The 36 armed combat jets that tailed successive cargo flights to an airfield in Syria seemed to be making one thing clear: Russia was flexing its muscles again as it prepared to play a major role in Syria.
Not that anyone was meant to notice. Russia had painted over the planes' markings and insignia, using maskirovka — the Russian version of strategic military deception — to make the force projection of three dozen warplanes almost undetectable. The cargo flights, however, were picked up on radar.
Today, any desire Russia had for secrecy appears to be gone. Instead, Russian Air Force (RuAF) Sukhoi Su-25SMs, Su-24s, and Su-34s are dropping free-fall bombs, cluster munitions, and precision-guided weapons on Syria, and in the process loudly sending a bunch of messages to the region, the West, and the international community as a whole.
Hours after the Russian aircraft launched their first raids, complemented by intense social media activity and unprecedented media coverage, Russian officials warned US aircraft supporting Operation Inherent Resolve to remain out of Syrian airspace. Shortly after beginning to pound ground targets in western Syria, on October 3 and 4 Russian Air Force Su-30 and Su-24 aircraft violated Turkey's sovereign airspace in the Hatay region. According to NATO, the Russian combat planes entered Turkish airspace despite Turkish authorities' "clear, timely, and repeated warnings."
Turkish F-16 interceptors were scrambled to respond to these incursions, at which point the Russian planes departed Turkish airspace. However, as if violating the airspace of a NATO member weren't enough, the Russian Su-30SM (initially referred to as an "unidentified" Mig-29) maintained a radar lock on one or both of the F-16s for a full 5 minutes and 40 seconds.
According to the Russians, the violation was due to a "navigation error" — not much of a selling point for Russia's state-of-the-art aircraft.
Another radar lock-on was reported by the Turkish Air Force on October 5, this one lasting 4 minutes and 30 seconds and involving a Mig-29 from an "unidentified nation." The lengths of both lock-ons is odd, in that they could have given the Turks the opportunity to glean intelligence about the radar systems of the planes — especially the relatively new and unknown Su-30SM — that would be extremely interesting to not only Turkey, but also Israel and NATO nations.
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Several times since the beginning of Russian president Vladimir Putin's air war in Syria, US aircraft have been forced to change their routes to avoid getting too close to Russian aircraft. In one such incident, US F-16s picked up Russian planes on their radars over western Syria. The RuAF jets closed to within 20 miles of the F-16s, close enough for American pilots to visually identify the Sukhois attack planes. Lieutenant General Charles Brown, commander of the American air campaign in Iraq and Syria, did not specify how the near-engagement ended.
Close encounters have also involved American unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a.k.a., drones, flying along the border between Turkey and Syria. According to US defense officials, Russians have shadowed US Predator drones on at least three separate occasions since the start of Russia's air campaign. In 2013, the US Air Force started escorting its Predators flying off Iran, after the drones were harassed by Iranian fighter jets trying to shoot them down.
Early in the morning on October 7, Russian warships belonging to the Russian Navy's Caspian Sea Strike Group launched 26 cruise missiles against Islamic State targets in Syria. The cruise missiles overflew Iran and Iraq before reaching their targets at low level.
According to Russia's Ministry of Defense, the cruise missiles "engaged all the assigned targets successfully and with high accuracy," though the Pentagon said some them crashed short in Iran.
Considering the facts that the RuAF has a contingent of 36 multirole aircraft already deployed to Syria with the ability to hit the same 11 targets, and there is little anti-aircraft threat over installations attacked by the Russians, the use of cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea was probably another show of force aimed at showcasing Moscow's ability to conduct a US-like cruise missile attack. Jets and drones, it seems, aren't the only players in Russia's game of militarized chicken.
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Photo via Wikimedia Commons