Close Air-Ground Coordination Is Russia’s Secret Weapon in Syria

How did it happen that around 120 Russian warplanes, attack helicopters and bombers changed the course of the five-year war in Syria in less than six months, and transformed the armies of Syria, Iran and Hizballah from near losers to near winners?
Israel’s contrasting performance in the Second Lebanon War of 2006 is worth a second look for comparison. Although hundreds of Israeli warplanes blitzed a Hizballah force of about 18,000 fighters (compared to the estimated 100,000 anti-Assad forces including ISIS), Hizballah was not decisively defeated, nor were its missile attacks on Israeli cities halted. And Hizballah did not even have antiaircraft weapons at the time.
Today, 18 months into the US-led coalition air campaign against ISIS, only one defeat – on a scale comparable to the Russian achievements in Syria – was inflicted on the jihadis. In the Iraqi town of Ramadi, the US air operation which started in August 2014 did trounce the Islamic State – but only after it was sharply intensified.
The tide of war in Syria has only just begun to turn against the Syrian rebels and so, DEBKA Weekly’s military experts say, it is too soon to determine absolutely whether the Russian military doctrine as applied to the Syrian conflict is superior to the doctrines governing US or Israeli war strategies.
But if the Russian successes prove sustainable, then Western and other Israeli military strategists may have to go back to their drawing boards and rethink their war doctrines.
Moscow set out by establishing a fully-equipped air force base at Khmeimin, near the coastal town of Latakia. In a few months, it assembled there a fleet of some 120 Russian Air Force warplanes, bombers, surveillance planes and helicopters. Other Syrian air bases are also available for use on the various war fronts.
The main burden of high-precision combat missions is carried from Khmeimim by Sukhoi Su-24M and Sukhoi Su-25SM assault fighters, each carrying a payload of eight tons. The Su-24M is the campaign’s leading workhorse.
The two fighters were recently augmented by Su-34 aircraft, effective against ground and seaborne targets, then four Su-35s, four Su-30s and eight -34s. Also on hand are Russian Antonov An-124 and Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft, Mi-24 gunships and Mi-8 support helicopters.
This week, Moscow topped up its Syria-based air fleet with the Tu-214R intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, which features all-weather radar systems and sensors that produce photo-like imagery for mapping the positions of enemy forces on the ground. They are detected even when hidden under camouflage.
The Tu-214R also conducts signal intelligence (SIGINT) or electronic intelligence (ELINT) intercepts of enemy signals, such as those emitted by aircraft, mobile phones, radar systems and combat vehicles. This feature makes the enemy’s Electronic Order of Battle an open book.
While the Russian air fleet deployed to Syria is highly diverse and adaptable to assorted missions, it is not much larger than the complement of aircraft on the decks of a single US aircraft carrier.
So what gives the Russian doctrine the edge over Western armies?
In a nutshell, it is tight and precise coordination between the massive air strikes performed by Russian warplanes and the operations of non-Russian ground forces under a single Russian command center.
Russian strategists reject the Western practice of training local ground forces to manufacture professional soldiers as a waste of time and money. They have opted to more realistically adjusting their aerial tactics to Syrian, Hizballah and pro-Iranian militia forces ground forces, which are available.
Another salient point is focus: Russian air strikes are carefully calibrated and designed to systematically destroy the rebels’ military chain of command and infrastructure, whereas US-led coalition air strikes against the Islamic State are much sparser and often spread out for non-military targets, such as its sources of finance and other parts of its support system.
All this points up the fundamental error of Israel’s 2006 war strategy against Hizballah from the word go.
Its air bombers led off by going for the southern Beirut Dahya neighborhood, instead of striking the Shiite terror group’s military command centers and bases. Flattening the Hizballah-ruled Shiite district was expected to shock this enemy into throwing in the sponge.
When this didn’t happen, IDF ground forces were belatedly deployed without being properly prepared.
Another advantage the Russians are fully exploiting is the fact that none of the Syrian rebel groups possesses antiaircraft missiles for shooting down their, or even Syrian, aircraft.
The Syrian air force is still very active – even after some of its bases were captured and others take constant shelling from rebel artillery. It has Su-24 and Su-34 tactical bombers, Tu-160, Tu-95 and Tu-22 strategic bombers, as well as Mi-8 and Mi-24 attack helicopters, which the Syrians use for dropping barrel bombs.
In a single day, on Feb. 15, Syrian helicopters dropped barrel bombs on the southern city of Daraa for six straight hours.

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