Sunday 25 October 2015

A contrary assessment of Russia's war in Syria

Konstantin Sivkov interviewed about the Russian operation in Syria

Konstantin Sivkov interviewed about the Russian operation in Syria
Dear friends,

This is the full text of the interview I was referring to in my rant about what I consider to be stupid flag-waving.  Considering all the controversy this interview generated here, I feel that I need to clarify something here: I am not “endorsing” either Sivkov or his views (especially not his “other” views not mentioned in this interview).  I do, however, believe that Sivkov is an very qualified and competent military expert who is well-connected and well-informed and who is most definitely somebody whose opinions should not be dismissed.  A big THANK YOU to Seva for this important translation!

The Saker

Translation: Seva

ALEXANDER FATEEV: Good evening, news program Vzglyad (“Look”) is on the air. Today we will talk about events in Syria. Our guest today is Doctor of Military sciences, our military expert Konstantin Syvkov.


FATEEV: Our last program with Dr. Syvkov had an enormous success among the viewers, so we decided to invite him again. So, Dr. Sivkov, this is the second week of the action of the Russian forces in support of the Syrian army and the government of Bashar Assad in their fight against international terrorism. How do you think the action is progressing after our airstrikes at the terrorist positions, and what does the picture of the war in general look like?

SIVKOV: In my view, due to actions of our forces, as well as the fact that significant amounts of ammunition were supplied to Syria for their artillery, on October 7th on a narrow part of the front, on the Idlib direction, a successful advance was organized. The rate of advance of the Syrian forces at the beginning reached 70 kilometers per day. It slowed after that, but still during several days the fight was successful, which led to the surrounding of the enemy forces, including most of the troops of Jabhat al-Nusra. After that, and we can state this now as a fact, the rate of the advance of Syrian army greatly decreased: it became a few kilometers per day. Syrians retook some towns, but the overall advance stalled. At the same time, ISIS managed to organize an advance in other parts of the front, to distract Syrian forces. One of the worst things was that on October 13-14 ISIS successfully advanced towards Aleppo, where they annihilated some units of the Free Syrian Army and even pushed back the Syrian Army.

At the same time, active war started near Damascus. This forced the Syrian army to regroup, without finishing off the enemy surrounded in Idlib and failing to finish the operation in the North, stop short of Turkish border. Syrian Army was forced instead to start operation near Damascus, to push terrorists out of Damascus suburb, and to push them far enough from Damascus to make it impossible for ISIS to shell the city from mortars. What was the most unpleasant was that in the city of Latakia our planes had to hit Latakia suburbs to eliminate mortar batteries of ISIS. It is in a way natural, because ISIS engages in guerrilla warfare, using small almost commando groups that penetrate deep into enemy territory, fire 10-15, maybe 20 mortar rounds, and leaving their positions so fast that it’s almost impossible to detect and eliminate them. This is pretty much what it looks like now.

FATEEV: It appears that as expected by various experts, including Russian, the Idlib surrounding of enemy troops did not happen, not so much because of the lack of fighting spirit or modern weapons in Syrian Army, but because ISIS terrorists actively counter-attack in different directions, particularly near Damascus and in the South. This forces the Syrian Army to move forces meant to seal the surrounded al-Nusra troops and destroy them. Syrians also cannot de-block Aleppo, which was surrounded by ISIS for 4 years, which is longer than the Leningrad blockade during WWII. So it looks like there will be no Idlib surrounding?

SYVKOV: You are right that ISIS ruined the scenario envisioned by the Syrian government when the troops are relocated to other fronts to pursue other goals without having finished their operation in the Northwest. This shows that the plan of the operation is broken, and the goals were not achieved. I would like to draw your attention to another important fact: Russian airforce significantly increased the number of sorties. In the first day there were 20-25 sorties per day, now it’s about 90 daily sorties. I would like to remind you that maximum that military planes can do is two sorties per day. Greater numbers are fraught with dangers of inadequate maintenance and pilot fatigue. This might lead to casualties. Besides, due to required time to reach targets and engage them it is impossible to make more than two sorties per day per plane. Thus, the intensity of the use of our air force in Syria reached the limit. Without increasing the number of aircrafts involved it would be impossible to intensify its action.

