Did Russia Really Lose Seven Warplanes in Syria on New Year’s Eve?
On Jan. 3, 2018, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that “radical Islamists” had destroyed seven Russian combat jets at Khmeimim, or Hmeimim, air base near Latakia, Syria on New Year’s Eve, 2017.
Russian president Vladimir Putin had visited the base earlier that month to praise the troops for their “victory over the most combat capable Islamic militants” and announced a partial withdrawal of Russian forces stationed there.
According to Kommersant, two “military-diplomatic sources” said the destroyed aircraft included four Su-24 swing-wing bombers, two Su-35S multi-role fighters and one An-72 transport jet.
Additionally, the sources claimed the attack wounded at least 10 Russian military personnel and destroyed an ammunition dump. If true, this would mark by far the largest loss yet of Russian hardware in Syria.
The An-72, identifiable by two the turbofan engines fitted atop the wings, is a transport capable taking off from runways as short as 500 meters long. The Su-35S is Russia’s most advanced in-service fighter. The Su-24 is a supersonic bomber that has been a workhorse of Russia’s bombing campaign targeting Syrian rebels and civilian facilities in rebel-held areas.
In 2015, a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24. The bomber was, until New Year’s Eve two years later, the only Russian jet destroyed by hostile fire in Syria. Moscow has lost at least three more warplanes in accidents and eight or more helicopters have either crashed or been shot down.
On Jan. 4, 2o17, the Russian defense ministry issued a statement admitting that a mortar attack had killed two servicemen but denying any aircraft losses, claiming its forces there remained “combat ready.” It also noted that a Russian Mi-24 attack helicopter suffered a non-combat accident near Hama airbase on the day of the bombardment that killed both crew.
The Kremlin has not always been forthcoming or honest about losses on the ground in Syria. However, no photographic evidence has emerged confirming destroyed Russian aircraft. Strangely, it’s not even evident that any rebel groups have taken credit for, or posted evidence of, an attack that supposedly inflicted significant damage.
The same day that Moscow published its statement, Russian military journalist Roman Saponkov posted photos on VKontakte, the most popular Russian social media platform, showing the damaged horizontal stabilizers of an Su-24 and a leaking jet intake.
According to Saponkov, no aircraft were destroyed but 10 aircraft were damaged, including six Su-24s, one Su-35S, one An-72, one An-30 turboprop observation plane and an Mi-8 transport helicopter. He also claimed that two Su-24s and one Su-35S have returned to operational status.
In a subsequent post, Saponkov said he had been asked not to report the attack. “Yesterday, I turned out to be the first to give this information, although ‘everyone in the know’ already knew about it. I even wrote Syrians and expressed condolences. Five different sources asked me ‘not to tell anyone.’ Of course, the Russians, whose citizens were killed in the shelling, are not Syrians and they do not need to know … ”
“It is not worthwhile to blame our military,” Saponkov added. “The militants were qualitatively prepared, most likely they had foreign technologies. Our people simply did not expect that the militants would acquire new technology.”
In a follow-up post, Saponkov said that his credibility has been attacked by “pro-Kremlin” bloggers.
Suggestively, satellite photos of Hmeimim airbase show the Russian warplanes parked closely together. An accurate mortar bombardment could damage multiple aircraft with each shell, and potentially trigger secondary damage from flying aircraft parts.
Mortars are much smaller and more portable than artillery is and can be fired more rapidly. However, an 82-millimter mortar—a type in use with both sides in the Syrian civil war—has a range of only 2.6 miles, implying that a rebel team would have had to infiltrate quite close to the heavily defended Russian air base to strike effectively.
A larger 120-millimeter mortar can reach out to 4.4 miles, but would likely require vehicular transport. Getting so close to Latakia poses quite a challenge for the rebels, as their territory in Idlib province shrank considerably in 2017.
Saponkov reference to “foreign technology” could be telling. In recent years, Syrian rebels have used foreign-made anti-tank missiles to destroy Syrian government aircraft.