Operation Inherent Resolve: The Syrian Proving Grounds

What do the terms Mole Cricket 19 and Deir ez Zor Syria have in common? Many of you have never heard of Mole Cricket 19, the 9 June 1982 air campaign over Syria’s Bekaa Valley to destroy surface-to-air missiles. People following the news closely have heard of Deir ez Zor Syria. In September of 2007, an Israeli air raid destroyed a possible Nuclear Plant built with North Korean technology and Iranian money. Deir ez Zor sits along the Euphrates River, now the boundary between Russian and Coalition forces fighting ISIS in Operation Inherent Resolve. You are going to hear a lot more about air battles and Deir ez Zor in the coming weeks and months. But first, let’s look at the historical facts.

1982 the Israeli Defense Force invaded Lebanon during Operation Peace for Galilee. Israeli ground troops thrust deep into Lebanon along the Litani River, pushing back Syrian forces and destroying Hezbollah terrorist groups. Syria began moving mobile SA-6 GAINFUL surface-to-air missile systems into the Bekaa Valley in an effort to stop the Israeli Air Force support to  ground troops. A plan was devised using the newest US supplied Fighters, the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, and the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon to destroy the SAM sites. Using unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor the SAMs, the Israelis had pinpointed the locations of all the surface-to-air missiles along the Bekaa Valley. At 2 pm June 7th 1982  Israel launched Operation Mole Cricket 19, the number of SAM sites Syria placed in the Bekaa Valley. This operation became the most lopsided air battle in history. All nineteen surface-to-air missile sites were destroyed and the Israeli Air Force shot down over eighty Syrian Air Force fighter jets. This was the first time modern US aircraft such as the F-15 and F-16 had been used in constant air battles. The Bekaa Valley War was dubbed by many the Bekaa Valley Proving Grounds for US fighter planes and weapons. They performed spectacularly.

In the summer of 2007, Israeli intelligence suspected Syria was building a nuclear power plant along the Euphrates River north of the town of Deir ez Zorr Syria. After following a Syrian nuclear scientist in London, and watching North Korean nuclear scientist visit Damascus, Israelis confirmed with Iranian money North Korea and Syria we’re building a nuclear power plant much like the one at Yongbyon North Korea. Israeli military leaders gathered a select group of pilots in the Negev Desert to practice bombing a nuclear power plant mock-up. Operation Ochard, the air strike to destroy the Nuclear Power Plant, took place on September 6th of 2007. Syria’s entire air defense system went down during the strike. An Israeli Gulfstream jet specially outfitted with electronic countermeasure equipment much like our EC-130 Compass Call, used Senior Suter and computer network attack system to cause all of the Syrian radars to project false targets on their radar screens, turning them to look the wrong direction. The Israeli Air Force strike package entered Syria from the north out of Turkey, destroyed a SAM sight and flew south to destroy the nuclear power plant. Digitalglobe pictures actually caught before and after photographs of the destruction of the power plant. Both sides remained very quiet about this nuclear plant raid.

On the night of February 7th and 8th 2018, Syrian Democratic Forces loyal to Bashur Assad and approximately 250 former Russian Special Forces mercenaries of the Private Military Company Wagner Group attacked an American and Kurdish force protecting the oil refinery near the town of Deir ez Zor. American advisors directed artillery and US air power from armed MQ-9 Reaper drones, bombers such as the B-1 and B-52, and attack aircraft such as F-15E Strike Eagles and F-22 Raptor. The attack became a humiliating loss for the Syrian and Russian forces. Rough estimates say 196 of the 250 Russian mercenaries died in the attack. One Russian tank and one armored reconnaissance vehicle survived after an American Joint Terminal Attack Controller, directing airpower assets from inside the oil refinery fence, called in the full weight of the overhead air forces. Transcripts of the Russian mercenaries involved in the attack stated they were massacred by American artillery and air power. This is not the first time American airpower has come in contact with the Russians.

In the late 2017, an American MQ-9 Reaper drone was intercepted by two Russian SU-35 Flankers operating out of Kheimemim Air Base near the town of Latakia Syria. A Google Earth view of this base shows the Flankers, Fullbacks, Fencers, and Frogfoot aircraft operating from a long runway protected by S-400 surface-to-air missile system. As the SU-35s flew off of the wings of the MQ-9 Reaper, unaware both are tracked and followed by two F-22 Raptors. As the Russians toyed with the Reaper, no doubt the Reaper’s sensor operator looking at both airplanes while doing so, the F-22 pilot made his presence known. Pulling up alongside one of the flankers, he said over a common radio frequency, “I think you boys should go home now!”

