Russian Weapons of the Syrian War

(Damascus) The eight-year conflict in Syria has witnessed the use of a vast array of traditional, modernized as well as high grade weaponry in the fight against ISIS, Al Nusra (the new version of al Qaeda in Syria) and other terrorist organisations and militias. The vast arsenal at the disposal of warrying parties in Syria is impressive in its potential destructive power.

In a series of three articles, I shall try to shed some light on the main armaments and munitions that have been deployed or physically used in the Syrian war by the Russia, the United States-led coalition, Turkey, Israel, the Syrian Army, as well as those used by terrorists and anti-government forces.

Russia entered the Syria conflict in September 2015, at the request of the Syrian government, and set up its main military base in Khmeimim, near the Mediterranean city of Latakia, in addition to its naval base in the nearby port city of Tartous. During the past four years, Moscow has deployed, showcased or tested some of its best weaponry and military innovations, including Karasukha, Russia’s most advanced electronic warfare jamming system, the balance-breaking air and defence system S300, 5th generation fighter jets, Kaliber cruise missiles destroyers and the notorious Iskander-M ballistic missile.

Russian Air Platforms, Missiles and Bombs

Russia has deployed a mix of upgraded Soviet-era aircraft, as well as the latest and greatest in Russian aviation, including 2 of the latest Su-57s, 12 Su-24M2s, 12 Su-25SMs and Su-25 UBMs, four Su-30SMs, and six Su-34s. The bulk of this force is made up of tactical bombers and ground attack aircraft, with Su-30SM multirole fighters providing air cover, presumably against any other air force in the region.

Two of the Russian air force’s twin-tail, twin-engine Su-57 prototypes, the crown jewel of Russia’s aircraft industry, spent two days at Khmeimim Air Base in western Syria. The deployment startled observers when it was first reported by social media users on the ground near Khmeimim.

A Russian surveillance and control Il-20 aircraft was accidentally shot down during an Israeli raid on Latakia, Syria last September, killing all 15 crew on board, as it was returning to the Russian base in Khmeimim.

Russia has been using Mi-24P helicopters in strafing enemy positions at low altitude while firing off flares to avoid being hit by man portable surface-to-air missiles. Syria has become a debut of sorts for Russia’s tactical aviation. Despite its visible limitations, watching footage from Russian drones of relatively accurate nighttime airstrikes in Syria is almost science fiction compared to what the Russian air force was capable of as recently as 2008.

Explosive Weapons Usage

The Syria campaign has seen Russia use a mix of unguided and precision-guided munitions (PGMs), though the latter appear to have been used more sparingly. Syria was the first time that Russia used its new smart munition technology, including the GLONASS system, Russia’s rival to GPS.

Although new and upgraded aircraft, such as Su-34s, carry guided air-to-ground weaponry, including KAB-500S bombs, the bulk of sorties have been flown by Su-24 and Su-25 jets, which are mostly armed with unguided munitions. Russian forces in Syria employ an array of guided and unguided weaponry. While deploying some precision-guided munitions, such as the KAB-500S GPS/GLONASS-guided bomb or the Kh-25ML laser-guided missile, the bulk of Russian munitions are believed to be unguided gravity bombs and high-fragmentation bombs of the OFAB 250-270 variety. These unguided munitions are supplemented by BETAB-M bunker busting munitions against buildings and RBK-500-SPBE-D cluster munitions against enemy vehicles and tanks.

Russian Ground Units

In addition to its aerial assets in Syria, Russia deployed a Pantsir-S1 air defense system, around a dozen tanks (allegedly the T-90A), and naval infantry. Russian tanks and infantry appear detailed to base defense, while Russian artillery and helicopters are engaged in supporting the ground offensive

Russian Sea Power

Led by the Black Sea Fleet, Russia’s Mediterranean squadron is providing extended air defense off the Syrian coast. This squadron consists of roughly ten ships on rotation, most of which are landing, support, or intelligence vessels, along with four surface combatants. The Slava-class missile cruiser Moskva provides the bulk of the firepower and capability of this fleet, including a naval variant of the S-300 air defense system.

Russia’s Caspian Flotilla, armed with rather capable Buyan-M-class corvettes and Gepard-class frigates, fired Kaliber-NK (3M-14T) land attack cruise missiles into Syria on numerous occasions. Ships based in Crimea will be replaced with several new frigates, corvettes, and an improved Kilo-class submarine squadron. Other boutique capabilities fielded include electronic warfare systems, such as the Krasukha-4, which can jam enemy drones or aircraft over Syrian airspace.

Russia seems to have restored competence and capability to many sections of its ailing defence industry, through rigid military reforms, a large modernization effort, and a relentless exercise program supervised and monitored by president Putin personally. Moreover, Russian missile technology has not only reached parity, but in some areas leapfrogged that of Western counterparts.