Syria’s Russian Weapon Buys

August 18/15: Russia has reportedly external link delivered six MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors to the Assad regime in Syria, with Turkish media external link first reporting the delivery. The two states are thought to have signed a contract for the aircraft in June 2007 external link, with Russia previously supplying Syria with significant quantities of military hardware, including deals for Yak-130 light attack jets and MiG-29 fighters.

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MiG-29SMT(click to view full) In June 2007, Russian newspapers claimed that Russia had begun delivering 5 MiG-31E Foxhound aircraft to Syria, under a deal that was reportedly negotiated in autumn 2006. The Russian newspaper Kommersant added that part of the deal was being financed by Iran as a back-door purchase. A series of other deals have been announced since, for items that include advanced anti-ship missiles and air defense systems. To call these deals opaque would be an understatement, and the lack of transparency exists in several layers. Russia has been Syria’s main arms supplier for decades, and both regimes are very secretive about their activities. Russia’s growing relationship with Israel, especially in the oil and gas fields, adds another layer of opacity to decisions, and appears to have delayed or canceled some sales. The third layer was created by Syria’s civil war, which has been raging since April 2011. This article covers public reports of new arms sales to Syria, though we also welcome any conclusive public IMINT or inside information readers wish to refer our way. Contracts & Key Events 2015 Russia delivers MiG-31 Interceptors to Syria August 18/15: Russia has reportedly delivered six MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors to […]
Russian MiG-29sMT

(click to view full)

In June 2007, Russian newspapers claimed that Russia had begun delivering 5 MiG-31E Foxhound aircraft to Syria, under a deal that was reportedly negotiated in autumn 2006. The Russian newspaper Kommersant added that part of the deal was being financed by Iran as a back-door purchase. A series of other deals have been announced since, for items that include advanced anti-ship missiles and air defense systems.

To call these deals opaque would be an understatement, and the lack of transparency exists in several layers. Russia has been Syria’s main arms supplier for decades, and both regimes are very secretive about their activities. Russia’s growing relationship with Israel, especially in the oil and gas fields, adds another layer of opacity to decisions, and appears to have delayed or canceled some sales. The third layer was created by Syria’s civil war, which has been raging since April 2011. This article covers public reports of new arms sales to Syria, though we also welcome any conclusive public IMINT or inside information readers wish to refer our way.

Contracts & Key Events


Russia delivers MiG-31 Interceptors to Syria

August 18/15: Russia has reportedly delivered six MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors to the Assad regime in Syria, with Turkish media first reporting the delivery. The two states are thought to have signed a contract for the aircraft in June 2007, with Russia previously supplying Syria with significant quantities of military hardware, including deals for Yak-130 light attack jets and MiG-29 fighters.


Loose schedules for Yak-130 and MiG-29 deals; Syria still pushing for S-300s; Israel strikes again.

Nov 7/14: S-300. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem tells Lebanon’s Al Akhbar newspaper that Syria is pressing Russia for S-300 anti-aircraft missiles:

“Do we trust this commitment [that US airstrikes won’t hit the Syrian Army]? For now, we realise that President Barack Obama, for domestic reasons, wants to avoid war with Syria. But we do not know how Obama will act under mounting pressure, and the pressure will only increase if the Republicans achieve a majority in the US mid-term elections [which they just did]. This is what we explained bluntly to the Russians, and we asked them to take advantage of the situation and provide us with advanced weapons….

Asked if he was referring to S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, which Damascus has long sought from Russia, Muallem replied: “Yes, and other advanced weapons.”

As always, the Kremlin’s political approval is the gating item. It will be interesting to see whether these missiles become a Russian bargaining chip with Europe and the USA vis-a-vis economic sanctions. That would be fairly straightforward diplomacy, but Russia’s interest in long-term relations with Israel creates a wild card. Sources: Qatar’s The Penninsula, “Syria seeks Russian missiles soon”.

May 27/14: MiG-29s. RAC MiG CEO Sergei Korotkov reconfirms 2016 – 2017 as the target delivery date for 12 Syrian MiG-29M/M2 fighters (q.v. Aug 26-31/13), while adding the caution that the civil war could create problems with the deliveries. We’re not sure why that would be so, if Russia wants to deliver them.

