Russia still flies high-tempo combat ops over Syria as Ukraine War continues

While Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory – a war which has reached a stalemate ahead of the coming winter months – in the West, the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuASF) are still supporting combat operations in the Middle East, with a variety of aircraft types noted as operating from Bassel Al-Assad Air Base in Khmeimim, Syria, in September.

Key.Aero understands that at least 31 RuASF-operated military aircraft of a variety of different mission sets were operating from Bassel Al-Assad Air Base in September. Almost surprisingly, this includes 20 fixed-wing combat aircraft, comprising eight Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer variable-sweep wing interdictor/strike aircraft; six Su-34 Fullback fighter-bombers and six Su-35S Flanker-E multi-role fighters.

A variety of rotorcraft are also reportedly operating from the Syrian base, including two Kamov Ka-27 Helix utility helicopters and a pair of Ka-52 Hokum-B gunships, among other types that have been forward deployed deeper into Syria. It is believed that three Mil Mi-8 Hips departed Syria in late September and that the Russian Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters that had previously been operating in the region have since left the theatre with an unknown destination.

A RuASF-operated Sukhoi Su-35S Flanker-E (registration RF-81761, Bort No '21 Red') rolls out after landing at Bassel Al-Assad Air Base in Khmeimim, Syria, on September 26, 2019.
A RuASF-operated Sukhoi Su-35S Flanker-E (registration RF-81761, Bort No '21 Red') rolls out after landing at Bassel Al-Assad Air Base in Khmeimim, Syria, on September 26, 2019. Getty Images/Maxime Popov

A number of fixed-wing transports have also been seen operating from Bassel Al-Assad, along with a limited number of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets. In terms of airlift, the RuASF is operating one Antonov An-26 Curl; one An-30 Clank; one An-72/74 Coaler and an Ilyushin Il-76 Candid in support of the deployed Russian assets in Syria.

A Beriev A-50 Mainstay airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft is also operating from the Syrian base to support the deployed fighters, ensuring they are kept out of harm's way. Two Ilyushin Il-38N May special mission aircraft - configured for ISR operations - are also operating from Bassel Al-Assad. Special mission Il-20M Coot-As have also regularly been operating in the region since the start of Russia's military presence there. On September 17, 2018, one Il-20M was mistakenly shot down by Syrian Air Defence Forces, killing all 15 onboard, following a raid by the Israeli Air Force.

It is understood that the tempo of combat missions being flown by RuASF aircraft over Syria remains high, despite the shift of Russian President Vladimir Putin's interest to Ukraine, where he continues to pursue his "special military operation". While Russian military operations continue in Syria, it remains unclear how often the deployed units and aircraft are rotated through the Syrian operational theatre. As the RuASF continues to support both conflicts going forward, it is increasingly likely that the air arm's available resources will become more sparse, especially given the high number of losses the service is facing in Ukraine.

For now, it seems that Russia is still able to maintain a presence in Syria and continue to support the high-tempo combat operations it has been conducting in the region since September 2015, just as NATO nations are continuing to support their collective mission in the Middle East, while stepping up combat air patrols (CAPs) on the Alliance's eastern flank. The Russians are likely to be keen to remain present in Syria to keep an eye on NATO operations over the region and in the Mediterranean; something that the Coot-As and May will definitely be keeping an eye on.