August 31, 2012

Note to the Syrian opposition - take the airbases!

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the Syrian air force's effective use of the L-39 trainer/light attack aircraft (Syrian air force attacks - effective use of the aircraft). At the end of the article, I commented:

Someone at Syrian air force headquarters knows what he is doing. Given the nature of the threat and the type of fighting, the right aircraft are being used.

I may have spoken too soon. In the past month, the Syrian opposition, the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), has downed several Syrian air force aircraft, including two MiG-23 fighters and at least two helicopters, and destroyed several dozen fighters and helicopters on the ground at several air bases.

Abu ad-Duhur air base

In March, members of the FSA used an RPG to destroy a MiG-23 on the ground at Abu ad-Duhur air base (35 44N 37 06E). Just this week, the FSA shot down a MiG-23UB (FLOGGER C) two-seat trainer as it was taking off from the airfield. The FSA also claims to have attacked the air base and destroyed another 11 fighter aircraft on the ground.

If that is true, that effectively reduces the inventory of aircraft at Abu ad-Duhur by half. If you look at the airfield, you will see it is built in typical Syrian fashion, with a squadron area at each end of the runway. I would guess that the rebels attacked one squadron area and destroyed all the aircraft at one end of the runway.

Afis air base, Taftanaz

The helicopter airfield at Taftanaz, also known as Afis air base (35 58N 36 47E) has come under attack by the rebels as well. Afis is home to two squadrons of Mi-8 (HIP) assault helicopters. You can see the layout of the airfield and two distinct squadron areas fanning out from the administrative area. Here is footage of an attack on Afis:

From the footage and the camera angle, it appears that this footage was shot from the farm to the north of the airfield. I have indicated the area being videotaped - the burning helicopter is sitting on one of the pads west of the hangar.

Afis air base - area of attack
Note: North is to the right

In addition to the attacks on Abu ad-Duhur and Afis/Taftanaz, there have been FSA attacks on 'Azaz airfield (also known as Minakh air base, 36 31N 37 02E) 25 miles north of Aleppo, and on Nayrab (the military ramp at Aleppo International airport, 36 11N 37 13E). The two bases have been used to launch air attacks - both fixed and rotary wing - on cities in northern Syria that are believed to be under the control of the FSA. The word used in the FSA reporting is 'ashwa'i (indiscriminate) bombing of residential areas of the cities. The footage seems to bear out their claims.

Here is where the Syrian air force needs to reassess their operations in the north. If they are going to use the bases in the local area of the attacks - some of these attacks are only a few miles from the airfields - they need to secure these bases from FSA attack. Airpower can be decisive, and it is taking a toll on the FSA - they admit that the airpower is what is hurting them the most. However, if you are going to have effective air strikes, you need secure bases from which to operate.

I wonder how the Syrian air force commanders are assigning targets to the pilots. Are they sending the pilots out to strike specific targets based on intelligence, or are they simply sending them to an area with instructions to engage anything they believe is hostile? If you believe the FSA, they are sent out simply to terrorize the populations of cities that support the uprising.

On the other side of the equation is the FSA. They know that the air strikes that have been so effective against them in the north are being launched from Minakh, Nayrab, Afis and Abu ad-Duhur air bases. Since they realize that they have limited air defense capabilities - the recent shootdowns have been more a matter of luck and are only a small percentage of the sorties flown by the Syrian air force - they have adopted the tactic of attacking the airfields in hopes of denying the Syrian regime secure bases from which to operate.

It shows a certain level of military thinking. They are getting better in their tactics, and the Syrian air force appears to be only the shadow of what it once was - an air force that trained to fight the Israeli air force. While it may work in the sort term, the Syrians can easily launch their attacks from bases further to the south and out of FSA reach.