February 14, 2016:
Even before Russian troops and warplanes entered the Syrian war in September of 2015, Russian trainers and advisors had been showing Syrian troops how to adopt new technologies and tactics to improve their performance and chances of staying alive. Two of the new techniques introduced during 2015 made a big difference. One was simply adopting a practice developed by several Islamic terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; motorbikes. The Syrian troops often captured these from Islamic terrorists but the Russians helped them develop useful tactics for soldiers to use. By the end of the 2015 the Syrian army had several hundred motorbikes and motorcycles and they were used where speed, low visibility or the tendency to not set off mines planted on roads were factors. The rebels often used lots of (often not very expert) snipers around urban neighborhoods (including rural villages). These snipers were often adequate to prevent the army from using trucks or cars to deliver supplies (food, ammo, medical) and reinforcements or remove wounded troops to safer areas for better care. The men on motorbikes could avoid most snipers because these vehicles were too small and fast for less-than-expert shooters to hit. In addition the motorbikes were usually too light to set off mines on the roads. Suddenly it was possible to resupply places that had previously been inaccessible. In addition commanders now use motorbikes to check out the battlefield or more safely move around to different units.
While dangerous to operate, troops who were skilled at using motorbikes tended to survive and became very popular and highly respected. In some cases the army formed small units (two or three platoons using 50-100 motorbikes) of troops who could emulate a favorite rebel (and Islamic terrorist) tactic of launching speedy attacks that caught the defenders by surprise and were often crucial in achieving victories. Much of the fighting in Syria is small scale with only a few hundred men on each side. So a small unit of motorbike troops could make a big difference.
Another new technique is greater use of UAVs for scouting. The army now has more UAVs from the Russians although they, like the rebels, were beginning to use a lot of civilian UAVs for scouting. These have also improved army performance, especially since the army has artillery and Russian air support to quickly go after targets.
Another interesting innovation by the Syrian Army and their Russian advisors was the use of civilian vidcams (in this case the GoPro) attached to Syrian Army armored vehicles and motorbikes for use in training and analyzing the effectiveness of the troops and tactics. The videos that got distributed where 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 are 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 his is instructive.
Studying several of these videos revealed that the Syrians also often employ their armored vehicles or motorbike platoons 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 weapons or equipment to begin with and appear to be improvising. That changed when the Russians sent in troops and a lot more military aid late in the year.
The use of vidcams on missions is not unique either, it has been used since 2002 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 are involved but the degree of the Russian contribution is not spelled out. 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.
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 (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles). The Syrian infantry (and pro-government militia) have a better view of the battlefield and can go places the vehicles cannon. 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.