Key point: VKS and Naval Aviation aircraft losses at times reflected inexperience in expeditionary operations and technical reliability problems.
Just two months after the Russian Aerospace Force (VKS) was formed by merging the tactical air force and air defense forces, Putin announced the deployments of dozens of combat aircraft to Syria in a bid to prop up the faltering regime of strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Five years of relentless bombardment tilted the course of the war in Assad’s favor—and continues to do so today as heavy bombing paves the way for Assad’s forces to crush the last major rebel stronghold in Idlib province—if it doesn’t trigger Turkish intervention first.
However, the air campaign has cost the Russian military at least nineteen manned aircraft (eleven helicopters and eight airplanes) between 2015–2018, leading to the deaths of twenty-three crew and thirty-seven passengers.
For comparison, between 2014 and 2020, the U.S. military lost two aircraft in anti-ISIS operations in Syria: an F-16 jet in 2014 due to an accident shortly after takeoff and a V-22 tilt-rotor in a hard landing in 2017.
This piece will look case-by-case at the causes of Russian aviation losses, drawing upon Moscow’s Game of Poker: Russian Military Intervention in Syria by Tom Cooper, “The Russian Campaign in Syria” by Anton Lavrov, and additional media reports.
During early operations bombing Turkmen militias, Russian jets routinely traversed Turkish airspace in northwestern Syria. On November 24, a pair of Russian Su-24M attack jets ignored repeated Turkish warnings (see map here). Finally, during a seventeen-second incursion into Turkish airspace a Turkish Air Force F-16 launched an AIM-120 radar-guided missile from nine to twelve miles away which struck the Su-24M at 20,000 feet, sending it crashing into the hills.
Three hours after the downing of the Su-24M, two Mi-8AMTsh ‘Hip’ helicopters—a classic Soviet transport helicopter fortified with additional armor and weapons—departed on a combat search-and-rescue mission to recover the surviving crew member. Anti-aircraft fire struck one of the Mi-8s, killing a naval infantryman and forcing the chopper to land. The crew escaped, and the abandoned helicopter was destroyed by a rebel TOW anti-tank missile.
This was the first of five VKS helicopters and one attack jet shot down or forced down by short-range anti-aircraft fire between 2015 and 2018. In at least two incidents, shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles from Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) appear responsible, while more commonplace heavy machine guns and flak-cannon may have accounted for the rest.
Western air forces have reduced airplane losses to short-range air defense to nil by flying at high altitudes and making extensive use of expensive precision-guided munitions, though slower and lower-flying helicopters have been less fortunate.
However, the VKS has more limited precision-air-to-ground capabilities which it uses only selectively. As a result vast majority of Russian munitions expended in Syria have been unguided bombs released at over 13,000 feet to avoid air defense fire, using a timed SVP-24 navigation/attack systems—with middling accuracy. Cluster bombs and incendiary munitions with a large propensity for collateral damage were also liberally employed.
But in 2016–2017, Russian helicopters and jets were called upon to provide close air support for Syrian ground forces, particularly in a rough fight for Palmyra. While building-sized hospitals (video here), schools, and bakeries were convenient targets for high-altitude bombing, close air support missions required Russian pilots—particularly helicopter pilots—to fly lower to engage point targets and moving vehicles with unguided rockets and cannon fire despite the risk of air defense fire.
On July 8, 2016 one of a pair of Russian Mi-35M helicopter gunships was strafing ISIS positions when something blasted its tail off, sending it spinning into the ground—likely a victim of ISIS ground fire, though friendly fire is also possible. Moscow first denied any loss, then asserted a Syrian Mi-24 had fallen victim before admitting the loss.
Four months later, an Mi-35M made a forced landing after being struck by ground fire. An Mi-8 Hip helicopter landed meters away and managed to extract the crew under fire. Only seconds after the Mi-8 began lifting off, an explosion annihilated the grounded gunship, though the Mi-8 escaped.
Another Mi-8AMTsh was brought down by ground fire on August 1, 2016 while returning from a supply run to two besieged towns, killing all five onboard.
