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Syria Air Campaign Raises Questions About Russian Capabilities

FILE - Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback tactical bombers fly in formation over the Red Square during the Victory Day parade in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2015.
FILE - Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback tactical bombers fly in formation over the Red Square during the Victory Day parade in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2015.

Russia’s days-old air campaign in Syria is giving U.S. officials and analysts their first in-depth look at Russian capabilities in decades, and it has some wondering whether Russia is able to effectively use its most advanced weapons.

“You can actually tell that the ammunition they’re using — while I wouldn’t call it older, necessarily — they are a type of dumb ammunition,” said Sim Tack, director of analytical support at Stratfor, a U.S.-based global intelligence company.

The conclusion would seem to be at odds with the rest of Russia’s approach, which has included the use of some of its most advanced combat aircraft, including the Su-30 Flanker and Su-34 Fullback fighter-bombers.

Some officials suggested Russia might be holding back, not wanting to give the world an accurate picture of its full capabilities. But Stratfor’s Tack said the truth could be less sinister.

“That’s one of those areas where Russia may be a few steps behind, mostly in having their troops or pilots be familiar with the modern equipment and being familiar with the actual methods in the battlefield to employ it effectively,” he said. “All the added accuracy from laser-guided or GPS-guided ammunitions is useless if you can’t decide what you need to hit.”

U.S. officials said that if the Russians were facing a learning curve, it was one that they might very well overcome in short order.

But current and former U.S. defense and intelligence officials cautioned that for the time being, Russia might not need to resort to pinpoint strikes.

“Air power is not going to win the war, but you can see, the last few days, the world was freaked out,” said Patrick Skinner, a former intelligence officer now with the Soufan Group, which provides strategic security intelligence services to governments and multinational organizations.

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Effect on rebel groups

And even if individual Russian airstrikes are having a limited impact on the battlefield, as a whole, the strikes have been changing the calculus of some of the Syrian rebel groups.

“We have been using military tactics, moving our command-and-control centers since the beginning of the attack,” Iyad Shamsi, the leader of a Syrian rebel group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, told VOA earlier this week by phone from Syria.

U.S. officials worry that, on a broad scale, the impact of carrying out such airstrikes could be far-reaching.

“Russian interventions may result in extending [Bashar al-]Assad’s reign by imposing pacification on certain regions in the country,” an intelligence official told VOA on condition of anonymity.

“The greater impact, however, will be to increase the number of dead and the flow of refugees,” the official warned. “It will also likely turn this conflict into a factory for a new generation of extremists, just as the Afghanistan war did in the '80s.”