Russia May Be Winning Syria, But Its Aircraft Have Paid The Price
Here’s What You Need To Know: Some combat losses may have been avoided if the VKS possessed more precision-guided weapons and surveillance drones to allow targets to be rapidly identified and safely targeted from on high. However, these losses were too few to stop the VKS and naval aviation from flying well over 39,000 sorties in Syria by mid-2018, shifting the tide of the conflict in Assad’s favor.
Just two months after the Russian Aerospace Force (VKS) was formed by merging the tactical air force and air defense forces, Putin announced the deployments of dozens of combat aircraft to Syria in a bid to prop up the faltering regime of strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Five years of relentless bombardment tilted the course of the war in Assad’s favor—and continues to do so today as heavy bombing paves the way for Assad’s forces to crush the last major rebel stronghold in Idlib province—if it doesn’t trigger Turkish intervention first.
However, the air campaign has cost the Russian military at least nineteen manned aircraft (eleven helicopters and eight airplanes) between 2015–2018, leading to the deaths of twenty-three crew and thirty-seven passengers.
For comparison, between 2014 and 2020, the U.S. military lost two aircraft in anti-ISIS operations in Syria: an F-16 jet in 2014 due to an accident shortly after takeoff and a V-22 tilt-rotor in a hard landing in 2017.
This piece will look case-by-case at the causes of Russian aviation losses, drawing upon Moscow’s Game of Poker: Russian Military Intervention in Syria by Tom Cooper, “The Russian Campaign in Syria” by Anton Lavrov, and additional media reports.
During early operations bombing Turkmen militias, Russian jets routinely traversed Turkish airspace in northwestern Syria. On November 24, a pair of Russian Su-24M attack jets ignored repeated Turkish warnings (see map here). Finally, during a seventeen-second incursion into Turkish airspace a Turkish Air Force F-16 launched an AIM-120 radar-guided missile from nine to twelve miles away which struck the Su-24M at 20,000 feet, sending it crashing into the hills.
Three hours after the downing of the Su-24M, two Mi-8AMTsh ‘Hip’ helicopters—a classic Soviet transport helicopter fortified with additional armor and weapons—departed on a combat search-and-rescue mission to recover the surviving crew me