Russia used Syrian Civil War intervention to test military
Over 1 year ago I wrote a series of posts attempting to illuminate Russia’s reasons for military intervention in the Syrian Civil War.1 Of the multiple possible reasons put forth, the final one was that Russia was utilizing its Syrian intervention to test its military, i.e. command and control capability, logistic organization, battlefield effectiveness and new weapon systems.
On the subject I wrote:2
“The final possible reason that we will present, a rather speculative and nonessential one, is that Russia is using intervention in Syria as a testing operation for its military. If one has been following Russia’s intervention in Syria, it is interesting at the wide variety of military assets that Russia is employing. Marines and Spetsnaz, missile cruisers and nuclear submarines, a wide variety of fighter/bomber aircraft have all been deployed. Just recently Russian warships in the Caspian Sea launched 26 cruise missiles that flew over Iran and Iraq and struck their targets in Syria, an operation that requires a considerable amount of coordination. The logistics and command and control needed to execute Russia’s war in Syria are not trivial operations. Such demanding operations will test Russia’s ability to fight a modern war in a land distant from its borders. Furthermore with Russia’s opposition to American global hegemony, it is conceivable that at some point in the future Russia may come into conflict with either America or NATO, a conflict in which it must war against modern armies. Thus if the Russian military can acquit itself well in Syria, it would have greater confidence in facing a modern army. And if it does not, then lessons can be learned and reforms made to improve its future war fighting ability. While it is highly doubtful that Putin decided to military intervene in Syria merely to test out his army, it is highly likely that he and his generals do see this operation as a useful test of Russian military capabilities.”
What at the time I thought as “a rather speculative” reason for Russian intervention now seems much less speculative thanks to recent comments by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.3 During the annual expanded meeting of the Defense Ministry Board (December 22), attended by Putin and numerous other Russian high officials, Shoigu made reference to the numerous new weapons systems tested and the combat experience gained by Russian forces.
Shoigu stated that:
“A total of 162 types of up-to-date and modernized weapons have been tested and have been proved effective during the hostilities in Syria. These include the latest Su-30SM an Su-34 planes and the Mi-28N and Ka-52 helicopters. The precision munitions and sea-launched cruise missiles, which were used for the first time in combat conditions, have confirmed their tactical characteristics.”
Of these 162 weapon systems ‘tested’ some were found to have flaws. According to Shoigu, “The purchase of 10 types of weapons has been suspended to remove these shortcomings. As a result, we have greatly improved the quality of our equipment to guarantee their safe combat use.” Furthermore, Shoigu mentions that “The training of military personnel has improved greatly. In fact, 84 percent of the flight personnel in the Russian Aerospace Forces have combat experience in Syria.”
While the Russians did not out of the blue decide to unleash their military might on the Syrian rebels merely and solely to provide a real world testing ground for their military hardware and to gain combat experience, it is clear that they are taking advantage of the conflict for these very purposes. Further evidence that Russia is in fact doing so is their recent deployment of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier to the waters off the Syrian coast.4
The capabilities of the Admiral Kuznetsov, cruise missiles and Su-33 fighters, although of use, can be provided for in other ways. For instance the land based equivalent of the Su-33 could be deployed to the Hmeymim airbase, with no decrease in capability and probably for lower costs. However, the deployment of the Admiral Kuznetsov will allow the Russian navy to test this vessel’s real world capabilities and to increase the experience of its crew.
Already some problems have manifested on the Admiral Kuznetsov, as a Su-33 crashed into the sea attempting to land on the vessel following an arresting gear malfunction.5 It is being reported that following the crash, the Kuznetsov’s Su-33 aircraft have been transferred to Hmeymim airbase, until the causative problem can be resolved.6 Obviously, this is somewhat of an embarrassment to the Russian military, but it is better for Russia to experience this embarrassment in Syria, and fix the problems involved, then for such an incident to occur during a future battle against a far more formidable opponent.
Notwithstanding the Admiral Kuznetsov incident, based on the assessment provided by Shoigu the Russian military is pleased with the experienced gained and the weapons systems tested in Syria. Another group that has taken note of Russians military performance in Syria, and one that I suspect is not so pleased with it, is NATO. According to NATO commander Michael Scaparrotti, “I’m impressed with the fact that they’ve taken a force that really had some serious problems only a few years ago. They’ve fired long-range precision missiles from submarines, from surface ships, from medium bombers, all at Syria.”7
Although Russia’s intervention in Syria has come with costs, monetary and loss of human life, Russia has as a result reaped numerous benefits, particularly in the military realm. Their real world evaluation of new weapon systems and their gaining of valuable combat experience, has increased the effectiveness of the Russian military, making it a more formidable potential foe to the West.