Seven years of combat and mechanical attrition in a total war scenario is enough to effectively end the existence of most nations’ air forces, particular so the air force of a nation that has no aerospace industry or even licenced production base to begin with.
Yet after seven years of one of the most intensive military conflicts of the 21st Century, the Syrian Air Force has – almost exclusively due to its own efforts – not only survived but in fact learned to master its limited capabilities.
Given that virtually all of Moscow’s materiel support to the Syrian military since the Russian intervention has gone into propping up the army with ammunition, food, fuel, trucks, howitzers and tanks, the reality stands that no new aircraft have been provided to the Syrian Air Force since October 2015, with pre-war or very early-war contracts for major aircraft upgrades or entirely new aircraft either having been fulfilled in 2013-14 or still remaining on hold.
Whilst Russian mechanics have contributed to servicing existing Syrian aircraft in the field, the brunt of the maintenance effort to keep the small Arab republic’s air force flying is still performed by Syrian mechanics.
During the most intensive Russian bombardment periods, Syria-based Russian pilots fly no more than two sorties per day; by comparison, Syrian pilots fly three-to-four missions per day on average during major operations and have done so since the low-level insurgency in Syria degenerated into a full-blown military conflict beginning around mid-2013.
Whilst the Russians generally bomb from high-altitude on a course designated the day before the mission, the majority of Syrian Air Force sorties are reactionary to within minutes of being requested and consist of two (sometimes more) low-altitude passes; one pass in which bombs or rockets are unloaded and at least one pass using cannon fire. The constant conducting of low-altitude attacks is in itself a form of attrition since the thicker (and often dusty in the case of Syria) air wears out engines quicker and consumes more fuel; moreover, there is also the inescapable factor that low-altitude missions greatly increase the risk of being shot-down by ground fire.
The factor of aircraft attrition versus acquisition capability (be it in the form of native production or purchase from a friendly state) is further complicated by the fact that the training of military pilots to even novice-levels of competence in a jet fighter is a process that takes at least a couple of years. Furthermore again, training new pilots in accordance with a scheduled training program is complicated by fuel and staff shortages. To this end, it is officially unknown if any new Syrian pilots have been trained since at least 2013. If not, then it stands only as a credit to the Syrian Air Force that it still has worthy (and willing) pilots to put in its past-use-by-date aircraft after seven years.
There is also a quality factor to consider in regards to the challenges of maintaining a fleet of aircraft that were already obsolete by contemporary standards before the current conflict in Syria erupted.
The unrealistic views of pro-Russian military enthusiasts (some of which actually believe that MiG-21s can outperform F-16s) are overshadowed by the fact that 1960-70s era combat aircraft produced by the Soviet Union (such as the MiG-21, MiG-23, Su-17/22 and Su-24, export variants of which are still in service with the Syrian Air Force) have critical components made from inferior materials that wear out much quicker compared to Western aircraft of the same era.
Indeed, Soviet-era fighters (and even the airfields on which they were stationed) were designed on the basis of rapid wear-out and overhaul. Export models (such as those given to Syria) of these already mechanically inferior aircraft were provided in accordance with what has historically been coined as the ‘MiG Diplomacy’ doctrine – this being the provision of short shelf-life aircraft to Soviet customer nations and using spare parts and the provision of technical services as leverage to keep such nations on friendly terms.
Here, the Syrian Air Force’s strategic investment (being made long before the current conflict) into raising a highly-educated cadre of aircraft engineers and thus removing dependence on the technical services of the Russian aerospace companies from which their aircraft come has proven to be a life-saving decision several decades later.
Part of the Syrian Air Force’s maintenance success is due to the skilful cannibalization of less serviceable jets to keep more serviceable ones flying and also due to the rationalizing of certain aircraft types kept in service based on the specific demands of the conflict being waged.
With regards to the latter undertaking, the Syrian Air Force’s decommissioning of dedicated interceptor variants of the MiG-21 and MiG-23 as well as virtually its entire MiG-25 fleet has proven cost-effective as opposed to the logistical nightmare that could have been if Syrian military planners attempted to maintain all of their aircraft regardless of actual combat relevance.
In a decision that must have been hard to make, but has proven to be the best decision given standing circumstances, the role of air sovereignty (the repelling of air attacks by foreign aggressors) has effectively been entirely handed over to the ground-based air defence forces. Separate from the deprivations of the current conflict, Syrian Air Force fighter jets had already been technological outclassed by those of rival air forces (namely the Israeli Air Force) to the point of virtual uselessness in any air-to-air scenario by the 1980s; this fighter jet inferiority matter has never really been rectified (even with the introduction of MiG-29s which still have inferior avionics and missilery and are piloted by men with virtually no air-to-air combat experience in the aircraft).
The case is that the Syrian Air Force was no more capable at the start of 2011 than it is today – if anything, it capabilities have improved in terms of actual operational readiness, logistical efficiency and, more generally speaking, the invaluable experience gained by pilots, planners and engineers alike in keeping an air force flying after seven years of war (regardless of the type of aircraft being used).
Amid the decline into total war, Syrian military planners clearly set realistic goals based on a pragmatic assessment of the air force’s limited capabilities – this is in fact the accomplishment here (it would be interesting to see how long modern Gulf state air forces lasted against a protracted foreign-backed insurgency if their US and European suppliers cut-off all maintenance and reinforcement support). These planners understood that they do not have the means to compete for air supremacy in pitched dogfights over western Syria against the modern fighters of a NATO nation or Israel, nor can they conduct deep strike operations beyond Syria’s borders against the bases of hostile regional powers. They understood that what they needed to do (indeed, all they could realistically hope to do) was keep as many aircraft capable of providing air support for the ground forces as operational as possible and that is exactly what they have done.
Again, Syria has almost entirely accomplished this on its own despite having no aerospace production base of any kind, despite the fact it uses aircraft with high component attrition and given that Russian materiel support is effectively only provided to the Syrian Army. Thus in a somewhat odd, but nonetheless precise combination of words, it can be confidently be said that the Syrian Air Force has mastered its limited capabilities.