November 17, 2015: Strategy Page
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, just before the Cold War ended in 1991. Through the 1990s some 80 percent of the huge Cold War Russian (Soviet) armed forces melted away. 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. Russia is also sending in a lot of the new UAVs it has been building, apparently pulling a lot of them out of the Ukraine fighting, along with a lot of their world-class electronic warfare equipment. With new and repaired radios, more medical supplies and equipment as well as military field rations in abundance Syrian forces get daily reminders that things are looking up even if they are not in combat. 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. Russia never had a lot of these and now there is a need and it will take until the end of the year before new production will start to make a difference. Even then Russia will not be able to use smart (laser or GPS) guided bombs as often as Western and some Arab (oil rich Gulf States) air forces do. These countries tend to use such weapons in over 90 percent of their air strikes.
Russia was known to have had smart weapons since the 1970s, many of them based on American smart bombs (or fragments) captured in Vietnam. The problem was that Russia never built or used a lot of these weapons. For a long time Russia considered these special weapons for rare special occasions and there were few such occasions until now. Russia has known since the 1990s that these smart weapons can make a big difference but throughout the 1990s Russia had no money for new bombs of any kind.
Even in the United States it wasn’t until the 1991 Gulf war that the full impact of these weapons was noted. There only 16 percent of the 250,000 bombs dropped were guided. But analysis of the battlefield later revealed that the guided bombs had done 75 percent of the actual damage. This pattern kept repeating itself and by the late 1990s the U.S. was on its way to using nothing but smart bombs. Not so Russia. While new smart bombs were developed in Russia very few were built. Moreover few Russian warplanes were equipped to use smart bombs and few pilots had any experience with these weapons. So it should be no surprise that Russia is using few smart bombs in Syria. The simple fact is that Russia has few of these weapons and even fewer aircraft and pilots able to handle them.
Meanwhile China is building a lot more smart bombs and equipping more (than Russia) of its aircraft to use them. Since the 1990s China could afford to do so while Russia could not. Meanwhile China is still learning from Russia. In 2010 China introduced a new laser guided bomb; the LT-2. This weapon looked very similar to the Russian KAB-500L 1100 pound laser guided bomb. The KAB-500L in turn is very similar to the American Paveway series of laser guided bombs. That is, a dumb bomb has a guidance kit attached. In 1994 China introduced a laser guided bomb that appeared to be reverse engineered U.S. Paveway. These apparently did not perform very well, so China apparently used Russian smart bombs as a model.