Russian Airpower In Syria: An Emphasis On Precision Strike? – Analysis
By Guy Plopsky
The term “precision strike” – often associated with Western airpower – is seldom utilized to favorably describe operations undertaken by the Russian Air Force (RuAF). Indeed, the RuAF holds an abysmal record with regard to the employment of precision guided munitions (PGMs) in combat. During the First and Second Chechen Wars PGMs accounted for just 3 and 1.5% of all munitions employed by the RuAF, respectively. In the 2008 Five Day War with Georgia the figure was even lower, accounting for a mere 0.5% of all munitions utilized. The use of large numbers of unguided weapons throughout these conflicts has often resulted in excessive collateral damage and bad publicity for the Russian military. Yet, this time, Russia appears to be placing greater emphasis on the use of guided munitions during its strikes, which are being conducted as part of its military intervention in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Beginning its strikes against forces opposed to the Assad regime on September 30, Russia’s air campaign over Syria has thus far witnessed a number of different types of PGMs being employed. Perhaps most interestingly, the campaign has seen the RuAF drop satellite guided munitions in combat for the first time. KAB-500S (500kg) bombs can clearly be seen in video footage from Russia’s military airbase in Latakia attached to pylons under the fuselage of Russia’s advanced Su-34 strike fighters. These weapons are guided by GLONASS – the Russian equivalent of the American Global Position System (GPS) – and reportedly offer similar accuracy to the renowned US GPS guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). Unlike electro-optical and laser guided munitions, satellite guided weapons are unaffected by adverse weather conditions and tend to be significantly cheaper than their aforementioned counterparts.
In addition to the KAB-500S, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported on Saturday October 3 that RuAF Su-34s were also supposedly employing smaller 250kg KAB-250 guided munitions in their efforts against ISIS. First revealed to the public in 2011, the KAB-250 offers a combined GLONASS and electro-optical guidance capability, and currently constitutes the smallest PGM in the RuAF’s arsenal, making it useful for accurately engaging a wide range of small targets.
The use of satellite guided munitions marks a major step forward in Russia’s precision strike capability since the 2008 Five Day War during which Russian forces made no use of such weapons as GLONASS was not yet fully operational and as attempts to use the American GPS reportedly failed because the United States had temporarily “blanked out” the map of Georgia (it also remains unclear whether any satellite guided munitions were operational and available to the RuAF in meaningful numbers at the time).
Other PGMs being employed by RuAF Su-24s, Su-25s and Su-34s over Syria reportedly include the Kh-29L and, as evident by this video, Kh-25ML short-range laser-guided air-to-surface missiles, both of which have a maximum range of approximately 10km (6 miles). The Kh-29L’s large 500kg warhead makes it effective against a wide range of targets including command centers and storage depots, while the much lighter Kh-25ML is useful against small and mobile targets. Video footage released by the Russian MoD of RuAF strikes against a munitions depot near Maarrat al-Nu’man also suggests the use of KAB-500Kr electro-optically guided bombs in the strikes. Finally, RuAF aircraft operating over Syria have demonstrated the ability to deliver unguided munitions – or “dumb bombs” – with relatively high accuracy, as evident by an October 3 video released by the Russian MoD portraying an alleged Su-34 strike on a hardened ISIS command center near the terror group’s stronghold of Raqqa using BETAB-500 unguided bunker-busting bombs that appear to hit their target.
Commenting on the aftermath of a large number of RuAF strikes across Syria, Russian MoD spokesman, Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, stated that “the targeting systems of those planes allows for hitting ground targets with absolute precision…” The statement, complementing numerous videos from Russian aircraft released by the MoD which exhibit the alleged “absolute precision” of these strikes, is part of an aggressive Russian PR campaign aimed at consolidating support for Russian operations in Syria and creating the image of a powerful and modern Russian military. Yet, as many Western analysts have correctly noted, footage from strikes conducted on September 30 appears to show the bombs missing their targets – on one occasion even by a wide margin. This serves as a stark reminder that, despite being able to occasionally deliver unguided munitions relatively accurately (as was the case in the October 3 example above), employing unguided weapons effectively is much more difficult and riskier than PGMs.
More recent footage released by the Russian MoD appears to show munitions hitting their targets with much higher accuracy and suggests a greater use of PGMs; however, aircraft bombing with large numbers of unguided munitions continue to be a common sight. While employing unguided weapons in large quantities may be an effective approach of combating ISIS and other insurgency in open areas where the risk of collateral damage is low, it is unsuitable for densely populated areas where a bomb falling short of its mark may lead to excessive casualties. Nor does this approach contribute to the prestige of the Russian military; as USAF Deputy Chief for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Lt. Gen. Robert P. Otto, remarked with regard to Russian strikes on October 1: “To me, it was representative of what you’d expect from dumb bombs, being dropped from airplanes at medium altitudes, which is not that impressive.”
Another interesting aspect of Russia’s air campaign in Syria is the apparent more extensive use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for conducting battle damage assessment (BDA) and other ISR tasks – a major step forward from the Chechen Wars during which UAVs saw only limited use, and the Five Day War during which Russian UAVs were not used at all. However, the UAVs being utilized appear to be 1990s designs; very basic and outdated by Western standards. Similarly, the RuAF’s targeting pods are not up to the standard of their Western counterparts either, thereby making the acquisition and identification of targets more difficult for Russian pilots, particularly at night.
The RuAF currently enjoys the luxury of operating in a permissive air space and relying on its own ground assets as well as friendly forces in the form of the Syrian Army and Iranian troops for assistance with coordinating strikes. But, beyond Russia’s counter-insurgency operation in Syria, how will the RuAF and its equipment perform in combat against a more capable adversary in a medium or highly-contested environment? This is a question Western observers, Russian allies, and potential buyers of Russian arms are all asking. Bombing targets accurately with unguided munitions in contested environments under extremely stressful and challenging combat conditions is not a feasible option. Nor is possible to conduct ISR missions in such environments with Russia’s current unmanned aerial assets.
Likewise, while older RuAF aircraft taking part in the strikes – the Su-24M2 and the Su-25SM – are heavily modernized variants of 1960s and 1970s designs fitted with advanced Russian avionics, a large portion of aircraft in service with the RuAF remain outdated (despite extensive ongoing modernization efforts) and lack the means to accurately deliver unguided munitions or carry a wide assortment of PGMs. It also remains questionable whether Russia will be capable of sustaining this ambitious modernization effort – aimed at modernizing 70% its equipment by 2020 – considering the extensive ongoing strains on the Russian economy. Consequently, while the current operation does indicate a significant improvement over previous experiences in Chechnya and Georgia, it is perhaps a little early to welcome the RuAF into the precision strike club.
*Guy Plopsky is a GIIASS graduate and a researcher at the Center for Advanced Technology, Tamkang University (Taiwan).