Russia’s Use of Smart Ammunition Against Terrorists in Syria

The Russian military-industrial complex in Syria and in other regional conflicts of the 21st century has shown a very high military-technical level. But are such weapons suitable for real battles of hybrid world war, where you will have to deal with irregular detachments of militants?

Our experience in Syria and armed conflicts in the post-Soviet space, including on its territory, provides rich material for analysing the effectiveness of Russian systems. It also allows to identify weaknesses in the weapons system of the Russian Armed Forces.

In Syria, aviation played an important role in the defeat of irregular formations of various kinds. The actions of aviation took place in the absence of enemy medium and long-range air defence systems in the possession of the enemy, which had only a certain amount of small-caliber anti-aircraft artillery and MANPADS, as well as machine guns, including heavy ones – 12.7-14.5 mm caliber. With these weapons, militants could pose a threat to aircraft and helicopters at altitudes of up to 2-2.5 kilometres. In an effort to avoid losses, our Khmeimim-based aircraft operated mainly at medium altitudes, dropping free-fall bombs using the SVP-22-24 system, which allows the high-precision use of such bombs, or precision weapons – correctable aerial bombs (KAB-500 and even KAB-1500) and missiles (Kh-29 and Kh-25 of various modifications).

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Under favourable conditions, when coordination was established with units of the Syrian army, our aircraft also used unguided weapons to operate from low altitudes. Usually front-line bombers and attack aircraft acted in pairs and even alone. On departure, judging by the number of declared destroyed targets, the aircraft was assigned the tasks of destroying not one, but several, which, of course, suggested multiple approaches to attack one object.

Long-range aviation, represented by Tu-22m3 aircraft, operated from high altitudes using the SVP-22-24 system. The strikes were made by 250-500 kilogram free fall bombs with a combat load on the aircraft of 10-12 tons. As a rule, 6-12 aircraft took part in the strikes. Strategic aviation operated sporadically, mainly in pairs, using long-range missiles, without entering Syrian airspace.

Syrian aviation, judging by data from open sources, acted very actively. In particular, every day it made at certain intervals two or more times more sorties than our Aerospace Forces group. The main types remain the Su-22 and MiG-21, although the MiG-29 was also used. Syrian aviation uses obsolete weapons – unguided missiles and free-fall bombs, flying at low altitudes, which implies relatively large losses from the air defence fire of militants.

The main form of use of the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrian air force was systematic military operations, which, in fact, is determined by the limited composition of aviation groups.

On the ground

The ground forces of Syria and its allies at the final stage of the war acted in close cooperation with other types of armed forces, with units of government departments and local armed groups. The troops of the operational scale of the Syrian army (corps) formed the core of various groups conducting military operations to complete operational-scale tasks, sometimes of strategic importance. The purpose of such operations was, as a rule, to encircle an enemy group in a large settlement, followed by forcing it to leave this settlement without serious resistance. By this it was fundamentally different from such operations during previous wars – previously, the task of completely defeating or destroying the blocked group was almost always completed via the surrounding of the enemy.

In Syria, after the creation of a cauldron, the militants were given the opportunity to leave encirclement, leaving the village and relocating, along with their weapons. These unnatural actions were taken to minimise the loss of civilians and the destruction of ancient Syrian cities. Examples of such operations can be Aleppo and Palmyra.

Destructive fire was carried out against the enemy in order to isolate the combat area, reduce the enemy’s mobility, comprehensively weaken it, and inflict a decisive defeat on it via artillery and army aviation (with the support of the front line). At the same time, due to the use of long-range weapons (such as the “Smerch” MLRS and the “Tochka” tactical missile system), massive strikes were delivered synchronously on the first and second echelons of the enemy. This created the conditions for their simultaneous defeat.

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The completion of the destruction of the enemy was carried out by highly mobile units and formations that include special operations forces. The main tactical unit was in most cases heterogeneous tactical battalion and company combat groups, including, in addition to a motorised rifle unit, a group of tanks and an artillery unit, as well as groups for coordination with the aviation and artillery of the senior commander.

At sea

The Russian Navy had a noticeable impact on the course of hostilities in Syria, completing two main tasks: the delivery by sea of ​ ​weapons, ammunition, fuel and lubricants, and other material and technical means in the necessary amount to the Russian Aerospace Forces grouping, as well as to the Syrian army; firing the “Kalibr” cruise missile at especially important illegal armed forces facilities.

