Russia has deployed at least four advanced Sukhoi Su-30SM Flankers to its base near Latakia, Syria. The jets are the latest in a series of Russian deployments to the war-torn Arab nation that includes tanks, armored personnel carriers, heavy artillery and a sizable infantry contingent.
While Russian forces in the region are probably there to support Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered regime against ISIS, without careful coordination with U.S. and allied forces operating in the region, there is a real danger of an inadvertent confrontation. That is why U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter made sure to call his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoygu to make certain that U.S. and Russian forces don’t accidentally find themselves in conflict. “The secretary and the minister talked about areas where the United States and Russia's perspectives overlap and areas of divergence,” states a Pentagon release. The timing of the call was slightly awkward because the Flankers showed up in Syria just hours after the conversation.
For Russia, selecting the Su-30SM for the Syrian operation is a logical choice. The aircraft can carry a hefty payload and it has excellent range. Moreover, it offers the flexibility to carry out air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. That means it doesn’t need a separate fighter escort. Further, the aircraft has a second crewmember, which is helpful for complex missions. That’s why the U.S. Air Force’s F-15E Strike Eagle and the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18F Super Hornet, which are in many respects the Su-30SM’s direct analogues, have two aviators onboard.
While the Russian deployment is significant in shoring up the Assad regime, in the unlikely event of a confrontation with U.S forces, a handful of Su-30s would not last long against the overwhelming odds they would face. U.S. forces in the region have a host of advanced fighters available to them—the most potent of which is the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Moreover, the U.S. forces in the region far outnumber the Russian forces.
While the Su-30SM is a very capable fourth generation fighter, it stands no chance against the Raptor—especially in a beyond visual range engagement. Purely on hardware terms, the Raptor has an advantage on every metric except range and payload. The F-22’s combination of stealth and sensors means that the Russian aircraft would likely be destroyed before they had any idea they were being targeted. During regular training exercises in the United States, a group of four F-22s will have to practice against as many as twenty “enemy” aircraft in order to get any useful training accomplished.
The only wild card is if by some chance there was a visual range confrontation between U.S. and Russian jets that turned into a combat situation. In a visual range dogfight, the Su-30 has a chance against the F-22. The Flanker has R-73 high off-boresight missiles while the Raptor is stuck with the antiquated AIM-9M version of the Sidewinder missile—for now. While the Raptor’s superior performance can make up for a lot of the deficit, close-in, the lack of a high off-boresight missile is a serious deficiency—which the U.S. Air Force hopes to address in the coming years.
While the Raptors would likely wipe the floor with the Flankers, if there were a confrontation between the two forces, it would certainly be a global nightmare that no one wants to see become a reality. The result would be a major escalation in tensions that could easily spiral out of control and lead to a much wider war. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.