Syrian Air Force
|Syrian Arab Air Force
القوات الجوية العربية السورية
|Size||60,000 (including 20,000 reserve)|
|Part of||Syrian Armed Forces|
|March||We are the Eagles|
Yom Kippur War
1982 Lebanon War
Syrian civil war
|Chief of Air Staff||General Issam Hallaq|
|Air Force Ensign|
The Syrian Air Force (Arabic: القوات الجوية العربية السورية, Al Quwwat al-Jawwiyah al Arabiya as-Souriya) is the Aviation branch of the Syrian Armed Forces. It was established in 1948. Land based air defense systems are grouped under the Syrian Air Defense Force, which split from both the Air Force and the Army.
The end of World War II led to a withdrawal of the United Kingdom and France from the Middle East, and this included a withdrawal from Syria. In 1948, the Syrian Air Force was officially established after the first class of pilots graduated from flight schools in the United Kingdom. The embryonic force saw limited participation in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, conducting bombing raids against Israeli forces and settlements. One North American Harvard was lost to ground fire while attacking Ayelet Hashahar on 16 July, and another possibly shot down by Morris Mann (flying an Avia S-199) on 10 June. The Syrian Air Force claimed its sole kill of the war on 10 July when a Harvard supposedly shot down an Avia S-199 flown by Lionel Bloch.
Military governments formed after the war sought to bolster the air force, which began equipping with Fiat G.59s, ex-Egyptian Macchi C.205s and Supermarine Spitfire Mk 22s. In September 1952 the SAF received its first jet aircraft, the Gloster Meteor F.8. Additional Meteors, including the NF.13 night fighting variant, were delivered by the mid-1950s.
The 1950s also saw Syria and Egypt attempt to unify as the United Arab Republic, and this was reflected in the Syrian Air Force with growth in personnel and aircraft. The union did not last. With the ascent to power of the Baath Party and Hafez Al-Assad, himself a former SAF Commander-in-chief, Syria began looking to the members of the Warsaw Pact for help and built closer ties with the USSR. This in turn led to a huge influx of Eastern-made equipment to the Syrian Armed Forces, including the Air Force.
In 1955 Syria placed an order for 25 MiG-15s, including several MiG-UTI conversion trainers. These were shipped to Alexandria and assembled at the Egyptian air base at Almazah, where Syrian pilots and technicians were trained to operate the aircraft. The fighters were at Almazah when the Suez Crisis broke out and several were destroyed on the ground by British and French air strikes. On 6 November 1956, a Syrian Meteor shot down an Royal Air Force Canberra PR.7 monitoring activity at SAF bases. One Meteor was lost after another attempted intercept, the pilot and future president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, crashing his aircraft while attempting to land in the dark.
Sixty MiG-17s were ordered at the end of 1956 and Syrian pilots were dispatched to the USSR and Poland for training. The first aircraft arrived in January 1957 and by the end of the year two MiG-17 squadrons were defending the capital from their base at Damasucus' Mezzeh Military Airport.
In the Six-Day War, the Syrian Air Force lost two-thirds of its forces with the rest retreating to bases in remote parts of Syria. This in turn helped the IDF in defeating the Syrian Army on the ground and led to the occupation of the Golan Heights.
The Yom Kippur War provided initial success for both Syria and Egypt, though again Israel inflicted more casualties in the air than it endured.
During the 1982 Lebanon War, the Syrian Air Force fought the Israeli Air Force in the one among the largest air-to-air combat of the jet age, involving approximately 150 aircraft from both sides. In six days (6–11 June 1982) of intense aerial combat, Syrian and Russian sources admit the loss of 24 MiG-23s (6MF, 4MS and 14BN), while shooting down no Israeli aircraft. Russian and Syrian sources continue to claim a modicum of success against Israeli aircraft in this conflict, but have been unable to provide any justification for their claims. Israel claims the destruction of 85 Syrian MiGs. However, at low altitude the Syrian Air Force effectively used Aerospatiale Gazelle helicopters in anti-armour role against advancing Israeli ground forces. In one such engagement, an Israeli tank column was stopped for some hours by SAF Gazelle missile strikes while approaching Ein Zehalta.
Since the Lebanon War, the Syrian Air Force has attempted to procure Russian-made aircraft, but the full extent of this refurbishment is not known, nor are the exact numbers of planes or what types of aircraft are being supplied to the Air Force. This uncertainty is due to the degree of secrecy maintained by the Syrian government with regard to its military. It is known, however, that the Syrians have procured MiG-29s and Su-24s, which should give its Air Force a major improvement, although a rumour regarding the purchase of Su-27s that circulated in the 2010s has proven to be unfounded. In 2008 the Syrian Air Force was reportedly taking deliveries of 8 examples of the MiG-31E from Russia, as well as the MiG-29SMT and Yak-130, although delivery of the MiG-31s may have been cancelled by Russia due to pressure from Western governments.
Operations during the Syrian civil war
During the initial phase of the Syrian civil war, up to mid-2012, the Syrian Air Force was involved in secondary roles, with no firing from aircraft and helicopters.
