U.S. Cruise Missile Strikes in Syria – Brief Analysis

I’m going to skip the policy analysis and work on the facts of this strike and the Russian response. The al-Shayrat airbase was chosen because according to U.S. sources on April 4th a Syrian Su-22 deployed some kind of munition with chemical weapons.  On April 6th two U.S. destroyers fired 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the base, although technically it was 61 since one failed to launch and had to be replaced, while another missile ditched into the sea (60 planned – 1 launch fail, + 1 replacement, -1 malfunction resulting in sudden conversion into torpedo). The official story is that 59 hit targets.

What did the missiles hit? This base hosted two squadrons of Su-22M3/M4 bombers and one squadron of Mig-23ML/MLD fighters. For those who don’t know, these are legacy aircraft from the Soviet Union, long retired in Russia. If memory serves Su-22s were taken out of service in the Russian air force back in 1998, but are still flying in Poland.  These squadrons were distributed in three different parts of the airbase, and it looks like the missiles hit two out of three sectors. As a consequence they got 5 Su-22M3s, 1 Su-22M4, and 3 Mig-23ML fighters for a total of 9 aircraft destroyed (Pentagon claimed 20, but so far we can only count 9, then subsequently in a recent press release the Pentagon changed the story to 20% of Syrian air power destroyed.) The squadron of Su-22s located in the northwest of the base seems largely untouched, which is why one of the planes was shown on video launching from the base within the same day.

Photo of Syrian Air Base with markings for the three squadrons (found on BMPD)

Additionally the missiles took out a SA-6 radar site (Kub), some ground equipment, and what was first described as a M-600 missile launcher (Iranian produced SRBM). Bunkers, fuel, ammunition and general stores were also hit. Although there were early rumors on twitter suggesting that there were visible containers of chemical weapons, these proved to be nonsense, and were actually generic containers for cluster munitions and other types of ordnance (twitter experts best experts). The runway was left untouched since it is quite long, simple to repair, and plugging cruise missiles into runways is not the most efficient use of the weapon.

What wasn’t there? Su-24Ms that Russia had recently handed over to Syria, which are much more capable than the aging Su-22 bombers, and actual Russian aircraft. Back in April 2016 this base was being used as a forward operating strip for Russian attack helicopters during an earlier phase in the campaign. Supposedly some Russian personnel were at this facility, but that story increasingly sounds like a guesstimate.

Destroyed Mig-23ML

Russian air defense

The short answer is that their air defenses were meant to defend Russian forces, not Syrian assets, and probably not armed to take on a 60 cruise missile salvo anyway. The primary Russian fear was that a country like Turkey or someone else might hit concentrated Russian assets in Latakia. From their positions these air defenses probably had little to no chance of hitting cruise missiles meant for a different airbase, and the U.S. likely routed the strike package in such a way so as to make it impossible.

There is an often spotted S-400 system at Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia, together with Pantsir-S1 short range air defense and medium range point defense Buk systems (not many photos of the Buk but supposedly its there). The common depiction of the S-400s capabilities is also pretty inaccurate.  For one, it does not have a 400km range missile (the 40N6). That long range missile has never been seen in operation, nor a new canister for it, which suggests it’s still not ready for prime time. So the actual maximum range is 250km, which still makes it a great system, but cuts down on the imaginary 400km firing ring. Furthermore the system is at the airbase, and there is a mountain range running north to south just east of Latakia, so naturally the radar is going to have a hard time seeing most of eastern Syria – and the Russians have admitted as much in their own press.

S-400 at al-Hmeimim Airbase

Last year Russia deployed a S-300v4 to Tartus (often confused for S-300VM or Antey-2500). This system is designed for intercepting missiles and large aircraft at long ranges. Unlike the S-400, which does not have a 400km range missile, this one actually does though it’s not designed for cruise missile interception. However, unlike the S-400 which is regularly seen in pictures and satellite imagery, the S-300v4 remains elusive, either because nobody is looking at Tartus or because it’s moving about.  Either way it was doubtfully well placed to do anything about this strike.