FATEEV: To increase the number of the aircrafts involved, we need to expand the technical service capabilities. Latakia airbase has only one runway. Thus, it’s impossible to increase the number of sorties because of this limitation. Therefore, we would need yet another airbase…

SYVKOV: You are right, we need to increase operational capacity. Maximum capacity of the Latakia airbase, as far as we can judge from available information, is about 60 aircraft. Now this limit is essentially reached, considering that there are 22 helicopters and 45-50 planes. This is the limit. Thus, we need either an additional airbase, or to expand this one, which means construction. What’s more, the expansion of this base would mean high concentration of our aircrafts within a limited space. This makes them vulnerable to strikes by ISIS or, possibly, countries that might intervene into the Syrian conflict against Russia, which is also possible.

So, it’s preferable to have a different additional airfield. However, I think that it would be more efficient to achieve an agreement with Iran to use its airfields. In this case, with aircrafts based in Iran that can act against ISIS in Iraq (which requested help) and Syria, we would be able to deploy a much greater force. Resupply of this force could be more regular, without problems of going through Bosporus or flying long roundabout way via Gibraltar, around the whole Europe. The route via the Caspian Sea and Iran would allow for easy resupply of our troops. In that case, we would be able to deploy a very significant force comprising 100-120 aircraft based on two-three airfields that Iran could offer. So far, I have not heard any talk about this option. Up to now, the force is being increased in Latakia, which is worrisome, because gradual increase of this group prevents the achievement of meaningful goals. Of course, Russia can use aircrafts with long operating range. Flying from airfields in Dagestan, near the Caspian Sea, with the range of 2,500 kilometers with payload of 7-10 tons, such aircrafts, flying via Iran and Iraq could successfully hit targets in Syria.

FATEEV: How about air corridor via Turkey?

SYVKOV: I think that right now Turkey won’t give us this opportunity, although it would be welcome, as we would be able to fly directly from Crimea. The route over the Caspian Sea is the most realistic. However, we must keep in mind that the bombing by Tu-22M is a lot less precise than the frontline bombers used now. There are, however, new unique Russian systems that allow a significant increase in the precision of bombing by Tu-22. So far, the use of these aircrafts is not discussed, even though they can be used. I can say one more thing: Iran has already sent to Syria several thousand troops, which unofficially participate in the war against ISIS. Clearly, this is not enough.

I would like to stress one more issue. The success of the Syrian Army in the first day offensive in Hama province towards Idlib was partially due to the method that is called “fire wave”. This means very dense artillery shelling, using 300 or more artillery pieces per 1 km of the frontline. The fire is aimed at the defense lines and is moved forward as the troops advance. This method consumes a lot of ammunition, but it is very effective in getting through fortifications. This allowed the breakthrough via the enemy defenses. I would like to point out that after that there was no information about the use of such a concentrated artillery fire. This suggests that the Syrian forces used up much, if not most, of the ammunition they had, including those supplied by Russia. Apparently, now they don’t have enough ammunition for adequate artillery support of the troops. That would explain why the rate of advance was greatly reduced.

Naturally, the question arises: what about Russian air force? This requires clarification. Russian air force works mostly, if not exclusively, at stationary targets.

FATEEV: What about surgical strikes at military columns?

SYVKOV. There were few of those. In 95% of cases, it engages stationary targets. Shooting at stationary objects, it can achieve very high precision targeting. What is the reason for that? First, the main type of munitions used is free-falling bombs. This is known. Under usual circumstances, free-falling bombs are scattered widely: 200-300 meters. Engaging small targets would leads to a lot of collateral damage among residents, while the probability of hitting the target remains low. Russia created unique equipment installed on practically all Russian military aircraft in Syria. It uses GLONASS and leads the aircraft to the point of dropping bombs with precision of a few meters. Based on aircraft trajectory, the dynamics of its change, air temperature, it ensures automatic release of the bomb at exactly the right spot.