The article also quotes Qadri Jamil of Syria’s “Popular Front for Change and Liberation,” as he argues in favor of the MiG deal. Jamil insists that Syria’s internal conflict should be irrelevant to a sale that’s needed for external defense, and “unrelated to internal events.”

While RIA Novosti is technically correct that Jamil is a Syrian opposition leader, this is only true in the context of Syria’s rigged Peoples Council of Syria parliament. In practice, Jamil is a Ba’athist ally. So, why would RIA Novosti bother quoting him? It’s important to remember that they’re a media source under the Russian regime’s control. They’re quoting him as a way of reflecting Russian attitudes without having to either quote Assad’s government, or create a Russian commitment. Sources: RIA Novosti, Deliveries of Russian MiG Fighters to Syria Maintain Arms Balance in Region – Internal Opposition.

May 5/14: Yak-130. Russian media report that Russia plans to send an initial batch of 9 Yak-130 jet trainers to Syria by the end of 2014, then finish the order by delivering 12 in 2015 and 15 in 2016. Kommersant reportedly cited “a source close to Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport,” and says that the decision follows a $100 million advance payment in June 2013, covering the first 6 (q.v. Aug 26-31/13).

The fact that Assad’s regime and Hezbollah are widely seen as winning the civil war probably helps some, and Russia seems a lot less interested in what America or Europe think of them. Syria’s L-39 jets have been counterinsurgency staples, and new Yak-130s will be a very important boost to Assad’s military forces, as well as a key cog in keeping the remnants of Syria’s air force supplied with trained pilots. Sources: RIA Novosti, “Russia to Provide Syria with First Batch of Jet Trainers until End of Year”.

Jan 27/14: Boom! Israeli jets destroy Syrian weapons again. The question is, which weapons?

“Israeli fighter planes bombarded S-300 missile launchers in the Syrian port city of Latakia late Sunday, Syrian opposition groups were quoted as saying by Israel’s Channel 2 television. Residents of the city reported hearing loud explosions just around midnight…. An army official in Latakia denied that there had been any explosion in the Sheikh Dahar neighborhoods of Latakia. “If detonated, S-300 missiles cause a massive explosion,” the army official told Syrian website Damas Post…. The claims of an Israeli strike in Syria coincided with reports that IAF jets breached the sound barrier at medium altitude over the city of Baalbek, located in the Hezbollah stronghold of the Bekaa Valley.”

Several large missile types create nice secondary explosions, and it isn’t clear that Russia has delivered any complete S-300 systems. Israel has destroyed P-800 Oniks supersonic strike missiles at Latakia before, and there were reports that some were left over. Or, the Israelis decided to send a message and destroy initial S-300 components, to warn off any 2014 deliveries. Or, they hit something else. Neither the Israelis nor the Syrians are talking. Presumably, they both know why the Israelis were there. Sources: Jerusalem Post, “Syrian opposition: Israeli jets bomb missile launchers in Latakia”.

2011 – 2013

Civil War begins; Yakhont missiles reportedly arrive; Yak-130 contract; SA-17 missiles targeted by Israel; S-300 missile sale?

Yak-130 Armed Runway

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Aug 26-31/13: Yak-130/ Mig-29/ S-300. It’s a Rashomon-style global improv performance, as Syrian President Bashar Assad and various Russian sources talk about their arms exports. On Aug 26/13, Assad tells Izvestia that all military contracts with Russia are being implemented “meticulously”, contradicting reports that the Yak-130s are delayed pending a political decision (q.v. Feb 13/13 entry), as well as early August reports from Vedemosti that S-300 air defense system deliveries had actually been pushed back from spring 2013 (q.v. May 30/13 entry) to June 2014.

On Aug 30/13, Rosoboronexport Deputy CEO Viktor Komardin says that they’re implementing Syrian contracts “signed prior to 2011,” which would exclude the 2011 deal for advanced S-300 air defense missiles, as well as the Yak-130 deal. RIA Novosti adds:

“Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed in June a deal had been signed with Damascus for the S-300 system, but said Russia had not shipped the weapons for fear of disrupting “the balance of power in the region.” Russian media reports said Moscow and Damascus had signed a $1.1 billion deal for the S-300 systems.”

