Why Russia didn’t use precision-guided munitions in Syria?

The Russian Air Force showed off a few precision-guided weapons in Syria; it was evident that Moscow still lacked specific capabilities such as an AESA radar, a Targeting Pod and Electronic Countermeasures.

Russia seems to have accelerated the development of the new pod after lessons learnt in Syria,– a targeting pod is mandatory over the modern battlefield. Indeed, Russian forces have been accused of being less than precise with their airstrikes in Syria—which could in part be attributed to VKS’s lack of targeting pods.

The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has concluded that China is well on its way to eclipsing Russia in combat aircraft. Russia’s UOMZ license-produced Thales Damocles targeting pods for the nation’s fighters under a new co-operation agreement before the EU sanctions.

Sukhoi-HAL Su-30MKI

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, surviving entity, the Russian Federation’s economy was almost in ruins, and the erstwhile flourishing Russian military aviation industry was on the brink of collapse, with no fresh orders coming from even its own air force, let alone foreign customers.

When India wanted to build a derivative of Su-30 known as Su-30MKI, Russia asked India to turn to France and Israel to have electronics of India’s choice as Russia never made an electronic countermeasure, electronic attack and targeting pod.

For Electronic Warfare, the MKI has an indigenous system called ‘Tarang’, with a programmable threat library and direction-finding capability. It also carries the potent Israeli Elta EL/M-8222 self-protection Electronic Warfare pod. In the air-to-ground role, integrating the Israeli Litening Targeting Pod along with the indigenous 1,000 lb bombs with laser-guided bomb kits has lent the aircraft multi-role precision-strike capability.

The forward-facing NIIP NO11-M Bars (Panther) is a 1980s PESA multi-functional radar with detection/multi-tracking capabilities that can beat most of the existing aerial with onboard beyond visual range air-to-air missiles threats. The NIIP NO11-M Bars was a letdown for India during Kashmir Skirmish as it failed to lock on to the F-16C of Pakistan Air Force.

Malaysia has adapted its Russian-built Sukhoi Su-30 multi-role combat aircraft to drop American-made laser-guided bombs, successfully releasing a live weapon at the end of 2019.

Malaysia possesses the Thales Damocles surveillance and targeting pod for its Su-30MKMs, which uses the Russian KAB series of laser-guided bombs and Kh-29TE air-to-surface missile.  Malaysia operates a fleet of 18 Su-30MKMs alongside its Hornets as the Air Force’s primary combat aircraft.

Russia lacks Targeting Pod and Electronic Countermeasures

Without a targeting Pod, Su-35, MiG-35 and Su-57 can’t guide a laser-guided bomb to the target. Russian fighters are equipped with a TV-guided bomb where one of two pilots guides the bombs to the target manually using TV guidance.

Modern air-to-ground warfare is increasingly premised on the idea that plastering a target area with lots of big bombs is less effective than getting just one or two munitions to land precisely on target. But scaling up from limited to wide-scale use of precision-guided weapons poses formidable challenges.

Russia has developed various PGMs, but stocks are limited, so in practice, the VKS has primarily relied on unguided bombs and rockets when bombing targets in Syria. Contributing to this problem have been limited accuracy of Russia’s GLONASS satellite network used to calculate bomb release and the inability of most Russian combat aircraft (except dedicated attack aircraft like the Su-24, Su-25 and Su-34) to mount targeting pods for precision air-to-ground strikes.

That relegates most Russian pilots to more complex and less accurate methods of targeting, such as hewing the entire plane around to paint a target, relying on the seekers of the wing-mounted munitions, or using TV-guided weapons manually guided by the weapon systems officer of a two-seat jet like the Su-30 or Su-34. That’s why the Russian Air Force prefers to operate twin-seater fighters than single-seater fighters.

By contrast, targeting pod support or organic electro-optical targeting systems reportedly feature in later Chinese jets, including the J-10, J-16 and the J-20 stealth fighter. Furthermore, China is developing and exporting a diverse array of precision-guided missiles and bombs, many of which are available in a scaled-down form for deployment on combat drones.

According to Justin Bronk, a Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology in the Military Sciences team at RUSI said, Russian pilots are busy with manual workloads in the cockpits as there are no automation and targeting systems afforded to the pilots.

The Kremlin deployed Su-34s to Syria in November 2015, shortly after a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 that reportedly strayed into Turkey’s air space. Su-34s took part in Russia’s brutal bombing campaign targeting Syrian civilians and medical workers. The main reason for collateral damage is that Russia’s Su-34 does not have any meaningful targeting pod and guidance systems. The Russian Air Force also has deployed dumb bombs instead of smart bombs, killing Syrian civilians.

