Russia’s Military Leaders Exploit Lessons From Experiments in Syria

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 105

(Source: Getty Images)

The leadership of the Russian Armed Forces at the defense ministry and General Staff levels is exploiting lessons learned from the country’s recent involvement in foreign conflicts as part of a process to enhance military capability. This forms part of a much wider “lessons learned” approach to military force development and planning for future warfare that includes assessing the annual operational-strategic military exercises, studying the results of the snap inspections of military units, gleaning insights from foreign militaries, and refining planning based on Russian combat experience. This complex practical and scientific process is also influencing how Russian defense planners think about future warfare (see EDM, June 5, 2019), though most of the direct operational lessons appear focused on Syria (see EDM, December 12, 2017).

In a recent article for Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, military expert Anatoly Tsyganokanalyzed many of the features and lessons of foreign conflicts and those involving Russia; the latter concentrated on Georgia, Ukraine and, especially, the operational lessons drawn from Syria. Of course, many of these lessons at the highest levels of the defense leadership remain classified; yet, some of the public discussion sheds light on the context and the nature of the importance of these operations in Russian military development. The operations that began in Syria in the fall of 2015 largely involved the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS) as the key element, but have also included other branches and arms of service as Moscow used the intervention as a massive combat training opportunity for its military (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 19).

Tsyganok contrasts the VKS performance and approach to operations in Syria with the lackluster performance of the Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily—since subsumed into the VKS) in August 2008, during the Five Day War with Georgia. Tsyganok highlights that at the start of the conflict with Georgia, the Russian Air Force lacked platforms equipped with modern aviation technology. He notes the comparative lack of average annual training flight hours for military pilots, at around 60 hours, and the limited success in suppressing enemy air defense in a timely and efficient manner. But turning to the VKS performance in Syria, the author underscores the remarkable level of advances stemming from the reform and modernization of the Armed Forces since 2008. He notes the use of VKS Long-Range Aviation—particularly the Tu-160, Tu-22M3 and Tu-95MS bombers using air-launched cruise missiles against Islamic State targets. Moreover, he stresses that multi-platform assets were used to launch cruise missiles for the first time in Russian military operations—air and sea-based assets were deployed in this effort. While this marked Russia’s entry into the high-precision strike regime and the practical experimentation with network-centric approaches to warfare, the author admits most Russian ordinance dropped in Syria was free-falling. Equally, these operations were used to rotate military personnel into the theater in order to provide combat experience and thus boost training levels as a result (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 19).

Of particular note, Tsyganok draws attention to the use of Su-25SM and Su-24M tactical jets operating at low altitudes like attack helicopters such as the Mi-24. The main danger they faced was from enemy artillery and man-portable anti-aircraft missile systems (MANPADS). The Mi-24 pilots were able to compensate for the threat from MANPADS by further reducing theiraltitude, allowing them to deceive MANPADS guidance systems by creating echo signals from the earth’s surface. Turning to the lessons from Syria related to tactical use of aviation and helicopters, the author singles out the Su-34 fighter-bomber as most effective in conducting high-precision strikes. He also notes that 84 percent of VKS flight crews now have combat experience due to operations in Syria (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 19).

Despite these highly useful observations, Tsyganok appears to underestimate the extent to which Russia’s General Staff has used military operations in Syria to experiment with force mix, the application of military power in support of proxy forces (in this case, the Syrian Arab Army), and, critically, the mixing of military and non-military measures as force enablers and multipliers. The experiments have involved equipment and systems, ranging from air defense to electronic warfare assets, as well as testing the application of high-precision strikes from multiple platforms (air, land and sea).

How these experiments are influencing Russian thinking about the nature of warfare and escalation control is addressed in a recent book by the defense academician Andrei KokoshinVoprosy Prikladnoy Teorii Voyny (Questions of Applied Theory of War). Kokoshin presents the logic of managing the growing destructive power of modern military conflicts in the form of an “escalation ladder” linked to smaller military-political situations and their risks of triggering global conflict (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, July 16).

In his analysis of the escalation ladder in modern conflict, Kokoshin introduces additional steps. He sees significant risk stemming from non-force interstate confrontation and places “hybrid” conflict as the last of these steps. He assigns hybrid war as a turning point whereupon the conflicting parties may choose to escalate intense combat operations and risk global war. Economic subversive actions, informational confrontation, actions in cyberspace, and the use of special operations forces and irregular detachments are held at each of the steps, except for the stage with massive use of nuclear weapons, “when all the buttons are pressed” and the territory of the adversary is turned into a lifeless radioactive desert (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, July 16).

Writing in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, analyst Aleksandr Bartosh considers the implications of Kokoshin’s work in light of current US military strategy. Bartosh concludes, ‘The current strategic concepts of the United States and NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] are aimed at surpassing potential adversaries in everything: in strategic mobility, primarily in the Atlantic, Pacific and European theaters; information and cybernetic operations; the art of ‘hard and soft’ power; technical equipment of the army; organizational flexibility structures of military (naval) formations; increasing the combat readiness of strategic groups in remote theaters; widespread introduction of automated, computerized systems to command and control; the military use of space; the perfect all-inclusive maneuver on the ground and in the air; [and] the full support of combat operations.” Thus, returning to recent statements by the chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, this theme is emphasized as a risk factor in Russian defense planning: “Today, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation must be prepared to protect the interests of the state in a military conflict of any scale with extensive use by the enemy of both traditional and hybrid methods of confrontation” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, July 16).