New Fighter Aircraft to Expand Russian Air Campaign in Syria

Su-35S / Wikimedia Commons
February 10, 2016

SINGAPORE—Russia’s air power assets operating in Syria are about to be given a significant boost. The most modern fighter aircraft in service today with the Russian Aerospace Forces will deploy to Kheimim aerodrome near Latakia, Syria. The Russian contingent in Syria announced Feb. 5 that the aircraft, the Su-35S will be place in operation for the first time outside the borders of the Russia.

The precise number of Su-35S models to be deployed to Syria was not specified by the Russian military representatives on the ground. But the Ministry of Defense said Feb. 1 that it was preparing to transfer four of the aircraft that are currently based at the Privolzhskiy aerodrome in the Astrakhan region to the Latakia base.

The Su-35S design is almost a complete generation in technology and performance beyond its forerunner, the Su-27 and Su-30-series fighter aircraft, and has progressed through several stages of development to reach its current configuration. Its advanced radar and new on-board systems gives the aircraft the ability to attack up to eight targets simultaneously. The NIIP N035 Irbis radar can also function as a subscale AWACS-type aircraft, making the Su-35S a battle space manager for other, older-generation aircraft.

The aircraft also is fitted with one of Russian defense industry’s most advanced electronic warfare systems. The same military spokesmen who announced the aircraft’s deployment made a point of stating that this system obscures the Su-35S from radar detection and jams the guidance systems of enemy missiles.

24-Hour Alert Status

VKS spokesmen told Russian news outlets that "the aircraft will operate in pairs and will be on 24-hour alert status at the Kheimim airbase and will be ready to launch on a moment’s notice. Their principle is to operate in conjunction with other attack aircraft, where the Su-35 will provide cover for the [bombing] mission, expanding its intercept and area denial field. When a pair of Su-35s reaches the altitude position of protivokhod (denial of entry into the adjacent airspace) that intercept field covers an area of up to 360 degrees out to a range of 400 kilometers."

Russian military representatives explained that deploying the aircraft in combat affords the opportunity to "make maximum use of this platform. This means that all of the weaponry that we have available will be employed on it. This aircraft can be ‘stitched up’ with any type of air-launched bomb and its combat payload is up to eight [metric] tons."

The Su-35S aircraft will either replace or supplement the combat air patrol missions that have been flown up until now by a contingent of older-generation Su-30SM aircraft. These aircraft are also fully equipped with a less advanced electronic warfare suite, and the aircraft itself does not have the battle management functions or the other multi-role capacity of the Su-35S.

Syria: A Russian Weapon Systems Testing Ground

On one level, deploying the Su-35S to Syria would appear to be the Russians upping the ante in the cat-and-mouse game that their aircraft have been playing with Turkish forces along the border. Russian aircraft have been regularly violating Turkey’s air space (and falsifying accounts of their flight paths after the fact), which has caused Ankara’s armed forces to shift into a hair-trigger combat mode.

Last November a Turkish Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16 downed a Su-24M after it crossed over the border, with only one of the two Su-24 crew members surviving the engagement. A more recent incident on Jan. 29 involved the larger and more modern Su-34, which was not shot down, but the air space violation prompted the Turkish Foreign Minister to once again summon the Russian ambassador to deliver an official warning as to potential consequences.

Other than probing and trying to see how far it can push the boundaries of NATO’s collective defense by provoking Turkey, analysts of Russia’s military told the Washington Free Beacon that the continuing air operations in Syria have another function as well. These daily bombing missions against anti-Assad rebels are affording the Russian VKS the same opportunity that the Russian ground forces have been engaged in since they invaded Eastern Ukraine in 2014: the chance to test new weapon systems that have yet to be used in combat.

The Su-35, which externally appears to be only a modernized evolution of the older Su-27 design, is more advanced than one would imagine. Russian news reports quoted statements by military officials that "in addition to the work that will be done [by the Su-35S] in supporting combat operations, this will be a demonstration of this newest Russian weapons platform, as well as testing and verification of its on-board systems, many of which are common with the T-50 PAK-FA."

PAK-FA is a Russian acronym for the Sukhoi Design Bureau’s fifth-generation fighter program, which is designated "T-50" in its pre-production, prototype configuration. Several of these aircraft are currently undergoing flight test, with the aircraft supposed to enter service with the Russian armed forces next year. The aircraft’s fuselage has a blended-aerodynamic platform in an attempt to lower its radar cross-section and also has an internal weapons bay like stealthy U.S. aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35.

"By introducing the most modern aircraft he has available into Syria, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin accomplishes several goals in parallel," said a Russian military analyst based in Moscow. "One is that the bombing in Syria allows air crews and weapons makers to perform even more testing of their kit than was possible in the past in places like Chechnya. Secondly, Putin is demonstrating that he is willing to defend his ally in the Middle East, Assad, and that in the process he will use his military power to attack the West’s proxies in Syria—the anti-Assad rebels.

"Thirdly, his on-and-off border confrontations with Turkey permit Putin to create anxiety and fault lines within NATO over the potential of another airspace violation. The other alliance members have deep concerns about these border clashes precipitating an Article Five violation that would invoke the collective defense of the alliance against Russia. In short, Putin shows both Russia’s friends and adversaries that he is willing to challenge the West and assert his military power in a manner that Mr. Obama has been unwilling to do in the Middle East or in Ukraine—or anywhere else, for that matter."

Published under: Military , Russia , Syria