The authors assess the strengths, weaknesses, and adaptations of Russian airpower in the Syrian civil war by examining operational histories, airstrikes, and disposition of Russian aircraft from September 2015 to March 2018 to determine the relative effectiveness of Russian airpower against the Syrian opposition and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They also compare the application of airpower in Syria by Russia and the U.S. Coalition.
Road to Damascus
The Russian Air Campaign in Syria, 2015 to 2018
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- What are the strengths, weaknesses, and adaptations of Russian airpower in Syria?
- How effective is Russian airpower against the Syrian opposition and ISIS?
- What are the similarities and differences between Russian and U.S. Coalition application of airpower in Syria?
The introduction of Russian airpower in Syria has been widely cited as a turning point in the Syrian civil war. To assess the strengths, weaknesses, and adaptations of Russian airpower in Syria, the authors developed a database that integrates operational histories, Russian airstrikes, and disposition of Russian aircraft from September 2015 to March 2018. In this report, the authors use these resources to analyze the relative effectiveness of Russian airpower against the Syrian opposition and ISIS. The authors also compare the application of airpower in Syria by Russia and the U.S. Coalition.
The authors find that Russia's employment of airpower was significantly more effective in engagements against the opposition than in conflicts against ISIS. They conclude that although Russia made key adaptations in Syria in joint operational planning, concepts of employment, forward basing, and advanced capabilities, it is unclear how effectively Russia might be able to export its expeditionary capability to other theaters. This research was completed in September 2019, before the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has not been subsequently revised.
- Russian airpower played a decisive role in reversing the fortunes of the Syrian regime.
- Russia's intervention was designed as a limited-liability expeditionary campaign, with a small theater footprint predicated on Russian air and naval power supporting regime ground forces.
- The Russian Aerospace Force's (VKS's) employment of airpower was significantly more effective in engagements against the Western-backed opposition than in conflicts against ISIS. In part, this reflected Russia's primary strategic objectives of saving the Assad regime and degrading the opposition.
- To sustain Russia's expeditionary capability, the VKS experimented with a distributed basing model. Opening additional air bases enabled the VKS to relieve congestion, scale the deployed force, and operate responsively.
- Despite making key adaptations, Russian airpower was not decisive against ISIS. Ultimately, Kurdish forces, supported by U.S. Coalition airpower, propelled the rollback of ISIS in northeastern Syria.
- It is unclear how effectively Russia can export its expeditionary capability to other theaters. The geography in Syria was favorable for the VKS's reliance on rotary-wing operations, the conflict was low intensity, and Russian forces rarely encountered adversaries with advanced capabilities.
- The VKS's reliance on distributed basing exhibited key gaps, including poor base protection and high attrition, that suggest a limited applicability to different operational contexts.
- Russia refined concepts of employment for aircraft and experimented with new capabilities that it will likely apply to future conflicts.
- Russia's reluctance to invest in expensive precision-guided munitions, underdeveloped targeting and penetrating intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, and lack of intertheater tanking could be liabilities in future campaigns.
Table of Contents
Chronology of Russian Air Operations in Syria
Russia's Operational Blueprint, Basing Strategy, and Disposition of Forces in Syria
Strengths and Weaknesses of Russian Airpower in Syria
Implications for Future Russian Air Campaigns