Syrian Arab Air Force (SAAF)
While the Air Force's size makes it one of the largest air forces in the Middle East, from a qualitative perspective Syria's tactics used during exercises indicate poor planning with regards to close air support and interdiction.
The Syrian Air Force was established in 1948 upon the graduation of the first class of Syrian pilots from British flight schools. It is tasked with military air operations and ground-based air defense. The Air Force, which was independent of Army Command, consisted in 1987 of about 100,000 regular and 37,500 reserve officers and men. The Air Force is organized into ten to eleven fighter/attack squadrons, sixteen fighter squadrons, two transport squadrons, and one training group. By 2012 at full strength the Air Force numbered some 60,000 personnel when all reserves are activated and 40,000 on a regular basis.
In 1985 its 9 fighter-ground attack squadrons and an estimated 15 interceptor squadrons totaled approximately 650 combat aircraft. Military airfields are located in Abu-a-Dhur, Aleppo, Blay, Damascus (international), Damascus (Al Mazzah), Dayr az Zawr, Dumayr, As Suwayda, As West, Hamah, Kamishly, Khalkhalah, Latakia, Marj Ruhayyil, Messe, An Nasiriyah, Neirab, Quasayr, Rasin el About, Shayrat, Tabqa, Tiyas, Tadmur, Sayqal, and T-4 (located on the oil pipeline).
By 2002 the Syrian Arab Air Force had an estimated 25 combat squadrons, 17 in the interceptor role and the remainder in the air defense/attack role. There were at least eight fighter-bomber squadrons equipped with MiG-21PF/MF/bis, operating from Hamah, Khalkalah, Tabqa, Deir ez Sor, Jirah and Quasayr. There are more than 220 of these aircraft - though how many were operational was questionable. There were four attack squadrons equipped with approximately 60 Su-20/22 `Fitter' aircraft (located at Dumayr, Shayrat, Tivas). A number of attack squadrons were equipped with MiG-23BN.
There were three interceptor squadrons equipped with more than 40 MiG-29A/UB `Fulcrum' fighters, deployed at Sayqal AB. Other interceptor assets included two squadrons equipped with 30 MiG25PD `Foxbat' aircraft deployed with two squadrons at Tivas AB. There were at least three interceptor squadrons equipped with MiG-23MF/MS/MLs. There was a squadron of Su-24MK bombers deployed at Tivas AB.
In 2002 it was understood that a squadron, Sq 826 was being formed at Quasayr AB to deploy the Su-27 `Flanker' multirole fighter. At least four were understood to have entered service in 2000, with a dozen more to complete deliveries.
Almost all combat planes were Soviet manufactured and included 50 MiG-25 and MiG-25R (Foxbat) interceptors and nearly 200 MiG-23S/U (Flogger) and Su-17 FitterK ground-attack and multirole aircraft. In 1986 there were reports that the Soviet Union had agreed to provide Syria at least two squadrons of the advanced supersonic MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter aircraft equipped with top-of-the-line avionics. The air force was equipped with approximately ninety attack helicopters of the Mi-24/Mi-25 Hind and SA-342 Gazelle types. As part of an effort to upgrade its command-and-control network, the air force was reported to have the Tu-126 (Moss) AWACS, but this seems not have have been the case.
Syria was able to acquire Russian 14 Su-27Sks. The bulk of Syria's Air Force is comprised of Su-22s, MiG-23s and MiG-21s. The number of more modern aircraft is rather small, with only 20 Su-24s, possibly 14 MiG-29 SMTs, some 25 MiG-25s and 22 MiG-29s.
By the turn of the century the Syrian Arab Air Force has about 600 combat aircraft but questions have been raised as to how many are actually operational. Many are elderly and increasingly difficult to maintain, and such factors have had an adverse effect on the force's capabilities. The SAAF operates according to Soviet methods and concepts. Equipment is mainly of Soviet design, consisting primarily of low-grade export versions of Soviet fighters and air-to-air missiles. There is a significant number of increasingly antiquated MiG-21 fighter aircraft, which would be little match for Israel's advanced F-15 and F-16 aircraft.
Bearing in mind these shortcomings, Syria has been eager to improve its capability by acquiring advanced new aircraft. After years of speculation, it appears that Syria may finally have begun to take delivery of the sophisticated Su-27 `Flanker' fighter - at least four were understood to have entered service in 2000 with 826 Squadron, which was forming at Quasayr Air Base (AB), with a dozen more to complete deliveries. Syria has also been seeking to acquire MiG-29SMT fighters; there was an unconfirmed report that 14 were delivered at the end of 2000. By 2002 the SAAF had more than 40 MiG-29A/UB `Fulcrum' interceptors, deployed with three squadrons at Sayqal AB. Other interceptor assets include 30 MiG-25PD `Foxbat' deployed with two squadrons at Tivas AB.
In June 2007 Russia started executing a contract for the delivery of five MiG-31 fighter jets to Syria. The contract has been signed by Russia’s defense export enterprise Rosoboronexport this year. Therefore, Russia resumes arms shipments to the Middle East after a short break caused with last-year’s war in Lebanon. The serial production of Mig-31 fighter jets was shut down in 1994. “We offer MiG-31 as a trade-in to the countries that have MiG-25 jets in their defense arsenal,” a spokesman for MiG enterprise Vladimir Vypryazhkin said. “Only Syria and Lebanon have MiG-25 fighter jets in their disposal,” he added.