In either case, these systems and their attending short range brethren might do well if cruise missiles were fired at them or close to them, but not at some other facility, especially if they hug the ground and use terrain masking. It’s possible Russian electronic warfare systems might have affected the guidance system, but these would have to have powerful ranges and why give away many of the system’s technical capabilities on behalf of the Syrians? Hence Russian air defenses, despite being painted as a giant red circle in news coverage are actually quite limited in what they can do against cruise missiles fired from an unknown point, headed on an unknown trajectory and towards a target they’re not intended to defend.

Update: posted flight path of cruise missile strike from Russia’s Izvestia – not vouching at all for veracity, but good map showing how the strike package may have been directed specifically away from air defenses. I would not use this as a hard source on the flight path.

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Closing out with a Fateh-110/M600 missile launcher at the airbase that’s seen better days. There is some debate on whether its really a Pantsir-S1. Syrian mod Fateh looks very similar in chassis to the Pantsir-S1, but on Pantsir jacks are behind 2nd wheels set whereas Fateh 1st, and the destroyed vehicle’s jacks are clearly behind the first axle.

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Thanks to coverage from diana_mihailova and BMPD blogs, also easiest place to get access to damage photos.

Russian Special Forces

Below is a Q&A I did with the Cipher Brief that outlines much of what we know about the Russian special operations community.  The rest is on their website. 

The Cipher Brief: How are Russian special operations organized within the military?

Michael Kofman: The best way to parse through a myriad of Russian special designation units is to break them into three categories: elite infantry primarily for reconnaissance in ground, airborne, and naval services (Spetsnaz GRU), special purpose units belonging to intelligence agencies (Alpha and Vympel), and the Special Operations Command (SSO or KSSO). The last one is of particular note as a recent development and arguably the most interesting of all, since it represents a Russian special forces capability that featured prominently in Crimea and Syria.

Spetsnaz GRU are sometimes shorthanded as Russian special operations forces, but this is a common misnomer. Spetsnaz are elite infantry intended to support conventional unit formations. These units consist of eight Spetsnaz brigades, one Spetsnaz regiment (25th), four naval infantry Spetz units, and the 45th VDV (Airborne) brigade with a total complement of 9,000-10,500.  Currently the Russian armed forces are integrating Spetsnaz units into brigades and divisions, adding a company to each reconnaissance battalion. These units are almost invariably under the purview of the main intelligence directorate for Russia’s General Staff, the GRU.

Meanwhile the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, fields two specialized units for counterterrorism and defending strategic infrastructure at home, named Alpha and Vympel respectively. Less mentioned is the FSB’s Directorate S (Smerch), a special reconnaissance outfit founded on the basis of the FSB’s economic counter-intelligence unit, and likely larger than Alpha or Vympel.

The rest of the discussion focuses on KSSO.

A COMPARATIVE GUIDE TO RUSSIA’S USE OF FORCE: MEASURE TWICE, INVADE ONCE

My latest article examining Russian use of force, published on War on the Rocks.

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In the 20th century, the Soviet military’s penchant for area of effect artillery and armored firepower had earned it the reputation of a large hammer always in search of nails.  This popularized impression stuck with Russia long after the Soviet Union’s demise, but today’s Kremlin employs military power in a much more nuanced manner to pursue its objectives.  In recent conflicts, Russia has demonstrated a keen understanding of how to apply this instrument of national power to achieve desired political ends, doling out force in prescribed doses in the quest for decisive leverage.  Although Russian military power remains a blunt force instrument, the state wields it more like a rapier, demonstrating discretion and timing.

In a previous article on the key pillars of Russian strategy, I argued that Moscow favors an emergent strategy based on “fail fast and fail cheap” approaches. The Russian military itself has a long way to go in terms of modernization, but conversely, America’s political leadership needs to reexamine how great powers, with far fewer resources, use the so-called “big stick” to get the job done.  The unipolar world order appears to be rapidly melting, while great powers are back on the agenda.  When it comes to use of force by peer rivals contesting America’s interests, it is only going to get harder from here on out.

