Russia’s Jets are Breaking Down in Syria – What Now?

Lorenzo Cico, JHU:

After a first month of apparent success, it seems Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military forces have succumbed to the difficulty of deployed operations. Since September 30, Russian air force jets flying from the Latakia air base have been conducting air strikes in support of Syrian government forces. On October 8, Russia warships in the Caspian Sea joined the action by launching cruise missiles at rebel targets. Although the Russian media has painted Russian intervention as any easy task by publicizing video of jets taking off with full weapon loads, as well as gun camera videos of bombs impacting rebel positions, last Monday, October 26, reports indicated that less than two thirds of Russian attack jets were functional for missions. This availability of aircraft is more commonly referred to as the readiness rate within the defense community, and Russia’s jets are at significantly lower levels than American jets deployed to the Middle East. According to an anonymous US Air Force officer, a readiness rate below 80% would be cause for scrutiny from senior leadership. The Russian aircraft are experiencing close to 70% and 50% readiness rates for attack and support aircraft respectively.

For the Pentagon, news of Russian planes suffering extensive mechanical problems is no surprise. Ever since the fall of the USSR, it has been increasingly hard for the Russian air force to find replacements parts for aircraft built in the 1980s, especially as many Soviet aircraft were produced in now independent states, such as Ukraine. Analysts from the Teal Group aviation-consulting firm, suggested that the Russian’s maintenance problems have gotten worse in Syria due to the harsher, dustier climate, however the root of the problem is Russia’s limited logistical capability. Russia started by flying up to 88 missions daily at the beginning of October, surprising American military officials. Reports from the past week indicates that the missions have fallen off to approximately 55 daily, consistent with Pentagon’s initial evaluation of Russia’s logistical capability. Compared to American aircraft and crews, which have been deployed to the Middle East for 14 years now, the Russians are very inexperienced, so rates are likely to increase slowly as operational kinks are sorted out and correct maintenance parts are shipped to Syria.

It seems Putin has not been perturbed by the Russian air force’s maintenance issues, and is probably aware that teaching his logisticians will take time and experience. This need for spare parts and increased use of his aircraft will give Putin more reason to extend Russian military spending, which is already well over budget for 2015. Any difficulties Putin does face in fixing Russian aircraft will come from the sanctions that are supposed to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine. Ukraine remains a stalemate and Syria resembles it more everyday as President Bashar al-Assad fights the opposition on multiple fronts, the US focuses on negating ISIS, Turkey attacks the Kurds, and Russia bombs the Syrian opposition and ISIS. With so many actors involved in the Syrian conflict one must ask if any of the bombing campaigns are doing anything to the ground situation? Air strikes alone are never a solution, as historian T. R.  Fehrenbach once remarked:

“You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men in the mud.”

The death of an American special operations soldier in Iraq has reminded the American public that the fight against ISIS, and if necessary Assad, will have to be fought with ground forces in combat, not advisors cooped up in bases. The question remains if Putin will backtrack on his vows to not use Russian ground troops in Syria, seeing the difficulty Assad has had finding enough fighters and the changing alliances of rebel groups. Fehrenbach wrote about Korea, not Syria. The use of ground troops in Korea was tactically and strategically clear because there was one enemy in a well-defined geographic area. Syria is the exact opposite with multiple different forces holding clusters of towns and roads with some parts of the country under no control at all. This confusion on the ground prompted Obama to change his tune of ‘no troops on the ground’ by deploying 50 Special Forces soldiers to Syria. Maybe Putin can play the air strike game better than the US has and keep his own ‘no ground troops promise’, but he will have to find some parts to fix his airplanes first.

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