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Russian military capabilities and intentions – in Syria and beyond
In 2015, the government of the Russian Federation embarked its military forces on an intervention in Syria. Ever since, there has been no end of discussions about Russian military capabilities and intentions – in Syria and beyond.
To many, the performance of the Russian military – and especially the Russian Air-Space Force (VKS) – in this war was a clear demonstration of advanced technology, improved training, fearsome firepower, and great mobility.
To others, the military operation only experienced limited success and exposed a number of weaknesses. Foremost amongst the latter are aircraft ill-suited to the necessities of expeditionary warfare, and a gross lack of advanced weaponry and equipment.
As told by Tom Cooper in his book Moscow’s Game of Poker Russian Military Intervention in Syria, 2015-2017, within a fortnight of their deployment to Syria, VKS Su-24s and Su-30SMs violated Turkish airspace at least three times: once on 3, once on 4, and once on Oct. 6, 2015. Moreover, one of the Su-30SMs had locked-on its radar on a Lockheed-Martin F-16C Fighting Falcon interceptor of the Turkish Air Force (Turk Havva Kuvvetleri, THK), underway north of the border, for a full 5 minutes and 40 seconds. In another case, on Oct.6 , a Su-30SM had locked on a THK F-16C for 4 minutes and 30 seconds.
In modern military flying, such behaviour is considered not only reckless, but outright an aggressive action. Unsurprisingly, Ankara reacted with fierce protests, even more so when a Russian mini-UAV was either shot down or crashed on its territory, on Oct. 10, 2015.
10 radio warnings
On the morning of Nov. 24, 2015 around 0942hrs local time, early warning radars of the THK detected the take-off of two unknown aircraft from Hmeimim AB. Widely separated, these climbed to an altitude of 5,791m (19,000ft) and entered an orbit above the town of Jishr ash-Shughour: one circling south of the southern-most tip of the Turkish border, the other nearly 10 kilometres further east. Because – contrary to agreements between Ankara and Moscow from Oct. 15, 2015 – the Russians did not announce this mission close to the Turkish border, the THK was thus unaware of the nationality of the two aircraft. As these went into action, and approached the border, and then flew an orbit parallel to it, over the following five minutes the THK issued 10 radio warnings on both of the agreed frequencies, demanding them to divert south.
Turkish F-16 fires one AIM-120C missile from BVR
When the Russians failed to react, and then took a course in the direction of Turkish airspace, a pair of F-16Cs airborne on a CAP station over the northern Hatay was issued clearance to open fire. Therefore, as the two unknown aircraft approached Turkey, the F-16s went into action. The first unknown aircraft had briefly crossed Turkish airspace before turning south, but did so before THK’s interceptors were in a position to open fire. The eastern unknown aircraft followed in fashion: shortly before it entered the Turkish airspace, the lead F-16 fired one AIM-120C missile from beyond visual range.
AIM-120 fired under difficult circumstances
Relative to Turkish F-16s, the two unknown aircraft were up-sun, between 15 and 20 kilometres away and thus ‘invisible’ (THK’s ROEs for such cases did not require a visual identification). Thus, the firing of the AIM-120 was, de-facto, a snap-shot, taken under difficult circumstances as the target was moving perpendicular to the F-16s: most pulse-Doppler radars – including the APG-68s installed on THK’s F-16Cs – have a problem with tracking targets under such circumstances because of the well-known issue with the so-called ‘Doppler shift’. Nevertheless, the missile proximity fused closely underneath its target, spraying its fuselage and wing with shrapnel.
F-16 shot down Su-24
Streaming burning fuel, what transpired to be a Sukhoi Su-24M2 (‘Bort 83′) of the VKS flipped out of control and plunged towards the ground. The aircraft crashed into the hills about two kilometres south of the Turkish border, approximately at GPS-coordinates 35° 51′ 37.64″ N, 36°00’ 17.98″ E. The crew, consisting of Lieutenant-Colonel Oleg Peshkov and Captain Konstantin Muratkin, ejected but were almost immediately taken under fire by a group of jihadists that were Turkish citizens and members of the Turkish ultra-nationalist organisation ‘Grey Wolves’, which sided with the al-Qaeda-linked Jahhat an-Nusra. It is generally assessed that these killed Peshkov with machine-gun fire while he was still under the parachute: an act that, if ever confirmed, would constitute a war crime.
