Recent Russian weapons’ involvement in Middle East military conflicts boosts Russia’s national defence exports. Traditional customers are teamed with new buyers, including regional giants Turkey and Saudi Arabia – who are being impressed by Russia’s weaponry performance in the most hushed environment at relatively low cost. This brief analysis is based on open source information, including the Russian MoD, Sputnik, RIA Novosti and ITAR TASS agencies.
For the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse the Russian Federation has deployed a substantial military contingent abroad to establish the fully operational Khmeimim Air Base.
The Russian Armed Forces demonstrated excellent logistics and brilliant organisation in building a stronghold in civil war – fired Syria to save its strategic ally Bashar Hafez al-Assad at a very critical moment. The Russian VKS (Air & Space Forces) became a decisive element to turn the tables in favour of the Syrian Government. According to the Russian MoD, the VKS performed over 45,000 sortees within four years. During crucial periods the combat planes and rotorcraft performed up to 2-3 flights daily to complete up to a daily total of 100 flights.
All types of fighter aircraft and helicopters were tested, including the Sukhoi Su-27/35 family multi-purpose fighters, Su-34 bombers and Su-57 5th generation aircraft. The rotorcraft work horses, namely Mi-8/Mi-17 combat transporters, as well as Mi-24/35, Mi-28N and Ka-52 gunships all proved their mettle in combat.
Their combat performance impressed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He openly turned his head to watch for Su-35 and Su-57 after being black mailed by the U.S. and then kicked off the F-35 programme. Negotiations with China and India on Su-35 fighters sped up, as a result of its performance in Syria.
Russia is now the world’s third largest UAV operator, employing around 4,000 units including Forpost-R (re-engineered IAI Searcher II), Orion-10 and Eleron-family (all of them domestically designed and built). According to the Russian MoD, its drones already performed 25,000+ flights lasting over 140,000 hours to pinpoint over 47,500 enemy targets for destruction by combat aircraft and helicopters.
The UAV successes let to increased orders and even unspecified export contracts. At the moment, just one figure was released from the Russian MoD that it is going to spend around US$15.5 million to procure the Eleron-3 lightweight UAV in 2019-2021.
Russian Air Defence systems are the converse of the national success story. According to Evgeny Shugaev, Head of Federal Service on Military-Technical Cooperation (FS VTS), the aviation and air defence systems make 40% each of the Russian defence export to Middle East and North Africa. The figure was shared at the recent DubaiAirshow where the Russian military-industrial complex was showcased under the Rosoboronexport umbrella.
During the Syrian campaign, terrorist’s drones were a main threat to the Khmeimim and Tartus military bases. According to Russia’s MoD, the bases’ air defence shot down almost 120 hostile UAVs during the last 24 months. Apart from that, the Tor-M2 and Pantsir-S1 SHORADs fired 31 missiles to intercept 27 rockets that were launched from the Idlib de-escalation zone since January 1, 2019. Both bases remain untouched by enemy UAVs and rockets to prove the Russian air defence efficiency ahead of the extremely costly and useless U.S. systems, which were helpless during a September 2019 attack by rebel Houthi drones on Saudi oil facilities.
The simple efficiency of the Pantsir-S1 is battle proven by more than just the Russian military. The vehicles are in service with the Syrian Army and regularly engaged to repel Israeli air raids on Damascus. They also performed successfully against a massive missile strike on Syrian military targets by the U.S., UK and France in April 2018. The launch of over 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles (of which about 50% failed to reach Syrian territory) just arrived in vain, being neutralised by the Pantsir missiles and gun fire. The Israeli military shared a video with a Pantsir’s destruction, but experts concluded the system was not in a combat state to repel the attack.
Actually, Syria was not an initial customer for the Pantsir. In fact, the system – developed by the Tula-based Shipunov KBP Design Bureau – was a US$760 million contract with United Arab Emirates in the 1990s. The system was active with the UAE forces in Yemen since August 2015. In contrast with Saudi Arabia – which had severe losses from the Houthi missiles and drones – the UAE units all remained protected from air attacks.
The international media claim the UAE deployed several Pantsir to Libya in support of the National Army of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Trusted open sources said that on July 5, 2019, the Pantsir downed a combat aircraft of the Tripoli-based National Accord Government.
Unofficial reports claim Ethiopia’s air defence is reliant on Pantsir-S1 to protect the dam on the Blue Nile to prevent an attack from Sudan or Egypt, who see a possible threat of Nile water supply cuts to their countries.
While these are only a few examples, there is a long queue of Pantsir-S1 customers in the region and beyond including Turkey and Saudi Arabia among them. Purchasing Pantsir by these two nations was absolutely logical, keeping in mind the S-400 long range ADS acquisition that already happened with Turkey and is under consideration by the Saudis. According to Dmitry Shugaev, there are 15 countries ready to sign up for Pantsir-S1.
The Russian tanks and armoured vehicles also have reliable performance in various conflicts to be in high-demand worldwide.
The Syrian army’s and Republican Guard’s T-90MBT were in heavy fighting throughout the whole campaign, in particular at Palmira, Al-Hader, Nubbol, Zahra and Hama. There are plenty of reports describing T-90 excellent survivability to allow crews to survive after several shells hitting the tanks. In comparison with the Iraqi Army, which lost 23 US-made Abrams in fights against ISIS terrorists, the Syrian Army just lost a single T-90 in 2015-2019. It looks like this was the main reason for the Iraqi Government to buy Russian T-90MBT. The same tank comprises the core of India’s Armoured units.
The BMP-3 AFV was exported in sizeable quantities to both Kuwait and the UAE. The UAE’s Army were using dozens of vehicles throughout the operation in Yemen. While many Western-made AFVs were destroyed in the conflict, the UAE lost just a single BMP-3 vehicle due to a mine blast.
The TOS-1A is one of the latest Russian armoured vehicles tested in combat in the Syrian campaign. The system was reported to bring heavy losses for the terrorists in fights at Palmyra, Latakia, Idlib, Deraa and Deir ez-Zor. The TOS-1A is a deadly weapon to bring an apocalyptic storm of fire upon enemy heads from a distance of 400-6,000 m. The system’s salvo of 24 rockets is able to cover over 4 hectares completely.
Apart from Syria, the TOS-1A was also used by the Iraqi Army at the very critical moment when the ISIS forces almost reached Baghdad in the summer of 2014. The vehicles played the crucial role in the terrorist force’s defeat.
Again, the system’s performance impressed Saudi Arabia, which acquired an unspecified number of vehicles in 2019.
There is clear evidence that Russian military hardware received excellent publicity through wartime deployments in the Middle East – and Syria in particular. Russia has been steadily occupying second place in the world’s arms export rankings, just after the USA.
The national defence related exports are reported to bring around US$15 billion annually, with the Middle East share around US$2 billion. The only question that still remains un-answered is, whether the Russian arms dealers are paid in full for the weapons they provide to export customers. There are several media reports – including Russian ones – which estimate the delayed payments or unpaid amounts totalling around US$8 billion. Possibly, payment delays are a result of U.S. sanctions; but, due to the sensitivity of the subject, the whole story will never be uncovered.