The situation changed on March 22, 2012, with an escalation in the use of airpower by loyalist forces, starting with armed Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopter gunships firing rockets and machine guns. The airwar escalated further in mid June 2012, with the use of Mi-24/25 attack helicopters capable of dropping 250 kg aerial bombs, while the transport helicopters started dropping barrel bombs, essentially aerial IEDs.
On July 24, 2012, the first attack sorties by fixed wing aircraft were reported by the rebels and recorded on video: initially L-39 COIN armed trainers began using rockets, bombs and gun pods, but they were quickly joined by MiG-21s and MiG-23s. It took some other weeks before more advanced Su-22 dedicated strike aircraft joined the fight. In November 2012, the first Su-24 medium bombers were filmed dropping their heavy payload on the rebels. In December 2012, conventionally armed Scud missiles and other similar ballistic missiles were fired against rebel positions.
Insurgents counter the Syrian Air Force mainly using truck mounted, medium and heavy machine guns, dedicated antiaircraft cannons, small arms fire and starting in late 2012, MANPADS up to modern Russian and Chinese designs.
In the same timeframe of the escalation in the use of the Syrian Air Force by the government, the insurgents increased the number of anti-aircraft equipment, overtaking different air defense sites and warehouses while receiving shipments of Chinese and Russian sourced material from external sponsors. An overall improvement in accuracy was observed as well. This led to several Syrian Air Force jets and helicopters being shot down starting from August 2012. Since insurgents besieged many airports, a high number of downed aircraft was recorded during take-off or landing. Also, many land raids and shelling of airbases led to an increasing number of aircraft and helicopters being damaged or destroyed on the ground.
In spite of occasional shoot-downs, however, the Syrian Air Force remained largely unchallenged with a good overall combat efficiency and a superior fear factor recognized by the rebels themselves.
While increasing proficiency in the use of short range air defense systems, the rebels were not able to make any other bigger air defense system work, despite their ranks being composed of many defected soldiers. Captured Shilka SPAAG were used in ground support, but they were seldom filmed in their air defense role, while there is no confirmed record of use of any captured missile based defense system apart from visual MANPADS: in summer 2013, rebels claimed they started using at least one of the captured 9K33 Osa antiaircraft missile vehicles, showing blurry videos presumed to come from inside the vehicle while firing at regime helicopters.
Compared to modern Western air forces fighting against similarly armed enemies, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Syrian Air Force's main disadvantage is the low to nil number in precision guided weapons which allow the aircraft to stay out of range of small arms fire, AAA and MANPADS, while delivering an effective strike with minimal collateral damage. The same weakness prevents them from being able to hit multiple targets of opportunity in the same mission. Syrian pilots are forced to spend most of their flying time time at low to medium altitudes where battlefield threats are more potent. Based on the aircraft type, Syrian pilots use different attack techniques to deliver their unguided munitions: while L-39s use dive attack tactics, all the other types involved are generally performing a low to medium altitude bombing run at high speed deploying a sequence of flare thermal decoys to defend against IR homing missiles and pulling up after ordnance delivery. Instead helicopters are seen flying at unusually high altitudes which minimizes their tactical effect and increases collateral damage. Mi-24/25 gunships were observed delivering decoy flares as well.
Since the Syrian Air Force frequently attacks opposition fighters with helicopter gunships and warplanes aiming at populated areas with unguided weaponry, the bombings normally cause collateral damage to the civilian population and infrastructure.
In July 2012 at the Farnborough Air Show it was announced that Russia would not deliver any new aircraft including the MiG-29M/M2s and Yak-130s while there was still a crisis in Syria, but it would still respect any previous refurbishment and maintenance contracts such as the Mi-25s.
With the start of aerial operations by the Syrian Air Force, in August 2012, intelligence experts assessed that the Syrian Air Force was suffering significant technical difficulties, resulting in less than half of the air force's best counterinsurgency aircraft such as the Mi-25 Hind-D being available at any given time. An increased number of conflict fronts and severe maintenance burdens dramatically worsened the situation which was probably critical already before the beginning of the civil war. These problems were thought by experts to account for initial start in the use of L-39ZA (attack variant) jets in a combat role by the government, before further escalations. However, these operational limitations were overcome during 2013 as Syrian pilots and technicians with the assistance of foreign advisers and technicians began to improve their operational skills. In December 2013 Jane's reported that the Syrian Air Force had dramatically improved its operational capabilities during 2013, and was now frequently conducting up to 100 sorties per day with half of these constituting combat sorties.
Aircraft losses during the Syrian Civil War
According to the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC) since the conflict began the Syrian military lost 37 helicopters and 24 jets. 40 aircraft were shot down, and 21 were destroyed in opposition attacks on military airports. According to Strategy Page, nearly a hundred fixed wing and over a hundred helicopters have been lost. Some 400 aircrew was killed, captured, or missing. Public observation via Google Earth of Syrian airfields during the conflict indicates a steady attrition of Syrian Air Force capability. The hubs of Syrian Air Force basing activity during the Syrian Civil War have been the airfields at Aleppo, Damascus, Latakia and Hama.