Obviously uncertain about how to react, the Russian Hmeimim AB were slow in launching a combat search and rescue (CSAR) operation. This was initiated only three hours later, when the VKS deployed two pairs of helicopters to search for the downed crew: each comprised one Mi-8ATMSh-V CSAR helicopter, escorted by a single Mi-24. In the course of this operation, the Mi-8 Bort 252 was hit by ground fire and to forced to make an emergency landing at GPS-coordinates 35° 40′ 54.10” N, 36° 4′ 47.50″ E.
One of 12 crewmembers and Russian Marines on board, Private Aleksander Pazynich, was shot in the neck killed. Shortly after the helicopter was evacuated, it was destroyed by a TOW ATGM of the 1st Coastal Division Free Syrian Army (FSyA). The crew of the downed helicopter, and Captain Muratkin were subsequently extracted with the help of a team of 12 Syrian and 6 Hezbollah special forces operators.
Russia, Turkey and NATO on the verge of an armed conflict
The downing of the VKS Su-24M on Nov. 24, 2015 not only put Russia and Turkey – and thus NATO – on the verge of an armed conflict, but prompted Moscow into an all-out propaganda offensive. The Turkish decision to open fire at aircraft that violated the Turkish airspace for ‘only about two kilometres’ and a duration of ‘only 17 seconds’ was declared an ‘aggressive overreaction’, while Putin declared it a ‘stab in the back’. Turkish attempts to contact the crew before opening fire were all denied, and a fake story about F-16s violating Syrian airspace to down the Su-24 with the help of AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range missiles launched instead: ironically, this proved so ill-devised, that the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defence in Moscow were forced to correct it several times.
Moscow’s sanctions against Ankara
Moreover, Moscow imposed damaging economic sanctions against Ankara, and then opened a campaign of isolating the Turkish government on the international stage. Ably supported not only by the ill-advised actions of the government of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but also diverse of his opponents in the EU and NATO, this plot proved highly successful.
The direct, military-related consequences of the downing of the Russian Su-24 by Turkish F-16s were actually limited – and principally related to the fact that many of the adored high-tech weapons supposedly used by the VKS in Syria have either never entered production, or were at least never purchased by the Russian General Staff (GenStab, equivalent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff) but only sold to export customers.
The best example of this was the lack of R-77 (ASCC-code ‘AA-12 Adder’) active radar homing air-to-air missiles. Although famed in public for decades, and widely exported, these were never acquired by the VKS: the MOD lacked the money to buy any, and the loss of control over Ukraine forced it to order their production in Russia, starting in 2016. Thus, until late November 2015, even the famed Su-30SMs and Su-34s deployed at Hmeimim AB were still armed with obsolete R-27R/T (ASCC-code ‘AA-10 Alamo’) and R-73 (ASCC-code ‘AA-11 Archer’) air-to-air missiles. While a batch of R-77 was eventually acquired from an unknown source (possibly from SyAAF’s stocks), the air defences of Hmeimim AB to be bolstered through the addition of the cutting-edge S-400 SAM-system (ASCC-code `SA-21 Growler’), deployed with help of An-124 transports, on Nov. 26, 2015.
Su-34s deployed to Hmeimim AB
Much more important proved the decision to deploy at least four Su-34s to Hmeimim AB, by Dec. 6, followed by four Su-24s and then at least four Mi-35M attack helicopters, late the same month. Finally, in January 2016, the VKS sent four of its brand-new Sukhoi Su-35S multi-role fighters to Syria. From the point of view of Moscow, but also its military commanders in Syria additional airframes were urgently necessary.
While there is no doubt the `fire-power demonstrations’ of October and November 2015 and associated propaganda campaigns have left lasting impressions upon numerous Western observers and reluctant politicians, the reality was that it fell short of desired effects. Therefore, the decision was reached to not only ‘avenge’ the loss of the Su-24, but outright ‘punish’ Turkey – widely, through wrongly, declared a being primary supporter of extremist Islamic terrorism in Syria – by expanding and intensifying the bombardment of civilians in parts of Syria controlled by the insurgency.
Moscow’s Game of Poker Russian Military Intervention in Syria, 2015-2017 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Robert Sullivan / U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy