Future of warfare determined in Syria
The next generation of weapons systems and commercial drones refitted for combat are being battle-tested in the Syrian war. The motives vary from battle testing new equipment to finding efficient and economic solutions to countering them.
Civilians are caught between intervening foreign armies, eager to showcase new hardware capabilities of their military-industrial complexes, and militants and terrorist organisations trying to find high-tech methods for spreading mayhem.
During the First Gulf War and the Yugoslavian conflicts, the US Army began a revolution in military affairs by battle testing stealth fighters and precision bombs. The boasted successes were discovered to be less “invisible” and less precise than intended.
Still, during the two Iraqi conflicts, sales of the US-made Patriot missile defence system to international customers increased by a new order of magnitude.
Similarly, the Russian military industry is utilising Syria as a test field for doctrines and cutting-edge weapons with attention focused on unmanned combat vehicles.
While Ukraine has been a test bed for new Russian tactics in hybrid warfare, Syria is increasingly seen as the showcase for new Russian military hardware. Syria’s unencumbered geography, except for urban combat environments, is an optimal test ground for the cutting-edge weapons. Battle-tested is the best marketing slogan for defence industries.
While war games — such as the one recently organised by Russia under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation that included China and other Central Asian countries — help Moscow sell military equipment to participants, the media coverage of the Russian intervention in Syria has proven to be a boon for the Russian arms industry as well.
Despite that it has a relatively small-scale military footprint in Syria, Russia has launched an incredible number of the new Kalibr cruise missiles from surface ships and submarines. Russia deployed long-range strategic bombers armed with the new KH 101 air-to-ground cruise missiles
Russia is also deploying the S-400 Triumf long-range missile defence system that is being requested by several countries, including China and Turkey. While the presence of Russian troops in Syria is debatable and intensely debated, the military intervention is generating exports for the systems that have been proven in battle.
Not every weapon system does well, however. Trumpeted in Red Square during the 2018 Victory Day parade in Moscow, the Uran 6 and Uran 9 unmanned ground vehicles provide remote-control minesweeping, reconnaissance and fire support. Operators several kilometres away can control the main gun and an array of anti-tank and thermobaric rockets while the Uran 9 can target by itself.
Although the Uran 6 remote-control mine-sweeping vehicle, controlled just from few hundred metres away, demonstrated encouraging results, the Uran 9, hyped as the darling of the show, did not satisfy expectations during combat operations. The futuristic vision of unmanned ground combat vehicles proved how far reality is from expectations.
Problems, including mechanical failures, the inability to move and target at the same time, as well as the need for proximity for the controller to avoid lag time and communication cut-offs, revealed that the unmanned tank was not able to operate at full efficiency. While the Uran 9’s promise of remote warfare is far from proven, the Syrian battlefield should be regarded as a part of the testing process that could help speed up development and reliability of remote and autonomous weapon systems.
The Islamic State’s belligerence in Syria emphasised the effects of asymmetric drone warfare. Commercial aerial drones have been reconfigured as flying bombs as well as forward observation platforms that have been used for targeting or propaganda video recording. At the same time, the superiority of US aerial drones that have been shown repeatedly during the war on terror has been challenged by the Russian Army’s jamming capabilities and electronic warfare in Syria.
The Syrian war has become increasingly saturated with unmanned aerial drones and now with remote-controlled vehicles. In this respect, the role of jammers, machines that can disrupt the communication between the drone and the operator, is rising.
A new business opportunity is moving from niche market into the mainstream security industry, thanks to the violence and destruction in Syria.