In this special news report by Defencyclopedia, we bring you the second part of our analysis on Russia’s involvement in Syria. It covers the aircraft and weapons that their air force is currently using as a part of a large-scale bombing campaign.
The involvement of the Russian armed forces in a massive scale was certainly not anticipated by anyone. They were thought to be indirectly funding the Syrian government and supplying them with weapons, but nobody ever thought that Russia would send troops and deploy fighters in Syria. The completely unexpected part was the deployment of their most advanced fighter jets and precision guided munitions to achieve their objectives. The previous article in the series covered the cruise missile strikes conducted by the Russian Navy. This article will focus on their air force. If you missed the earlier article, do read it.
Russia has officially stated that it is in Syria to carry out Strikes against the IS. But as per the available reports, they are targeting the US/Saudi backed ‘Free Syria Army/rebels as well. The Russian airstrikes have been quite effective and they are trying to kill 2 birds with one stone. Their current objectives are
- Protection and preservation of their naval base in Tartus
- Protection and preservation of their air force base in Latakia
- Suppression of the ‘Free Syria Army’ and destruction of their assets
- Destruction of the IS and their facilities
- Preservation of the current government rule till objectives 3 and 4 are achieved, or maybe even after that.
Su-24M2 ‘Fencer’ [12 aircraft]
This is one of the oldest aircraft which is being used in the conflict. The twin seat attack aircraft with its side by side seats, is approaching retirement age, but still going strong. Over 350 of these aircraft are in service with the Russian Air Force and will be replaced by the more capable Su-34 gradually. Russia has sent 12 upgraded Su-24M2s to carry out bombing using gravity bombs and guided missiles and they are also used for reconnaissance duties. It’s maximum weapon load is 8000 kg and also has a 23 mm cannon with 500 rounds of ammunition. They have proven to be surprisingly reliable and the RuAF is able to conduct a large number of sorties everyday. If the situation worsens, Russia is likely to send in another dozen of these strike aircraft into Syria.
Su-25MS ‘Frogfoot’ [12 aircraft]
The Su-25 is Russia’s equivalent of the A-10 attack aircraft. It is inexpensive, rugged and can fly low and slow to provide fire support to troops on the ground. The Su-25 is being used in Syria to drop ‘dumb’ bombs and fire rockets at enemy positions. It’s twin 30 mm cannons are very useful in engaging enemy personnel on the ground. The advantage it has over other aircraft is that it is fully armoured, can fly on any kind of fuel from kerosene to aviation fuel and take off from rugged and small strips of land and land on them with equal ease. 12 of these aircraft are currently being used in Syria.
Su-30SM [4 aircraft]
The Su-30SM is a twin-seat multirole fighter, primarily used for air-superiority missions. It has no combat role in Syria, but it’s duty is to escort the strike packages and provide protection to the air base from snoopers. It has been spotted with the Khibiny jamming pod at its wingtips and R-73/27 air to air missiles. 4 of these aircraft are deployed at present and their numbers will increase in the future if the conflict drags on with no end in sight. The Su-30SM was also involved in an incident where it crossed into Turkish airspace briefly, while returning from a strike escort mission.
Here is an excellent video of Su-30 operations in Syria, released by the Russian Ministry of Defense
Su-34 ‘Fullback’ [6 aircraft]
The Su-34 is the most advanced strike aircraft in the inventory of the RuAF. It has been one of the surprise entries into the conflict and was among the last to arrive in Syria. With its maximum weapons payload of 12,000 kg and a combat radius of 1000+ km, the Su-34 is an invaluable asset for conducting airstrikes at targets far away from the base. It has a total of 12 hardpoints with 8 under the wings, 2 under the fuselage and 2 under the engines air intakes.
It has a built-in laser target designator under its fuselage, which eliminates the need to carry an external pod. Such a configuration is necessary for a precision strike aircraft, while deploying laser guided missiles/bombs. In Syria, it has been seen dropping the KAB-500S and the OFAB-250 bombs. As per the Russian statements, the aircraft has proven itself to be reliable in combat as is easy to maintain.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
Russia has used UAVs extensively in order to collect intel about the targets to be bombed and for doing bomb damage assessment after the airstrikes.
The video below shows an American Reaper drone over Syria, being intercepted by a Su-30SM
More drone footage of airstrikes targeting buildings
The most modern variant of the Mi-8 family in the Russian service has been deployed to Syria. The Mi-8AMTSh is a special amoured assault-transport helicopter which carries a large variety of air to ground weapons and has armour protection. It features advanced GLONASS navigation systems, weather radar and other advanced avionics which enable it to operate day and night in any weather condition. In Syria, it has been specifically deployed for the Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) role. In an active warzone like this, where dozens of sorties are conducted by fighters and bombers every day, there is always the chance that an aircraft will malfunction and crash in hostile territory. This Mi-8 is used in such a situation to rescue the downed pilot from the middle of a warzone. Mi-24 helicopters also will accompany it during such a mission. The armour and weapons of the Mi-8 will enable it to provide effective cover fire while conducting the rescue. Since it can carry 36 troops as well, this helicopter is an invaluable asset for CSAR.
