A side effect of Russian intervention in Syria

I’ve been wondering why Russia had committed relatively few combat forces to its intervention in Syria.  Strategy Page has some thoughts on the matter.

The Russian intervention in Syria involves some 4,000 troops and about fifty warplanes and helicopters. The small size of this force exposes a sad fact of post-Cold War Russia; the military no longer has much in the way of combat capability and few post-Cold War weapons. Thus Russia has few smart bombs and is mostly relying on unguided bombs built in the 1980s … The Russian air force and navy are now less than ten percent of their Cold War strength and the army has fewer combat brigades than it did armies during the Cold War.

But there is one important thing that Russia does have and that the Syrian armed forces desperately needs; support for maintaining and upgrading Syria’s largely Russian weapons and equipment. Russian maintenance and technical personnel are pouring into Syria, largely unnoticed, along with spare parts, upgrade kits and special maintenance equipment. Thousands of Syrian army weapons and vehicles that had become inoperable, or only partially functional are now being returned to usable condition … This makes the Syrian forces more effective when fighting and is a big boost for Syrian morale in general.

Russia is using the experience in Syria to upgrade its own armed forces. The Russians have already found that they are not as good at keeping combat aircraft ready (the “readiness rate”) in a combat zone as Western air forces are. American military aircraft in the Middle East have a readiness rate of about 90 percent while the Russian rate is 70 percent. The Americans have a lot more experience, especially in the Middle East. The Russians are learning, especially from the Syrians who are showing them how to deal with the dust, sand and heat. Meanwhile Russia is hustling to build more satellite (GLONASS/ GPS) and laser guided bombs and missiles. Russia is now learning which of their smart bombs work best in combat and are modifying the designs even as they try to increase production.

There’s more at the link.

This makes very good sense from the Russian perspective.  It doesn’t have many modern combat forces (or equipment) to spare;  but it does have absolutely massive stockpiles of obsolescent and obsolete Soviet-era 1970’s and 1980’s-vintage military equipment, the same stuff that equips Syria’s armed forces.  It can strip spare parts from those stockpiles and ferry them to Syria for very little expense compared to the cost of new production;  and Syria is grateful to have its own equipment, long neglected and under-maintained, restored to operating condition.  It’s a lot of bang for the buck, to coin a phrase.

I’ll be interested to see how Russian doctrines and operational tactics change as a result of the combat experience it’s gaining in the breakaway regions of Ukraine and in Syria.  Neither conflict is a showcase for conventional military operations, being more along the lines of counter-insurgency operations.  The old Soviet Union fought guerrillas in Afghanistan, and more recently within its own borders in Central Asia, but was better known for fomenting guerrilla wars in other parts of the world, in an attempt to destabilize countries allied to the West during the Cold War.  (I had plenty of exposure to that in southern Africa.)  Can Russia now make the transition to a counter-insurgency expeditionary force role, while preserving at least some conventional warfare capability in the homeland?  Also, its weapons and equipment aren’t the best for the latter role, and its economy probably isn’t in shape to produce enough of them for its needs – at least, not at present.  Will combat experience teach it more about what’s needed from its weapons, and help to improve their design?  Does Russia still have enough hi-tech production capacity to make as many of them as it needs, and build them to Western standards of reliability and effectiveness?

This will bear watching.  (Pun intended!)



  1. Down here, we figured Putin was playing it conservative in case ISIS caused some troubles closer to Mother Russia. Keep reserves so that they could be deployed from Russia, rather than moving from Syria in other words.

    But the link does make a good case. Whatever the reason, Russian generally plays for keeps, not for show.

  2. We learned a lot in our first sandbox adventure, which manifested itself during the second one 13 years later. Where we've also learned a lot. Equipment improved a great deal between '91 and '03, as well as maintenance and support techniques.

    Though the Russkis are supporting older stuff (some of it really old) for the Syrians they will learn a great deal as well. Had our (spit) "leadership" been smarter and willing to stay the course we could have denied the Russians that learning experience.

  3. This has me wondering if there are any historical parallels to the Spanish civil war where Nazi Germany used it as its' testing area, to see what worked and what didn't. It setup WWII and allowed Nazi Germany to blitz most of Europe, prior to the rest of the world banding together and defeating Nazi Germany.

    I wonder if Russia is doing the same thing, and where it'll go from here.

  4. It reminds me of what we did in 2001 with the Northern Alliance – we provided air support and technology to existing fighters who then made headway; it also means that fewer people are at risk and I think that is growing to be a concern in Russia the way it is in the US.
    As you say, good bang for the buck and low risk too – what's not to like about it?

  5. Another anon

    The American interest had a great article in Russia's goals. They used a five ring model. Basically all Russia has to do to win is show they helped Assad stay in power. They can leave at any time and declare victory. And by being in Syria it made the us look even more toothless. Russia's strategy is low risk, high return. They are now a player in the Middle East again, that they were frozen out of since 1973.

    My guess is Russia has little interest in a repeat of Afghanistan where the Russians did the majority of the fighting.

    And with the drop in oil prices. Russia has cash issues… Limiting their new weapon development.

  6. Anon @ 1:47PM – There's no question the Germans learned a great deal in Spain, especially regarding equipment improvements. As far as "blitzing Europe," however, their Polish victory in 1939 and the French/Belgian victories in May of 1940 were a lot closer run than most realize.

    Had the Polish campaign continued another 10 days many front line German units would have been out of ammunition and German success in France was largely due to French fecklessness in confrontng them. Where individual French combat units did they quite successfully held them back until the Germans could mass enough force at that point to overcome them, primarily because the Germans had state-of-the-art (for the time) battlefield communication systems and a more flexible command structure. The French army was infested by old (mid- to late-60s) WWI veterans who bet everything on static defense (the Maginot Line) and expectations the Belgians would do their part.

    For the most part, German successes were equally as dependent on Western (British, French and Belgian) ineptitude and reluctance to observe change as German military ability. Had France had the courage to press the issue militarily when the German military moved into the Rhineland in 1936 – a large percentage of those German troops had neither rifles nor ammunition, and those with rifles had less than a standard combat load of ammunition – it's entirely possible WWII could have been avoided, or at least better confronted, when Hitler & Co. suffered the political defeat which would have resulted.

  7. @Anonymous November 18, 2015 at 1:47 PM

    Read Ezekial chapters 38 & 39 (western numbering) to see where this is going. I think the King of the North already has the hook in his mouth.

    In the long run, Russia isn't learning much from its Ukraine adventure. It isn't an insurgency, although the so called pro-Russian separatists (actually Russian infiltrators themselves) were pretty much a classical insurgency which was having its head handed to it until the Russian Army directly intervened. Given the sanctions, they won't be able to hold the part of the Donbas they are sitting on, or Crimea. They run out of money next year. Even if sanctions are withdrawn,both Donbas and Crimea are a financial hemorrhage they can't sustain and improve their military at the same time.

    At the bottom line, Putin is an idiot if he does not realize that he is headed to a decision point at which he will be forced to either abandon his imperial ambitions, or see his country destroyed again financially. If he chooses a path leading to financial destruction, then Russia will most likely break completely apart this time. If he chooses his country rather than imperialism, it will break apart when the coalition he leads goes after Israel and the coalition forces are annihilated when God directly intervenes.

    Either way, Russia, as the world has known it since Peter the Great, will be history.

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