Finally, toward the end of the week, Russia’s Kommersant newspaper gives failure to pay as the reason for delivery delays involving 12 MiG-29M2 fighters (just 30% paid, now 2016-17 delivery), that “S-300 are out of question until we see real money” (otherwise delivery slips from July 2014 to 2015-16), and that only 6 Yak-130s will be shipped because that’s all Syria has paid for. This is a curious excuse, because it’s common global practice to make just a partial down-payment, with the rest paid only on delivery/ acceptance. Payment in advance would represent unusual terms, unless the Russians are trying to reduce the financial risk of default-by-overthrow. What is clear, amidst all this murk, is that Russia isn’t interested in delivering these weapons any time soon. Sources: RIA Novosti, “All Contracts with Russia ‘on Track’ – Syria’s Assad” | “Kremlin Unaware of Syrian S-300 Missile Contract Payment – Aide” | “Russia Delays Arms Supplies to Syria over Money – Paper”.

July 31/13: P-800. The New York Times quotes American intelligence officials, who say that some of Syria’s Yakhont missiles had been moved before the Latakia attack. They also claim that the regime set fire to vehicles etc. at the site, in order to make the post-attack damage look worse.

The question worth asking is: why? The missiles are an important deterrent to international intervention. If Syria’s regime intends to keep the missiles, shouldn’t they advertise the fact that they still have some? Hiding their locations is one thing. Hiding their existence makes sense only if Syria’s leadership believes that the threat of international intervention has become very low, and that Israel is the only actor to worry about. It could also make sense if the goal is to transfer the weapons to Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Israel is making moves to install their new medium range Barak-8 air defense missile on board their Sa’ar 5 corvettes within 3-4 months, giving their navy a wide-area air defense capability for the 1st time. The Barak-8’s range is supposed to be 70 km/ 42 miles, but supersonic enemy missiles like the Yakhont shorten engagement ranges. Still, it’s a huge stride forward from the Barak-1’s 10km reach. Long War Journal | New York Times.

July 5/13: Boom! Here’s what we know: on July 5/13, the Syrian port city of Latakia experienced major explosions at an arms depot. Israel hasn’t taken responsibility for the attack, but many sources attribute it to them. Initial reports suggested that the Israeli air force flew from bases in Turkey to launch the strike, flying over the Mediterranean and staying out of Syrian air space. Now, reports have surfaced that the strike was launched from a Dolphin Class submarine offshore, which would certainly minimize the intervention time for Syrian air defense systems.

The target of the strike appears to be new shipments of P-800 Yakhont supersonic anti-ship and strike missiles (q.v. May 17/13 entry). With Iran’s Hezbollah foreign legion playing a significant role for the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war, weapon transfers are more or less expected. Syria is known to have transferred anti-ship missiles to Hezbollah before, hence Israel’s solution of eliminating the weapons.

The IAF’s favorite weapon for this sort of thing is their Delilah cruise missile. If a submarine conducted the strike, however, it would use a conventional version of the Popeye Turbo cruise missile. Jerusalem Post | Russia Today | yNet News (air strike).

May 31/13: MiG-29. RAC MiG director general Sergei Korotkov says that a Syrian delegation is presently in Moscow, where they’re discussing “details and timescale of a possible contract for delivery…” The contract is reported to involve at least 10 MiG-29M2s. UK’s The Telegraph.

May 30/13: S-300. In an interview with Hezbollah Lebanon’s al-Manar TV channel, Syrian dictator Assad says that “Syria has received the first shipment [of S-300 long-range SAMs] All our agreements with Russia will be implemented and parts of them have already been implemented…”

On the one hand, it’s absolutely in Assad’s interest to say this, whether or not it’s true. Mobile S-300 air defense systems would almost certainly end any threats of a no-fly zone over Syria, just as the equally mobile Yakhont anti-ship missiles make attempts at a naval blockade extremely dangerous.

