Moscow – Russia’s air campaign in Syria marked the first time since the 1991 collapse of the USSR when Moscow launched a military action outside the borders of the former Soviet Union. By launching the air strikes, President Vladimir Putin has sought to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose grip on power had been eroded by a series of losses earlier this year, and also to secure Russia’s clout in the Middle East.
He has achieved at least some of his goals. The Syrian military, backed by Hezbollah militia and the Iranian forces, has launched offensives in several areas and won back some ground. And Russia’s military action has forced the U.S. to coordinate its campaign in Syria and Iraq with Moscow, increasing Moscow’s global influence. The air campaign in Syria also has offered Russia a chance to test some of its new weapons in actual combat for the first time. It has demonstrated that a costly arms upgrade that has been under way for the last few years has sharply increased the Russian military capability.
RUSSIAN AIR BASE IN SYRIA
Russia launched its air campaign in Syria on Sept.30, immediately after Putin’s visit to the United Nations General Assembly where he called for stronger global efforts in fighting the ISIL. The military has deployed about 50 warplanes and helicopters to the Hemeimeem airbase in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, the heartland of Assad’s Alawite minority. The base, located about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the border with Turkey, has provided a safe environment for the Russian planes.
Russia has deployed four types of jets to the base: the Su-24 and the Su-34 bombers, the Su-25 ground attack aircraft and the Su-30 fighter jets. The Su-24 and the Su-25 are Soviet-designed aircraft, which saw an extensive use during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Both designs have received a major upgrade as part of Putin’s military modernization program. They have been fitted with state-of-the art control systems and modern precision weapons. The Su-30 and the Su-34 are more modern designs, which were developed after the Soviet collapse and entered the Russian air force service only recently. Based on the Su-27 fighter, they have a long range and heavy weapon load, allowing them to serve a variety of roles.
The Russian warplanes at Hemeimeem have demonstrated a remarkable tempo of action, each flying up to three combat sorties a day, a tough challenge for both the hardware and the air force personnel. Each day, a large share of combat missions was flown at night. The Russian air force hadn’t suffered any casualties until Nov. 24, when a Su-24 bomber was shot down at the border with Turkey by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet. Its crew of two bailed out successfully, but the pilot was shot dead in the air by militants as he was descending on parachute. A Russian marine was also killed and a Russian helicopter was destroyed by militants on a mission to rescue the second pilot, who was eventually saved and brought back to the base.
Turkey said it shot down the Russian bomber after it violated its airspace for 17 seconds despite repeated warnings, while Russia insisted that the plane remained in Syria’s airspace and received no warnings. Putin responded to what he described as a “treacherous blow in the back” by Turkey by deploying the long-range S-400 air defense missile systems to the Russian base in Syria. The S-400 is capable of shooting down planes and missiles within a 400-kilometer range, effectively covering most of Turkey’s territory.
Russia also deployed its missile cruiser Moskva, equipped with equally potent Fort air defense missiles near the Syrian shore, further raising the threat for the Turkish air force. To add to the arsenal at the Hemeimeem base, the Russian military sent the state-of-the -art Krasukha-4 electronic warfare systems there. While its characteristics haven’t been revealed, it’s reportedly capable of jamming enemy radars within a 300-kilometer range. Clearly impressed, Turkey responded by suspending its military flights near the Syrian border.