Kommersant, the Russian business daily, reported 03 September 2009 that Russia and Syria were in talks on the delivery of at least eight MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors under a contract signed two years ago. Russia had so far denied reaching a deal with Syria on MiG-31 sales, but Damascus insisted in May 2009 on the existence of a contract worth an estimated $400-500 million. "A couple of years ago we signed two contracts [with Syria] - one on MiG-29M and another - on MiG-31. The first is being implemented, but the MiG-31 contract has never become effective... I hope that the contract will be implemented sooner or later," Alexei Fyodorov, the head of Russia's United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), told Kommersant. Russia's Sokol aircraft manufacturing plant started preparatory work for assembly of MiG-31 from hulls (without engines and weapons) kept in storage since 1994, when the production of the interceptors was officially discontinued. However, the actual assembly has never materialized, the paper said.
Russia does not have a contract to supply MiG-31 Foxhound fighter jets to Syria, the head of the Russian state-run arms exporter Rosoboronexport said on 27 October 2010. Media rumors about the sales of at least six MiG-31 aircraft to Damascus under a 2007 contract sparked criticism in the West and Israel, which consider arming Syria a threat to regional security. "The existence of a contract on the delivery of MiG-31 interceptors to Syria is a journalistic hoax," Rosoboronexport General Director Anatoly Isaykin told reporters at the Euronaval 2010 exhibition in Paris. The MiG-31 Foxhound is a two-seater supersonic interceptor aircraft developed to replace the MiG-25 Foxbat. It is equipped with two D-30F6 turbofan two-shaft engines with a common afterburner and a variable supersonic nozzle, which allow the aircraft to fly at supersonic speeds of up to Mach 2.83.
Syria was also sold a quantity of MiG-29M/M2 Fulcrum fighters: they are being exported for the first time and are similar in performance to MiG-35 Fulcrum Fs, which Russia is now offering to India. The total value of the contract for the MiG-29M/M2s for Syria is estimated at $1 billion. The Mikoyan MiG-29 is a 4th generation jet fighter aircraft designed for the air superiority role in the Soviet Union. Developed in the 1970s by the Mikoyan design bureau, it entered service in 1983 and remains in use by the Russian Air Force as well as in many other nations. NATO's reporting name for the MiG-29 is "Fulcrum", which was unofficially used by Soviet pilots in service.
In 2008 Moscow and Damascus agreed on deliveries of the latest Russian MiG-29SMT fighter. Syria, a major importer of Russian weapons, has bought MiG-29M fighter jets, and as of 2012 hoped to receive MiG-29SMT fighters and Yak-130 combat trainers. The European Parliament on 15 February 2012 adopted a resolution strongly urging Russia to immediately stop selling arms and military equipment to Damascus. Syria, the largest importer of Russian weapons in the Middle East, had recently signed contracts for the supply of 24 MiG-29M/M2 fighter jets and eight Buk-M2E air-defense systems.
Russia and Syria have signed a $550-million contract on the delivery of 36 Yakovlev Yak-130 Mitten combat trainer, the Kommersant daily quoted on 23 January 2012 a source close to Russia’s state arms exporter Rosoboronexport as saying. Under the deal struck in late December, the jets are to be supplied to Syria once Damascus makes a prepayment, the source said. A source in the aircraft production industry told the newspaper the aircraft construction company Irkut is able to produce the jets for Syria in a relatively short time. Analysts said the contract is “risky” given the worsening satiation in Syria and the growing international pressure on President Bashar al-Assad over his crackdown on protesters.
Operational Experience and Capabilities
The SAAF suffered major defeats in aerial engagements with Israel in the 1967 and 1973 wars, and again during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. During the Israel's Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982 Israeli aircraft struck Syrian surface-to-air missiles, resulting in the destruction of nineteen sites and the damaging of four. Israeli aerial mastery was confirmed in the skies over the Biqa Valley. At the conclusion of the first week of the war, after the participation of approximately 100 combat planes on each side, a total of 86 Syrian MiG-21, MiG-23, and Sukhoi-22 aircraft had been shot down with no Israeli losses.
When Syrian fighter aircraft scrambled to prevent Israeli aircraft flying over eastern Lebanon in November 1985, two Syrian MiG-23s were shot down in Syrian airspace. Syria responded by deploying mobile SA-6 and SA-8 SAMs into eastern Lebanon and by setting up SA-2 sites along its border with Lebanon. Thereafter, the potential for rapid escalation in Syrian-Israeli hostilities became a source of concern on both sides. Following the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, Syrian influence and control expanded to eastern Lebanon and the Biqa Valley, where Syria maintained about two divisions; about six divisions were redeployed in the Damascus-Golan Heights region.
Throughout the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s Syria's Air Force experienced difficulties keeping its aircraft operational and providing sufficient flight hours for pilots.
The SAAF suffered a further setback with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which disrupted the flow of equipment. Despite its shortcomings in terms of a scarcity of spare parts, unwieldy battle management structures and a lack of some of the more advanced technological systems, the air force is still a lethal threat. Syria has sufficient numbers of aircraft to stage a mass attack on Israel and there are concerns that such an onslaught could saturate Israel's air defenses, allowing Syrian Su-24 bombers to strike strategic targets. But Syria could only mount such an aerial offensive at enormous cost, and such a scenario is somewhat implausible, because the Syrians are well aware that Israeli retaliation would be instant and devastating.
Operational art and tactical doctrine follow the Soviet model. Syria sees two main combat roles for its attack helicopters - close support and as roving tank killers. During the conflict with Israel in 1982, Syria used its SA 342L Gazelles armed with HOT anti-tank missiles in the latter role with some success. While the helicopters destroyed a number of Israeli armored vehicles when sent out in pairs on `hunting' missions, co-ordination with ground forces was poor and some helicopter crews did not receive adequate pre-flight briefings. Overall, the Syrians lost 14 Gazelles during the conflict, some of which were shot down by Israeli tanks. Since then, Syria has been steadily building up the number of Gazelles in its fleet.
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