On the other hand, the EU just lifted their arms embargo on the Free Syrian Army, giving Russia a strong incentive to push back in a very public way. Russian officials continue to be cagey, with some reports saying that they’ll speed up deliveries if other countries move toward active involvement in Syria’s war, or potentially suspend deliveries in exchange for concessions. Other reports that say the missiles won’t arrive in Syria until 2014. At this point, no-one appears to be certain. For deterrence purposes, that’s almost as good as having the missiles in-country.

The deterrence exception is Israel, as the S-300’s 90 mile range is dangerous to Israeli Air Force flights over northern Israel. The IAF cannot afford to tolerate that, and they’d be willing to escalate several steps in order to remove such a threat. There are also reports that they’ve trained against the Greek S-300 battery in Crete, but at the same time, they don’t want to kill Russian advisers unless they have absolutely no choice. Paradoxically, Syria’s best bet might be to deploy any S-300s it receives very openly, and do it near their northern coast. That would short-circuit any no-fly-zone proposals, without forcing the Israelis into a move of their own. The Guardian | Israel’s Ha’artez | Reuters | Reuters analysis | USA’s Radio Free Europe | Al Jazeera.


P-800 launch

May 17/13: P-800. The New York Times quotes unnamed American officials, who say that Syria has delivered a new round of P-800 Yakhont/ SS-N-26 missiles to Syria, with upgraded guidance compared to the 2011 shipment. There’s some question regarding the accuracy of the New York Times’ story (say it ain’t so!), and the launchers’ mobility makes tracking them a challenge.

The mere threat of the P-800s significantly complicates any Western thoughts of a naval blockade in support of the opposition. To underscore that point, there are also reports that Russia has sent over a dozen warships to patrol the waters near Syria, where the Russian Navy has an important base in Tartus. With a range of 180 miles, the Yakhonts can also threaten ships sailing from any of Israel’s Mediterranean ports, and the missiles reportedly have land-attack capabilities.

The Yakhonts join shipments of SA-17 Buk2 air defense systems over the past year, whose presence has changed the way the Israeli Air Force conducts missions over Lebanon. What the Buk2 systems haven’t done, is halt those flights. The long-range S-300/ SA-21 air defense missiles that Syria has requested would have a much bigger effect, but there’s no clarity regarding the status of that deal. NYT | Voice of Russia | Russia Today | Hezbollah’s Al-Manar | Defense Update | Israel’s Ha’aretz | Jerusalem Post | The Hindu | Washington Times | 2010 Defense Update Yakhont analysis is still valid.

Feb 13/13: Yak-130. Anatoly Isaikin, the director of Rosoboronexport, tells Associated Press that no new Russian combat planes or helicopters have been delivered to Syria, and said they hadn’t yet shipped any of the Yak-130 jets Syria had ordered. Read “Yakkity Yak – Don’t Talk Back! Syria’s Russian Jet Order” for full coverage.

Jan 30/13: SA-17 SAM. Israel strikes a Syrian convoy, using an unnamed missile (likely a Delilah) to destroy SA-17s (Buk M2E, the 3rd SA-6 family upgrade) heading toward the Lebanese border. The missile system would allow Hezbollah to target Israeli warplanes at medium and high altitudes, in contrast to the ~10,000 foot limit for shoulder-fired weapons. Former Mossad Chief Danny Yatom had a simple explanation for Ynet News:

“When we said we mustn’t let terrorists lay a hand on Syrian weapon, we meant it.”

Guess so. Meanwhile, Assad needs some way of rewarding Hezbollah for acting as his regime’s SS troops. This is unlikely to be the last clash of its kind. Defense Update | Israel HaYom | Ynet.

Israel strikes SA-17s

June 19/12: Uninsured. MV Alaed turns back to Murmansk in northern Russia, after British government pressure induces Standard Club insurance to cancel coverage for all 8 Femco-Management Ltd. ships. The ships were carrying Mi-24 helicopter gunships for Styria’s armed forces, and Britain’s Foreign Office and Treasury told the insurers that they could be held in breach of sanctions against Syria’s regime.

