Syrian Arab Air Force

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Syrian Arab Air Force
القوات الجوية العربية السورية
Founded 1948
Country  Syria
Branch Air Force
Type Military aviation
Role Aerial warfare
Size 60,000 (including 20,000 reserve)
Part of Syrian Armed Forces
Nickname SAAF
March We are the Eagles
Equipment 760 aircraft [1]
Engagements Six-Day War
Yom Kippur War
1982 Lebanon War
Syrian civil war
2014 Northern Iraq offensive
Commanders
Chief of Air Staff General Issam Hallaq[2]
Insignia
Roundel Roundel of the Syrian Air Force.svg
Air Force Ensign Syrian Air Force Flag.svg
Aircraft flown
Attack MiG-23
Su-24
Su-22
Mi-25
Gazelle
Electronic
warfare
Mi-8
Fighter MiG-29
MiG-23
MiG-21
Interceptor MiG-25
Reconnaissance MiG-25
MiG-21
Trainer L-39
MBB 223
MFI-17
Transport An-26
An-24
Il-76
Mi-17
Mi-8

The Syrian Arab 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.

History[edit]

AT-6 Harvard of the Syrian Air Force

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.

Hafez al-Assad (above) standing on the wing of a Fiat G.46-4B with fellow cadets at the Syrian AF Academy outside Aleppo.

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.[3]

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.

One of two MiG-17s of the Syrian Air Force that landed by error at Betzet airstrip, Israel on 12 August 1968.

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.[3] 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.[3][4]

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.[3]

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.

SAF Gazelle captured by Israel in 1982. Behind stands a MiG-23 whose pilot defected in 1989

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.[5] 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.[6]

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 rumor 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 new MiG-31E from Russia, as well as the MiG-29SMT and Yak-130,[7] although delivery of the MiG-31s may have been cancelled by Russia due to pressure from Western governments.

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.[8]

Operations during the Syrian civil war[edit]

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 22 March 2012, with an escalation in the use of airpower by loyalist forces,[9] starting with armed Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopter gunships firing rockets and machine guns.[10] The airwar escalated further in mid June 2012, with the use of Mi-24/25 attack helicopters capable of dropping standard aviation bombs weighting up to 250 kg,[11][12] while the transport helicopters started dropping barrel bombs, essentially aerial IEDs.[13]

On 24 July 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,[9][14] but they were quickly joined by MiG-21s and MiG-23s.[15][16] 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.[17] In December 2012, conventionally armed Scud missiles and other similar ballistic missiles were fired against rebel positions.[18]

Following a report on the appearance of newly delivered S-8 air to ground rocket pods previously not operated by the Syrian Air Force, being employed on different aircraft,[19] on 22 October 2013, a S-8 armed MiG-29 was spotted and recorded on video while flying over Damascus, suggesting that the type was pushed into action for ground attack, possibly after the pilots attended specific training on the type.[20] Subsequently MiG-29's were recorded performing rocket and gun attack runs on rebels' positions.[21][22]

The first reported activity of Syrian MiG-25's in the civil war was recorded on 8 February 2014, when two Turkish Air Force F-16's were scrambled to intercept a Syrian MiG-25 which was approaching the Turkish border.[23] On 27 March 2014, a MiG-25 was clearly filmed while flying at medium altitude over Hama Eastern countryside, possibly delivering the bomb seen hitting the ground in the same video.[24] Till February 2014, Syrian MiG-25's were not recorded on any activity probably due to the kind of warfare, very different from what the MiG-25 has been built for, and possibly due to initial technical difficulties to keep the MiG-25 fleet in flying status.

The involvement of the MiG-25 in the Syrian Civil War marks the starting point since when all the known types of Syrian combat aircraft and ballistic missiles are actively used in the Civil War.

With the start of aerial operations by the Syrian Air Force, in August 2012, online publications[25] probably overestimating rebels' claims on the number of destroyed planes, 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. The same publications reported that an increased number of conflict fronts and severe maintenance burdens dramatically worsened the situation which was reported critical already before the beginning of the civil war. These problems were thought to account for initial start in the use of L-39ZA (attack variant) jets in a combat role by the government,[26][27] 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.[28]

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.[29]

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.[30] 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.[31] 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.[32]

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.[33]

While increasing proficiency in the use of short range air defense systems, initially 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. Finally, in summer 2013, rebels started using at least one of the 9K33 Osa antiaircraft missile vehicles captured earlier, showing blurry videos presumed to come from inside the vehicle while firing at a regime helicopter.[34] In January 2014, a Syrian Army Mi-8 or Mi-17 was shot down by a rebel operated 9K33 Osa with clear recording from inside and outside the vehicle matching.[35] Given that locating and destroying a functioning self-propelled missile vehicle would pose quite a challenge to the Syrian Air Force given its limited SEAD capability and small electronic counter measure abilities, the impact of this added threat remained limited possibly due to the small number of functioning 9M33 missiles captured by the rebels and the fact that a heavy missile vehicle does not fit the need for surprise ambushes and quick dispersal normally employed by an insurgent force.

