Russia is pointing fingers in all directions as it attempts to decipher who, exactly, attacked the Khmeimim air base and Tartus naval base in Syria by deploying a massed flight of what appear to have been home-made GPS-guided drones. The coordinated attack marks the first time that drones have been used en masse—and may well mark a dangerous new moment in the history of technology and warfare.
None of the thirteen bomb-laden drones made it to their targets—the Russians repelled the makeshift unmanned strike aircraft either by using anti-aircraft missiles or by intercepting them with electronic warfare to take them under direct control. In addition, Russian television is showing extensive footage of Russian attacks on the village of Muazzara from whence the drones were fired.
Moscow seems to believe that Syrian-based insurgent groups had foreign help, including satellite guidance. Indeed, Moscow has implied that the United States, Turkey and Ukraine are involved in the attacks. In the case of Turkey, however, the Kremlin quickly backtracked. During a meeting with news editors in Moscow, Russian president Vladimir Putin explicitly said that Turkey was not involved and did not directly finger Washington. According to Putin, “Those were provocations aimed at disrupting the earlier agreements, in the first place. Secondly, it was about our relations with our partners—Turkey and Iran. It was also an attempt to destroy those relations.We have a perfect understanding of that and will act in solidarity.”
“It is impossible to develop such drones in an improvised manner,” Maj. Gen. Alexander Novikov, head of the Russian General Staff's Office for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Development, told reporters on Jan. 11. “They were developed and operated by experts with special skills acquired in countries that produce and apply systems with UAVs.”
The Russian Defense Ministry does not dispute the fact that much of the hardware used to construct the fixed-wing drones—which have a range of roughly 60 miles and carried 10 bomblets each—is commercially available. Moscow, however, is suggesting that the manner in which the aircraft were designed, built and launched—not to mention their specialized munitions—serves as a potent indication that the group that launched the attack had outside assistance.
“In order to produce these drones, such components as engine, servo units, and electrical batteries could be bought on the market,” Novikov said. “However, assembly and use of these components in the joint system are a complicated engineer task demanding special training, scientific knowledge, and practical experience of producing these aircraft.”
Further, Moscow argues that the software needed for coordinated launch efforts and precise targeting of the Russian bases would have required specialized navigational data—precise beyond what is available freely on the internet. “Special software is required for using fire means of the drones,” Novikov said. “Insurgents needed to receive sharp coordinates of targets and take into account numerous parameters as altitude, flight speed as well as wind direction and speed in order to reach necessary strike effectiveness.”
The bottom line is that insurgent groups have technical capabilities far beyond anyone expected—and the Kremlin is unwilling to accept that insurgents could have developed such a capability independently. “Such lethal devices require special expertise, practical skills and operating experience in the sphere,” Novikov said. “The fact that terrorists have received assembly technology and programming technology is the evidence that this threat stretches far beyond the Syrian borders.”
The Russians apparently know that the attack was launched from Muazzara , in the Idlib de-escalation zone. Moreover, the Russians apparently know which group was responsible for the attack—likely Ahrar-Ash-Sham. However, the Russians did not back off from an earlier implicit accusation that the United States had a hand in the attack. “It is a strange coincidence that during a UAV attack on the Russian military facilities in Syria, a US Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft was cruising for more than four hours over the Mediterranean Sea at an altitude of 7,000 meters,” a Russian Defense Ministry source told the TASS news agency on Jan. 9 .
More recently, the Russians have implied that Ukraine might have had a connection to the attack. “One should pay attention to munitions carried by the drones,” Novikov said. “These are 400g improvised explosive devices with fragmentations (small metal balls). The effective area of such munitions is up to 50m. Each drone carried ten munitions. Preliminary researches have showed that the PETN, which is more powerful than RDX, was used as explosive basis in munitions. The PETN is produces by a number of countries, including Ukraine at the Shostkinsky Chemical Plant. This explosive material cannot be produced in an improvised manner or extracted from other munitions.”
Olga Oliker, senior adviser and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The National Interest that some of the Russian accusations seem excessive. “I would also point out that Russia’s statements run counter to the idea that Turkey, Russia, and the US want to be effective about deconfliction and crisis management in Syria,” Oliker said. “One hopes that in a crisis, all parties assume that the other(s) is(are) not trying to start/escalate conflict, and because of that, the system ‘fails safe’ and doesn’t escalate. So even if you wonder if the other guy is helping the group that just attacked you, you don’t immediately start with a public accusation. If the Russians—or Americans, or anyone else—is looking for opportunities to accuse the other party, the chances that the system ‘fails dangerous’ go up.”