November 27, 2012

Syrian opposition ups the ante with SAMs

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has demonstrated the capability to take air defense to more than just the artillery level. There are videos showing FSA fighters holding the SA-7, captured stocks of SA-16 and SA-24 missiles, but this is the first recorded success against a Syrian Air Force aircraft using a missile.

Thus far in the almost two-year long civil war, the FSA has been able to down over 100 aircraft - about half of them helicopters - using anti-aircraft artillery, especially the ZPU-1 14.5mm gun. The ability to extend their range to over 10,000 feet complicates the regime's air strategy.

I am surprised that this pilot was operating within the envelope of the Sa-7/16/24 - the Syrian Air Force fixed wing (MiG-23, Su-22, Su-24, L-39) pilots have been popping flares, and flying at the outside edge of the shoulder-fired weapons' employment envelopes at high altitudes. They know the FSA has these missiles at their disposal.

One can only hope that the western intelligence services - the American CIA, British SIS and French DGSE are supplying and/or training the FSA on the use of these weapons. I hearken back to an earlier day in my career and the use of the Stinger missile in Afghanistan.

Video of a surface-to-air missile hitting a Syrian Air Force Mi-8 (HIP) helicopter about 12 miles west of Aleppo, November 27, 2012. On the audio track at 0:03, someone says, "Missile, missile." At 0:08, after the cheers, we hear, "It hit a military aircraft." In the background, another says, "It's catching on fire." At 0:22, the photographer says, "Helicopter [down] in the west Aleppo suburbs."

A still taken from the above video of as the heat-seeking missile homes in on the engine exhaust. Note the corkscrew smoke pattern typical of Russian-made shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.

This still shows the detonation of the missile warhead. The warheads of these portable air defense weapons is relatively small, about 2.5 pounds of high explosive material. While it appears to be a catastrophic hit, the pilot was able to maintain flight for a few seconds as he attempted to get to the ground safely. I am not sure if that was a survivable landing, but it did exhibit good airmanship. Whether you agree with the pilot's politics, you have to recognize his piloting skills.

The regime's most potent weapon against the opposition - the FSA - is air power. Unless the opposition can neutralize the Syrian Air Force's total domination of the air space over the battlefield, at some point they will not be able to continue the fight. When the FSA leadership is asked about their main concern, it is the Syrian Air Force.

Despite the Syrian Air Force's limited capabilities - almost half of its pilots are grounded for political security reasons - it still remains as the key threat to the success of the revolution. Note the single-ship attacks, the limited use of advance aircraft - this is by no means a reliable asset of the government. More shoot downs like today will only undermine that capability.

Just like in Afghanistan in the 1980's, it's about air power, and the ability to deny it to the enemy.