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 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, initially fast jets were 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.[36] Later, fast jets added rocket and gun dive attacks too.[37][38][39][40] Instead helicopters are seen flying at unusually high altitudes which minimizes their tactical effect and increases collateral damage, but increases their survivability since they cannot count on high speed and acceleration for protection as jet fighters do with the altitude putting them out of range of most of the ground threats. Mi-24/25 gunships were observed delivering decoy flares as well.[41]

Since the Syrian Air Force frequently attacks insurgent forces with helicopter gunships[42][43] and warplanes[44][45][46] aiming at populated areas with unguided weaponry, the bombings normally cause collateral damage to the civilian population and infrastructure.[47][48]

Aircraft losses during the Syrian Civil War[edit]

According to the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC) claims 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.[49] 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.[25] 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.[50]
  • The first video recorded combat loss of a helicopter came on 27 August 2012: a video recorded a burning Mi-8 or Mi-17 helicopter spiraling to the ground over Damascus, possibly hit by a ZU-23-2 antiaircraft gun[51]
  • The first loss of a MiG-21 was recorded on 30 August 2012. Its registration 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.[52]
  • A few days later a second MiG-21, registered 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.[53]
  • The first recorded loss of an L-39ZA Albatros, possibly by 23 milimeter anti-aircraft fire, occurred on 13 October 2012 near Khan al-Asal with the crew, Lt. Col. Haitham Ismail Zhuneida and Lt. Mohammed Salman Mohammed, being killed as they ejected at low altitude.[54][55]
  • On 15 October, another L-39 Albatros was downed near al-Taana in the east of Aleppo by rebel ground fire.[56] Both pilots, Cap. Roni Ibrahim and Maj. Moti Shaaban Abbas, ejected and were captured. An Al Jazeera reporter, which reported the aircraft as a "MiG", managed to interview Ibrahim, while Abbas is said to have died in captivity. Ibrahim showed signs of have brawled with his captors and denied previous knowledge of Syrian civilians being targeted by airstrikes.[54][57]
  • 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.[58]
  • On 28 November 2012, a video showing the crash site of a large jet fighter was posted with rebels claiming they shot it down with an 9K310 Igla-1 MANPADS. The heavily burned out aircraft wreck has been identified as a Su-24MK2, being the first downed Syrian Air Force Su-24[59]
  • 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.[60][61]
  • 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.[62][63]
  • On 31 July 2013, a video surfaced showing the successful missile launch for a rebel operated 9K33 Osa system with a possible hit on a Syrian helicopter.[34]
  • Another Mil Mi-17 helicopter was shot down by a Turkish Air Force F-16 on 16 September 2013 in Latakia province near Turkish boder.[64] The pilot is believed to have been captured and beheaded by Al Qaeda-linked insurgents.
  • On 16 January 2014, the first loss of a Syrian Army aircraft to a heavy Surface to Air Missile was recorded with a video showing a 9K33 Osa SAM system downing a Syrian Mi-8 or Mi-17 helicopter. The heavy damage on the plunging helicopter appeared to confirm the use of a bigger missile to hit the helicopter compared to the damage caused by MANPADS, AAA or small arms fire. Also, a video filming the TV screen inside the Osa vehicle matches another video taken outside. Another video of a different engagement surfaced on 18 January 2014, this time missing the intended target.[35]
  • On 23 March 2014, one MiG-23 was shot down by a Turkish Air Force F-16, when it allegedly entered Turkish air space during a ground attack mission against Al Qaeda-linked insurgents.[65] The pilot ejected and managed to return to a Syrian Army checkpoint and denies violating Turkish air space. The plane crashed one kilometer inside the Syrian side[66][67]

Organization[edit]

The Air Force command consists of:[68]

  • 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.

Air bases[edit]

Led by jihadist fighters from the Al-Nusra Front and an Ahrar ash-Sham battalion, Syrian rebels overran Taftanaz Air Base during the second week in January, 2013.[69][70] Forces of The Islamic State captured Tabqa Air Base on 24 August 2014.[71]

Markings[edit]

Roundel of the Syrian Air Force.svg

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.

Pre Syrian civil war aircraft inventory[edit]

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.[72] 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.

