It Has Begun: Russia Is Showcasing New Weapons in Fresh Syrian Offensive

It looks like Russia’s big offensive in Syria has officially kicked-off, and the Kremlin is digging deep into its back bench of weapons systems to highlight on the international stage.

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Russia has launched a series of strikes in the Syrian provinces of Homs and Idlib on Tuesday, in what appears to be the start of a large-scale renewed offensive. Russia’s top general, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, made the following statements during a meeting with Vladimir Putin and his top military staff:

"Today at 10:30 and 11:00 we launched a large-scale operation against the positions of Islamic State and Al-Nusra in the provinces of Idlib and Homs... The main targets of the strikes are warehouses with ammunition, terrorist gatherings and terrorist training centers, as well as plants for the production of various kinds of weapons of mass destruction of the population... They are factories, not workshops, more specifically the plants for the production of all sorts of rather serious means of mass destruction… Clearly, this is a well-established industrial production, these are the targets for today's strikes. And they will continue… You are aware that we have sent a large group of our radiation, chemical and biological protection troops to determine the toxic substances which are used by terrorists. Within the past week they used them twice – in one case, 27 people were hospitalized and three died, in the other case 30 people were hospitalized – I mean the Syrian Army soldiers.”

The strikes were at least partially executed via cruise missiles, launched from both sea and land. For the first time Russia showed images of the Bastion-P coastal defense system in Syria, and strangely enough, the systems P-800 supersonic anti-ship missiles were used against land targets. It is not exactly clear how capable these missiles could be in such a role as they rely on onboard radar for terminal homing, and that radar system was primarily designed for the naval environment. But they must be accurate enough to justify their firing. 

Shoigu also stated the Bastion coastal missile complexes have covered almost the entire coastline… With these complexes, we are able to destroy both sea and ground targets at distances of 350km for sea targets and nearly 450km for ground targets.” 

On the sea side of the cruise missile equation, the nearly brand new Russian guided missile frigate Admiral Grigorovich fired Kalibr cruise missiles at targets deep into Syria. Last week we noted that the ship, which is part of the Black Sea Fleet, was on the move and would likely join Russia’s large naval task force positioned off Syria.  

Today’s Bastion-P firings are the first time the supersonic P-800 has been known to have been used in the Syrian conflict and the wide-scale deployment of the system is just another piece of the layered anti-access/area denial bubble Russia is creating around Syria. In addition to this system, Shoigu also detailed Russia’s rapidly growing anti-aircraft capabilities in western Syria, stating: “The S-400 has been running for a long time now. Apart from that, we have added S-300 to cover the sea area, nearly all the way to Cyprus.” 

Now that Russia basically owns the Syrian port of Tartus and is expanding its naval base there, we know S-300 systems have already been deployed around it. The systems can indeed reach all the way across the Eastern Med to Cyprus, as well as down into Lebanon and as far as the Turkish border to the North. Combined with the Bastion-P, they can put any vessel or aircraft traveling in that region under threat. Seeing as the eastern Mediterranean has become increasingly more popular a place for NATO carrier strike groups to operate from, these developments, at the very least, will likely change the way in which they go about their business in the area going forward. 

Also of note is that there are reports that S-300 batteries have also shown up near government garrisons on the outskirts of Aleppo. Obviously ISIS has no air force, and all of these anti-air systems are aimed at deterring any future action by the US or its allies against the Assad regime or Russia’s increasing interests in that country. 

Just a day after losing one of only four new MiG-29KRs deployed aboard, Russia’s only carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, has also flown its first armed combat sorties, or at least we are just now confirming this to be the case through a video released from the Russian Ministry of Defense. 

In the video, Su-33 fighters are shown being launched off the Kuznetsov’s deck armed with air-to-air loadouts. These appear to include a pair of R-27 (Alamo) intermediate-range and a pair of R-73 (NATO reporting name Archer) short-range air-to-air missiles. The Su-33s, which have received a limited upgrade recently, also sport Sorbtsiya-S electronic warfare pods on their wingtips. This mix of weapons and ECM gear has been a common weapons configuration for Russia’s land-based Flankers in Syria and for those flying air defense missions from Russia as well. 

Much has been made about the Su-33’s ability to lift large weapons loads off the Kuznetsov’s ski jump. In this case the aircraft are carrying about 2,000 pounds of ordnance each, which is not all that much and we don’t know how much fuel the jets are loaded with at the time of their departure. Still it is interesting to see the Su-33s flying from the carrier armed-up. These missions also mark the first time Admiral Kuznetsov has been used in any sort of actual combat. 

Still, based on the video evidence alone, Russia’s carrier-based fighters are only providing counter-air capabilities at this time. It is not clear if or when the MiG-29KRs, which are far more advanced and capable in the air-to-ground department than their larger Su-33 stablemates, will be wading into the action or if they already have for that matter. It is also possible that they are standing down, even if for a short period of time, following yesterday’s crash.

Meanwhile, after weeks of a self-imposed “humanitarian pause,” airstrikes began again in eastern Aleppo once again, and this round is likely to become the most brutal ever. Just hours ago, mass text messages were sent to everyone still in Aleppo, with the message being nothing but ominous: Leave or die. Since then barrel bombings have resumed. Russia denies it is taking part in them, which very well could be true, but that does not mean that Assad’s rudimentary air force isn’t warming up for a larger onslaught that will include Russian aircraft in the near future. 

Onto reports that MiG-31 Foxhounds have arrived at Russia’s airbase south of Latakia, Syria. Although there is still no official comment on their presence as of yet, we do have a scant two pictures to go off of. One shows a Foxhound during recovery at what looks the base, although it is tough to tell, and another shows what appears to be a bunch of R-33 long-range air-to-air missiles, used exclusively by the MiG-31, under a tarp at what is claimed to be Russia’s air base in Syria. 

So why would Russia deploy a heavy interceptor to the crowded airspace of Syria? Well at this point why not? The same question can be asked about firing supersonic anti-ship missiles at defenseless land targets, or even firing cruise missiles at any targets at all when fixed wing-tactical aircraft already based in-country could just strike the same target for a tiny fraction of the cost. Or why heavy bombers have been used, and the list goes on and on. 

As I have said for over a year now, and time and time again since, Syria has become a great operational testing range, weapons marketing platform and propaganda tool for Russia above all else. The military operations there don’t have to make tactical sense, because effecting the battlefield is not their entire purpose, far from it in fact. And Russia will cycle every weapon system it has through the theatre before the war comes to an end, in part to test it operationally, to show other nations that it works and to fear it or to purchase it for their own militaries. 

With all that in mind, Mig-31s, many of which were recently upgraded, appearance in Syria, is not surprising at all, it was only a matter of time. And Russia’s willingness to deploy all this gear to what is really a counter-insurgency operation isn’t all bad for the US and its allies because the entire region is just socked with intelligence gathering capabilities. Capturing Russia’s modern standard operating procedures, their means of communications and combined arms capabilities, as well as all the electronic intelligence that can be gained every time one of their radars clicks or data-links transmits is a dream come true for western military intelligence gurus.   

Regardless of what gear Russia is bringing to bear in Syria, two things are certain. The first is that a new Russian offensive is now underway and how it develops in Aleppo will have the most geopolitical impact. The other is that Syria is now basically Kaliningrad on the Mediterranean, and the anti-access/area denial bubble they are building there, especially now that they now basically own the port at Tartus and their master air base 75 miles to the north, will have a deep strategic impact on the region for many years to come. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thewarzone.com