We’ve seen a lot of US DOD briefings over the years, from the Five O’Clock Follies in Vietnam, where most of the Saigon press corps jeered at their military briefers and then went back to the hotel bar to make up whatever story advanced their side — the enemy side — to the masterful displays of Norman Schwartzkopf in Desert Storm, who did what no PAO will ever do, stand up to fabricating reporters.
Russia no longer has an independent press to any great extent, but likes to maintain the fiction that they do, and so they put on a show from time to time. Here’s one of December’s briefings (Russian language). [Update: in the time it took us to write the story, someone made a version with English subtitles. That’s the version we embed]. Afterward, we’ll look at some of the slides.
Any briefing begins with a splash screen.
This one says: Briefing of the Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Lt. Gen. S. F. Rudskoi. Each of the side illustrations illustrates one of the facets of Russian military power: strategic rocket forces, long-range aviation, air defense missiles, ground forces, surface navy, tactical air forces, frontal aviation, intermediate nuclear weapons forces, air defense artillery, and nuclear missile submarines. It is meant to convey an impression of raw Russian power.
The briefing begins with a rundown on airstrikes, by a combination of tactical aircraft and strategic bombers — what the Russians have long called Long Range Aviation.
“In the period from 30 September [to 15 December – Ed.] a total of 4,201 combat sorties have been carried out, 145 of them by airplanes of Long-Range Aviation.” The general military definition of the term sortie (in Russian Bilyot), is one aircraft, one mission, so a flight of four Su-24 jet bombers would count as four sorties. NATO would also count combat support aircraft like jammers and forward-deployed tankers as sorties; we don’t know if Russia does.
The general then goes on to show us some video of strikes on petroleum targets. These have the advantages of being unscathed till now (the US lawyers, supported by DOD suits, forbade strikes on this basis of ISIL finance, calling it “collateral damage”), and easy enough to hit with Russian technology. Russia has no such qualms and has hit storage, micro-refineries, and hundreds of tanker trucks that have been “off limits” to American and Coalition air.
This screenshot is from an attack on a petroleum storage facility in eastern Deir ez-Zor. province.
A Digression on Precision Bombing, Russian Style
The most-used Russian PGM systems do not work like American or NATO ones do. Indeed, they resemble such ancient (from our point of view) computers as the A-6E bombardier/navigator’s computer-intervalometer system, or the several generations of systems for accurate bombing that were rolled into the F-111F during its long service life. The pro of this system is that it allows smart bomb level of performance from dumb bombs. The con is that it puts a premium on precision airmanship. Putting the brain in the plane is the same concept as the World War II Norden bombsight (although given vastly more power by modern, digital electronics). Like the Norden sight (although to a lesser extent), the Russian system limits the pilot’s ability to maneuver defensively during the bomb run. The pilot has to put the plane in the right place at the right speed for the system to release the bomb (the navigator, or in single-pilot ships the pilot, commits the bomb, giving the system authority to drop it, but the system uses is own digital judgment on when to fire it off). If he’s maneuvering, accelerating in any direction when the bomb pickles, it may go somewhere unintended. This is probably the cause of the market and residential area bombings we’ve heard of — not, as some reports would have it, deliberate bombing of noncombatants by Russian forces. (They have enough combatant and economic targets to keep them loading bombs until the stockpile they built to run the Fulda Gap is exhausted. Let’s assume they’re intelligent men prosecuting the highest-value military targets first, as intelligent men do, shall we?) It is certainly one reason that the Russian attacks in Syria have been conducted at medium altitudes (~5,000-15,000 feet),
And Back to the Briefing
Closing in, a single storage tank is singled out as aim point.
We continue this analysis of the briefing after the jump, including some more comments on aerial operations and some slides on the ground situation.
Here is another precision attack on a petroleum target, to wit, tank trucks transporting oil for the benefit of ISIL. For many in the West, this is a first look at Russian PGM capability, although our intelligence agencies have been following this technology’s development for years. Russian leaders long wanted such a capability; it would have saved many Russian lives in Chechnya, for example. These briefings suggest that the capability has been fully operationalized.
