used on the Su-35 Super Flanker.
The Kremlin’s spy satellites helped spot the targets, Gerasimov explained. A Russian naval vessel – possibly a submarine – launched cruise missiles from the Mediterranean sea at targets in Syria, according to initial reports.
The attack was part of a “new plan of the air campaign,” according to Gerasimov. “The number of sorties was increased two times which allows us to launch powerful precision strikes against ISIL militants deep within the Syrian territory,” Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu added.
However, the location of the strikes suggest that the Kremlin is still focusing on more immediate threats to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. Northwestern Syria is not generally considered to be a hotbed of Islamic State activity, especially compared to the eastern border with Iraq.
The brutal Sunni group’s main hub of Raqqa is 100 miles east of the city of Aleppo and even farther from the capital of the Idlib governorate. In September, the Kremlin launched its first air strikes in Syria to back up Assad.
However, Russia’s latest raid – especially the use of long-range cruise missiles – seems to be directed primarily at its critics in the West. Air arms generally employ stand-off weapons like the Kh-555 to strike targets hundreds of miles away and keep pilots away from powerful enemy air defenses in the process.
Militants in Syria rely heavily on machine guns and automatic cannons to try and knock down attacking jets and helicopters. These weapons would not be able to challenge Russia’s high- and fast-flying bombers and fighters any more than American jets.
Moscow insists that Assad is the key to peace in the country and America and its allies should coordinate their activities with the regime in Damascus. The Kremlin has touted the number of individual strikes compared to its Western counterparts as a sign of its determination to defeat terrorist groups like Islamic State.
With this show of force, Russia is clearly trying to drive the point home.