News that a Russian strike aircraft has been shot down by Turkey has again focused attention on Russia's air campaign in Syria, which began in late September. The Russians deployed a small but decisive air and naval force to side with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to protect his regime and, specifically, the city of Damascus.
While the Russian Air Force deployment to Syria has undoubtedly complicated the air operations of the US-led coalition, the coalition's significant advantage in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and its ability to use extensive air-to-air refueling assets, mean that its air forces can easily 'deconflict' (that is, reduce the risk of the collision by co-ordinating movements) their operations from those of the Russians.
The ability of assets like the RAAF Wedgetail, the US Air Force E-3, and other ISR aircraft to identify and classify Russian aircraft activity from the time they launch from their Syrian bases means they can be identified and tracked throughout their entire mission. If crews on board an aircraft like Wedgetail see a potential for imminent confliction, coalition aircraft can be moved out of the way until the Russians complete their operations.
However, deconfliction is far more of a concern for the Russians than the coalition. While the Russians have deployed very capable Su-30 fighters to protect and enhance the situational awareness of their strike aircraft, the Russians do not have the ability to put together an integrated view of their operating battlespace, as the overnight downing of a Russian Su-24 strike aircraft likely demonstrates. They have little or no idea where coalition aircraft and UAVs are operating, and have little ability to put together a coherent picture of US-led air operations.
On all missions, the level of Russian situational awareness would be significantly lower than their coalition counterparts. As well as Turkish air power, the US Air Force's F-22s would be a significant concern to the Russian Air Force in any confrontation with the coalition.
Russia's air campaign has been effective and decisive
Nevertheless, Russia has waged an effective air campaign against forces opposed to the Assad regime. In fact, it could be argued that the Russians have shown a better overall strategy for the employment of air power than the US-led coalition.
In contrast to coalition air forces, Russia has been unconstrained by the legacy of 10 years of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. The tactical micromanagement of each strike sortie, and a total lack of freedom of action given to coalition aircrew, have made it impossible for coalition air planners to put together a coherent air campaign to defeat ISIS.
The coalition's formidable capability is being significantly underused because of self-imposed constraints. Contrast this to the Russian experience; in less than seven days, the Russians were flying more than 60 sorties per day, a very high rate given the modest force Russia deployed. And in the execution of its air campaign in northern Syria against militant groups opposed to the Assad regime, the Russians have used air power decisively in a way the US-led coalition has not.
Russia's quiet military revolution
While the use of warships and, more recently, strategic bombers to launch cruise missiles to hit targets in Syria is largely symbolic, with the intention to demonstrate Russian capability to the world, the October air strikes were Russia's first operational use of precision-guided munitions, and thus underscore Russia's quiet military revolution. This transformation has been a result of far-reaching military reforms to create more professional and combat ready armed forces that can swiftly deploy abroad.
In the past, the Russian armed forces needed months to gear up for a military confrontation. They have now shown the ability to react quickly and strike without warning.
The first serious round of Russian reform started in late 2008 after the Georgian campaign, and concentrated on increasing the overall level of professionalism in the Russian forces. There has been reform of the education and training of Russian armed forces personnel and a significant reduction in the number of conscripts.
After the education reforms were put in place, the Russians concentrated on increasing the combat readiness of the force by streamlining the command structure and increasing the number and complexity of training exercises.
The third phase of the reform was to rearm and update equipment. Many Western analysts have concentrated on this phase and have been dismissive of Russian capability because it still remains a work in progress. In doing that, we have ignored the success of the first two stages, which have already given the Russians a far more effective and combat-ready military.
So while the Russians lack modern air-to-air refueling and ISR assets, they have shown a good grasp of how to use modern air power effectively to achieve strategic results. In many respects, Western analysts have dangerously underestimated Russia's reformed military capacity.