FATEEV: So, essentially the pilot has to deliver the bomb to that spot, and automatic system will do everything else?

SYVKOV: Yes, the pilot does not need to think about keeping the course, he does not need to think about refraining from evasive anti-rocket or anti-PRO maneuvers – he flies any way he needs to. Automatic system will drop the bomb in the right place at the right time. Thus, dropping 2-3 bombs, the pilot is essentially guaranteed to hit the target. However, let me draw your attention that the plain should get to the right spot according to the coordinates of the target, which are entered into the system beforehand, according to GLONASS data. Thus, these weapons cannot be used against mobile targets.

FATEEV: Can we support our troops in Syria with high-precision munitions launched from the Russian Federation? Here is what I mean. Recent launch of cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea was the first use of the Caspian Navy since the Civil War in Russia. Cruise missiles travelled long distance via Iran and Iraq successfully hit their targets, at least according to the statement of the Russian Defense Ministry.

SYVKOV: That is true. I would like to point out one more thing: American cruise missile Tomahawk, analogous to our missiles “Caliber”, with usual payload have the range of 1,500 kilometers. The real range, considering that they have to go around areas with anti-aircraft defenses and other areas where they don’t want to fly, is about 1,100-1,200 kilometers. Our cruise missiles were launched at the distance of 1,500 or a bit more kilometers, which suggests that their maximum range is significantly greater, about 1,800 kilometers. According to media, it is ~2,600 kilometers. Thus, our cruise missiles have greater range than their American analogues. Another point draws attention: each target was hit with only two missiles, with very few targets hit by three missiles. This is a very small number, suggesting very high precision and reliability of these missiles. 

Americans usually target command centers or depots with 3-4 missiles. This is a nuance worth noting. However, we should note that virtually all Caspian Navy was used to launch these 26 missiles, four ships, three of which were small rocket ships, and one simply a rocket ship of the class “Gepard” (“Cheetah” – translator’s note). Each of these ships has eight launchers, so they could have launch 32 missiles and actually launched 26. Here is what is worth noting: the next salvo could have been made in 2-3 days. It’s been almost a week.

FATEEV: So, it was a one-time action to demonstrate that we can strike at a distance?

SYVKOV: That’s exactly right. Apparently. Considering tough situation in Syria and the fact that the Russian air force there works at the limit of its capabilities, the absence of the second salvo suggests that Russia ran out of supplies of this kind of weapons, or has a limited number left. These missiles now need to be manufactured.

FATEEV: This suggests a very interesting situation: the number of sorties of the Russian air force increased three-fold. Despite successful hits of bases, plants, command centers with terrorist leaders, there is no prospect of quick victory over ISIS. What is going on?

SYVKOV: We should keep in mind that the size of the Russian air force group in Syria allows for efficient action on only one operational direction, with limited effect on a second direction after the number of aircraft was increased to about 50. This is the limit of the capabilities of Russian aircrafts currently based in Syria. 

They cannot do more. This is point number one. The other is that our aircrafts, considering the weapons they use, can engage virtually only stationary targets near the frontlines. Bombing of the command centers (about 20 were mentioned) does not significantly affect the effectiveness of their units at the front. The time ISIS needs to restore command structure after bombing ranges from a few hours to a day. That is, the command structure is restored within a day. If we are talking about the next level of command, as well as strategic command, the time to restore it is about 2-3 days. However, ISIS uses the tactics of independent guerilla groups that act according to one plan. The destruction of operational command centers only paralyzes for some time their ability to maneuver, but nothing else. 

The ability of troops to fight does not change. Each group has its own local supply lines. Thus, hitting lower level command and supply elements limit the maneuvers and ruin the supply lines of combat troops, which reduces their combat readiness in about a week or week and half. This is because they have their local depots and small trucks that cannot be targeted.