The United States may not wish to emulate Russian approaches, but American strategists should certainly study then.  Those who fail to learn from the experience of others must inevitably gain it at personal cost.  As Mark Twain  is said to have remarked, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”  To take another step along the journey of understanding Russian strategy, I explore how Russia changes facts on the ground, compels its adversaries, and achieves much of this on the cheap.  The goal is to examine Russian use of force and draw lessons for an era when American use of power must become judicious, timely, and better married to something that resembles political objectives.

Read the rest here.

The Russian Navy’s Great Mediterranean Show of Force

My latest on the Russian flotilla sailing to the Eastern Med in The National Interest.  A more technical brief to follow in next post.

News has been rippling across Western media of a Russian naval squadron headed by the country’s only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, slowly making its way towards Syria.  Originally announced on July 11th, the combat tour to Syria has been long in the works, together with a host of other Russian naval activities unfolding simultaneously this month.  The Russian squadron has been lurching along at a steady pace as part of a tour de force around NATO countries and towards the Eastern Mediterranean.  At the time of this writing, the ships were passing through the English Channel. While the military objectives of this mission are not entirely insignificant, Russia’s chief purpose is status projection, leveraging its navy to demonstrate that it is a great power.

The squadron will first irk Russia’s already apprehensive Western neighbors and then make its presence felt in the Middle East.  Yet this latest bit of political theater and military showmanship is not without risk.  Kuznetsov’s fortunes will determine whether this becomes a demonstration of Russia’s power projection, or an unintended embarrassment, leaving the impression that Moscow is only imitating great power status.  The carrier is notoriously unreliable, while many of its fellow ships are also Soviet inheritances—capable but aging.

Russia seeks to intimate that it is one of the few countries able to project military power to distant shores and present the image of having some parity with the United States.  Both images will play well with a domestic audience.  Behind the scenes, a two year battle over the future of the State Armament Program is also unfolding in Moscow, with military services fighting over a defense procurement budget on the ebb.  Despite being a vast Eurasian land power, Russian leaders going back to Peter the Great have a history of lavishing disproportionate attention to the navy, believing that in the international system one must be able to show prowess on the high seas to be recognized as one of the great players in the system.

Vladimir Putin has not deviated from this traditional mindset, only exemplified it.  He has at times quoted Alexander III’s famous line that Russia has only two dependable allies: “its army and its navy.”  A commentary on geopolitics more so than military matters, but it still holds true to this day.  Russia’s navy has taken on considerable risk in a bid to convey to national leadership that it is an invaluable instrument for global status ambitions and national inspiration.

Though often a point of fixation, the Russian carrier Kuznetsov—or perhaps more accurately the originally Soviet-built ‘heavy aviation cruiser’—is also accompanied by the nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great. This flagship of the Russian Navy packs an arsenal of anti-ship missiles, air defenses and combat capabilities worthy of its prominent name.  Kuznetsov’s mission is in part to make a combat debut in Syria, having sailed several times to the region, but never having fought.  This is a public relations mission at heart, but also an important training event for Russia’s tiny naval aviation component.

The military aspects of the operation should not be overlooked.  Russia’s carrier is often disparaged as a floating lemon, and such criticisms are fair, but the West has an unhealthy track record of underestimating Russian military capabilities for the sake of disparaging them.  Unlike previous tours, which were largely for show, this time the ship will likely conduct combat operations, and it’s not traveling alone either.

The Kuznetsov set sail on October 15th from Severomorsk for the Syrian coast together with Peter the Great, two Udaloy-class destroyers, a tanker ship and a large tugboat.  Little noticed is that on the same day a squadron from Russia’s Pacific Fleet departed Vladivostok on the other side of the world.  The second grouping consists of two destroyers (Udaloy and Sovremenny class), together with a large tanker and tug, headed for the Indian Ocean.  It’s possible that this task force may choose to rally with the Kuznetsov in the Eastern Mediterranean, or perhaps standby on call in nearby waters.

