Leadership: Syrian Softies Grounded


November 13, 2012: Why is the Syrian Air Force performing so poorly? On October 29th the Syrian Air Force hit a record high for daily air raids: 60 bombing sorties. But with a force of 400 combat aircraft, and about as many pilots, surely the air force could have launched more raids on one day. Over the last two months the air force has been averaging about 20 air attacks a day. With the number of aircraft and pilots available, the air force should have been able to “surge” to carry out several hundred attacks in one day and nearly a hundred on a sustained basis.

There are several reasons for this discrepancy. Defectors and conversations with Syrians still living on air bases (where pilots and support personnel live with their families in adjacent compounds) provide the answers to this mystery. First of all, the government doesn’t trust most of its pilots to bomb civilians. This is what most of these air raids consist of because the aircraft do not have smart bombs and have to bomb from high altitude (over 4,000 meters/12,000 feet), to avoid anti-aircraft guns and missiles. So the pilots can only hit large targets, like villages or city neighborhoods. Apparently only about a hundred pilots are trusted to fly (and return), and even some of these loyalists are not taking the job (killing women and children) well. Then there is the problem with the aircraft, two thirds of them are MiG-21s (a 1950s design) and MiG-23s (a 1960s design). These aircraft have been poorly maintained over the last two decades and apparently spare parts are in short supply. While Syria has been a client of Iran since the 1980s, their patron was not willing to spend the billions needed to upgrade the air force (aside from 42 relatively new MiG-29s). Before the Cold War ended, Syria could depend on the generosity of the Soviet Union. But after 1991, that was gone and Syria was still too poor to pay for a first rate air force on its own.

Some observers inside the country believe there is also a bomb shortage because they have seen helicopters dropping improvised bombs (barrels full of explosives and using improvised fuzes). But Syria has a war reserve that consists of far more bombs than have been dropped so far. The helicopters were not designed to drop bombs and the improvised “barrel bombs” are a way to get around that. On the down side, the helicopters can’t carry more than one or two of these barrel bombs and still stay high enough to stay out of range of ground fire. Syria has about a hundred transport helicopters and 70 helicopter gunships (which carry rockets and heavy machine-guns). The transport helicopters are in high demand to move troops and supplies, so most of the death-from-above is delivered by the elderly jets of the air force and the few loyal and stout-hearted pilots remaining.