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“Syrian Express”: Russia has to build up its strike force

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. Photo by Defense Ministry’s press office

Three weeks after Russia launched air strikes in Syria, we can see a freakish combination of stirring comments of the Russian command with daring statements on destruction of key military targets of the militants and disappointment of “ordinary observers” at modest offensive of “ham-handed Arabs.” The statements of the first look like clumsy propaganda, while the disappointment of the second is based on misreports.

Let’s start with the scope of the tasks and duration of their fulfillment. How do the military actions look in such “urbanized” and densely populated area with not that simple landscape?

Here is the nearest example. Chechnya features a “rectangle” extending 170km from north to south and 100km from west to east.  Mountains occupy 35% of the total territory. The population is almost entirely concentrated in the lowland and foothills. In 1999, the population totaled 1.16 million people.

The number of federal forces involved in the active phase of the second Chechen war was 80,000 people. They fought against 22,000 (by official data) militants. However, as far as one can judge, at least half as many were in fact engaged in the active phase of the military actions. Nevertheless, it took the federal army five months to take the main territory of the republic under control and drive the militants from the last large populated area. 

For instance, Grozny with the pre-war number of the population - 399,000 people – and the corresponding size was taken under control within five weeks. According to the most detailed assessment of Gennady Troshev, 3,000 militants fought against 17,500-strong unit of the federal forces. At the moment of Basayev’s retreat from Grozny, the troops controlled less than half of the city’s territory.  Combat assault of Karamakhi, a Wahhabi enclave in Dagestan, with population of 5,000 people took two weeks. In other words, the fight in the densely populated area against hard-fought adversary armed with sufficient armor-defeating weapons is a long “process.”

Now, let us look into Syria.  The territory of Idlib province, entirely occupied by ‘moderate terrorists,’ is about three times as small as Chechnya.  However, it is comparable to Chechnya with the pre-war (and current) population. The area is mountainous. The pre-war population of Jobar, a district in Damascus, was about 300,000 people. The district features a combination of industrial zones and multi-story blocks. The number of the “garrison” is estimated at 5,000 people (the figure is traditionally exaggerated, however, there were several thousands, anyway). Aleppo – the city alone – is six times as large as Grozny.  In other words, the scope of the tasks set to the Syrian army and Russia’s Aerospace Forces is much higher than the one in Chechnya.

Now, let us have a look at the forces that implement these tasks.  Russia’s aerospace division in Syria comprises 50 aircrafts, including 30 fighter jets. Actually, the number of air missions that exceeds 80 during peak hours usually does not exceed 60. The total number of the anti-governmental groups reaches about 50,000-60,000, according to most common estimates.  The territory under control of the rebels is rather large.

On this scale, Russia’s operation looks extremely “compact.” For comparison, 282 strike aircrafts were used in the bombing of Yugoslavia that did not even help to neutralize the Yugoslavian group in Kosovo. Later, the number of the aircraft was increased to 639. In the operation against Libya, about one hundred striking aircrafts made 8,941 combat missions.

It was the West’s operations against “full-fledged states.” However, in Chechnya too, the number of the daily combat missions in the active phase of the operation reached 200.

It must be said that the Western model of the air offensive implies the use of cruise missiles that efficiently supplement classical air strikes. Such missiles were used, indeed. Let us see if such supplements can be effective in our operation.

Modified “Kalibr” missiles (3M14) to strike stationary targets are approximate analogues of “Tomahawk”  (with some nuances – as the Russian torpedo launchers are longer – they are used to launch also cruise missiles (8.44m versus 6.25m of Western torpedo launchers), the Russian rockets are by two meters longer too. Actually, one cruise missile is equivalent to one aerial bomb. Overall, 26 Russian cruise missiles were launched from the Caspian Sea against 11 targets. 

First and forecast, the use of Kalibr missiles is connected with the limited opportunities of the Aerospace group deployed in the country.  Actually, when preparing for offensive, it was necessary to supplement the air strikes with the launch of cruise missiles from warships.  The propaganda effect was used too.

The number of the missiles launched from the warships in the Caspian Sea was close to the full salvo fire– 32 missiles - of the flotilla.

As to the Black Sea Fleet, it has been recently replenished with two small missile-carrier ships similar to the ones in the Caspian Sea.  It comprises also Novorossiysk submarine equipped with Kalibr missiles that is able to fire at once four missiles.  A similar to submarine Rostov-on-Don will arrive at Novorossiysk in December.  Two Project 11356 escort vessels are at the stage of testing.  The capacity of launching cruise missiles from the warships in the south is not big so far.