The failed attack at Deir ez Zor and the humiliating radio call for Russia’s most capable fighters to go home put Putin in a reflective mood. Discussions between Putin and his Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu must have lasted well into the night to answer these humiliations. Putin and Shoygu’s answer recently landed at Kheimemen Air Base near Latakia Syria.

Russian SU-57 Stealth Fighter prototypes on the ramp at Kheimemim Airfield courtesy ISI

While on final approach to the Kheimemen Airfield, a Syrian national recorded with his cell phone two SU-57 PAK FA stealth fighter prototypes landing with SU-35 Flanker escorts. A couple days later two more SU-57 landed at Kheimemen, with a new crop of SU-35 Flankers and an IL-76 AWACS command and control airplane. The deployment of the SU-57 is both military and informational warfare, Putin’s way of telling the US we are in this fight with our best equipment, the SU-57s and the S-400 SAMs. Lets see how “stealthy” your F-22s really are President Trump!

Vladimir Putin walking away from an SU-57 prototype at the Moscow Airshow

F-22s have been in service for over 15 years, and all the Sukhoi SU-57  are “prototypes,” but the Russian government felt it important to send their newest fighters to the Syrian Proving Grounds. SU-57 use blended body aerodynamics and coatings for low observable flight, Russia’s newest air-to-air missiles such as the AA-11 Archer and AA-12 Adder, and anti radiation or precision guided munitions in its weapons bay. The PAK FA has vectored thrust just like the F-22 does. The SU-57 active electronically scanned array works in conjunction with an Imaging Infrared Search and Track system (IRSTS) to find, fix, and finish targets.

SU-57 during airshow display courtesy Getty Images

SU-57 pilots also wear helmet mounted display system much like our joint helmet mounted cueing system in the F-16C and F-15E, and can track targets through the helmet. The SU-57 are very capable airplanes and you can read more about them here at Dr. Carlo Copp’s Air Power Australia web page. The question I’m sure running through the Pentagon halls and ameetings with SECDEF Mattis is what will deploying SU-57 stealth fighters have in store for US Air Force F-22 and the rest of coalition airpower?

F-22 high speed pass courtesy Lockheed Martin

Some possible scenarios in the coming weeks or months are these four SU-57 stealth fighters flying missions over Syria. I do not see a Mole Cricket 19 scenario happening between the US and Russians, unless some inadvertent event takes place. There is a hotline between the US and Russian command centers in theater to talk over such inadvertent events. But Russian fighters have recently shown aggressive actions intercepting US intelligence aircraft like the RC-135 in the Baltics. Everyone asks how aggressive will the SU-57 pilots react to F-22s in their area. I would tell them ask Wagner Group mercenaries about their encounter with US ground forces. The picture below is from a Navy intelligence and reconnaissance aircraft, the Flanker within feet of the wingtip.

SU-35 Flanker flying with a few feet of a Navy EP-3E over the Baltics
F-22 intercepting a Russian TU-95 Bear Bomber off the Alaskan coast

The boundary between the Russian and US forces is the Euphrates River. You can expect at some point SU-57 approaching the Euphrates River boundary, teasing F-22’s on the other side. US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drones will surely be intercepted by the SU-57, the Sensor Operators no doubt capturing wonderful full motion video of the SU-57 flying along with the Reaper. The Reaper does have one advantage; it can fly 80 miles an hour, something the SU-57 will not be able to do. Saddam’s Air Force intercepted RQ-1 Predator drones flying over Iraq, and Sensor Operators gathered really good full motion video of the MiGs flying alongside. 

At some point in time the two rutting bucks will meet over the Syrian playground. As the SU-57 and F-22 fly alongside each other, each pilot will wonder how good their airplane really is. Raptor pilots will come back with good intelligence on the actual stealth capabilities of the SU-57, and its strengths and weaknesses when compared to the F-22 capabilities.

The next few months may cause some very interesting news cycles as our older 5th generation fighter the F-22 squares away with the Russian prototype SU-57 over Syria. Once again, Syria has become a Proving Ground for US and Russian military equipment, as in times past. A lot of dollars and rubles depend on the outcome of these potential interactions between the two airplanes.