Syrian Arab Air Force
|Syrian Arab Air Force
القوات الجوية العربية السورية
Syrian Arab Air Force Flag
|Size||60,000 (including 20,000 reserve)|
|Part of||Syrian Armed Forces|
|March||We are the Eagles|
|Equipment||~ 670 aircraft at 2011 |
Yom Kippur War
1982 Lebanon War
Syrian Civil War
2014 Northern Iraq offensive
|Chief of Air Staff||General Issam Hallaq|
The Syrian Arab Air Force (Arabic: القوات الجوية العربية السورية, Al Quwwat al-Jawwiyah al Arabiya as-Souriya), literally Syrian Arab Air Forces, also often referred to as the Syrian Air Force, is the Aviation branch of the Syrian Armed Forces. It is variously abbreviated in English to SAF, SAAF, or SyAAF. 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 a 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 (including Mig-21s as well as Mig-23s). 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 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, 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.
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 22 March 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 standard aviation bombs weighing up to 250 kg, while the transport helicopters started dropping barrel bombs, essentially aerial IEDs.
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, but they were quickly joined by MiG-21s and MiG-23s. It took some other weeks before 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.
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, 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. Subsequently MiG-29's were recorded performing rocket and gun attack runs on rebels' positions.
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. 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. 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 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, 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.
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.
Compared to modern Western air forces fighting against similarly armed enemies, like in Syria itself, 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. However, in 2014 Jane´s Defence and Combat Aircraft Monthly reported of some MiG-29 and possibly some Su-24 jets capable of launching precision guided ammunitions.
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. Later, fast jets added rocket and gun dive attacks too. Instead helicopters are seen flying at unusually high altitudes which minimizes their tactical effectiveness 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.
The Syrian Air Force frequently attacks insurgent forces with helicopter gunships and warplanes in populated areas with unguided weaponry, and the bombings often cause collateral damage to the civilian population and infrastructure. After their initial prominent role till the end of 2012, Syrian Air Force L-39 were seldom if ever seen till December 2014: one of the two airbases for L-39’s was overtaken and the other was set under siege by rebels. In December 2014, videos surfaced showing the planes coming back to operational status after undergoing a factory overhaul inside Syria.
At the beginning of August 2015, a summary of the recent Syrian Air Force activity reported that during July 2015, the Syrian Air Force performed 6673 air attacks, the highest number since the beginning of the Civil War. It also reported that between October 2014 and July 2015, at least 26517 attacks were recorded. This would show that combat attrition was overestimated, while the airframe overhauling and rotation increased the overall combat readiness of the Syrian Air Force since Syria could not count on new aircraft deliveries apart from some refurbished Iranian delivered former Iraqi Su-22 which escaped to Iran during the Gulf War in 1991 delivered in Spring 2015.
Since early 2015, unconfirmed rumors reported that Russian pilots were flying many combat operations for the Syrian Arab Airforce. No independent source confirmed the claim and no Russian pilots were reported among the downed crews in the following months.
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.
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. Forces of The Islamic State captured Tabqa Air Base on 24 August 2014.
The roundel used by the Syrian Arab 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 part, white middle and black inner part. The unique part of the Syrian roundel 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
Due to the high security level on everything military related, the past and 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.
- 575 fixed-wing aircraft:
- Combat/reconnaissance/OCU aircraft: 461
- Training aircraft: 76
- Transport aircraft: 26
- 191 rotary-wing aircraft:
- Attack helicopters: 71
- Armed transport/utility helicopters: 120
Syria - Air Force Equipment at the year 2011. Totals in this table do not necessary accurately reflect combat attrition sustained during the ongoing civil war.
|MiG-29 Fulcrum||Soviet Union||MRCA
Ordered 24, made 2, delivered 0 (2016).
|84 according to Jane's Information Group. On the 31 May 2013 it was announced that a contract to supply at least 10 MiG 29 M/M2's had been signed. Some capable of ground attacks.|
|MiG-25 Foxbat||Soviet Union||Interceptor
|~38||8 Reconnaissance. Probability not all in flying conditions.|
|MiG-23 Flogger||Soviet Union||Fighter
|MiG-21 Fishbed||Soviet Union||Fighter
|~160||40 Reconnaissance - 15 Used as Trainers - 105 Capable of ground attacks - More than 200 in service in 2010.|
|Su-24 Fencer||Soviet Union||Ground attack||MK2||20||Some upgraded to Su-24M2 variant |
|Su-22 Fitter||Soviet Union||Ground attack||M-2/M-3/M-4
||50||Probability that more were delivered from Iran to replace losses in the Syrian Civil War |
|L-39 Albatros||Czechoslovakia||Jet trainer||ZO/ZA||40||Some capable of ground attacks- More than 70 in service in 2010.|
|MBB 223 Flamingo||Germany||Primary trainer||A-1||35|
|MFI-17 Mushshak||Pakistan||Primary trainer||6|
|Yak-130 Mitten||Russia||Light attack/Jet trainer||0||Plans to fully complete the contract for 36 aircraft in 2016.|
|An-24 Coke||Soviet Union||Transport||1|
|An-26 Curl||Soviet Union||Transport||6||One crashed in January 2015.|
|Il-76 Candid||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 Crusty||Soviet Union||VIP transport||4||Civilian Registration|
|Yak-40 Codling||Soviet Union||VIP transport||V||6||Civilian Registration|
|Mil Mi-24 Hind||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
|~80.||More than 130 in 2010|
- Ilyushin Il-28 Beagle - 6 bombers retired in the 1980s.
- T-6 Texan - Trainers.
- Gloster Meteor - 25 fighters retired in 1957.
- L-29 Delfin - Jet trainers.
- MiG-15 Fagot - Fighters.
- MiG-17 Fresco - Fighters.
- MiG-19 Farmer - Fighters.
- MiG-21 Fishbed - 60+ fighters among the earlier variants retired by 2005.
- MiG-23 Flogger - earlier variants, most if not all of the MIG-23MS and some MiG-23UB retired by 2005.
- MiG-25 Foxbat - most of them if not all retired.
- Sukhoi Su-7 - 60 fighters/bombers acquired 2nd hand and retired in the 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 ALAhmad
- list incomplete
- (2010) Major General Ahmad al-Ratyb
- (2010 – present) Major General Ali Mahmoud
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A well-connected man in Damascus says many are flown by Russians, whose government backs Mr Assad
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