In total, about 180 cruise missiles were used by the fleet. The average consumption of “Kalibr” missiles to hit a single target was two missiles. The targets of the strikes, as a rule, were mainly control posts of the operational and strategic units of the Islamic State, as well as centrally-subordinated weapons and ammunition depots or military equipment repair enterprises. However, the main contribution of our fleet was precisely the timely delivery of logistics to Syria, without which neither our aviation group, nor even the Syrian army could conduct military operations at all. An exception to the general nature of the actions of the Russian Naval Forces in Syria was the short-term entry of the Russian tactical aircraft carrier “Admiral Kuznetsov” into the area of operations, whose mixed and not fully equipped air grouping completed more than 450 aircraft flights.

The main weight of the combat work was carried out by Su-33 aircraft equipped with the “Gefest” SVP-24-33 system, which made 387 sorties, including 139 at night. The MiG-29K/KUB accounts for only 63. According to objective monitoring, the naval aviation of our heavy cruiser aircraft carrier was able to destroy several hundred militant targets – several times more than all the missile strikes carried out by the fleet.

Air defence systems also had to work in Syria, when at the final stage of the war, countries not interested in preserving Syrian statehood and ending the war started to launch air missile attacks on the military and civilian facilities of the Syrian army and its allied irregular formations. In fact, supporting Islamic terrorists, the United States and Israel, operating from the territory of neighbouring states and adjacent areas of the theatre of military operations, used the most modern aerial attack weapon – “Tomahawk” cruise missile – precision missiles, and guided bombs, using from 10-15 to 100 or more weapons in each strike.

Properly organised, supported by radar monitoring and radio intelligence aircraft, the Syrian air defence system, using Soviet and Russian air defence systems of mostly obsolete types, was able to repel almost all these attacks, demonstrating extremely high efficiency.

In most cases, the proportion of aerial attack weapons shot down reached 50-60% or more. Thus, during the strikes carried by 109 “Tomahawk” cruise missiles launched from American ships and aircraft, more than 70% of the missiles were destroyed. At the same time, not a single missile was able to hit the covered objects – all missiles that reached the targets hit objects that were not of military or economic importance. In fact, the Syrian experience demonstrated the fallacy of the postulate that was considered God’s truth about the significant superiority of modern aerial attack weapons over the air defence system. The Khmeimim base air defence system worked even more successfully, deflecting attacks carried by small slow-moving drones and rockets. Despite the fact that there were many of such attacks, terrorists failed to inflict significant damage on our base.

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Training ground for the Russian military industrial complex

As a rule, for regular troops hybrid wars were testing grounds where samples of the latest weapons were tested. The Russian army was no exception. The most representative “parade” of the latest Russian weapons was demonstrated in Syria. The first place in this series rightfully belongs to the SVP system of the firm “Hermes”. It is this system that has provided exceptionally high efficiency of Russian aviation operations in Syria.

The idea that formed the basis of this system consists is not providing the accurate homing of a munition on the target, but to accurately bring the carrier’s own unguided weapons to the drop point. This makes our system fundamentally different from the American concept of JDAM. The US has developed kits for installation on free-fall bombs, ensuring their precise targeting by GPS data. I.e., they turned conventional bombs into guided ones, aiming at the target by combining the coordinates of the target and the location of the bomb, determined by GPS data.

The cost of such a bomb due to the installation of a JDAM kit increases many times (such a kit costs about $26,000 dollars), although it remains significantly less than the cost of a full-fledged high-precision ammunition. The Russian SVP “Hermes” system provides high-precision bombing with usual cheap bombs with an accuracy comparable to high-precision weapons. In a combat situation, the probability of hitting a protected underground structure can be 0.3–0.4, and the probability of hitting poorly protected ground objects with a medium-caliber bomb can reach 0.5–0.6. This is quite enough to carry out the high-precision and reliable defeat of designated targets by a limited composition of forces.

It should be especially noted that bombing accuracy with the use of the SVP-24 is only slightly dependent on weather conditions and visibility in the target area, because it is dictated by the accuracy of positioning with GLONASS and operation of aircraft systems. I.e., if the target location is reliably and accurately determined, it is impossible to protect oneself from the impact by creating smoke screens, using camouflage, or creating passive interference.