Russia ended up using a different carrier to deliver the helicopters, which it says were Syrian machines that had been shipped back to Russia for refurbishing. Syria did have Mi-24s, so it’s possible. The Guardian

Jan 23/12: Yak-130. A $550 million order of Russia’s advanced trainer and counter-insurgency jets is reported by Russian media. Numbers are not reported, but that amount suggests between 18 – 30 planes. Read “Yakkity Yak – Don’t Talk Back! Syria’s Russian Jet Order” for full coverage.

Yak-130 deal

Dec 1/11: P-800. SS-N-26 Yakhont missiles have reportedly been delivered to Syria. The basis is an unnamed Russian military source, via Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Agence France Presse reports that Russia signed a $300+ million contract with Syria in 2007, for a total of 72 missiles. In the wake of operations in Libya, the mobile Oniks/Yakhont missiles provide some deterrence value to the Assad regime against a similar operation. Israel’s Ha’aretz | Lenta.RU [in Russian].

P800 missiles

April 2011: Civil War. After Syria’s military begins firing on protesters, preparations for full-scale conflict within Syria and among its neighbors begin to turn the situation into a shooting war. It soon becomes a full-fledged civil war.

Civil War

2007 – 2010

MiG-29M2 and MiG-31E sales reported; Israel fails to stop SS-N-26 anti-ship/ strike missile sale.

MiG-31 Foxhound

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Oct 27/10: MiG-31. Asked at Euronaval 2010 about Russian MiG-31 sales to Syria, Rosoboronexport General Director Anatoly Isaykin tells reporters: “The existence of a contract on the delivery of MiG-31 interceptors to Syria is a journalistic hoax.” RIA Novosti.

Sept 19/10: P-800. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admits that despite intensive diplomacy, Israel had failed to dissuade Russia from selling supersonic P-800 Yakhont anti-ship missiles (SS-N-26, the basis for India’s PJ-10 Brahmos) to Syria.

Syria has transferred Chinese C-802 subsonic anti-ship missiles to Hezbollah before, which raises Israeli concerns. The other geopolitical angle is that Russia reportedly has an agreement with Syria to expand their naval supply and maintenance base in the Syrian city of Tartus, turn it into a venue that can host Russian nuclear warships, and create a permanent Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean. A shore battery of SS-N-26 missiles near that base would provide formidable defenses. Israel’s Haaretz | RIA Novosti re: UAVs.

May 14/10: MiG-29/SAM. Reports surface, in Russian media and beyond, that Russia has sold Syria MiG-29 fighters, and a package of air defense systems that include SA-18/ 9K38 Igla man-portable/ very short range anti-aircraft missiles, Pantsir S1 (SA-22) low-level air defense systems, and Buk M2 (SA-17) systems that are substantial upgrades over Syria’s older SA-6 medium range systems. The confirmations come in the wake a state visit to Syria by Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev.

To date, Russia has not supplied its most advanced S-300MPU (SA-20) long-range anti-aircraft missiles, or Iskander (SS-26) short range ballistic missiles. Nonetheless, these purchases could significantly improve Syria’s point defense of key sites. The nuclear reactor that Syria was developing with the help of North Korean weapons scientists, and which Israel destroyed in 2007 during “Operation Orchard,” would be one example.

The Israelis, who have been selling Russia UAVs, were predictably upset by this move. There is also a broader implicit issue of human costs. Syria has been hard-hit by a drought that has affected the region, resulting in hardship and near-starvation for over 800,000 people within Syria. See: RIA Novosti op-ed: “Moscow set to resume its influence with Damascus” | Moscow Times | Jerusalem Post || Agence France Presse | Lebanon Daily Star | Iranian government’s Press TV | Reuters.


MiG-31 Foxhound
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Sept 2/09: MiG-29/31. Russia’s Kommersant newspaper quotes UAC head Alexei Fyodorov, as saying that a $400-500 million 2007 contract to sell MiG-31E interceptor fighters to Syria has not entered into force, but that a different contract to provide Syria with MiG-29M fighters is indeed being implemented.

There are also reports that Russia will sell Pantsyr S1 short-range mobile air defense systems to Syria, with some of those systems destined to end up in Iran as a quid pro quo for financing. Syrian News Station | RIA Novosti | UPI.