Today we are told that the key problem the ISIS troops are facing, and that is why they are forced to withdraw in certain areas, is the absence of ammunition. But this became so only now, whereas the first strikes were made on October 7-8, or even earlier. Right now, by parachuting their ammunition, the US are neutralizing the action of our air force to destroy ISIS supply lines. This ammunition will be distributed through various routes by individual trucks and cars to frontline positions of ISIS troops. The overall picture is this: the Russian air force increases the strikes to destroy the infrastructure and supply lines at different levels, but this does not result in sharp reduction of combat ability of the ISIS troops, only limits their ability to maneuver and limiting the amounts of available ammunition. This explains why, after the Syrian army used up most of its ammunition creating the “fire wave”, which helped to get through the ISIS defense lines, and the capacity of Syrian artillery was reduced, that stopped their advance. Increased strikes of Russian aviation at depots and supplies lines do not dramatically reduce combat potential of frontline troops. As far as the panic among ISIS fighters, the fact that Russia joined the war caused a shock at first. But now this shock has worn off. ISIS actively initiated counter-offensives; they restored their command structure and can coordinate their actions on different fronts. So, we cannot say that there is panic there today.

FATEEV: What is you prediction about the war in Syria in the next two weeks? What should we expect?

SYVKOV: I believe that in the next two weeks the number of Russian aircraft involved will be increased due to expansion of the capabilities of airbase Hmeimim near Latakia and will reach about 60-70 aircrafts. The intensity of strikes will increase to 120-140 sorties per day. This will allow for effective actions in two directions against the terrorist groups. I hope and expect that the operative transportation unit will be formed to supply sufficient ammunition to the Syrian army to organize wide offensive with massive use of artillery some time within a week. This will allow for the strengthening of the Idlib direction, as well as of other directions, which now do not have sufficient strength, including the Southern direction. I also think that long-range aircrafts might be used against ISIS, particularly against its bases far from the frontlines. I would not exclude that the system of defense of the airbase near Latakia will be strengthened by deployment of one or two additional battalions to increase the numbers of Navy troops to about a regiment. I believe that, to ensure coordination with the Syrian troops, additional helicopter units will be deployed, primarily strike helicopters capable of acting at night. These could be helicopters Mi-28M, which have the necessary equipment. I certainly think that the numbers of Iranian troops will be increased.

In its turn, the US will likely increase the delivery of weapons to ISIS. I would not exclude that, to enable ISIS to strike Russian aircrafts, the US will supply more powerful anti-aircraft guns, not only mobile ones, but also those with higher power. Just like the US supplied heavy long-range anti-tank complexes, even though usually they supplied only short-range ones. The US might also supply more powerful rocket-launching systems, which, from Turkish territory, can “accidentally” fall into terrorist hands, where “accidentally” will be well-trained personnel, and can act against our aircrafts at heights up to 20 kilometers. This would mean serious casualties. After these losses, our air force will have to suppress these anti-aircraft systems, which will lead to gradual escalation of the conflict. Thus, I believe that in the next two weeks the tensions will increase, the intensity of actions of the Russian and ISIS forces will increase.

I also think that greater ISIS military force will be deployed at the frontlines. I think they will be redeployed from other areas, such as Afghanistan, and they will be transported in the only way possible: by the US military transport aircrafts. As Afghanistan does not border Syria, there is no other way of their transportation. I would not exclude that from Europe or countries bordering Syria, such as Jordan or Turkey, the migration of terrorists to Syria will be initiated and supported. This is because the US cannot allow the Russian victory in the region, as the victory of Bashar Assad over ISIS, Russian victory in the area will mean that the US, at least in the near term, the next 10-15 years, will lose a chance to restore its control over the region. They cannot let that happen. Thus, at any price, by supporting any force, the US will do everything possible to defeat Assad and the Russian military there. Thus, in the next two weeks we can only expect escalation of the military confrontation in Syria and the emergence of new areas of conflict.

FATEEV: We remind our viewers that our guest was Dr. of Military Sciences Konstantin Syvkov with deep and detailed analysis of events in Syria. Thank you for being with us, watch and read free media, goodbye.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.