The ammunition is not sufficient either. 56.7% of equipment at Novator Design Bureau - the producer of Kalibr cruise missiles – is at least 20-year-old.  The company is being modernized currently, but will inevitable face difficulties caused by sanctions. The production problems and limited supply will cost high.  Import of similar cruise missiles to India cost $6.3 million “per piece”.

It is of course to be understood that the launch of 26 missiles is in fact not an extraordinary action. During the Yugoslavia war, 298 missiles were launched from warships and aircrafts. While during the war in Libya, 110 “Tomahawk” cruise missiles were launched in a day.

In other words, an efficient support to the offensive of the Syrian army with the strikes of cruise missiles is impeded.  The number of the combat missions hardly makes up one third of what we could see at the active phase of the operation in Chechnya. Yet, the number is not equal to the quality, and the air strikes are much more efficient now comparing to the times when Pchela unmanned aerial vehicles with its weak features looked a high technology weapon. Nevertheless, the capabilities of the current group are lower than necessary.

At the same time, there are no doubts that the launched offensive of the governmental troops will not be efficient without powerful air strikes.

The Syrian government troops comprise about 150,000 people, with the rebels numbering about 100,000 are only capable of controlling the territory.  Perhaps, the number of the troops involved in the offensive is for certain smaller than the 80,000 used in Chechnya. Despite this, they try to attack at once from four sides.

As to the technical level, the 4th assault corps that had been formed in Latakia for a long period of time and was not used in the operation in parts despite the uneasy situation, in fact, experiences quite serious problems with equipment. Obsolescent tanks that are actually ‘transparent’ for the armor defeating weapons of the militants and the extremely different and archaic tube artillery speak of the exhausting reserves. Theoretically, the destroyed hardware can be replaced promptly, unlike the lost qualified crews (it is noteworthy that most of the pre-war career-service troopers were killed during the previous years of that protracted war).

Meantime, the Syrian Army fights against the group of militants that is several times larger than the one fighting in the ‘second’ war in Chechnya.  The Syrian ‘opposition’ is much better armed with armor defeating weapons than their ‘colleagues’ on Chechnya.   The use of armor defeating weapons in the Caucasus was a rare thing even during the first operation, while during the second one there were no such cases at all. Meantime, in Syria hundreds of armor defeating weapons are used. Judging from the statements of the main supporters of the Syrian ‘opposition’ –such as Qatar that threatened with military intervention a few days ago, on October 22 – the arms supply will be continued.

Actually, the offensive will hardly be efficient unless Russia expands its military presence, as the capacity of the operating airfield Khmeimim is about 50 fighter jets. Consequently, Moscow has to choose between fruitless operation with all the geopolitical and reputational losses and a larger-scale intervention. 

The current military build-up of Russia was most probably planned as the first wave of the “expeditionary” activity. Baghdad-based Al-Raid newspaper reported referring to the local coordination center that the Russian Aerospace Force command looks to increase the number of combat missions to 200, which requires at least tripling of the number of troops. It could be regarded as a newspaper hoax, but for a range of features of future military build-up.

First, the activity of “the Syrian Express” has increased. On October 17, at once two landing ships – Nikolay Filchenkov and Saratov passed through Bosporus.  Yamal and Korolyov  landing ships passed on October 21 and 23, respectively. Western sources report “passenger” traffic spurt at Syrian ports – the cost of cargo carrier freight to Syria has increased by one quarter.

Second, the Fleet is purchasing carriages – reliable information. Eight units were purchased from Turkey. Simultaneously, they are urgently hiring crews for the new carriages.  Theoretically, this “line” of the express will enable dispatching about 1,000 tons of cargoes to Syria daily.

Third, there is certain activation in the air fleet in Crimea.

There is an impression that the ongoing offensive may pursue, first of all, extension of the network of bases that can be used and maintained safely. For instance, liquidation of the insurgent enclave in the north of Homs will enable among others to supply the big military base deployed in the suburbs.  The military actions in the east of Aleppo look to break into the besieged base.  

For conclusion: without further military build-up and arms supply, it is impossible to make significant progress.  Russia will most probably continue its military build-up in Syria, but the successes will not be rapid anyway. The worst option will be half-measures, overstate requirements to allies, and hasty curtailment of the operation in case there was no rapid success.

EADaily Middle East Bureau

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