Commonly known as the ‘flying tank’, the Mi-24 is a powerful attack helicopter which is heavily armoured. It can carry a mix of unguided rockets, air to ground missiles or gun pods depending on the mission. They have been used to provide fire support to the Syrian troops and also as a sentry to guard the air force base. It will also be used to escort the Mi-8 in CSAR missions and has the ability to carry 6 troops in its cramped compartment behind the cockpit. The variant deployed in Syria has 2 x 30 mm guns at the cockpit starboard side and advanced sensors for day and night target engagement. These helicopters are also being used as bomb trucks, dropping OFAB-250 bombs on stationary targets.
Antonov An-124 ‘Condor’
The fleet of Russian fighter jets need spares, bombs, missiles and ammunition to carry out the airstrikes continuously. They need to be resupplied daily and what better than to get the world’s largest military transport aircraft to do it? The An-124 has been the lifeline to the RuAF in Syria and is making multiple flights every day. Having the ability to carry 150 tons of cargo, the An-124 can transport helicopters, tanks and other military vehicles as well.
There are several reports that say that the RuAF has deployed a single Il-20 spyplane in syria to collect intel and intercept communications. This particular has a host of sensors for electronic intelligence (ELINT) gathering, special radars to search for targets on the ground and advanced communication facilities. Such an aircraft would be invaluable in gathering information about IS targets and providing real time updates to the strike packages.
The Russian Air Force has used a mixture of ‘dumb’ and ‘smart’ weapons to engage their targets. The unguided ‘dumb’ bombs have been used against enemy personnel and low value targets where collateral damage is not an issue. The guided ‘smart’ munitions have been used against high-value, mobile and well defended targets.
Kh-25L and Kh-29L guided missiles
The use of guided missiles by the RuAF allows them to engage fixed and moving targets from a stand-off distace. The Kh-25L is a laser guided missile with a range of 11 km and a 112 kg HE warhead. The Kh-29L is also a laser guided missile and has a range of 10 km. It has an extremely powerful 317 kg warhead which is used to engage reinforced structures such as bunkers. These missiles are commonly deployed from the Su-24M2 in the ongoing war.
KAB-250/500 guided bombs
The use of precision guided bombs was also a pretty surprising move and its usage increased the effectiveness of the Russian airstrikes greatly.
The KAB-250 is a small diameter PGM which is available in laser/satellite guided variants and is the surprise entry to this list. Being developed as a part of the weapons suite of the 5th gen PAK-FA fighter, the KAB-250 is said to be undergoing trials with the Su-34 and hasn’t officially entered service. But Russian sources say that the bomb is actually being tested in live combat in Syria! This would be a good opportunity for the Russians to perfect the bomb, which is under development, by testing it in real world conditions.
The KAB-500KR is an electro-optical TV-guided bomb, which has to be controlled by the operator till it hits the target. It is very useful as it allows for visual identification and confirmation of the targets, as well as allowing the operator to change the target after dropping the bomb.
The KAB-500S is the Russian equivalent of the famous American JDAM satellite guided bomb. The KAB-500S is guided by GLONASS instead of GPS, and is said to have an accuracy of 7-12 m. It is being extensively used by the RuAF to target high-value assets like weapon depots and command centers with a higher degree of accuracy compared to ‘dumb’ bombs.
BETAB-500 ‘Bunker Buster’ bomb
This special weapon is used to target heavily reinforced underground bunkers of the IS. Since normal bombs have little effect on underground targets, special bombs which can penetrate thick concrete bunkers are very important to destroy vital targets. The BETAB 500 uses a special rocket booster at the rear, which propels the bomb at high speeds, straight into the ground. The warhead is designed to explode after penetrating the outer layer of the reinforced target, thereby destroying bunkers from the inside.
This is the most widely used bomb by the RuAF in the war and is the most cost-effective as well. Being a ‘dumb’ bomb, it has to be carefully aimed by the pilot and then dropped on the target. Being a high-explosive fragmentation bomb, it is commonly used against targets which are spread out in the open such as troop formations, railway lines and field facilities. Multiple bombs are usually dropped at once to maximize the effect.
Russia’s airstrikes have been not-to-surprisingly been more effective than the American airstrikes against the IS. This has been acknowledged by many western sources as well, and the clincher is the Iraqi ruling bloc seeking Russian intervention. The RuAF has officially carried out over 600 airstrikes in 21 days, which amounts to around 30 sorties per day. This number is steadily rising and the number of airstrikes are crossing 60 per day on certain occassions. The fact that they are able to continuously carry out so many airstrikes with just 30 strike aircraft shows that the RuAF is not at all like the Soviet Air Force. The fact that they are conducting strikes even at night, shows their dedication and seriousness.
The rising number of sorties has forced them to shut down the Latakia air base to all civilian flights, as a RuAF aircraft is either taking off or landing every 10 minutes! The modern Russian Air Force is on par with the western air forces and have now demonstrated their actual capabilities to the rest of the world. They have shown that their aircraft are less maintenance intensive and can carry out precision airstrikes just as effectively. Although the number of modern strike aircraft in the Russian inventory is just a fraction of the USAF’s, Russia has shown that they aren’t lagging behind in technology anymore.
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