Attrition: Death And Rebirth In Syria

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May 29, 2020: The Syrian Air Force suffered major losses between 2011 and 2015 as their aircraft and helicopters were unleashed on rebels and civilian supporters. The Syrian warplanes were in no shape for this much activity and took a beating. Of the 370 usable fixed-wing warplanes available in early 2011, after two years about half were out of action because of combat or wear and tear. After 2013 the Syrians tried to conserve what was left of their air force for special missions, like carrying out attacks with chemical weapons or making a last stand around Damascus and along the Mediterranean coast.

Salvation showed up in late 2015 as Russia agreed to send troops, aircraft, and most importantly, technicians and spare parts to revive what was left of the Syrian Air Force. Russia also sold Syria another twelve MiG-29s, but not all were delivered until 2017. During 2015 Iran gave Syria ten refurbished Su-22 ground attack aircraft. Russia supplied ten modern Su-24s attack aircraft in 2017. While the Su-24s are more modern and capable, the Su-22s are more durable and able to fly more often.

By late 2015 the Russians were rebuilding what was left of the Syrian Air Force. There was a lot to do. Between 2011 and 2015 most Syrian combat aircraft were destroyed, captured or grounded because of equipment problems. From the beginning, the air force was ordered to attack rebel fighters as well as civilians believed to be supporting them, and do so as often as possible. The rebels fired back with increasing effectiveness as they gained experience and better weapons like heavy machine-guns and shoulder-fired missiles. This led to a change in air force tactics as targets were selected on the basis of how little return fire the aircraft would receive. Even with that, ancient aircraft fell apart from heavy use and a lack of spare parts. Of the 370 usable fixed-wing warplanes the Syrian Air Force had in 2011 about 70 percent were out of action by late 2015. Nearly two-thirds of the 360 helicopters were gone for the same reasons.

Part of the problem was that few Syrian air force leaders (and pilots) were prepared for a war that involved only low-level bombing and lots of helicopter flights under fire. Desperate times demanded desperate measures and by 2013 even the MiG-29 fighters were dropping bombs. The MiG29s were the most modern aircraft Syria had and their pilots were trained to fight Israeli jets, not bomb civilians. But a village or city neighborhood is hard to miss, even for a rookie. Helicopters often carried out most of the bombing missions. These “bombs” were often improvised, by taking a barrel and filling it with explosives and scraps of metal. The barrels were rolled out of a helicopter or cargo transport aircraft. These “barrel bombs” were equipped with a contact fuse, which detonated the explosives when the barrel hit something.

Russia had long been the supplier of tech and material (spare parts) support for the largely Russian built warplanes and helicopters Syria used. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 there were no more discounts and easy credit terms for this support. Syria had to pay and Syria was always broke, as were the Iranians, who became the main Syrian benefactor during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War and continued that relationship to the present. The Iranians had oil exports but were increasingly unable to buy new weapons because of a growing list of sanctions. Iran had a hard time getting spare parts for its own air force and was not much help to the Syrians. So from 1991 to 2011 the Syrian air force was wasting away from lack of maintenance or new aircraft.

The surge of Russian support after 2015 allowed the Syrian Air Force to remain operational and become even more active. The Russian tech support and regular supply of spare parts have kept the Syrian Air Force operational into 2020. This support included some much needed upgrades for the Syrian MiG-29s, the only modern fighter the Syrians had. In addition to the twelve new MiG-29s, provided Russia also refurbished 18 of the older (from the 1980s) Syrian MiG-29s. This included upgraded electronics and some new mechanical components. A Syrian high-resolution video released in May 2020 showed some of the refurbished MiG-29s and it was clear that the Russian refurbishment did nothing to hide the rust, stains and scratches accumulated over decades of use. In early 2020 one of these MiG-29s crashed on takeoff due to equipment failure. This was the only known Syrian MiG-29 loss since 2011, mainly because the MiG-29s spent little time in the air and even less in combat. The other, even older, fighter aircraft were used regularly for ground attack and took heavy losses. By 2020 17 MiG-21s, 17 MiG-23s, nine Su-22s, eight Su-24s and 17 L-29 jet trainers had been lost. Helicopter losses were even heavier with about 40 Russian made helicopters lost to ground fire. Syria also lost some air transports, which were sometimes used as bombers. In all about 120 Syrian aircraft were lost in combat since 2011. Even more were grounded because they were too old to fly anymore and not worth upgrading to make them flyable again.

Back in 2011, the Syrian Air Force was still trying to raise enough cash to refurbish its rapidly aging Cold War era air force. Many of the warplanes were acquired in the 1970s as Russia helped Syria rebuild its air force after the heavy losses in the 1973 war with Israel. In the early 1980s, there were some more heavy losses to Israeli warplanes. Russia again helped obtain new aircraft at bargain prices. Russia was also going broke and its Soviet Union literally went bankrupt in 1991. No more freebies from Russia until 2015 and even then the Russian aid was less than what Syria received during the Cold War.

