Syria’s New Jet Fighters Won’t Change Anything
Methods, not equipment, are Damascus’ biggest air-power problem
On May 5, Russian newspaper Kommersant announced that Moscow would finally begin delivery of 26 Yak-130 training and light-attack jets to Syria. The hand-over of Yak-130s raises the possibility that Damascus might also eventually get the MiG-29M2 fighters it ordered from Russia at the same time as the Yaks.
The Syrian regime requested the Yaks and MiGs in 2011, before the current civil war. International sanctions complicated, but did not prevent, their delivery. In light of the continuing stand-off over Ukraine, Moscow is perhaps less inclined than ever to work with the West to limit the flow of arms into Syria, a long-time Russian ally.
But neither of the new warplane types can solve the regime’s most pressing military problems—nor shift the balance of power in the Syrian war.
The subsonic, two-seat Yak-130 is an advanced training jet with a robust combat capability. The 10-ton, twin-engine plane boasts cutting-edge avionics, a reasonably powerful radar and compatibility with targeting pods and guided munitions. Its low speed and excellent cockpit visibility make it a potentially deadly ground-attack platform.
The 25-ton, supersonic Mig-29M2 (pictured below) is a much bigger and more fearsome plane, with greater speed, payload and radar power than the Yak-130. But even if Syria gets Yak-130s and MiG-29M2s from Russia, the new planes will only slightly expand the regime air force’s capacity … without necessarily adding any new capabilities.
That’s because the regime, even after three years of costly combat, still has hundreds of warplanes and helicopters that can already do what the Yak-130 and MiG-29M2 do.
To have even a chance of breaking the battlefield stalemate with rebel forces from the air, the regime needs to duplicate the surveillance-strike complex that the U.S. and its allies have painstakingly developed over the past 13 years of fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones.
The American method combines 24-hour-a-day drone surveillance, constant communication, flexible orders and fast-moving warplanes carrying many small, highly-accurate guided weapons. The idea is to quickly find and hit fleeting targets without endangering friendly troops or nearby civilians.
It doesn’t do Damascus much good to simply add a few new Yaks and MiGs if it can’t also arm the fighters with precision munitions, reliably find targets for the planes and quickly guide them to accurately deliver their ordnance.
Indeed, since the civil war broke out in early 2011, the Syrian air force has actually developed away from a U.S.-style strike complex, rather than toward it. Instead of modifying its existing fighters with better sensors and guided weapons—an admittedly difficult and potentially expensive proposition—Damascus poured resources into mass-producing unguided rockets and barrel bombs for its warplanes.
Inaccurate but powerful, these homemade munitions represent a brute-force approach to air power—one that poses a serious risk to the regime’s own troops and has also resulted in countless thousands of civilian casualties.
Hewing ever closer to this philosophy of indiscriminate firepower, the Syrian air force in 2014 is, in many ways, less advanced than it was before the war. The regime air arm lacks reliable communications, live battlefield management and persistent surveillance.
True, Damascus has acquired Unmanned Aerial Vehicles from Iran, but the drones lack wide-area radars and commanders tend to deploy single UAVs piecemeal for isolated missions rather than grouping several of them into around-the-clock surveillance orbits like the Americans do.
Syria’s failure to develop its air force was evident in March and April, when rebels stormed depots belonging to the Syrian army 559th Tank Brigade in the Qalamun Mountains. While opposition fighters began driving away with the tanks, regime jets flew overhead, unable to target the moving vehicles.
It won’t much matter, if in some future battle, the jets are Yak-130s or MiG-29M2s. If Syria can’t use its planes effectively, it makes no difference how new they are.