Missiles, warplanes & robots: Russian weaponry in Syrian military campaign (VIDEOS)
Kalibr cruise missiles
Arguably the biggest breakthrough for Russia in Syria was the use of Kalibr missiles, which entered service in 2012 and were never used before the Syrian campaign. Russian warships and submarines have fired barrages of Kalibrs on a dozen occasions so far.
The Kalibr missile family includes many different types, but the one that drew attention in Syria is a land attack missile with an estimated range of 2,000 to 2,600km, and performance comparable to the US-made Tomahawk. The deployment was a live demonstration of how Russia has closed the technology gap in this area, entering an exclusive club of countries proficient in long-range missile warfare.
Kuznetsov aircraft carrier
Another Russian mission in Syria also had to deal with a gap, and its results were less grandiose, but just as important militarily. For two months starting in November 2016, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, was stationed near the Syrian coast, flying sorties from its deck. It was the ship’s first combat mission in its almost three decades of service.
Russia’s military needs were always focused on land operations rather than controlling the high seas, so the Syrian deployment offered a rare opportunity for the Admiral Kuznetsov crew to test their equipment and skills in a real combat operation. And it was… not perfect. The aircraft carrier lost not one but two of its aircraft, both of which rolled over the deck during landing, reportedly due to arrestor gear failure.
The defense ministry insists, however, that the deployment was a success and that the experience received was valuable.
Another strategic tool that Russia has used in Syria is its long-range aviation. Unlike Su-24 bombers or Su-35 fighter jets, which fly from Syrian airbases, a supersonic Tu-160 bomber can fly from a base in Russia, attack its targets and return. Alternatively, missions can be launched from Iran, involving an added political aspect.
There have been just a handful of such sorties, but Russian generals seem to be getting the most out of them. For instance, in July, they tested modern Kh-101 nuclear-capable stealth strategic cruise missiles launched from Tu-95MS strategic bombers – an apparent overkill for even the world’s scariest terrorist group.
Advanced aircraft and munitions
The bulk of the airstrikes in Syria, of course, is done by other warplanes with less impressive endurance. The fleet based at Khmeimim Air Base also saw some unordinary deployments. For instance, Su-35 fighter jets were used to guard Russian bombers during sorties and show off advanced Russian technology to Syrian officials (and give second thoughts to US-led coalition pilots).
One of the latest pieces of advanced Russian hardware deployed to Syria is the Mig-29SMT, the latest upgrade of the iconic multirole fighter jet.
Russian pilots also had the chance to deploy combat helicopters like the Mi-28N Night Hunter, which can fly nighttime missions and snipe enemy vehicles with missiles fired from well outside the range of whatever SAMs they may have.
T-90 vs TOW
Some Russian weapons were thrust into the spotlight in Syria with no help from Russian troops. Moscow not only sent its warplanes to help the government in Damascus fight jihadists, but also provided the Syrian Army with advanced weapons, like the T-90 tank.
One of the crews was most likely very happy with the quality after a direct hit by a US-made BGM-71 TOW guided missile fired by a militant squad failed to penetrate its armor. Rumor has it that the video helped Russian officials negotiate some lucrative T-90 sales contracts in the Middle East.
Drones (and the lack thereof)
Another significant feature of the Syrian campaign is Russia’s extensive use of surveillance drones for target acquisition and post-strike analysis. The fleet of UAVs used by the expeditionary force is estimated at around 70.
But seeing drone footage of an airstrike may be bittersweet for patriotic Russian defense observers. The Russian military invests in the technology, but is yet to perfect more advanced strike drones like those used by the US, Israel, or China.
Demining robot Uran-6
Modern Russian land robots have also seen action in Syria, not in combat, but in the crucial support role. The Uran-6 demining robot was used in clearing the outskirts of Aleppo, providing help to Russian sappers.
The complex is a remotely-controlled mine trawl which can detect, identify, and destroy any explosive device with up to 60kg TNT yield. The explosives are either detonated or smashed by the heavy trawl. The robot can be equipped with six different trawls to suit its needs, as well as bulldozer blades.