A host of other naval movements are playing out simultaneously.  One of Russia’s newly completed Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates is transferring from the Baltic to the Black Sea Fleet, and may join the group off Syria to fire land attack cruise missiles.  It’s possible one of the Northern Fleet’s nuclear-powered submarines has joined this tour as well.  The Russian Navy’s comparative strength, its submarine force, is unlikely to have been left completely without a role in this affair.

Two large corvettes from the Baltic Fleet have ventured out of port, either to escort the carrier or join it for exercises on its voyage south.  Already on October 18th, the carrier began flight-training operations in the Norwegian Sea, shadowed by the British and Norwegian militaries.  Traveling slowly, the Russian Navy will probably make several exercise stops as a pointed show of force to NATO along the way.  Although planned well in advance, the first part of this tour will undoubtedly answer some of the ‘deterrence messaging’ by the United States 6th Fleet and NATO ships routinely visiting the Baltic and Black Sea.

More at TNI.

THE MISADVENTURES OF RUSSIA AND THE UNITED STATES IN SYRIA: COMPLETE STRATEGY IMPLOSION EDITION

Below is my latest piece on War on the Rocks, analyzing the Russian intervention in Syria and the collapse of the ceasefire.

The current situation in Syria is the civil war’s most dangerous and arguably tragic phase. Months of U.S.-Russian efforts to arrange a nationwide ceasefire in Syria and set up a military coordination agreement have collapsed spectacularly, leading to venomous recriminations as a Russian-backed coalition renewed its assault on Aleppo. The tone of official rhetoric — Ambassador Samantha Power called the renewed bombing campaign “barbarism” — together with a suspension of military contacts raises the risk of a military clash that much further. Meanwhile, interventionist circles in the West have renewed their cries for the United States to use force, while Russia signaled that such a move would lead to uncertain consequences and possible military conflict, reminding the United States to “think carefully” before hitting any Syrian regime forces. If this is not the greatest foreign policy train wreck of 2016, it will certainly do until that calamity arrives.

On October 3, the United States suspended its attempts to implement a ceasefire with Russia and scrapped the proposal for a joint military coordination body. Russian President Vladimir Putin retaliated by shelving a 2000 deal on disposal of weapons-grade plutonium and canceling a bilateral agreement on research cooperation between nuclear sectors. The two countries have since cemented an escalatory cycle of tit-for-tat blows, as U.S. intelligence agencies publicly blamed Russia for its hacking of the Democratic National Committee to interfere with U.S. elections. The prevailing impression in policy and media circles is that Russia has abandoned efforts at peace, instead making a bid for military victory on the ground. Increasingly, many in Washington are certain that Russia strung the United States along in negotiations to help Syrian forces recapture Aleppo in the closing days of the Obama administrationReferences to the Cold War abound as tensions increase.

These well-structured narratives are built upon grains of truth, but they miss more than they capture. Important facts get in the way of this story. Since the first day Russian planes took flight over Syria in September 2015, analysis in Washington too often flailed between declaring the Russian intervention a hopeless quagmire and decrying that Russia is winning at everything. These depictions suffer from being wedded to merely tactical snapshots. They bend whichever way the wind is blowing that day in Syria. At times, we have been treated to contradictory strategic assessments based on the same battle.

In late August, Reuters told us that fighting in Aleppo exposed the “limits of Russian airpower,” and a few days later The New York Times explained how Syrian forces made their gains in that siege thanks to Russian help. This results in great stories but poor analysis. I offer a different perspective on why the ceasefire collapsed and what it tells us about the Russian intervention. Essentially, Russia got caught selling something they did not have — Assad’s agreement to a ceasefire before the Syrian Arab Army subdued Aleppo — and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry accidentally trapped them by conceding to a grand deal sooner than Moscow expected.

There’s Something Wrong with This Story

Setting aside popular misunderstandings in Washington, many experts and analysts in Moscow also do not seem to understand why the ceasefire collapsed. That is what makes the current situation so dangerous: It was actually unplanned on the Russian end. “Unplanned” may be the defining characteristic of U.S. policy on Syria, but it has not been similarly true of the Russian approach. Since September 19, when the ceasefire was visibly on life support, experts and intelligence officials have opined that Moscow’s strategy is to seize Aleppo in the coming months and present the next U.S. administration with a fait accompli. They are working the problem backwards from what happened in the last two weeks.

