Since the Russian armed forces intervened in the Syrian civil war on 29 September 2015, assessments of their military capabilities differ considerably.
To some, the display of Russian firepower and mobility is a fearsome reminder of the increased Russian military capabilities. For others, the limited success of the Russian campaign so far is an indication of the still-faulty military equipment and limited availability of first-rate weaponry leading them to conclude that Russia would be no meaningful military threat to NATO. The Syrian campaign is very different from a war on NATO's eastern frontier making conclusions about Russia's military threat difficult. But some trends are readable.
The pace of Russian airstrikes
The first trend observed is the increase pace of Russian air activity. Figures differ, and one should treat the figures given by the Russian Ministry of Defence with caution. But around - and sometimes over - 1000 (the maximum figure was about 1600) sorties per month are a good estimate. For fighter-bombers or ground-attack aircraft situated close to the front, three sorties per day are considered the maximum that can be sustained over short periods of time. In Soviet times, this tempo could only be sustained on the first few days before dropping to two and then to one sortie a day. After 20 days of fighting, fewer than 60 percent of the planes in a squadron should be operational. Russia operates one squadron of Su-24 and one squadron of Su-25 (each squadron comprising 12 planes) in Syria, but still keeping up a reasonable tempo. Hence the “turn-around-time” (the time needed to check, service, refuel and rearm a plane between the sorties) could be kept short despite the high stress on the planes and two sorties a day can still be flown by most of the aircraft. This proves that Russia could improve its logistical procedures and structures.
There are about 100 to 150 sorties per month flown by aircraft that are not (permanently) stationed in Syria. Most of them are strategic (Tu-160 or Tu-95) or operative bombers (Tu-22M3), but there are also also Su-34 fighter-bombers appearing frequently over Syria. During the 1990s, only 10 percent of Russian fighter and fighter-bomber pilots were able to conduct air-to-air refuelling. However, the frequent appearance of the Su-34 over Syria suggests that at least amongst their squadrons air-to-air refuelling is common as the Su-34 needs to be refuelled in air to shuttle in via the Caspian Sea, Iran and North Iraq. And Russia has only 46 of them.
Guided missiles and smart weapons
The Su-34 is also the most impressive platform when it comes to the use of smart weapons. It deploys both laser and GLONASS (the Russian equivalent of GPS) guided bombs against high-value targets. Despite the fact that it was started by the Soviet Union, GLONASS was declared fully operational only in 2011. Before that, there were insufficient satellites in orbit to allow permanent coverage. Hence, Russia has never tested its GLONASS-guided weapons in any previous conflicts and Syria is a perfect testing ground. It is hard to assess the precision of the system, as few details are known about Russian targeting practices. But as the system uses different bandwidths for its signals, it is more difficult to jam than the US GPS or the European Galileo.
GLONASS or GPS guided weapons are cheaper to produce than any other guided missile and they do not require expensive targeting pods to be carried by the aircraft or a spotter. Hence the availability of the GPS-guided JDAM has paved the way for the “all-smart” air-campaigns the US Air Force conducts. But the Russian fighters predominantly carry “dump” freefall munitions. Scanning the pictures, the Su-25 never carries smart munitions, only cluster-bombs, freefall bombs, and unguided rockets. Su-24 rarely carry them. The Tu-160 and Tu-95 carry cruise-missiles, but the Tu-22M3 was only filmed dropping “dump” freefall bombs. These bombers were formerly naval strike platforms (armed with anti-ship or radar-seeking cruise missiles) and transferred to the air force in 2012 as a dedicated theatre nuclear strike platform. System integration of non-nuclear munitions seems to lag behind schedule. Russian production of smart munitions seems to be too low or too costly to allow an “all-smart” air campaign. In addition, the Russian government seems eager to exploit the political divisions created by the refugee crisis, hence avoiding collateral damage – and hence displaced people – is not the primary concern of the Russian air force.
Russian cruise missiles caught considerable media attention. The Kh-555 and Kh-101 were conventional cold war legacy weapons dropped from Russian strategic bombers. Their terrain-following radars provide about the accuracy of the first generation of US Tomahawk missiles and are able to hit large targets, easily distinguishable by the radar. The naval 3M14T and 3M14K Klub-K launched from gunboats, frigates, cruisers and submarines is a newer weapon. Of 30 cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea on 7 October 2015, only four crashed due to navigational errors (which could have resulted from operator errors as well). This confirms somewhat its reliability. But the terrain-following radar can only hit larger targets: parking lots, storage buildings, supply-dumps and so forth. The strength of the missile is its range (2,500 km) and versatility. It can be fired from small gunboats from protected waters, or from small diesel-electric submarines, which are hard to detect especially in the littorals. As ground-based air-defence systems have become rarer in Europe (because such systems are not needed for expeditionary warfare), Russia could threaten the unprotected European rear from different firing positions armed with such a missile. If nuclear-tipped, it would make a good weapon for blackmailing Europe. And to demonstrate this fact was undoubtedly part of the mission in Syria.
Target gathering and targetting
The biggest unknown on the use of Russian smart munitions are the targeting practices. To have a weapon that can hit a certain building is one thing. To know about who or what is inside is another thing altogether. Tanks, troops, field positions and fortifications are easily recognisable by optical means but it is much more difficult with buildings or civilian cars. Russian drones have a maximum range of 350km from their controlling stations and rely on electro-optical reconnaissance. Russia has a wide array of spy satellites, but only the electro-optical ones provide suitable data in this conflict. They provide pictures roughly twice a day.
