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Russian Heavy Bombers Are Hammering Syria — and It's Practice for Bigger Fights

Russia is using its heavy bombers for the first time in its campaign in Syria, so it can learn how to use them to battle NATO.

by Ryan Faith
Nov 19 2015, 7:30pm

A Russian Tu-22M3 Backfire bomber on the runway

This week, the Russian campaign in Syria took a new turn with the first-time use of all three types of Russian heavy bombers currently in service: the Tu-22M3 Backfire, Tu-160 Blackjack, and the venerable Tu-95 Bear. Two of the three Russian (née Soviet) bombers haven't played a major role in any military campaign since the 1980s, when then-Soviet Tu-22M Backfires were blowing the crap out of Afghanistan.

Now, the news isn't that they flew, exactly, or even that they were testing out new weapons, but rather that the Russians were very likely validating new military doctrine. While tactics and strategy are how a military thinks about fighting, doctrine is how a military thinks about tactics and strategy. It's sort of the meta-strategy and meta-tactics, if you will. It's very seldom classified or secret, because it's so fundamental and philosophical that classifying doctrine would be like classifying a philosophical treatise.

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Militaries carry out exercises for many reasons, including signaling and training, and sometimes an exercise can be used to test and experiment with doctrine. While not nearly as rigorous as real-life experience — things in combat always go wrong that haven't been practiced before — these exercises at least allow for experimentation, precisely because much less is on the line.

Likewise, militaries can learn from experience during wartime. The Iraq War, for instance, is the reason the US eventually adopted General David Petraeus's approach to fighting an insurgency. This is one reason so-called "battle hardened" armies are considered superior; they have practical experience in finding out what really works in the field versus what the textbook claims will work. But it's also why the battlefield is a lousy place for experimentation. If the experiment goes badly, you don't get to go back to the drawing board, you get buried.

But once in a great while, there are cases in which things get inverted and you end up with a situation in which a war becomes a training ground. Case in point: Although the Germans completely kicked France's ass in World War II, the Germans and French used pretty similar equipment. The reason the Germans were so successful was their doctrine of Blitzkrieg ("lightning war").

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And the Germans weren't successful at Blitzkrieg because it was so inventive or clever (although it certainly was), but because they had gotten a chance to do a big pregame test of this form of warfare during the Spanish Civil War. Without diving head-first into all the gnarly history of that ugly war, suffice it to say that by the time the Germans rolled into France in 1940, they were already old pros at a brand-new kind of fighting.

Now, the US has had a couple conflicts that have gone badly, and a couple that have gone well, almost up to the point of war-as-training. Although the 1991Gulf War was originally expected to be a much nastier and more brutal fight than actually happened, in retrospect, it kind of turned into a training exercise and validated a lot of doctrine and concepts about the role of long-range strike, precision weapons, and so on, called "the Revolution in Military Affairs" or (RMA), which the US had been working on for ages.

RMA, oddly enough, comes from the writings of Soviet Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov in the 1970s and '80s. The Soviet Union imploded before that doctrine was ever fully adopted by the Soviets, even as it was picked up by the US and validated in the Gulf War. The validation of RMA ideas and the US mastery of that doctrine sent shocks throughout the international defense community. In 1992, the chief of staff of the Indian Army reportedly said that the main lesson other countries had learned was "Don't mess with the US without nuclear weapons."

But if it's such an awesome way to fight, why isn't it more widely adopted? Well, for one thing, it's a expensive as hell, and tight defense budgets are the new normal, so some countries just flat out aren't going to pay for a big "reconnaissance-strike complex." The second thing is that the lopsided US victory in 1991 ended up deterring a lot of nations from getting any bright ideas about starting the kind of big conventional wars where other militaries could get their own experience implementing RMA.

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While Russia has certainly been learning a lot and developing some really clever tactics and strategies, first during the fight in Georgia in 2008, and more recently in Ukraine starting in 2014, what's different this time around is the introduction of bombers in long-distance strikes.

Only three countries operate heavy bombers like the ones used in Wednesday's Syria strikes: the US, Russia, and China. Russia and the US are currently designing their next generation bombers, so this valuable operational experience will be a factor for Russian designers.

But if you look at it a different way, the fact that Russia has enough money to even talk about developing a new bomber after a couple decades of sharp poverty suggests that it might actually be able to devote enough resources to developing its own "reconnaissance-strike complex." And, following more tests like the one we saw this week, the Russians may not only be evolving their own RMA doctrine, but getting experience with those new developments in doctrine.

To be sure, the flight also involved a bit of signaling to other powers — there's no way the flight of the bombers escaped the notice of all the air forces in the coalition to fight the Islamic State. But the signaling was more substantive than just saber-rattling. It's a sign that Russia not only wants to stand on the same military pedestal as the US, but that it fully intends to develop the military capability to do so.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Updated to reflect that the Tu-22M, not the Tu-95, was used in Afghanistan.