May 20/09: Stalled? The Jerusalem Post relays a Kommersant report that Russia has put the Syrian MiG deal on the backburner, though Syria later denies this.

What’s even more interesting are the parallel reports that Israel may be selling UAVs to Russia, and speculation that the 2 sets of events may be related. Read: “Israel and Russia in UAV Deal?” for more.

March 29/09: MiG-29/31. The Jerusalem Post reports that Pentagon Defense Intelligence Agency Lt.-Gen. Michael D. Maples provided official confirmation of the sale in his testimony “annual threat assessment” to the US Senate Armed Services Committee:

“With regard to its external defense, Syria’s military remains in a defensive posture and inferior to Israel’s forces, but it is upgrading its missile, rocket, antitank, aircraft and air defense inventories… Recent Syrian contracts with Russia for future delivery include new MiG-31 and MiG-29M/M2 fighter aircraft.”

June 19/07: MiG-29/31. Russian newspapers claimed that Russia had begun delivering 5 MiG-31E Foxhound aircraft to Syria, under a deal that was reportedly negotiated in autumn 2006. Other reports place the number as high as 8. The Russian newspaper Kommersant added that:

“…a lot of MiG-29M/M2 jets was sold to Syria as well. They are being sold abroad for the first time and are similar in their technical specifications to the MiG-35 model Russia is now offering India. The total value of the contract for the MiG-31 and MiG-29M/M2 aircraft is estimated at $1 billion.”

The paper added that the deal was being financed by Iran as a back-door purchase. Russia sort-of denied the sale, but careful reading raised doubts (see Appendix B for details). Kommersant | Pravda | Jamestown Foundation | AP | Flight International.

MiG-29/31 deal reported

Appendix A: The Aircraft

Fulcrum: The MiG-29

MiG-29 German and F-16 USAF

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Syria already flies earlier air superiority versions of the MiG-29. So does Iran, who inherited the Iraqi Air Force’s planes when they fled to “safe haven” in Iran during the 1991 Gulf War.

The Fulcrum family has a poor combat record, which mostly consists of early variants that weren’t fully equipped being thrown into lopsided scenarios against the USAF (Serbia, Iraq). When used on more even terms, however, German pilots who flew East Germany’s older MiG-29As against NATO F-16s and other jets believed that the planes were nearly unbeatable in short-range dogfights, thanks to their Russia’s AA-11/R-73 “Archer” short range missiles and helmet-mounted display systems. The fallout from those exercises actually led Germany to quit the ASRAAM program, and begin work on the multinational IRIS-T short-range missile instead. It also led to helmet-mounted sights becoming standard equipment on most modern combat aircraft around the world, to the great benefit of Israel’s Elbit Systems.

The MiG-29A’s biggest operational weaknesses were short range, engines that produce telltale smoke, and lack of true multi-role capability. Its other weakness is Russian spare parts support. India, for example, has endured very poor readiness rates, thanks to long turnaround times for Russian spares and repairs. In response, India went as far as to license local engine production. Syria doesn’t have that option.

The MiG-29M and subsequent derivatives address the MiG-29A’s operational weaknesses. To address range issues, they use welded lithium-aluminum alloys to save weight, while adding extra fuel in a new aircraft “spine” down the back and in the spaces once occupied by the auxiliary air intakes. This is coupled with improved engines that address the smoke problem, and redesigned horizontal tailplanes that improve maneuvering performance. A new radar and avionics package improves air-air performance, broadens its available arsenal, and adds ground-attack capability, making it a true multi-role fighter.

Improved MiG-29s have been advertised in several versions, including an “M2” variant that was initially slated for India’s MMRCA fighter competition. The most likely variant for sale would be the MiG-29SMT, which is serving in Russia’s air force via an upgrade program, and has been use as the base for upgrade efforts with other customers.

While some articles have described the deal as offering MiG-35 equivalents, Russia has made no such claims, despite a strong incentive to show early success for the type. The MiG-35D adds further improvements to the radar and avionics package, and offers multi-directional thrust-vectoring engines for close combat super-maneuverability.

