Welcome to Syria, the Russian Air Force’s battle lab.
Russia has been able to gain valuable combat experience in Syria, according to Anatoly Tsyganok, a retired Russian colonel and military commentator writing in the Russian defense publication Independent.
Russian pilots have learned to perform high-altitude bombing runs over Syria, fire air-launched cruise missiles, conduct low-level helicopter attacks, and effectively support the ground troops.
Tsyganok contrasts Russian Air Force performance in Syria with that of the disastrous 2008 Russo-Georgia War. Still in bad shape from the collapse of the Soviet Union, poorly trained Russian pilots carried out poorly planned attacks over that resulted in the downing of several Russian jets by Georgian air defenses, despite Georgia’s far weaker overall military strength.
In particular, Russian pilots lacked information on Georgian air defenses. “Having no reliable data on the location of the active air defense systems of Georgia and the organization of their management, the air forces were forced to act at their own peril and risk,” Tsyganok writes.
Russian air tactics were unimaginative at best and negligent at worst. “The possible location of active air defense systems of Georgia and their detection and destruction zones was not taken into account,” Tsyganok notes. “The terrain was not used; repeated visits to the targets were performed (moreover, from the same directions)...The position of the sun and objects lit by it were not taken into account. Anti-aircraft and anti-missile maneuvers were not carried out.”
“The Su-34 as a whole effectively performs the tasks of striking with high-precision aviation weapons (GLONASS-corrected KAB-500S bombs) against particularly important and so-called difficult targets,” said Tsyganok, referring to high-altitude attacks with satellite-guided bombs. “84 percent of the flight personnel of the Russian Aerospace Forces received combat experience in Syria, and this is a positive moment. Pilots of the aviation group and helicopter crews have well mastered the war zone and flights in the desert and mountain conditions, which is also a plus. Aviation and helicopter pilots interacted well with the ground forces of the Syrian army.”
In addition, Russia strategic bombers—Tu-160 and Tu-95 aircraft—launched various cruise missiles for the first time in combat, including Kh-101/Kh-102 and Kh-555 missiles. “A total of about 20 air-launched cruise missiles were used, with the Tu-160/Kh-101 and with the Tu-95/Kh-555,” Tsyganok said. “In total, the crews were in the air for 16 hours.”
Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters, which were used extensively in the Soviet-Afghan and suffered heavy losses, devised tactics to operate against Syrian rebels: “Mi-24s usually operate in pairs, depending on the type of target, the pilot of the driving machine chooses a maneuver, sometimes directly above the trees, firing rockets at enemy positions at close range, supporting the Syrian troops engaged in heavy battles,” noted Tsyganok. Mi-24 pilots tried to avoid rebel man-portable anti-aircraft missiles by flying close to the earth.
Interestingly, Tsyganok suggests that the Russian government’s outsourcing of military support to private companies was a mistake—a sentiment that many U.S. critics would agree about their own government. “Outsourcing can exist only in peacetime. In combat conditions, it turned out to be not only unnecessary, but also harmful. It is required again to return to the Soviet (Russian) experience of technical support, repair, maintenance, combat and material support. Civilians can repair equipment in peacetime, but in combat conditions military specialists are needed.”