According with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2011 the Aircraft Inventory from the Syrian Arab Air Force estimations were:[73][74]

  • 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.[75]

Combat aircraft
Aircraft Origin Type Version In service
(Global Security)[75]
Comments Image
MiG-29  Soviet Union MRCA
MRCA
MRCA
B
SM
M/M2
UB
40[75]
4[76]
0
6[75]
Between 20 and 80 planes according to different estimates. On the 31 May 2013 it was announced that a contract to supply at least 10 MiG 29 M/M2's had been signed.[77] . At least 4 were upgraded to the SM standard.The SM variant was developed specially for Syria and the most important upgrade is the ability to carry an expanded arsenal of air-to-ground weaponry, including the KAB-500KR and the Kh-29T/TE.[76]
Mig 29 firing AA-10.JPG
MiG-25  Soviet Union Interceptor
Reconnaissance
PD
RB
\Big\}~38[75][78] 8 Reconnaissance[75]
Mig-25.jpg
MiG-23  Soviet Union Fighter
Ground attack
OCU
MS/MF/ML/MLD
BN
UM
\Bigg\}~136[75][78] 80 MLD - 50 BN - 6 UM[75]
MIG-23MLD in IAFM.JPG
MiG-21  Soviet Union Fighter
OCU
Reconnaissance
MF/Bis
U/UM
R
\Bigg\} ~160[75] 40 Reconnaissance - 15 Used as Trained - 105 Capable for ground attacks [75]- More than 200 in service in 2010.
MiG-21PFM-Egypt-1982.jpg
Su-24  Soviet Union Ground attack MK2 20[75] Some upgraded to Su-24M2 level [79]
Russian Navy aircraft during exercise.jpg
Su-22  Soviet Union Ground attack M-2/M-3/M-4
50[75][78]
Krzesiny 49RB.JPG
Trainer aircraft
Aircraft Origin Type Version In service
(Global Security)[75]
Comments Image
L-39 Albatros  Czechoslovakia Jet trainer ZO/ZA 40 Some capable for ground attacks[80]- More than 70 in service in 2010.
Bret Cox L-39 - Reno Race -58.jpg
MBB 223 Flamingo Germany West Germany Primary trainer A-1 35
SIAT 223 Flamingo D-ECRO Le Bourget 06.67.jpg
MFI-17 Mushshak Pakistan Pakistan Primary trainer 6
WaltonAirshowLahore1178.jpg
Yakovlev Yak-130 Russia Russia Light attack/Jet trainer 0[75] Contract signed in December 2011. Damascus will receive nine aircraft until the end 2014, plans to fully complete the contract for 36 aircraft in 2016[81][82][83]
Yakovlev Yak-130.jpg
Transport aircraft
Aircraft Origin Type Version In service
(Global Security)[75]
Comments Image
An-24  Soviet Union Transport 1
Antonow an-24.jpg
An-26  Soviet Union Transport 6[75][78]
An-26-slovak-3208.jpg
Il-76  Soviet Union Transport M 4[75] Civilian Registration[75]
004-Il-76TD-Candid-2007.jpg
Dassault Falcon 20 France France VIP transport 2 Civilian Registration[75]
Dassault Falcon (Mystere) 20F-5 (PH-BPS).jpg
Dassault Falcon 900 France France VIP transport 1 Civilian Registration[75]
Gazpromavia Falcon 900 Ilyin.jpg
Tu-134  Soviet Union VIP transport 4 Civilian Registration[75]
MAGAS Kosmos Tupolev Tu-134 Misko.jpg
Yak-40  Soviet Union VIP transport V 6 Civilian Registration[75]
PL Jak 40.JPG
Attack helicopter
Aircraft Origin Type Version In service
(Global Security)[75]
Comments Image
Mil Mi-24  Soviet Union Attack helicopter D 33
Afghan Air Corps Mi-35 helicopters.jpg
SA-342 Gazelle France France Attack helicopter L/M 30
Hatzerim 290110 Gazelle.jpg
Mil Mi-2 Poland Poland Attack helicopter 20
Mi-2URP-G 0a.jpg
Transport helicopter
Aircraft Origin Type Version In service
(Global Security)[75]
Comments Image
Mil Mi-8
Mil Mi-17
 Soviet Union Transport helicopter F
H
~80 More than 130 in 2010[75]
Two Iraqi Mil Mi-17-V5 Hip Helicopters.jpg

Retired Aircraft[edit]

Commanders[edit]

The following have served as Commander of the Air Force:

Ranks[edit]

Senior Officers

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

  • Dijkshoorn, Marco (September 2010). "Syria's Secret Air Arm". Combat Aircraft magazine (Ian Allan Publishing) 11 (9). 

External links[edit]