Does the Russian Air Force Even Know What Is Going On in Syria?
The Kremlin either has poor military intelligence or different — and far more disturbing — priorities in mind
by TOM COOPER
Russia has indiscriminately targeted civilians since it intervened in Syria more than a year ago. It’s all part of a clear strategy to eradicate competing forms of governance and civil society in insurgent-controlled territory.
Russia did not invent this method of warfare, but exercised it in Chechnya and now Syria. Deliberate, sustained air strikes on municipal buildings, schools, hospitals, food storage warehouses and water supply systems aim to render the opposition’s efforts at governing useless, to spread fear within local population, force it to flee and thus disconnect it from insurgent groups.
However, Russia’s application of what is euphemistically known as “counter-value” doctrine in Syria was never as obvious as it was during October 2016.
That month, massed columns of insurgents with the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al Fateh, or JAF coalition, moved out from across Idlib Governorate toward Aleppo. Additional JAF columns carrying supplies flowed freely in the same direction from near the Turkish border.
Russian warplanes were nowhere in sight.
Then on Oct. 25, a large column of the Free Syrian Army’s Central Division moved openly through Idlib toward Aleppo — indicating little concern about possible air strikes.
Meanwhile, the Russian Aerospace Forces, or “VKS” in its Russian acronym, continued bombing densely populated neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo and various towns in Idlib, inflicting heavy civilian casualties.
On Oct. 26, two days before the JAF launched a major offensive on Syrian positions in western Aleppo with the aim of lifting the siege of an estimated 275,000 civilians and 11,000 insurgents, Russian aircraft bombed a school in Hass, Idlib — killing at least 22 children and six teachers in one of the worst single attacks on civilians in Syria in more than a year.
The Syrian Arab Air Force has behaved differently. On the same day as the Hass school bombing, the SyAAF attacked the headquarters of Faylaq Homs — a Free Syrian Army group active within the Ra’astan-Talbiseh Pocket in northern Homs Governorate.
The attack resulted in the deaths of four Faylaq Homs commanders, including the group’s leader, Col. Shoqi Ayoub Abo Ibrahim, and his deputy, Lt. Col. Faysal Awdh.
Also on Oct. 26, an interesting photograph surfaced on the Internet showing the Assadist military commander of Aleppo, Maj. Gen. Zaid Saleh, with Mohammad Jaber, commander of the notorious Desert Falcons militia.
Behind the officers was a map revealing the Syrian army’s intelligence regarding JAF positions and planning in western Aleppo. Clearly visible on the map were blue arrows — denoting insurgent planning — pointing through Al Assad District, Districts 1070 and 3000, in the direction of the city’s besieged eastern half.
Besides once again confirming Russia’s preferred targets in the war, these events raise an important question. To what extent does the Russian military possess real, actionable, battlefield intelligence in Syria?
Good, reliable intelligence is the key to success in any conflict. And to be sure, the Kremlin has attempted to acquire it by several means.
First, Russia has disclosed the deployment of reconnaissance satellites to monitor Syria’s battlefields. National Defense, a Russian military newspaper, has also described Russia’s doctrine in Syria as “network-centric warfare,” a military theory which emphasizes intelligence gathering and advanced communications technology to quickly locate and destroy enemy forces.
Russia’s “network” in Syria includes at least one Ilyushin Il-20M reconnaissance plane based at Hmeymim, and around 70 surveillance drones ranging from large Yakovlev Pchela-1s to small Orlan-10s, Eleron-3SVs and Granat-4s.
After five years of war, there’s still life in the battered air arm
Russia has also periodically reinforced its spy aircraft with a Tupolev Tu-214R, the most advanced reconnaissance aircraft in Russian service. And there is no doubt that the Kremlin has deployed ground-based forward air controllers — specialized troops who coordinate with aircraft during bombing runs.
But here’s the problem. The VKS has consistently failed to deliver major blows to the command nodes and top commanders of Syria’s rebel armies … nor hit the leaders of Jabhat Fateh Al Sham and the Islamic State. The Kremlin has likewise repeatedly failed to detect and interdict major rebel movements.
In late February 2016, a Tu-214R flying high above Aleppo failed to detect a large concentration of Islamic State fighters approaching across the desert toward the road connecting Khan Nassir with Aleppo.
Because of this failure, the jihadists not only mauled several minor loyalist units controlling the area, but severed the only supply route for 20,000 Syrian soldiers and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps members for nearly a week.
Meanwhile, Syrian loyalist sources stressed that air strikes on rebel leaders — such as the Faylaq Homs headquarters, and the December 2015 targeted killing of Jaysh Al Islam leader Zahran Alloush — were specifically carried out by the SyAAF, not the Russian VKS.
Furthermore, the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate obtained the targeting intelligence for both the Faylaq Homs and Jaysh Al Islam strikes, and forwarded that information to the bomber crews via radio. The VKS proved unable to divert any of its own aircraft to these targets when they appeared.
Finally, the same sources claimed that Russian intelligence gathering capabilities in Syria are insufficient, pressuring the SyAAF to send its Su-22M-4Ks equipped with 40-year-old KKR-1 pods — equipped with old, analog film cameras — to fly reconnaissance for the Russian air force.
Such experiences raise important questions, namely — what is Russia’s military intelligence in Syria actually doing? It does not appear to collect much intelligence on the Islamic State, as Russian aircraft carried out fewer than a dozen air strikes on the extremist group during all of October 2016.
It is obviously not collecting much intelligence on any of Syria’s major rebel groups, nor on the Al Qaida-linked JFS. And it is either ignoring or completely missing every major re-deployment of the forces Moscow has officially declared to be its enemies.
Perhaps the Kremlin is still working out how to actually wage network-centric warfare, or alternatively, considers the term to mean something entirely different in practice.