Russia may not have expected for the ceasefire to last — and most in the West did not either — but this entire episode is not a Kremlin-managed scheme.  To start, there is little evidence of Russian preparation to support Syrian forces in their campaign to seize Aleppo. There was no Russian military buildup in Syria to better enable an attack on the city or a large-scale expansion of the air wing based at  Hmeimim Airbase. While Russia’s air force has been flying more sorties over the city, its presence in-country is arguably lower than it was during heavier fighting last winter. Following the March announcement by Putin that Russia was “withdrawing” from Syria, there was a visible reduction in both fixed- and rotary-wing aviation deployed. Russia’s newspapers reported that Russia was sending aircraft back to Syria, including the 12 Su-25 ground attack aircraft that were previously withdrawn. Yet, at the peak of this deadly air campaign against Aleppo, we have satellite footage from IHS Jane’s showing that they have not arrived back in Syria.

Russia’s attempt to use Iran’s Hamadan airbase back in August, which would have greatly increased the payload its Tu-22M3 bombers could carry into battle, failed embarrassingly in a public spat with Tehran. Because they thought the arrangement should be kept secret, Iran’s leadership bristled at Russian attempts to turn cooperation into a public relations opportunity, claiming Moscow “betrayed trust.” There is also no visible increase in Russian ground forces present in Syria to suggest that a “final solution” to Aleppo had been in the works all these months, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov kept Secretary of State John Kerry distracted with notions of peace. If there is a Russian strategy to make timely gains with Aleppo as the primary operational objective, the Russian military does not seem to have been informed.

Typically, militaries build up assets in theater for an offensive operation beforehand, but in this case, we cannot discern a substantial increase of Russian support to Syrian and Iranian forces even after the ceasefire’s collapse. Instead, Russia had been busy with its annual strategic exercises in September that simulated amphibious landings in Crimea, and much of the country’s national attention had turned to the situation in Ukraine.  Russia has engaged in a dizzying number of troop movements, multinational exercises, wargames, and military events in August and September, many centered around contingencies in Ukraine or with NATO but none resulting in additional combat capabilities transferred to the campaign in Syria.

Following fiery exchanges between Russian and Western officials, Moscow has become noticeably wary of a possible U.S. lurch toward considering military intervention. The calls to do something grow louder in U.S. policy circles. America’s penchant to meet such calls by lobbing cruise missiles as a low-risk form of military action is well known. To ready for such a development, the Russian General Staff sent an S-300V4 air defense system, along with several missile corvettes from the Black Sea Fleet, hoping to deter any inclinations the United States may have toward a campaign of strikes against Syrian forces. This complements the S-400 system that is already in theater. Moscow’s generals, such as Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, are not leaving much room for doubt as to what these systems are for: “Any missile or air strikes on the territory controlled by the Syrian government will create a clear threat to Russian servicemen.” Although Russia continues to block for Syria, the bloody battle for Aleppo and this subsequent political maelstrom does not appear to be the product of a deliberate strategy.

If the Kremlin wished to take advantage of the Obama administration’s closing days to consolidate some sort of gains in Syria, then why was Lavrov permitted to spend so much time negotiating the intricate technical details of a ceasefire agreement going back to mid-July when Kerry first flew to Moscow with a proposal to establish a joint military coordinating body? What was the point of agonizing delays in announcing a deal, delving into the minutiae of who is positioned where around Castello Road? This is a Rube Goldberg theory of Russian scheming in Syria, and one that does not make much sense if Moscow simply sought a military solution in the last months of the administration.

Instead, what we have is a case of policy capture and, as I explain below, a reasonably well-thought out Russian political strategy unraveling at the hands of its allies. In September, the contradictions inherent in Russia’s approach and the divergent interests of its allies finally came home to roost. We may assign blame to Russia, but what is happening right now in Syria is Russian-led in name only.

Please click on this link to read the rest of the article.  No paywall I promise.