Russia Builds Up Its Naval Forces Off Syria As Carrier Deployment Looms

As the ongoing conflict in Syria has reaches new levels of peril, Russia appears to be pouring combat capability back into the region–with a special focus on fielding sea-based air combat capabilities. As part of this initiative, two of the Russian Navy’s most modern vessels, both Buyan-M class guided missile corvettes, have made their way from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean.

Buyan-M class corvettes may be relatively small but they are heavily armed and capable of firing Kalibr land attack cruise missiles which have a range approaching 1,500 miles. The missile type, roughly analogous to earlier versions of the RGM-109 Tomahawk, first saw operational use last year when Russia fired a salvo into Syria from their Caspian Sea fleet.

Buyan M class corvette. , Russian MoD

Now news comes that a third Russian surface combatant has passed through the Bosphorus Strait and into the Mediterranean, this one a Nanuchka-III class corvette. The three combat ships will join a Admiral Grigorovich class frigate, a Krivak-class frigate, and a minesweeper, as well as bunker ships and repair vessels that are already operating off the Syrian coast. Other Russian transport and amphibious ships have also been spotted heading towards the Mediterranean over the last two weeks–many of which appeared heavily laden with military equipment as they made their way past Istanbul.

Meanwhile, Russia’s only Mediterranean port in Tartus, Syria–probably the biggest factor that influencing Russia’s decision to prop-up the Assad regime after the Syrian Civil War began–has received a major defensive upgrade. Just last week the installation of an S-300 air defense system in Tartus was announced. The S-300’s reach will overlap with the existing S-400 air defense battery located at Russia’s Hmeimim Air Base located just 35 miles north of Tartus.

Port of Tartus, Syria., Google Earth

Obviously, ISIS and anti-Assad rebels do not have aircraft that Russia would need to defend against. As such, the deployment of the S-300 system to Tartus is aimed at protecting Russian assets from a hypothetical attack by the US or its NATO allies. Or, at least, the deployment of the SAM system creates the illusion that such a thing could occur. The S-300’s arrival in Tartus also marks what could be the first building blocks in an advanced integrated air defense system that could pose a major threat to US-led coalition aircraft operating over and near Syrian airspace.

Then again, that S-300 battery in Tartus will likely have something very scarce to protect in the not so distant future. Russia’s only aircraft carrier–the notoriously unreliable Admiral Kuznetsov–is supposedly in the final preparation stage before sailing south from its frigid home at Severomorsk to the eastern Mediterranean. Once on station it will actively support Russia’s Syrian campaign.

The much-touted deployment of the Admiral Kuznetsov will include a newly configured air wing with more advanced air combat capabilities than in the past. Originally it seemed as if Russia’s new MiG-29KR (well kind of new) multi-role fighters would be the carrier’s lone fixed-wing fighter for the deployment, with the ship’s massive and antiquated Su-33s being put to pasture. This is now clearly not the case.

Russia has executed a light upgrade of a portion of the tiny Su-33 fleet, which includes some modernized avionics and possibly the addition of the SVP-24 system, which helps improve accuracy of dumb bombs–the vast majority of air-to-ground weapons used on Syrian targets by Russian aircraft. While it’s an improvement on previous targeting systems, this new-found accuracy is not even remotely comparable to any modern guided air-to-ground munitions. These Su-33s also appear to have been overhauled mechanically and feature new paint. Admiral Kuznetsov will likely sail with examples of both the Su-33 and the MiG-29KR stuffed into its tight hangar deck.

The carrier’s air wing will also feature the debut of Russia’s navalized KA-52K attack helicopters. These are some of the most advanced aircraft in the Russian inventory, they’re expected to fight alongside their land-based cousins which have been deployed to Syria since last March. The KA-52K differs from the standard variant, with folding rotor blades and a more advanced navigation system optimized for shipboard operations. Its avionics are on par–if not better than–the systems flown on the latest land-based KA-52s.

The KA-52K was originally developed for Russia’s French-built Mistral class amphibious assault ships. These vessels were never delivered following the geopolitical implosion between the west and Russia after the invasion of Crimea and shadow war in eastern Ukraine. Egypt bought the ships instead, and have purchased KA-52Ks and other equipment from Russia to outfit them with. With this in mind, and with the increasingly tight relationship between Russia and Egypt, there is a very good chance that Russia could end up operating from Mistral class carrier decks after all–albeit at the invitation of the Egyptian Navy.

Like all things Syrian air war, Russia will use the world stage to showcase its MiG-29KR and KA-52Ks to potential export customers–and will leave the theatre with the ability to call the systems “combat proven.” It’s like developmental range testing and customer demonstrations–but with real people as targets.

In all, UPI reports that Admiral Kuznetsov’s air wing will include “15 Su-33 and MiG-29K/KUB fighter jets, as well as more than 10 Ka-52K, Ka-27 and Ka-31 helicopters” which is probably fairly accurate.

Tartus has supported Admiral Kuznetsov many times over the decades, including fairly recently, so there’s no reason why the ship wouldn’t use the port now–especially considering the facility is now protected under the S-300 and S-400’s air defense umbrella. And it won’t just be the Admiral Kuznetsov visiting. Russia is going to make their leased port in Tartus a permanent operating location, with surface combatants constantly based there. This is likely part of Russia’s deal with Assad for helping to keep his regime afloat–alongside the possession of Russia’s growing airbase south of Latakia. Moscow is also eyeing Cuba and Vietnam to provide a similar constant presence in the Caribbean and in the South China Sea.

Under this new focus on turning Tartus into a major operating facility, not just a support base; upgrades and an expansion of the installation are planned. These include the addition of the nearest major dock area, just south of the existing Russian-leased dock. This new dock is capable of receiving large vessels. In the past Syria had to make special accommodations for Russia to use the facility, now Russia will control their piece of the port directly. Other enhancements to Russia’s anti-submarine, communications and surveillance capabilities will be made to the installation as well.

As it sits, the arrival of the S-300 battery in Tartus is likely the first building block for this new strategy–and Admiral Kuznetsov’s mission to the region will likely be just a glimpse of what is to come.

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler's passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.