- The first loss of a fixed wing aircraft was recorded on 13 August 2012 when a MiG-23 was filmed catching fire in flight, while automatic gunfire was heard on the background while the fighter aircraft was flying at low altitude in a level flight. The pilot ejected, and was captured and interrogated by the rebels on video.
- The first loss of a MiG-21 was recorded on 30 August 2012. The serial number was 2271. It was likely downed on take off or landing at Abu Dhuhur air base, under siege by rebels, by heavy machine gun fire.
- A few days later a second MiG-21, serial number 2280, was shot down and recorded on video on 4 September 2012. It was likely downed on take off or landing at Abu Dhuhur air base, under siege by rebels, by KPV 14.5 mm machine gun fire.
- The first recorded loss of an L-39, reported in some media outlets as a MiG, occurred on 13 October 2012, with the pilot ejecting and evading capture before being caught. Al Jazeera managed to interview the pilot.
- On 17 October 2012, a Mi-8 helicopter was shot down over Damascus, dramatically exploding in midair. It was likely hit by heavy machine gun fire with some of its improvised aerial barrier bombs exploding.
- The first confirmed loss of a Sukhoi Su-22 was recorded on 14 February 2013, when rebel forces shot it down using a MANPADS launcher.
- One Mil Mi-17 helicopter was lost in an air-to-air accident when it hit the tail of a Syrian passenger plane on 28 February 2013, with the airliner landing safely at Damascus airport.
The Air Force command consists of:
- 7 Attack squadrons
- 20 Interceptor/FGA/Reconnaissance squadrons
- 4 Transport squadrons
- 1 Electronic Warfare squadron
- 7 Transport/Attack Helicopter squadrons
- 5 Attack Helicopter squadrons
- 1 VIP Helicopter squadron
- 1 Training Group.
The roundel used by the Syrian Air Force has the same basic design as that used by the Egyptian Air Force. It consists of three concentric circles, with a red outer, white middle and black inner. The unique part of the Syrian roundels is the presence of two green stars in the white circle, which is reflective of the two stars on the national flag. The fin flash is also an image of the flag.
Due to the high security level on everything military the past and the present of the Syrian Arab Air Force is still largely unknown. This makes it hard to judge the real strength of the air force today. Additionally, considerable losses to the opposition forces in the country's ongoing civil war are not accounted for here. The following information is compiled from multiple pre 2012 Syrian civil war sources.
- 569 fixed wing aircraft:
- Combat/reconnaissance/OCU aircraft: 467
- Training aircraft: 76
- Transport aircraft: 26
- 191 rotary wing aircraft:
- Attack helicopter: 71
- Armed transport/utility helicopter: 120
Syria - Air Force Equipment by the end 2013. Totals in this table do not necessary accurately reflect combat attrition sustained during the ongoing civil war.
|On the 31st of May 2013 was announced contract to supply at least 10 MiG 29 M/M2's had been signed.|
|136||80 MLD - 50 BN - 6 UM|
|160||40 Reconnaissance - 15 Used as Trained - 105 Capable for ground attacks |
|Su-24||Soviet Union||Ground attack||MK2||20||Probability one lost in November 2012|
|Su-22||Soviet Union||Ground attack||M-2/M-3/M-4
|L-39 Albatros||Czechoslovakia||Jet trainer||ZO/ZA||40||Some capable for ground attacks|
|MBB 223 Flamingo||West Germany||Primary trainer||A-1||35|
|MFI-17 Mushshak||Pakistan||Primary trainer||6|
|Il-76||Soviet Union||Transport||M||4||Civilian Registration|
|Dassault Falcon 20||France||VIP transport||2||Civilian Registration|
|Dassault Falcon 900||France||VIP transport||1||Civilian Registration|
|Tu-134||Soviet Union||VIP transport||4||Civilian Registration|
|Yak-40||Soviet Union||VIP transport||V||6||Civilian Registration|
|Mil Mi-24||Soviet Union||Attack helicopter||D||33|
|SA-342 Gazelle||France||Attack helicopter||L/M||30|
|Mil Mi-2||Poland||Attack helicopter||20|
|Soviet Union||Transport helicopter||F
- Ilyushin Il-28 - 6 bomber retired 1980s
- T-6 Texan - trainer
- Gloster Meteor - 25 fighter retired 1957
- L-29 - jet trainer
- MiG-15 - fighter
- MiG-17 - fighter
- MiG-19 - fighter
- Sukhoi Su-7 - 60 fighter/bomber acquired 2nd hand and retired 1990s
The following have served as Commander of the Air Force:
- list incomplete
- (~1950) Colonel Muhammad Naser
- (1950s) General Wadih al-Muqabari
- list incomplete
- (~1960s) Colonel Muaffaq Assasah
- list incomplete
- (1964–1971) Lieutenant General Hafez al-Assad
- (1971–1978) Major General Naji Jamil
- (1978-?) Subhi Haddad
- (–1994) Ali Malahafji
- (1994–1999) Major General Muhammad al-Khuli
- (2000–2006) Major General Yusef Othman ALAhmad
- list incomplete
- (2010) Major General Ahmad al-Ratyb
- (2010 – present) Major General Ali Mahmoud
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