Michael Kofman writes: Russia’s campaign in Syria is about saving the Syrian regime by recapturing as much of the territory lost this spring as possible and translating those military gains into a much stronger negotiating hand. These strikes target the Army of Conquest and Free Syrian Army forces surrounding and inside the regime’s territory. A combined Russian, Iranian, and Syrian campaign with support from Hezbollah aims to destroy non-Islamic State rebels. Not since the Soviet war in Afghanistan has Moscow deployed for such an expeditionary operation, in even a limited fashion. Can Russia hope to achieve such ambitious gains with limited means? Does this application of military power truly stand a chance of changing the facts on the ground? The answers to these questions in large part depend on the array of weapons and platforms that Russia has deployed as a part of this campaign and how it is using them. By exploring Russia’s arsenal in, above, and off the shores of Syria, we can also learn a bit about Russia’s military modernization efforts.
Thus far the Russian intervention is serving as the glue for the joint Syrian-Iranian effort, but its impact has been more to shift momentum and reinvigorate the Syrian Army On the ground, the airstrikes are no doubt denting rebel forces, but they are not yet able to punch holes in rebel positions for Syrian forces to exploit. These are fairly humble capabilities compared to that of the U.S. Air Force and Navy, but leaps and bounds ahead of where the Russians were as recently as 2008, when it lost six aircraft in the Russia-Georgia war. Military reforms, a large modernization effort, and a relentless exercise program have restored competence and capability to a percentage of the Russian military. Meanwhile Russian missile technology has not only reached parity, but in some areas leapfrogged that of Western counterparts. Its air force is attempting to emulate in a limited fashion the U.S. performance during the 1991 Gulf War, with mixed results, but nonetheless a dramatic improvement over anything Russia has been able to do in its post-Soviet history. [Continue reading…]