In early February 2018, Russian Su-25 “Frogfoot” armored ground attack jets swooped down to low altitude to rake vehicular refugee columns fleeing eastern Aleppo with unguided rockets. First, an Su-25 was damaged by fire from a technical truck. Then, on February 3, an Igla shoulder-fired missile struck another Su-25SM, causing its left engine to catch fire. The pilot successfully ejected, but then killed himself with a grenade to avoid capture.
A MANPADS is also believed responsible for the downing of an advanced Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopter on May 7, 2018, with the loss of both crew.
Russian countermeasure systems evidently failed to protect against heat-seeking missiles in these instances, but we don’t know how many (if any) missiles were defeated by countermeasures.
Following an Israeli air strike on September 17, 2018, a Syrian S-200 system launched a missile which locked on to a Russian Il-20M signals intelligence plane flying over the Mediterranean. The impact of the V880 missile killed all fifteen crew. Moscow accused the Israelis of intentionally using the Il-20 as a shield of sorts and announced it would transfer S-400 missile systems to Syria with improved target discrimination capabilities. However, the Israelis argued they remained distant from the Il-20, and that the missile was launched well after IAF jets had departed the area.
On April 12, 2016 an Mi-28N ‘Night Hunter’ helicopter designed to be night operations-capable flew into the ground at night, killing the commander of the 55th Helicopter regiment and his back seater.
On December 31, 2017, an Mi-35M smashed into power lines while escorting a convoy, killing two out of three onboard.
Both crashed helicopters were modern designs.
On May 3, 2018 a two-seat Sukhoi Su-30SM attack jet had just taken off over Latakia province when it abruptly nosed down and plunged into the Mediterranean Sea (photo here), killing both crew. The Russian Ministry of Defense reported the Sukhoi had fallen victim to a bird strike.
Takeoff and Landing Accidents
In October 2017, another Su-24M attack jet experienced a “technical error” according to the Russian Ministry of Defense and rolled off the runway during its takeoff run at Khmeimim Airbase. The aircraft broke apart, killing both crew before they could ejected.
Then in April 2018, an An-26 transport plane was on a landing approach at Khmeimim when wind shear caused it to veer to one side and rapidly lose altitude. It slammed into the ground 500 meters short of the runway, killing all thirty-three passengers and six crew in the heaviest loss of life experienced by the Russian military in Syria (though not necessarily the worst for Russian mercenaries).
Carrier Arresting Gear Failures
On October 16, 2016 the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, set sail for Syria to perform the country’s first carrier-based combat operations. Though it would have been easier to perform the same strikes from air bases in Syria, the Kuznetsov’s presence was very much for propaganda and combat testing purposes.
The experiment didn’t proceed swimmingly. On November 14, 2016 a MiG-29KUB fighter from its air wing ran out of fuel waiting for deck crews to repair a fault in the carrier’s arrestor gear and had to ditch into the Mediterranean. A few weeks later on December 3, a larger Su-33 jet skipped off the carrier deck and crashed in the water. At fault? One of the arresting wires had snapped.
Both pilots were rescued. Kuznetsov’s air wing transferred to land bases from which it flew 450 more sorties. After this disastrous debut and the sinking of a huge floating dry dock with Kuznetsov inside it, it’s doubtful the carrier will see combat duty again.
Destroyed on the Ground
On May 14, 2016, a fire broke out amongst empty wooden ammunition crates at the T4 (Tiyas) fortified airbase in central Syria on May 14, 2017. Strong winds whipped up a blaze that devoured twenty trucks full of ammunition, four Russian helicopter gunships, and a Syrian Air Force MiG-25 interceptor.
Russian sources never announced the losses, but satellite photos show the incinerated remains of the helicopters. The fire is generally blamed on an ISIS attack, though Cooper writes it was actually started by Russian maintenance personnel.
Khmeimim airbase was struck by mortar fire on New Year’s Eve 2017, killing two VKS personnel and damaging as many as ten aircraft, though not destroying any as initially reported. A subsequent attack on Khmeimim by a rebel-operated drone swarm was repelled by air defenses.
VKS and Naval Aviation aircraft losses at times reflected inexperience in expeditionary operations and technical reliability problems. Some combat losses may have been avoided if the VKS possessed more precision-guided weapons and surveillance drones to allow targets to be rapidly identified and safely targeted from on high.