Since 2011 Syria has used its fixed-wing warplanes and helicopters mostly for the bombing civilians. Often the targets were residential areas full of pro-rebel civilians. These attacks killed over 100,000 civilians and wounded many more. This was meant to encourage the civilians to flee the country and millions eventually did so. This was done with remarkably few attacks. Once the Russians arrived in 2015, more Syrian warplanes could carry out ground attacks but by the end of 2016 that meant about 300 airstrikes a month by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Part of the problem with the 2011 Syrian Air Force was that few air force leaders (and pilots) were prepared for this post-2011 kind of war that was mainly about low level bombing and lots of helicopter flights under fire.

A more costly problem is the lack of flying time since 1991. Syria could never afford, even with Iranian subsidies, to let their combat pilots fly enough to be really good at it. After 2011 the only flying has been for combat missions. MiG-29 pilots were taught about bombing, if they had no experience in that, on the ground and practiced the weapons release procedure while the aircraft was sitting on the ground. The first actual bomb drop was for real, not practice. This lack of flight time led to operational losses, especially when it came to landing damaged (by enemy action or equipment failure) aircraft. This often led to aircraft loss rather than bringing home a repairable aircraft. A shortage of spare parts often made repairs impossible and has become a major factor in aircraft becoming inoperable after heavy use (which wears out some components).

The 2011 Syrian Air Force also suffered an overabundance of older, well-worn, and poorly maintained aircraft. The best example is their MiG-21s. This is a 1950s design and by 2011 most of the few remaining users were phasing them out. But because Syria was so poor, their 150 MiG-21s were still the most abundant aircraft in their air force. In 2011 less than half of these MiG-21s are flyable. There are also a hundred 1960s era MiG-23s, ten MiG-25s, and 40 MiG-29s. There are also 20 Su-24 and 60 Su-22 ground attack aircraft. The 60 operational L-39 jet trainers were also able to carry some weapons, which is typical of trainers and were used to attack rebels. There is also a large force of helicopters, the most common being over 240 Mi-8s, including some of the more modern Mi-17 model. There were 120 attack helicopters, half of them Mi-24s, a gunship variant of the Mi-8 and contemporary of the American AH-1. The rest of the helicopter fleet consisted of some elderly French Gazelle scout helicopters and Polish Mi-2s. These are mostly used as aerial taxis as they only carry a few weapons and can’t handle much damage.

It didn’t take long for the Syrian rebels, using army deserters and information collected via the Internet or Islamic radical fighters with experience in Iraq, to develop effective anti-aircraft techniques. The most common and successful one was to place multiple machine-guns, including at least one heavy (12.7-23mm) machine-gun, along the route used by helicopters or jets coming in for landing or low-level attack. These machine-guns were fired in a coordinated manner and were very effective. This tactic is called a “flak trap” and dates back to World War II. This tactic works if you can use surprise and one or more concealed, preferably truck-mounted, heavy machine-guns. The losses the Syrian Air Force suffered from this played a role in concentrating on bombing defenseless civilians and avoiding well-armed rebels.

After 2015 Russian Air Force warplanes led the way in attacking rebel forces, using more modern aircraft and even some smart bombs and guided missiles. The Russians also supplied pilots and maintainers because so many Syrian Air Force personnel had deserted and fled the country. While the arrival of the Russians revived morale in the Syrian Air Force, it takes time to train new pilots and maintainers. That process is still underway and Russian pilots are no longer flying some Syrian warplanes. There are still a lot of Russian maintainers, who mainly train and supervise Syrian maintainers and technicians.

During the first few years of the Syrian Civil War air force losses were heavy, with some 400 aircrew dead, captured, or missing. Many aircraft were captured or destroyed on the ground as rebels attacked, and often captured, airbases. The jets (and a few transports) were hit while landing and taking off, and this threat often led to airbases being abandoned, with aircraft incapable, because of damage or lack of spare parts, of flying out were destroyed or just left behind. The rebels soon had about a dozen flyable helicopters and some helicopter pilots defected, but there was never a rebel “air force”.

The Syrian Air Force had a dismal record even before 2011, and not just because their primary opponent since the late 1940s has been Israel. The Assad family has occasionally used the air force against the Syrian people and in 2012 seemed reluctant at first to unleash hundreds of combat aircraft on civilians. But soon after the civil war began that changed, and an air attack was considered successful whether it hit armed rebels or the unarmed civilians that provided support. Several air force defectors reported that pilots were often instructed to go after bakeries, because bread is a key element of the Syrian diet, and apartment buildings, schools and hospitals to maximize the suffering among civilians.

By 2015 the air force was rapidly disappearing because of combat and operational (accidents and poor maintenance) losses. At that point, the government had nothing to lose and simply regarded the remaining aircraft as similar to diminishing ammo supplies. Use it or lose it to advancing rebels. The arrival of the Russians in 2015 and all their technicians and spare parts, rescued what was left of the Syrian Air Force. The 2020 Syrian Air Force is very different than the pre-2011 force. Until 2011 the air force was trained and equipped to fight Israel. Since 2011 Israel is no longer the main threat to the Syrian government. With the rebels defeated it will be over a decade before the Syrian Air Force is in any shape to confront its Israeli counterpart. This explains the long Syrian reliance on air defense systems and ballistic missiles. Those capabilities are also being rebuilt and have a higher priority than the Air Force aircraft.

 


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