In Syria, Russia recently (early November) tested its ability to conceal activities at its Tartus naval base with a smoke screen. This is the second such use of a smoke screen to conceal port operations. The Russian military has used units specializing in this sort of thing for over 70 years and those specialists ran a smoke screen test on a northern Russian naval base in 2016. In the 1960s Russia realized that their proficiency with smoke screens also served another purpose, it disrupted the laser guidance of the recently introduced American laser guided bombs. These were not a major threat to Russian naval bases but in more fluid combat zones the laser guided bombs were a serious threat, as was revealed in the late 1960s when the American first used their Paveway bombs. The Americans already had guided bombs employing electro-optical (TV) guidance during World War II but the tech was not used in bombs until the 1960s when more reliable and accurate versions were available. Smoke was always an effective way to disrupt the accuracy of electro-optical bombs and laser guided weapons.
This Russian use of smoke screens at Tartus was apparently a test of how quickly one could be generated in an emergency. Using smoke to conceal details of what is going on from aerial or satellite surveillance is a thing of the past with the growing use of multi-spectral sensors and AESA radars that can see through any kind of atmospheric obscurant, even sand storms. The U.S. and Israel have had Tartus under constant aerial observations with such sensors, if only to count what’s coming in and what’s leaving via Tartus.
Since early 2021 Russia has been visibly improving its Tartus naval base and nearby Hmeimim airbase. Russia has had access to Tartus since 1971, when the Soviet Union signed a deal with Bashar al Assad, the father of the current Assad running Syria, for its warships to use the port of Tartus. Russia never established a naval base at Tartus but because of the 1971 agreement, usually had a few dozen officers, sailors and civilian specialists working in Tartus to arrange resupply for visiting Russian warships, which sometimes headed for Tartus to make some minor repairs that needed parts or tech assistance that could only be obtained in a friendly port. This arrangement continued until 2013, when the Syrian civil war escalated and Russia pulled its personnel out of Tartus. Russia returned in 2015, with a major military intervention that played a major role in defeating the rebels. Most of the Russian support was logistical. That means military supplies and help repairing or refurbishing Russian tanks, artillery and other systems Syria bought from Russia. A lot of the cargo from Russia was to support the vital Russian air support provided to defeat the rebels as well as the remaining ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups in eastern Syria. Russia has carried out over 45.000 sorties since 2015 and each sorties consumes five tons or more of fuel, bombs, and other essential items.
To carry out that kind of air support Russia needed a large airbase near Tartus, and preferably under exclusive Russian control. By 2015 all the major Syrian military air bases were either in enemy hands or cut off from the coast, where most of the supplies for an air campaign were to be delivered by ship. The solution was a new military airbase, built by Russia next to the main airport outside Latakia City, the capital of Latakia province. Latakia City was also a port and could handle the cargo ships bringing in supplies for the new Russian base. The new Hmeimim airbase was built next to the airport, which was initially used for some of the Russian military sorties until the new Hmeimim facilities became operational. That happened by the end of 2015 and by the end of 2016 the Russian Air Force no longer had to use airport facilities at all. Hmeimim airbase is 85 kilometers north of the port of Tartus and 50 kilometers from the Turkish border. Both are in Latakia province, which also contains the Syrian Mediterranean coastline and a very pro-Assad population.
In 2018 Syria and Russia signed a new treaty expanding and legalizing Russia control over their growing Tartus base and the Hmeimim air base. Thus included a 49-year lease deal with an option to extend it every 25 years after that with an increase in lease payments. In 2020 Syria agreed to expand the 2018 agreement and provide Russia with additional land next to Hmeimim for an expansion. The latest round of Hmeimim improvements include extending an airstrip several hundred meters.
Initially Hmeimim had air-conditioned accommodations for about a thousand Russian personnel. That was more than doubled by 2018 as the air and ground defenses of Hmeimim were upgraded. While some Assad loyalists were employed for external security, Russians handled that inside the base, which included air defense systems and additional surveillance radars and electronic weapons operated in and near the bases by Russia.
The latest improvements in Tartus are even more extensive as they include construction of a floating dock for repairing warships or commercial ships that would otherwise have to use Russian ports in the Black or Baltic Seas. The floating drydock can be built more quickly than a conventional (in the ground) drydock. The floating drydock can be moved (via a tow) and can last a long time if kept in a sheltered port.
Tartus now has storage facilities for fuel, ship repair materials and tools as well naval munitions. Tartus is turning into the largest for foreign naval base Russia has ever had. The Tartus base has become an investment worth defending from attack or hostile aerial and satellite surveillance.