SYRIA |TWO YEARS OF “RUSSIAN INTERVENTION” |Tu-22M3|su25|su23|su34|Tu-95|KALIBR CRUISE MISSILE| MI-24 Hind | Sukhoi Su-30sm
When Russian aircraft were first spotted at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria, the initial stunned Western reaction, due to the failure of intelligence agencies to anticipate or predict this major operation, soon gave way to predictions Russia was involving itself in an unwinnable quagmire that would surely end in humiliating defeat. Two years later, even though the final outcome of the war in Syria is still unclear, and in spite of the human and material losses suffered by Russian forces in that conflict, it is clear the operation was a remarkable success in both military and political terms.
The most visible aspect of Russia’s aid to the Syrian government has been the steady parade of new or modernized weapons systems on various battlefields in that country. This war was the baptism by fire for the Su-34 tactical bomber, the Su-30SM and Su-35 fighters, and a means to test the modernized older aircraft. Heavy bombers of the Long-Range Aviation also mark, striking enemy targets with both bombs and advanced Kh-555 and Kh-101 cruise missiles.
Operations in Syria gave Russian Aerospace Forces the opportunity to test its ability to sustain a relatively high sortie rate over a prolonged period of time, rotate most of its aircrews through the theater of war, and also explore the strengths and limitations of its reconnaissance and target acquisition systems necessary to fully exploit the strike capabilities of its aircraft.
Other branches of service have also had a similar opportunity to test equipment in demanding wartime conditions. The ongoing modernization of Russia’s tank fleet and the final development of the T-14 and other members of the Armata family will no doubt benefit from the experience gathered with the T-90 and T-72B3 MBTs in Syria where, unlike their Aerospace Forces brethren, they actually had to face modern weapons in the form of TOW-2A ATGMs supplied by the US and its allies to a variety of jihadist formations.
Finally, the Navy’s contributions included corvette-, frigate-, and submarine-launched Kalibr cruise missile strikes, and the somewhat less impressive sortie of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean during which it lost two aircraft to accidents.
Collectively, the use of a wide range of hardware in the Syrian conflict not only exposed the strengths and weaknesses of its weapons systems, it also raised the attractiveness of Russian weapons on the international arms markets. Russian weapons have been once again proven themselves to be rugged, dependable, and effective. For example, while the world has now seen burned-out hulks of M1 Abrams and even Leopard 2 MBTs dismembered by internal explosions, the T-90 has demonstrated considerable resilience against modern AT weapons. And even weapons that did not have to fire a shot, like the S-400 air defense systems, demonstrated they can hold US and NATO airpower at bay.
Somewhat less visible are the doctrinal changes brought about by the experience gained during fighting in Syria. This conflict may be viewed as a blueprint for future proxy conflicts between the growing number of nuclear-armed powers fought by a mix of professional soldiers and irregular militias backed by airpower and cruise missiles. Moreover, the war in Syria reinforced the trend evident in earlier conflicts, namely the polarization of warfare into the two extremes of lightning war of maneuver in a low force-density environment, and grinding urban warfare decided not by technology but by preponderance of foot soldiers backed by brute firepower.