Lessons learned through ongoing military operations in Syria are shaping operational concepts, tactics, and technologies employed by the Russian military, and specifically by the Air Force and Naval Aviation.
While the deployment of military equipment decreased over time, the number of personnel rotated to support missions in Syrian increased. About a third of the active personnel of the Russian air defense forces rotated to combat deployment in Syria, two-thirds of the aircrews of strategic air forces, and almost all personnel of the military transport. Su-24 and Su-34 are the two platforms carrying most of the operational burden, with Su-24M flying over half the missions and Su-34 flying 26 percent. The remaining activity performed by Su-25 close air support aircraft, and Su-30 and Su-35 multi-role fighters each type flying about eight percent of the combat missions.
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The lessons learned in this conflict shape Russian priorities concerning technology development, procurement and export activities.
[wlm_ismember]Su-30SM is one of the most successful, ongoing production programs for Sukhoi with 500 aircraft of this type ordered or produced. Current production running at 12-18 aircraft a year is expected to complete deliveries to the Russian Air Force, Kazakhstan, and Belarus by the year 2020. Parallel to the production of new Su-30SM, the Russian Air Force modernizes the existing fleet and, by 2027 expects to have 186 Su-30SM in service. Su-35S is also in production, with 200 expected to be in service by the end of 2020.[/wlm_ismember]
One of these priorities is the likely withdrawal from the ‘heavy/light’ platform mix that once ruled the Russian military aerospace market. Light and low-cost fighter jets have always been popular in Russia (and the former Soviet Union), represented by MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-21, and MiG-29. Heavier, more capable but much more expensive platforms, such as MiG-19, Su-15, MiG-25, Su-27, and MiG-31 provided the core of long-range aviation and air defense capability, tasked to protect the homeland from enemy bombers.
The last generation of ‘heavy/light’ mix was the MiG-29/Su-27. The unification of Russian aerospace industries under the United Aviation Corporation (UAC) brought the long-standing competition between MiG and Sukhoi design bureaus under one roof, thus settling debates at home, rather than at the Ministry of Defense (MOD).
Furthermore, the realization that modern warfare is more about precision and measured effects, rather than grouping large masses are leaning toward the bigger, more sophisticated, versatile and mature Sukhoi (Su-30SM, 35S, and 57), rather than the MiG-35 struggling to complete flight testing and certification. MiG-35 began flight testing in 2018 and expected to complete certification in 2021. The Russian MOD committed to ordering 14, but only six were contracted so far, part of them are destined for state trials and others will eventually replace the MiG-29s of the air forces’ aerobatic team (Swifts). These orders emphasize the Russian reluctance and seem to assist exports. Egypt, Myanmar, and Bangladesh were among the interested countries.
Realizing the political cost of indiscriminate mass attacks, and their questionable outcome, Russian air operations tend to be more precise over the recent years, a trend that further reduced the use of legacy platforms such as Su-24M and Su-25SM. These aircraft were designed for conventional attack with unguided weapons, and their modernization to a level that will support such ordnance would be too costly to pursue. An exception was the installation of SVN-24/SVP-24 weapon delivery systems in Su-24M, Su-25BM, Tu-22M3 and recently in Su-34.
[wlm_ismember]Using GLONASS satellite navigation and inertial measurement systems with environmental data collected from on-board sensors, SVP-24 computes the flight path, altitude, speed, and time of release to determine for the aircraft to bring the ordnance to impact the target with the highest precision. The system operates at all weather conditions, enabling release altitude above 15,000 ft, enabling the attacking aircraft to fly above the ceiling of Man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS). According to Russian sources, Circular Error Probable (CEP – indicating hit accuracy) of unguided ordnance could be reduced to 10-15 meters using the new weapon delivery system and impacts within of 3-5 meters off the target point have been recorded. Among the weapons often used with the system were and unguided FAB250/500, OFAB250/270 and BETAB500 concrete penetrating bombs.