In addition to free-fall bombs, high-precision weapons were also used in Syria. According to reliable sources, the Kh-29 and Kh-25 missiles were repeatedly used during the fighting, both with laser and television guidance systems. The main carriers of such weapons in Syria were Su-34 aircraft. Missiles of the Kh-29 family are larger, with a launch mass of 660-680 kilograms and a warhead weighing 320 kilograms. Their range of fire is within 10-15 kilometres, depending on the transparency of the atmosphere. The target is captured by the homing head from under the wing of the aircraft, so after launch, the carrier can freely manoeuvre, implementing the principle of “shoot and forget”. Accuracy of shooting provides a direct hit on a typical small-sized target with a probability of up to 80% or more. A massive high-explosive armour-piercing warhead with a missile flight speed of ​​350-400 meters per second travelling to the area of the target almost guarantees its destruction, even if it is protected by one and a half meters of concrete floors.

According to reports, Kh-25 missiles are also being used in Syria. This smaller rocket (starting weight is only about 300 kg) has a small warhead weighing from 86 to 136 kilograms, depending on the modification. Its GPS is laser or television. The latest modifications of this missile can be equipped with a tandem warhead that can break through concrete floors up to a meter thick, ensuring the complete destruction of the object under this protection. The accuracy of the hit is similar to the Kh-29. The high accuracy of fire and relatively small warhead make it possible to use this missile even in conditions of dense urban development to hit objects located in the immediate vicinity of residential buildings without significant risk of causing serious damage to them.

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The Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria also used guided aerial bombs. Several instances of the KAB-500 bomb being used with laser and television homing systems are known. They have powerful combat units weighing about 400 kilograms, containing just under 280 kilograms of explosives. The accuracy of these bombs in terms of hitting the target ensures a more than 80-85% probability of hitting even well-protected target points with one such ammunition.

Our aircraft used one of the latest developments of the Russian defence industry – the KAB-250 correctable bomb – to strike Islamist targets located in the immediate vicinity of civilian targets. In Syria, this type of bomb was used with a guidance system that works, according to GLONASS, like the American JDAM. However, our bomb has a number of features. Firstly, it can be dropped at supersonic speed, which makes it possible to separate it from the carrier at a distance of several tens of kilometers from the target and ensure the high speed of the bomb’s flight to the area of the target. Secondly, significantly more advanced aerodynamic forms allowed to achieve a higher accuracy of hitting the target.

It should be especially noted that the weapon used by Russian frontline and attack aircraft allowed our planes not to enter the targeting range of MANPADS and other militant air defences, and therefore avoid losses among our aviation group in Syria.

“Pantsir”, “Tochka”, “Kornet”, and others

The undisputed “star” of air defence was the “Pantsir-S1” air defence system. This complex has demonstrated its effectiveness in combat conditions, close to test site indicators, and extremely high combat stability. During the Syrian conflict, only one “Pantsir-S1” was lost in anti-air combat – it found itself without ammunition at the time of the enemy’s attack. The Syrian crew had left it in an open area.

The “Kalibr” and Kh-101 missiles showed characteristics superior to those of the American “Tomahawk”. Moreover, the Kh-101 has a range almost three times that of the American cruise missile. Other countries of the world don’t have anything that is even close.

The “Tochka-U” tactical missile system showed high efficiency. In order to defeat heavily protected enemy point objects, sometimes one missile was enough. Anti-tank missile systems “Kornet-EM”, “Konkurs”, and “Metis”, as well as helicopter systems “Shturm” and “Ataka”, demonstrated the ability to fight against the most modern samples of foreign armoured vehicles. Thus, in the 2006 war in Lebanon, which was subjected to Israeli aggression, the “Kornet” ATGM, which ended up with Hezbollah fighters, pierced the frontal armour of the most protected tank – the Israeli “Merkava-4”.

The 152 mm “Krasnopol” projectiles demonstrated a high probability of hitting the target. MLRS “Smerch” BM-300 and “Uragan” BM-220 and the high-power artillery of the 2С7М “Malka”, due to its long firing range and the large destructive force of its shells, allowed not only to effectively destroy heavily protected structures, but also to quickly respond to the appearance of new targets at large distances, effectively fighting manoeuvrable enemy forces.

In general, the Russian military-industrial complex has shown a very high military and scientific-technical level. In particular, we are talking about the “High Precision Systems” company, whose enterprises produced a significant part of the weapons or important components used in Syria and other hot spots. Their weapons fully deserve the name of this company – “High Precision Systems”.

However, the Syrian and other conflicts revealed a number of problems in the weapons system of the Russian Armed Forces. We will return to this topic later.


Konstantin Sivkov (Military-Industrial Courier)

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