May 6, 2014

Russia to deliver military trainer/attack aircraft to Syria

Yak-130 trainer/light attack aircraft

Pravda, the virtual public affairs arm of the Russian government, reported this week that the Russian government-owned arms merchant Rosoboronexport and the majority state-owned United Aircraft Corporation will deliver the first batch of Yak-130 (NATO: Mitten) jet trainers to the Syrian air force later this year. The Russians will deliver nine jets to Syria before the end of 2014, an additional 12 in 2015, and the final 15 in 2016.

The delivery of the 36 aircraft will fulfill a 2011 contract between the two countries; Russian sources claim this is the last arms contract between the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad and the Russians. The timing of the delivery comes at a time when the Syrian air force needs better capabilities to deal with the ongoing revolution in the country, however, the delivery will no doubt generate loud protests from the United States and European nations.

(The following is from an article I wrote in September 2013 - Syria: What does Bashar al-Asad get for giving up his chemical weapons?)

Prior to the outbreak of the civil war, the Syrians contracted for a replacement trainer aircraft for their aging fleet of 1980s-era Czech-built L-39 trainers. The L-39 was used in the initial months of the civil war by the Syrians as a light attack aircraft - it is equipped with a gun pack and hardpoints on the wings to carry bombs and rocket launchers.

The L-39's have largely been marginalized because of increasing shoulder-launched air defense capabilities of the opposition forces (some seized from Syrian army depots and some provided by foreign countries), and the fact that most of the L-39 operating bases have been overrun or are under siege by the rebels.

The aircraft purchased - but not yet delivered - to replace the L-39 is the Yak-130 (NATO: Mitten), built with involvement of the Italian aircraft manufacturer Alenia. The Syrians have contracted for an initial lot of 36 of the aircraft. The Yak-130 can carry an external load of three tons (bombs, missiles, cannon pod, or fuel tanks).

In addition to the Yak-130, the Syrians have ordered between 10 and 24 MiG-29M2 (NATO: Fulcrum E), the newest version of the 1980's-era (fourth generation) fighter aircraft. Unlike the estimated 48 MiG-29 (NATO: Fulcrum) air-to-air fighters currently in service with the Syrian Air Force, the newer version is a multirole aircraft that adds a significant air-to-ground capability, including precision guided munitions (PGM).

The two aircraft represent a generational advance for the Syrian Air Force, giving them a heretofore nonexistent capability to deliver precision guided munitions. When equipped with PGM (either laser of GPS guided), the aircraft will be able to remain outside the threat envelope of the shoulder-fired air defense missiles available to the opposition forces, while being able to place weapons accurately on specific targets rather than dropping them near suspected rebel locations or indiscriminately on civilian populated areas.

In the absence of a no-fly zone, the addition of the capability to deliver PGMs will be a quantum leap in the effectiveness of the Syrian Air Force against the opposition. While these are not state-of-the-art fighters in the Western sense, they can be highly effective in the Syrian battlespace.