In the next eight years Russian Air Force will replace the entire fleet of SU-24M with S-34, and significantly increasing the stocks of guided weaponry over conventional, free-fall weapons. Among the precision weaponry used (practically combat-tested) in Syria are the KH-29, KH-25L, H-35U, KAB-500 guided bombs, and KH101 air-launched cruise missile. Other guided weaponry used includes KAB-500S/KR (0.5-ton TV guided weapon), KAB1500LG-PR (laser-guided penetrating bombs weighing 1.5 tons).
Front line air regiments are being equipped with Su-30SM and Su-35. Additionally, three regiments will convert to Su-57. The Air Force has no plans to field the MiG-35, or upgrade its MiG-29s, although the Navy has fielded few MiG-29K in support of the small Su-33 detachment on its aircraft carrier (currently undergoing refurbishment).[/wlm_ismember]
While 4+ and 4++ generation fighters remain the Russian the export priority, the newly exportable Su-57E variant is becoming the most advanced Russian 5Gen fighter, competing for orders from leading air forces that seek advanced 5Gen capabilities.
The export release of Su-57E represents a change of wind in Moscow since both military export agency Rosoboronexport and manufacturer (UAC) positioned 4+/4++ for export rather than the new Su-57 that has yet to match the level of stealth and performance of US and Chinese competitors. The recent commitment to field three air regiments (76 aircraft) with Su-57 by 2028 has marked the Air Forces’ new priority, representing a firm commitment by Moscow with foreign customers shouldering the burden. While the cost of Su-57 has decreased by about 20 percent, fulfilling export orders will enable UAC to maintain cost and achieve the technology level the Russian Air Force expects.
In the past, China and India were both interested in joining the development program, but after few years of cooperation, India lost interest due to lack of transparency by Russia, unwilling to share the aircraft source codes. China has also developed its own 5Gen fighter, the J-20, considered to be superior to the Russian Su-57E.
[wlm_ismember]Curiously, Russia may benefit from the US sanctions imposed on Turkey, over buying the S-400 air defense missile system. As the US refuses to hand over the F-35 Turkey has bought, Moscow stepped in, offering Turkey to join the Su-57E instead of the F-35. However, since Turkey already develops its own 5 Gen fighter, it would be more interested in technology transfer, rather than a complete product, something the UK, Sweden, France or Germany would be interested to share. This leaves the Russian Su-57E in a tight spot, having to ‘reinvent itself’ becoming more viable for export.[/wlm_ismember]
Such a move could be the introduction of Su-70B Okhotnik UCAV – unmanned combat aerial vehicle an unmanned platform being developed by Sukhoi will join the Su-57 as an unmanned ‘wingman’. The Su-70B prototype has recently begun flight test is expected to become stealthier, and eventually use the same powerplant as the Su-57, thus streamline joint operations with the Su-57.
[wlm_ismember]As a wingman, Su-70B will be able to act as a picket, deploying sensors and weapons inside an enemy defended airspace. Okhotnik coupled with Su-57 is considered part of the Russian Anti-Airspace one of the Russian counter-stealth capabilities, enabling the combined formation to engage F-22, F-35 or B-2/21 targets, track such targets from close range and launch air/air missiles either from the manned or unmanned platforms. While Su-70B has not been offered for export, the capability could be a game-changer in favor of the Su-57E platform, positioning the manned-unmanned team as a transformational capability countering stealth aircraft like the F-35 and future stealthy UCAVs.
[/wlm_ismember]Another new capability that could be in favor of Su-57 export is having a version of the KH-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile integrated on this platform. [wlm_ismember]With a range exceeding 2,000 km, and warhead weight of 500 kg this missile exceeds the range permitted by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) convention, but given some adaptations reducing the weapon’s range could make it suitable for future exports. This hypersonic weapon currently outperforms all known defenses, and therefore would be highly attractive to countries facing strong and capable opponents. Currently, Kinzhal can be mounted only on Russian operated platforms, namely the specially modified MiG-3K and, in the future, the Tu-22M3.[/wlm_ismember]