Although relatively small in scale, Russia's military operation in Syria has highlighted some major improvements in Russian military capabilities.
Compared to the 2008 Georgia War, which was the last time the Russian Air Force operated in a combat environment, the Russian military appears to have made great strides in increasing operational tempo and improving inter-service integration. It has also made significant advances in its ability to carry out expeditionary operations and showcased its recently developed stand-off strike capability.
The initial air strike campaign successfully targeted weapons and equipment depots that opposition forces had captured from government forces earlier in the conflict. Once these targets were eliminated, Russian air forces then coordinated with Syrian and Iranian forces conducting ground operations against opposition forces in the northwestern part of the country.
The operation has highlighted advances in Russian weaponry, but also the limitations of these new capabilities. During this operation, Russian aircraft have used precision-guided munitions (PGMs) in combat for the first time. But only about 20% of strikes have used such modern weaponry, while the rest have been carried out with older unguided bombs. The operation has allowed the Russian air force to test its new capabilities, including both PGMs and the ability to carry out nighttime sorties, and to highlight their existence to potential opponents.
At the same time, the Russian military has sought to limit the amount of new weapons expended because these munitions are expensive when compared to unguided bombs and because the air force has limited quantities of PGMs in its arsenal and does not want to expend them on targets where the use of such weapons is not necessary.
A similar calculus was evident in the land-attack cruise missile strikes against Syrian targets launched from relatively small missile ships in the Caspian Sea, which were primarily intended as a demonstration of this capability to potential opponents. They were not necessary for the success of the operation, which could have been carried out perfectly well by Russian aircraft already present in Syria. The real goal was to show military planners in NATO member states and Russia's other neighbours that Russia could threaten targets in their countries from ships that could not easily be destroyed by enemy forces.
The operational tempo of Russian air operations in Syria has been quite high, with an average of 45 sorties per day in October carried out by a total of 34 fixed-wing aircraft and 16 helicopters. Furthermore, the pace of the operations increased over time, rising from approximately 20 sorties per day at the start of the operation to around 60 per day at its peak later in October. It has since declined, most likely because the easiest and most obvious targets have all been hit already while opposition forces have adapted to Russian air attacks and are not operating out in the open as much as they were in September and October. The high operational tempo was especially surprising considering the rash of crashes Russian military aircraft suffered earlier in 2015, which had been blamed by many experts on the strain put by an increase in operations on an aging fleet of aircraft.
The operation in Syria has highlighted advances in integration among Russia's military services. This was one of the goals of the military reform undertaken after notable failures in this area revealed during the war in Georgia. While the air force is carrying out the active combat operations in this effort, it has shown an ability to work with both other services and with foreign forces.
The Russian Navy, for example, has not only provided sealift for the operation, but is also responsible for providing long-range air defence with the S-300 system based on the Black Sea Fleet's flagship Slava-class cruiser Moskva. Having a ship-based long-range air defense system allows Russia to provide defence against potential attacks by Western strike aviation operating in the area while avoiding tensions with Israel, which would be unhappy if Russia provided such systems to Syrian forces.
Although Russian ground forces have played a relatively limited role in the conflict so far, they have been important for defending the air base. More significantly, the Russian air force has shown an ability to coordinate its operations with Syrian and Iranian ground forces units, which have begun an offensive against opposition positions with the Russian air force providing air support.
Until September, most analysts (including myself) argued that Russia was not capable of conducting a military operation away from its immediate neighborhood because its military lacked the ability to transport significant numbers of personnel or equipment to remote theatres of operations. The Russian military was able to transport the necessary equipment and personnel by pressing into service the vast majority of its large transport aircraft and almost all of the naval transport ships located in the European theatre. Furthermore, it reflagged several Turkish commercial cargo vessels as Russian navy ships and pressed them into service to transport equipment. While it remains the case that Russia remains almost completely dependent on its rail network for military transport, the operation in Syria has shown that it has sufficient sealift and airlift capability to carry out a small operation away from its borders and that it can increase that capacity in innovative ways when pressed to do so.
Beyond its purely geopolitical goals, Russia's operation in Syria has been designed to test improvements in Russian military capabilities that have resulted from the military reform carried out over the last seven years and to highlight these improvements to potential adversaries. While the jury is still out on how successful the operation will be in helping the Syrian government turn the tide against its various opponents, it has already shown that the military reform has resulted in a significant increase in Russia's warfighting capability.