There have been no reports of electronic-reconnaissance planes (ELINT, SIGINT) deployed by Russia, although helicopters have been rumoured to carry such equipment. And Russia has deployed several ground-based listening stations across the Assad-held territories. Such equipment is needed to listen to the enemy's communication, track their electronic traffic and hence gather intelligence on the depths and deep organisation of the enemy. Russia's ability to do so seems to be limited, unlike the US, where most of the sorties are flown to gather information deep in enemy territory.
This accords with the observation that Russian air-strikes are confined to the immediate frontline of the Syrian civil war. Russia relies on ground-based intelligence, short-ranged systems, and Assad's secret services to designate targets. It has little information about the rest of the country. Then there is the issue of time frames. To call an air-strike close to the front may take up to an hour from call to actual strike. The cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea need two hours to reach their destination in Syria and once fired, they cannot change target. Airplanes need in-flight updates to change their targets when striking with GLONASS munitions. Voice-contact to ground controllers for dropping dump-bombs is less demanding. This is why even the only targeted killing of an opposition leader conducted by the Russian air force – the assassination of Zahran Alloush, head of the “Army of Islam” on 25 December 2015 – was conducted in the outskirts of Damascus. He was probably tracked by agents on the ground or by other means at the disposal of Assad. With that, the Russians could track him with sufficient accuracy to predict his whereabouts for the time needed to strike. But tracking other top leaders hiding in the depth of rebel or ISIS-controlled territory is something the Russians could not yet do. All this unveils the Russian weakness in expeditionary warfare. But Syria is a theatre Russia so far hasn't trained or prepared to fight in.
Another system that had a considerable impact on the US-led campaign against ISIS was the S-400 “Triumph” air defence system, deployed to Syria end of November. Not only is the nominal range of the system impressive, it also has features that counter previous Western advantages over Soviet air defence systems. First, it is a truly networked system that can process data from a variety of active and passive sensors and radars. In the past, Soviet air defence systems relied on only one fire-control radar, which if destroyed, would render the entire battery useless. Not so with the S-400. Furthermore, the system's main missile 40N6 has a very capable and flexible radar-seeker, that can either search and destroy targets independently after contact to the ground-systems is lost, or lock on jamming systems and destroy them. The “smart” sensor has abilities to analyse targets and threats according to their behaviour. Hence it is much more difficult to deceive, jam or defend against the missile. After MH-17 there is little trust in Russian air-defence crews picking the right target, and no one in the West wants to test whether they would withhold their fire this time. Hence for practical reasons, the US have significantly decreased their air operations over western Syria since the system was deployed.
With the S-400, Russia in practice could enforce its own “no fly zone” against the West. As NATO has not prepared to fight Russia militarily since the end of the cold war, its arsenal of anti-radar weapons has not been further developed. The old systems were effective enough against the Soviet legacy systems found in the arsenal of average Middle East dictators. And while modern electronic warfare systems could easily take care of those systems, taking on an S-400 battery is a different matter and would require a much broader effort – and put a lot of expensive planes at risk of being shot down. This is now a card to play for Russia to decrease the Western diplomatic freedom of action as well, by curtailing its practical means of intervention.
The S-400 is one of many “Anti-Access/Area Denial” weapons Russia developed and deployed to counter the Western technological superiority displayed in the 1990-91 Gulf War. If one S-400 battery can curtail US air operations over Western Syria, what does it say about the ability of the massive militarisation of the Kaliningrad oblast to endanger NATO's defence of the Baltics? While, the US and other allies have more at stake in the Baltics and would be willing to run correspondingly bigger risks, the impact of the S-400 will be significant.
Then again, other parameters shift as well. For Russia, fighting NATO in the Baltics is closer to its own infrastructure and surveillance installations. They have numerous sensors intended to locate NATO's air-defence and command infrastructure – which are useless against ISIS – and which could be brought to bear in such a scenario. NATO forces do not hide amongst the civilian populations, and their high-end equipment has a very different electronic signature than the commercial and civilian equipment used by ISIS. And detecting the former is what Russia's electronic intelligence has specialised in.
However, it is difficult to judge the results of the new electronic war. Even preliminary assessments of Russia's electronic warfare capabilities tend to forget that in peacetime, no reasonable country unveils its full spectrum of its electronic warfare capabilities (both offensive and defensive) in order not to reveal to the opponent their own full capabilities. Hence, no one really yet knows Russia’s abilities should it come to an open conflict.
For Russia, Syria is an uncontested airspace where it can range free, like the West did in various previous Middle Eastern interventions. But NATO airspace would be a contested airspace, where NATO air forces would throw their best at any intruder. In Syria, even modest anti-aircraft capabilities could make life difficult for Russia. The conventional “dumb-bombs” primarily used by Russia in the conflict require an airplane to stay within the range of shoulder-launched air-defence weapons for quite some time, otherwise accuracy drops considerably. In Syria, the US tries to withhold shoulder-launched air-defence weapons from the rebels for the fear they could be sold to terrorists and subsequently used against airliners. But in a scenario against NATO, those weapons are the minimum threat the Russian air-force has to reckon with. And as we can see in Syria, their stocks of smart munitions that would enable then to effectively engage defended targets are very limited.
In the end, Russia’s military engagement in Syria tells us more about Russian limitations in expeditionary warfare than it does about Russia’s ability to conduct a major military operation on NATO’s eastern borders.