Armor: Russians Get Schooled In Syria


August 9, 2018: Russia has learned a lot about modern combat in Syria. Russian advisors were often called on to help devise new tactics to deal with problems Syrian troops were encountering. One of the more vexing situations had to do with the rebels using ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles), including Russian models like the Kornet or the American TOW. Russian armor experts drew on their own history and more detailed knowledge of Israeli innovations (developed during the 1973 war) when they encountered Egyptian troops using lots of older model ATGMs.

The Russians came up with several new techniques that they are now teaching to their own troops after the Syrians tried it successfully. One of the key lessons was that even with modern ATGMs a moving vehicle is much harder to hit than a stationary one. Modern fire control systems enable tanks (at least the more modern ones, which the Russians supplied Syria with once Russian troops arrived in Syria in mid-2015). With tanks that can fire accurately on the move, the Russians developed the “carousel” maneuver in which attacking tanks adopt a circular formation of up to ten tanks moving around in a circle and firing on targets when tanks are on the side of the circle facing the enemy. The tanks can concentrate on suspected ATGM positions until there is no more ATGM fire then direct all their fire at enemy vehicles and infantry positions. If a tank in the carousel is disabled by an ATGM the other tanks adjust the circle of tanks to put the disabled tank inside the circle and continue firing. Another innovation was the castle fortification for defense against suicide car (or truck) bombers and ATGMs, especially for Syrian tanks that cannot fire accurately on the move. This tactic involves building a berm high enough to conceal tanks behind it but containing openings (as seen on a castle wall providing protected firing positions for archers). This enables tanks to move up to one of the openings and open fire on an approaching suicide car bomber or an ATGM position. The tank is moving along behind the berm with its gun turned to face the opening. The tank can quickly fire and then quickly move away from the opening. The rebels often used large numbers of suicide car bombs, supported by ATGMs and the castle parapet tactic neutralized this.

Even before the Russians showed up in force the small number of Russian advisors with Syrian troops innovating in combat. One thing that impressed the Russians was the Syrian use of civilian vidcams (in this case the GoPro) attached to Syrian Army armored vehicles for use in training and analyzing the effectiveness of the troops and tactics. The videos that got out were some of those that proved useful enough to have a voiceover narration added explaining what was actually going on and describing any useful tips or lessons to be learned from watching this action. What that description also showed was some new tactics developed by the Syrians and/or their Russian advisors, often with the help of the vidcams and/or because the vidcams were also used in real-time during combat. When an armored vehicle is put out of action the vidcam usually survives and the video can be examined for useful information on how the crew might have avoided getting hit. Even if none of the vehicle crew survive, watching the video up to the moment the vehicle is hit is instructive.

Studying several of these videos revealed that the Syrians also often employ their armored vehicles as a “ready reaction force.” This is not unique as most other armies do this, but with a combination of ground forces and warplanes and helicopters. The Syrian Army never had a lot of high-quality weapons or equipment to begin with and appear to be improvising. The use of vidcams on missions is not unique either, it has been used by over a decade by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the Syrians deserve credit for effectively adapting these old ideas (that predate the 20th century) for their current situation. That videos indicate that Russians were involved before 2015 but the degree of the Russian contribution was never spelled out.

These new tactics appear to involve using accompanying infantry as spotters for the tanks and IFVs (BMP Infantry Fighting Vehicles). The guys on the ground point out targets for the armored vehicles to fire on with 125mm gun or 12.7mm (.50 caliber) machine-gun. The rebels are equipped with RPGs, automatic weapons as well as roadside bombs, anti-vehicle mines and, occasionally, ATGM. The Syrian infantry (and pro-government militia) have a better view of the battlefield and can go places the vehicles cannot. Armored vehicles taking information from infantry around them is nothing new, but modern electronics (vidcams and cheap but powerful walkies) make possible new opportunities which the Syrians have taken advantage of to give the infantry more precise and timely firepower and the armored vehicles more protection from attack.

It was known that the Russians had some advisors in Syria, and had shipped lots of military equipment, especially spare parts and tools needed to keep aircraft and armored vehicles operational. What was later found out was that the Russian experience in Syrian combat had a large impact on combat training back in Russia.




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