J-16 is critical to China’s plans for the modernization of its fighter fleet. 

On the contrary, China began producing domestic clones of Soviet MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21 fighters—the J-5, J-6 and J-7, respectively—on such a scale it exported large numbers abroad.

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After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Russia sold China fourth-generation Su-27 and Su-30 Flanker jets, a powerful twin-engine fighter known for its supermaneuverable flight characteristics. The Shenyang Aviation Corporation developed three separate clones of the Flanker: the J-11, carrier-based J-15 Flying Shark and strike-oriented J-16.

However, according to a study published by the Royal United Service Institute, the world’s oldest military think tank, the apprentice China may have surpassed the master Russia in the field of electronics, demonstrating J-16, a clone of Su-30 with better electronics.

The study’s author, analyst Justin Bronk, writes:

“…from a position of dependency on Russian aircraft and weapons, China has developed an advanced indigenous combat aircraft, sensor and weapons industry that is outstripping Russia’s… China has started to build a clear technical lead over Russia in most aspects of combat aircraft development. Moreover, Russian industry is unlikely to be able to regain areas of competitive advantage once lost, due to deep structural industrial and budgetary disadvantages compared to the Chinese sector.”

To be sure, China still imports turbofan engines from Russia as it struggles to perfect domestic alternatives such as the WS-10B and eventually the powerful WS-15. However, the latest Chinese fighters increasingly incorporate weapons and avionics that are more capable than their Russian counterparts.

Factors behind the shifting fortunes of China and Russia’s lacking capability include the aviation sector, including Beijing’s annual military spending exceeding Moscow’s two or three times in a year, Cross-applicability of China’s well-developed civilian electronics industry to manufacturing advanced avionics resulting in Western-style computers, sensors, and datalinks, the willingness of Chinese firms to copy technologies from across the globe through reverse-engineering or industrial espionage (mainly hacking). On the contrary, western sanctions on Russia have reduced Moscow’s access to components necessary for high-performance sensors

Russia has also had far more success exporting fourth-generation fighters than China has. (Beijing has had a better fortune selling combat-capable jet trainers and drones.) But Bronk predicts that dynamic will change:

“As the superiority of Chinese weapons systems and airframe manufacturing capacity over Russian equivalents becomes increasingly obvious, countries with political alignments or budgets that preclude relying on Western aircraft will look increasingly to Beijing rather than Moscow for equipment, especially as Soviet-era fleets continue to age out.”

AESA Radar

Russia is still fielding PESA radars for the Su-57 stealth fighter and MiG-35—but the MiG-35s delivered have lacked the AESA radar, and the maturity of the radar on the few Su-57s remains unclear.

Meanwhile, China is incorporating AESAs broadly into J-11B and J-16 twin-engine fighters, J-10B single-engine fighters, and J-20 stealth fighters.

Nonetheless, the eventual widespread integration of AESA radars into modern Chinese designs means they will be operating sensor capabilities in the same ballpark as those of cutting-edge Western fighters—while all but a few Russian fighters (at best) won’t be.

By contrast, while Russia’s Su-57 Felon stealth jet appears impressively agile, it’s less technically mature. For example, the first production model, the Su-57 aircraft crashed just a few days before it was officially set to enter Russian military service due to a flaw in the flight control system.

The RUSI report further describes limitations to the Su-57’s stealth technology:

Notable sources of radar reflections include the unusual fully moving leading-edge root extension control surfaces and actuators, cockpit canopy design, ram air intakes at the base of the canted vertical stabilisers, IRST sensor in front of the canopy and the only partially shrouded jet engine turbine faces…These features are likely a result of comparative Russian inexperience in designing and building stealth aircraft, coupled with budgetary limitations. They, along with limited manufacturing tolerances and quality control issues, mean that the effective Radar Cross Section of the Su-57 will be at least an order of magnitude larger than the F-35 and several orders of magnitude larger than the F-22.

Beijing has spent far more money to develop, refine and procure the J-20. Over the years, photos reveal the J-20 has gone through numerous iterations with improved engines and better technology.

Russia is a long way from bench-testing a Zhuk-AME AESA radar, 101KS-N Targeting pod, and L402 Himalayas electronic countermeasure suite, then detecting, classifying, and targeting an object using the targeting systems as the development of those systems are far behind than Rostec advertises.

It doesn’t change the startling fact that the U.S. and European countries operate and export multiple types of combat aircraft with advanced electronics today. Russia has no equivalent currently in their air force.

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