New satellite images show a big change in force structure at Russia's Hmeymin airbase in Syria. The photos show no less than 20 of Russia''s most capable fighters—a mix of Su-27/30/34/35s at the base. This is a substantial leap in advanced fighter aircraft capacity compared to what has historically been forward deployed to the outpost.
In the past, older attack aircraft, namely Su-24 Fencers and Su-25s Frogfoots, were the most numerous types of fixed-wing combat aircraft at the installation. In fact, as little as four fighter aircraft have been deployed to the base at one time, with their primary duties being air defense. But that number had grown over time, with a few temporary exceptions, but not to this degree.
The latest imagery, which is dated 15 July, 2017, depicts a rebalance of aerial assets of sorts, with a greater emphasis of fighters than attack jets. The photos show 11 Su-24 Fencers, and just three Su-25s. Both types are used exclusively for delivering air-to-ground munitions and are less advanced technologically than their Flanker derivative fighter counterparts. As far as fighters go, there are three Su-27SM3s—we originally noted the upgraded air-to-air fighter's presence a month ago during a visit to the base by Bashar al Assad—and six of Russia's most advanced multi-role fighter aircraft, the Su-35S. There are also six Su-34 Fullback fighter-bombers, as well as four Su-30SM multi-role fighters shown in the satellite photos.
The change in force mix away from Russia's more rudimentary attack aircraft to its most capable fighters, many of which have muti-role abilities—at least when it comes to slinging dumb bombs and firing rockets—is likely the result of multiple factors. First off, the shooting down of a Syrian Su-22 Fitter attack jet by a Navy Super Hornet last June almost certainly factored in to Russia's in-country air combat capabilities master plan. Jets like the Su-30, Su-35 and Su-34 can attack ground targets and defend themselves from aerial threats without the need for dedicated air cover.
Just the fact that the Su-27 Flanker and its many derivatives remain very capable in the within visual range air combat arena is also a deterrent in itself as the crowded airspace over the embattled country and tight rules of engagement makes that realm of air-to-air combat the most probable one to occur, even if such an engagement remains a very unlikely prospect in reality. Also, Moscow has ordered more air defense capability to defend its interests in Syria every time some sort of kinetic act against it or the Assad regime occurs.
This has come in the form of advanced surface-to-air missiles systems—the S-300 near Tartus and the S-400 at Hmeymin air base—as well as more fighter aircraft capable of fielding combat air patrols being sent to the country. These types of air defense upgrades occurred following the shoot-down of a Russian Su-24 by a Turkish F-16s as well as following America's Tomahawk missile attacks on Shayrat Air Base in central Syria. It makes sense that Russia did the same thing when the US downed the Syrian Su-22, hence the arrival of the Su-27SM3s, and the greater fighter contingent overall.
Secondly, Russia's recapitalization of their air combat fleet has progressed steadily in the nearly two years since the country deployed air power to Syria. All types of new Flankers, including the Su-35S, have continued to roll off production lines, and many existing Su-27s have undergone upgrades through modernization programs. Simply put, there are more modern multi-role airframes of this sort now available than there were two years ago, and their capabilities are better tested and operationally refined.
In addition to the tactical aircraft, the satellite caught other fixed wing aircraft and improvements that are ongoing to the expanding base. A single A-50 Mainstay airborne early warning and control aircraft is seen on the ramp. A IL-20 "Coot" spy plane can also be seen near the A-50—both aircraft are known to have been operating over Syria for some time now. A pair what looks like An-24 "Cokes" are also on the base's southern apron. These aircraft are likely used as intra-theater transports and for liaison duties between the Syrian government and the Russian military.
Above all else, the fairly drastic reformation of Russia's aerial combat capabilities in Syria is another reminder how much the conflict has modernized—and become more internationally volatile—since Russia arrived in September of 2015, not to mention since the civil war broke out in 2011. It also underlines how Russia sees the US led coalition—as a real threat to its aims and ambitions in Syria and the region as a whole.
The fact of the matter is that those fighters jets won't be going anywhere soon. Just as we predicted years ago, part of the deal the Kremlin worked out for saving Assad from immanent defeat was a long-term military presence in the country, which is strategically placed in the Middle East and also on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. This included the Kremlin being awarded an expanded and indefinite hold on their port facilities in Tartus, as well as Russia getting its own airbase south of Latakia, which was originally referred to by Moscow as "temporary" in nature.
Just days ago, Russia made their long term grasp on their "temporary" air base in Syria official, signing a whopping 49 year "lease" for it with the Assad regime. A similar deal was made for an expanded Russian naval base in Tartus months ago. And this is principally why Russia hasn't wanted Assad, or at least someone or some organization with Assad's same grand affection towards Moscow, losing control of Syria. It would mean Russia's key strategic bases in that country—including their only warm water port on the Mediterranean—would go with him.
Now there is more capable aerial firepower deployed to Russia's air base south of Latakia than ever to make sure that doesn't happen.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com