Even lesser modernized MiG-29s are formidable machines, and the possible sale of Russian fighters has raised concerns in Israel. Israel has much more clout with Russia than it used to, thanks to UAV sales and Russia’s desire to play a prominent role in commercializing massive Israeli offshore gas and oil finds. That clout has delayed sales of advanced fighters, but Turkish and European involvement in Syria’s civil war appears to have forced Russia’s hand.

Should the Israelis be concerned? In an even fight, with equal pilots, a MiG-29 could be very dangerous to an F-16. Of course, war isn’t about even odds. War is about finding the most unbalancing things available, and doing them as quickly as possible. Israeli use of true AWACS aircraft, electronic jamming, better radars, better missiles, HMDs of its own, and pilot skill differences would all combine to ensure that any fight involving Israel vs. Syria would be anything but even. Syria’s MiG-25s, MiG-23s, and MiG-21s experienced that first hand in 1982, when they were massacred 80 to 0 over Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

In the 3rd year of a civil war that threatens to transfer chemical weapons and ballistic missiles to Hezbollah, or turn Syria over to al-Qaeda, a handful of MiG-29s sits very low on Israel’s list of concerns.

Foxhound: The MiG-31


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The MiG-31E is reportedly offered on a trade-in basis for countries that have the MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor, a list that currently includes only Syria and Kazakhstan.

The big MiG-25 caused quite a sensation in the west when it was first unveiled, and incidents in which the planes were tracked at speeds above Mach 3 added to its mystique. In time, the west would learn that its aerodynamic design and lack of a gun made it vulnerable in dogfights, that flying at speeds over Mach 2.5 had a tendency to melt the plane’s engines, and that its range was extremely short. Defector Viktor Belenko, who gave the USA its first look by flying his MiG-25 from Russia to Japan, found that the 1-way flight left his fuel tanks nearly dry.

The MiG-31 made a virtue out of the Foxbat’s vices, turning it into a 2-seat cruise missile interceptor via extra fuel, improved engines and intakes, in-flight refueling, the ‘Flash Dance’ electronically scanned radar, a retractable refueling probe, and an internal gun. Unlike its predecessor, the MiG-31 is capable of low-level supersonic flight, and can reach Mach 2.8 before its engines begin to melt. It also has communications capabilities that allow its pilot to view the full air battle in a C3I mini-AWACS role, and direct other aircraft like a chess player.

Aeronautics.RU described the MiG-31E variant as:

“Export version of basic Type 01. Prototype (‘903’) first noted 1997; simplified systems, no active jammer, downgraded IFF, radar and DASS. Offered to China, India and other countries.”

These planes could be of some use to Syria in an air defense role. Syria’s air force, which was once reliably on the cutting edge of technology during its Cold War years as a Soviet proxy, has not modernized in over a decade.

If transferred to Iran, the likelihood of cruise missile strikes from Israel or America would give the MiGs a clear role. One the other hand, the country’s 2 air forces (regular and Revolutionary Guard) would find the MiG-31’s style crimped by the absence of air-to-air refueling capabilities. MiG-31s could also step into the ‘fighter AWACS’ role that has been played to date by Iran’s dwindling but ingeniously maintained fleet of F-14A Tomcat fighters. This would be only marginally useful against a full American offensive, which would target the MiGs and seek to wipe them out as an opening move. Against a smaller and more focused threat, the MiG-31s could make a big difference to Iran’s ability to cover limited targets – such as Israeli strikes on its nuclear bomb-making facilities.

Readers who really want to understand the MiG-31 are urged to book a flight for themselves.

Appendix B: MiG-31s – A Cut-Out Purchase?

Iran Flag

Kommersant cites a number of indicators that this may be the case, including a Jane’s report in May 2007 that a similar arrangement has being used to funnel some of Syria’s 36 new Pantsir-S1E air defense systems to Iran in exchange for a fence’s (sorry, “intermediary”) fee. They also cite the 2 countries’ recent mutual defense agreements, including the July 2006 agreement signed by both countries’ defense ministers, which envisaged Iranian financing of Syrian arms deals with Russia, Ukraine and China.

