Russia says it's using precision weaponry in Syria, but the claim — and the bombs — are wildly off the mark.
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Since kicking off its bombing campaign in Syria on Sept. 30, Russian newscasts and social media accounts have carried images of precision-guided bombs strapped to the wings of Moscow’s latest fighter planes and have broadcast videos of what they claim are direct hits on intended targets.
But this image of precision is little more than wartime public relations, as the majority of Russian strikes have used older “dumb” bombs that can’t actually be guided to their intended targets — and are not guaranteed to come anywhere close to hitting them. Some of the first videos released by the Russian government show bombs striking only near their intended targets.
The Russians are mostly “bombing from medium altitude with unguided munitions,” said Michael Kofman, a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. That said, he cautioned, Moscow may not care: “All they need is close enough” when hitting targets tied to al-Nusra Front and other groups battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sophisticated propaganda machine has gone into overdrive since the start of Moscow’s air war in Syria. RT and other state-supported media outlets, for instance, have published photos of Russian KAB-500S precision-guided bombs — a weapon the Russian Defense Ministry was thought to have rejected in 2012 due to high costs — strapped to the bellies of advanced fighter planes parked on Syrian runways.
Photos taken in Syria and pushed out through social media have also made sure to showcase other precision-guided weapons, including the Su-24 “Fencer” aircraft outfitted with the Kh-25ML laser-guided air-to-surface missile.
Russia’s use of these precision weapons in actual combat has been minimal, however, and some analysts believe Moscow has different motives in trying to convince the world otherwise. “Using precision-guided munitions are more expensive than traditional gravity bombs, and Moscow may prefer to lose some precision in its airstrikes to save money on what is an already expensive military intervention in the Middle East,” said Jorge Benitez of the Atlantic Council.
Putin, Benitez added, may also believe that exaggerating how often Russia is using precision weapons makes it easier to deflect Western criticism about civilian deaths on the ground, regardless of whether he’s making any serious effort to cause them.
Moscow has “greater willingness to be indiscriminate in the use of force,” he said, adding that “the Russians do not care as much about collateral damage.”
One thing Russia does care about deeply, however, is making its military appear to be as modern and powerful as that of the United States. The wars in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and now Syria have been a great opportunity for Putin to showcase some of his newest and most advanced equipment, even if the Russian military only possess them in limited numbers. In Ukraine, advanced spy planes and electronic warfare equipment have completely shut down communications for Ukrainian forces, while sophisticated Russian signals-intelligence vehicles have been rushed to Syria in recent weeks to tap into rebel communications and bolster Assad’s offensive against his enemies.
These capabilities don’t come cheap. Russia allocated $81 billion for defense in 2015, the largest the military’s budget has been since the end of the Cold War, and in the face of high inflation and reduced oil revenues, it announced this month that it is rolling back planned cuts for next year, citing the conflict in Syria as a reason to maintain higher spending.
Sustaining these new platforms and overseas commitments will add pressure to an already stressed system that has seen submarines sink and catch fire and multiple military jets crash during routine training missions. The Kursk disaster in 2000 — in which 118 sailors drowned, prompting mass protests — was a searing moment in the political career of Putin, who assumed office just three months before the tragedy.
Syria, however, has emerged as a learning opportunity for a Russian military emerging from the humiliations of the 2008 war in Georgia. The Su-34 fighter plane had never seen combat before its deployment to Syria, and Russian troops are “going to war with a combination of older aircraft technology they already know and platforms that are essentially being combat-tested,” along with pilots who are learning to use them in a new environment, the Wilson Center’s Kofman said.
One more capability that the Syria deployment — however modest — has brought to light is the ability of the once lethargic Russian military to do multiple things at once. “Russia’s air force has been buying more airplanes than any Western country, and its pilots flying more hours” than any other country in Europe, Kofman said.
At the same time, thousands of troops are deployed in Crimea and Kaliningrad, while other units have been conducting snap exercises along the Ukrainian border and in the Arctic. Wartime PR aside, modernization has started to come to the Russian armed forces, just not in the way they may like to post it on Twitter.
Photo credit: VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images