Hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin got legal approval from the Russian Duma to deploy troops to Syria, Russian warplanes launched their first strikes against targets near the Syrian city of Hama, the Russian Ministry of Defense said. But even as the airstrikes are raising some eyebrows in various national capitals, Russia was signaling its intentions a week and a half ago, and almost no one noticed.
Satellite images taken on September 21 near Latakia, in western Syria, revealed that the Russian Air Force has successfully conducted a strategic force projection and foretold of Moscow's effort to further assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against a range of armed opposition groups. The images clearly show 28 Russian combat planes openly lined up on the secondary runway at Bassel al-Assad International Airport.
These pictures might not be mistaken for something coming out of Fashion Week, but they do make it possible to identify all the aircraft at the Syrian airfield. In fact, the images amount to a veritable picture menu of expeditionary airpower. Specifically, they show 28 Sukhoi jets, including four Su-30SM multi-role jets, 12 Su-25SM Close Air Support aircraft (which are designed to get up close and personal in ground combat to hit targets with cannons and missiles) as well as 12 Su-24M2 attack planes (handy for more general air-to ground strikes). Also spotted: about a dozen helicopters, including 10 Mi-24PN and Mi-35M gunships and a couple of Mi-8AMTSh utility choppers.
Further analysis suggests that one of the Su-30 may be carrying an ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) jammer at the wing tips.
What the satellite imagery can't explain, however, is how nearly 30 tactical planes (some of which are allegedly armed) could have been deployed to Latakia without anyone really noticing.
US officials have since confirmed that the Russian combat planes were deployed to Latakia by trailing cargo planes that have been involved in an air bridge between Russia and Syria since early September.
The Russian military airlift from Sevastopol and other bases in Russia to Latakia (where the Russians have been building their forward operating base) certainly wasn't a secret. Anyone logging into Flightradar24, the online tracking system that lets users from all around the world monitor civil and (occasionally) military air traffic in real time, could have figured out the size and scale of the deployment beginning on September 7. Within a couple of days, no fewer than six massive Antonov An-124 Condor cargo aircraft could be seen flying towards Latakia along an easterly roundabout route that avoided the airspaces of Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and Cyprus closed to Russian aircraft supporting the military buildup in Syria. Nor were the An-124s the only Russian planes flying to the base on the Mediterranean coast: heavy lifting lyushin Il-62, Il-76 and Tupolev Tu-154 cargo jets could be spotted as well.
With these heavy cargo planes coming and going from Latakia to support the largest overseas deployment of Russian forces since the collapse of the USSR, it wasn't impossible for the Russians to sneak some combat planes into Syria as well.
According to US Defense reports, the 28 jets flew to Latakia via Iran in formations made up of a cargo plane and four accompanying fast jets. (Some seem to have made a stopover in Iran before flying the last leg to Latakia, which would also explain why some Il-76s — with an endurance allowing for a non-stop trip from Russia to Syria — were observed stopping at an air base near the eastern Iranian city of Hamadan on September 18-19, just before the Russian Sukhois appeared on the tarmac at Latakia). During the ferry flight, only the cargo aircraft leading the formation had its transponder turned on and thus were the only aircraft that could be seen by air traffic control radars along the route.
Although this is more or less standard procedure for the deployment of tactical jets, there's a chance that Russia was literally hiding the combat planes under the radar signature of the larger transport aircraft in an attempt to avoid detection and to sidestep any problems obtaining the proper diplomatic clearance required to move warplanes across another sovereign airspace. It's a good chance, too, given that they ran into just this sort of difficulty with some of their Il-76s, which were prevented from entering Iraqi airspace at least twice before the arrival of the Sukhois.
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Whether they were trying to keep things on the down low or they were simply trying to avoid delays, the Russians successfully showed the world their ability to quickly and freely mobilize a powerful armada across a long distance, the same way the US deploys its advanced fighters around the world."
Interestingly, the entire operation was closely monitored by the Israeli Air Force. Israeli G550 Shavit ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) aircraft and G550 "Nachson-Eitam" CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning) aircraft, which are sort of a mini version of the US surveillance AWACS aircraft, could be seen on Flightradar24, circling off the coast of Lebanon to gather intelligence on the deployment well before the first Russian aircraft lined up for their nice group photo on the tarmac at Latakia.
However, the Israeli spy planes were not only watching the Sukhois on their way to Syria as part of the first documented use of Russia's strategic transport fleet in an overseas deployment. They were probably just as interested in the Syrian Arab Air Force aircraft that were launched to greet and escort the Russians into the Syrian airspace. In fact, it seems that the formations of combat planes trailing the Il-76 cargo planes were intercepted and escorted to Latakia by Syrian planes, including SyAAF Mig-29 Fulcrum jets.
Israeli spy missions over the eastern Mediterranean Sea have continued since then, a sign that something more was about to happen. And happen it did: on September 28, six Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback bombers, Russia's most modern tactical jets, also arrived at Latakia to join the rest of the team.
An image taken from the ground at Idlib shows that this time the six long-range strike fighters were supported by what initially looked to be a civilian airliner but turned out to be a Russian Air Force Tu-154.
The Russian Air Force Tu-154 (aka callsign RFF7085), could be tracked online on Flightradar24 during its flight to Latakia, revealing the probable route of the six Su-34s during their deployment. The formation flew over the Caspian Sea to reach Iran, then turned west toward Syrian airspace before flying over northern Iraq.
Although we don't know whether they received diplomatic clearance this time around, there's no longer any doubt that the Russian Air Force has managed to bring its most modern hardware to Syria. And a mere 48 hours after the final Su-34 Fullbacks landed in Syria, Russian planes are up in the air, bombing targets on Putin's orders and with the authorization of the Duma.
Follow David Cenciotti on Twitter: @cencio4
Photo via Wikimedia Commons