In response, Russian authorities issued non-denial denials.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement that “…all of Russia’s deals in the sphere of military-technical cooperation comply with international law and Russia’s obligations under various treaties and United Nations resolutions.” Since none of those obligation prohibited sales to Syria, this response is utterly meaningless.

Sergei Chemezov, head of state arms-trading monopoly Rosoboronexport, is quoted as saying that “Russia has no plans to deliver fighter jets to Syria and Iran.” Of course, a sale of fighter jets only to Syria would comply with this statement – and if the Syrians choose to send them to Iran, that concerns Syria’s plans and not Russia’s.

As is often the case with Russia and Syria, things only became clearer with the passage of time. It wasn’t until October 2010, with no MiG-31s in evidence within Syria or Iran’s armed forces, that Rosoboronexport General Director Anatoly Isaykin finally issued a denial without mile-wide loopholes.

By March 2011, Mach 2+ interceptors became the farthest thing from Assad’s mind, as a civil war broke out in Syria.

Additional Readings & Sources

The Weapons

* RAC MiG via Wayback – MiG-29M – MiG-29M2

* Global Security – MiG-29 Fulcrum (Mikoyan-Gurevich)

* Israeli Air Force – The “Sting” has landed. In 1997, 3 MiG-29s landed in Israel, and they were flown and evaluated by Israeli pilots over a period of several weeks. Here’s what they thought.

* Aeronautics.RU – Luftwaffe MiG-29 experience [broken].

* MiG Alley – MiG-29. Includes sub-components like the engine and the aircraft’s Zhuk and N019 radar options. Private individual’s web page.

* Aeronautics.RU – Mikoyan MiG-31

* Global Security – MiG-31 Foxhound

* MiG alley – MiG-31. Private individual’s web page.

* DID – Russia’s Yak-130 Trainer & Light Attack Jets

* DID – Yakkity Yak – Don’t Talk Back! Syria’s Russian Jet Order

* Almaz-Antey JSC – “Buk-M2E” ADMC, a.k.a. SA-17. Medium range air defense.

* Air Power Australia – KBP 2K22/2K22M/M1 Tunguska SA-19 Grison / 96K6 Pantsir S1 / SA-22 Greyhound SPAAGM. Short-range gun/missile air defense. Command guidance is its weakness, but Russia uses it as point defense for their SA-20 sites, to protect against cruise missile attacks.

* Almaz-Antey JSC – S-300PMU2 “Favorit” Air Defense Missile System (ADMS), a.k.a. SA-20. Long-range air defense, with some missile defense capability.

* Air Power Australia – Almaz-Antey S-300PMU2 Favorit Self Propelled Air Defence System / SA-20 Gargoyle. Extensive briefing.

History: Beka’a Valley Beat-Down

* Israeli Air Force – The First Lebanon War. Dogfight figure given is 80-0, slightly less than most contemporary accounts which tend to be 86-0 or 88-0.

* Aerospace Power Journal (Winter 1989) – The BEKAA Valley Air Battle, June 1982: Lessons Mislearned?

News and Coverage

* Washington Post (May 21/13) – State Dept. official: Iranian soldiers are fighting for Assad in Syria. News in the key of “duh” – also late.

* Fox News (Aug 28/12) – Iranian general admits ‘fighting every aspect of a war’ in defending Syria’s Assad. To the government’s Daneshjoo News Agency media satellite.

* Al Jazeera (May 5/13) – Timeline: Israeli attacks on Syrian targets

* Defense Update (Sept 20/10) – How serious is the P800 Yakhont threat? Does it have a destabilizing effect on the Middle East?

* RIA Novosti (Sept 3/09) – Russia confirms talks on delivery of MiG-31 aircraft to Syria

* Jerusalem Post (May 26/09) – Syria denies reports Russia called off MiG-31 deal.

* Jerusalem Post (May 24/09) – Israel to speed up Russia’s UAV order. Counter-leverage.

* Jerusalem Post (May 20/09) – Iran stops funding for Russian MiG-31E Interceptor sale to Syria. “Wednesday, May 20, the official Russian arms export company Rosoboronexport announced the deal was off without explanation”

* Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor (June 20/07) – The Strange Story of MiG-31 Jets for Syria. A real sale, or a trial balloon?

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