The Ground Situation
Unlike the US, which has struggled to find worthwhile allies in the region, the Russians have a client state, Syria, which has a leader, de facto king Bashar al-Assad. While initial protests against Assad in the Arab Spring came from Western-oriented liberals, the only opposition apart from ISIL remaining in the field, and the recipients of US aid after months of DC dithering, are religious extremists like the Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-linked Wahhabi group, and other groups. From the Russian (and Syrian government, the Syrian government still ostensibly recognized by the USA) point of view, the faultlines between the various Islamist terror factions don’t matter: they’re all enemies.
The principal difference between the groups, apart from minutiae of Islamic theology, Is that most of the small factions remain Syrian nationalists, while ISIL campaigns and intends to erase the border between Syria and the other islamic nations, as part of its imaginary global caliphate. The US’s bizarre, incoherent policy has it trying to navigate the alternately jagged and fuzzy borders between these factions, hoping to find one that appeals to the US Government and still contains a Syrian or two. To the Syrian government and the Russian helpers, the calculus is much simpler: these guys are all the enemy, and they’ve got a bomb coming. This more than anything else explains the Syrian advances.
This is an overview of the positions of the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic:
The briefing also shows detailed operational maps of Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, and the Damascus region. For example, these are Syrian positions around Damascus. Bear in mind that the Russian convention is to show friendly positions and units in red, and opposition in blue, the reverse of NATO practice:
And Syrian axes of advance, positions as of 15 December 2015. You can see that the Syrians have nearly encircled their enemies, and taken the suburbs of (clockwise from top center): Duma, Meida, Kasmia, Marj-Sultan and Zibdin. They’ve consolidated their hold on Mazrat-id-Dunair and are closing off enemy elements near Jaybar.
This map of Syrian positions north of Homs (sometimes spelled Khoms in English) is the same sort of status-quo ante map as we have seen above with Damascus, but there’s some combat intelligence on it. The city, north of Damascus, is held by friendlies (red positions and orange area of control). The black labels are place names: Clockwise from the larger town at the north center, which is Ir-Rastan, are Tel-Takhin, Mesherfa, Dar-el Kabir, Teir-Maala, Al-Masharia, Jebalik, and Sem-Ali. Isolated in the southeast is Mkhin.
The enemy elements are identified as Jabhat al-Nusra to the northwest, with up to 1300 personnel, and al-Asdika to the northeast, with up to 450.
Homs is of considerable importance to the rebellion. At the outbreak of the uprising in 2011, Homs was the center of the unrest and revolution. It was a mixed community with many Christian and Sunni families living intermixed, and Alawites concentrated in the south and east; a Syrian military academy was located in Homs. Many of the original inhabitants of Homs have become refugees in Turkey and Jordan, and even farther abroad, or internally displaced persons.
The map shows the positions as of 15 December. The Syrians have planted their national flag on most of the suburbs named above, or have them encapsulated. We wouldn’t read too much into the pink area of control, as the Syrian Armed Forces are thin on the ground and rebel groups bent on survival (rather than martyrdom) can always bombshell and reassemble at a rally point. But the real tale here is the encapsulated rebels. It’s classic Soviet-era tactics, as applied to the Wehrmacht in 1942-45, which the Syrians have been training on since the 1950s.
We hear occasional expressions of surprise from the usual Beltway / Harvard / Georgetown / Foreign Policy set that the Syrian Army has not only failed to break down, but has fought well. That’s one of the hazards of forming your opinions within an echo chamber. The SF guys who were coalition support teams to the Syrians in the Gulf War could have told you the pros and cons of the Syrians — and “fighting spirit” was not something they lack. The Israelis, who fought them on the Golan Heights in 1973, have a soldier’s respect for Syrian guts. The geniuses who thought they’d fight less fiercely in a civil war are that particular kind of stupid that can only be produced by many years of post-secondary education.
Exit Point: A Little-Noticed Detail of the War
This fact postdates this briefing, but Russia rang out the old year demanding that the Turks arrest and hand over for the usual Russian kangaroo court those responsible for downing their Su-24 and whacking one of the crewmen; Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also seemed to demand that the Turks liquidate the newspaper Hurriyet, apparently believing that the Turks handle their newspapers and newsmen like Russia does.
It’s tough, what happened to that Russian airman, but it’s the nature of war in the Middle East. It’s happened to a few of ours over the last decade. Our sympathy is with his friends and family. He, and they, deserved better, and the Russian desire for reprisal is understandable.