The Syrian Air Force, officially the Syrian Arab Air Force is the air force branch of the Syrian Armed Forces. It is variously abbreviated in English to SAF, SAAF, or SyAAF. It was established in 1948. Land-based air defence systems are grouped under the Syrian Air Defense Force, which split from both the Air Force and the Army. According to certain Western intelligence sources, it does not have the ability to carry out operations at night.
The end of World War II led to a withdrawal of the United Kingdom and France from the Middle East, and this included a withdrawal from Syria. In 1948, the Syrian Air Force was officially established after the first class of pilots graduated from flight schools in the United Kingdom. The embryonic force saw limited participation in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, conducting bombing raids against Israeli forces and settlements. One North American Harvard was lost to ground fire while attacking Ayelet Hashahar on 16th July, and another possibly shot down by Morris Mann (flying an Avia S-199) on 10th June. The Syrian Air Force claimed its sole kill of the war on 10th July when a Harvard supposedly shot down an Avia S-199 flown by Lionel Bloch.
Military governments formed after the war sought to bolster the air force, which began equipping with Fiat G.59s, ex-Egyptian Macchi C.205s and Supermarine Spitfire Mk 22s. In September 1952 the SAF received its first jet aircraft, the Gloster Meteor F.8. Additional Meteors, including the NF.13 night fighting variant, were delivered by the mid-1950s.
The 1950s also saw Syria and Egypt attempt to unify as the United Arab Republic, and this was reflected in the Syrian Air Force with growth in personnel and aircraft. The union did not last. With the ascent to power of the Baath Party and Hafez Al-Assad, himself a former SAF Commander-in-chief, Syria began looking to the members of the Warsaw Pact for help and built closer ties with the USSR. This in turn led to a huge influx of Eastern-made equipment to the Syrian Armed Forces, including the Air Force.
In 1955 Syria placed an order for 25 MiG-15s, including several MiG-UTI conversion trainers. These were shipped to Alexandria and assembled at the Egyptian Almaza Air Base, where Syrian pilots and technicians were trained to operate the aircraft. The fighters were at Almaza when the Suez Crisis broke out and several were destroyed on the ground by British and French air strikes. On 6th November 1956, a Syrian Meteor shot down a Royal Air Force Canberra PR.7 monitoring activity at SAF bases. One Meteor was lost after another attempted intercept, the pilot and future president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, crashing his aircraft while attempting to land in the dark.
Sixty MiG-17s were ordered at the end of 1956 and Syrian pilots were dispatched to the USSR and Poland for training. The first aircraft arrived in January 1957 and by the end of the year two MiG-17 squadrons were defending the capital from their base at Damasucus’ Mezzeh Military Airport.
In the Six-Day War, the Syrian Air Force lost two-thirds of its forces with the rest retreating to bases in remote parts of Syria. This in turn helped the IDF in defeating the Syrian Army on the ground and led to the occupation of the Golan Heights.
The Yom Kippur War provided initial success for both Syria and Egypt, though again Israel inflicted more casualties in the air than it endured.
During the 1982 Lebanon War, the Syrian Air Force fought the Israeli Air Force in one of the largest air-to-air combats of the jet age, involving approximately 150 aircraft from both sides. In six days (6th–11th June 1982) of intense aerial combat, Syrian and Russian sources admit the loss of 24 MiG-23s (6MF, 4MS and 14BN), while shooting down no Israeli aircraft. Russian and Syrian sources continue to claim a modicum of success against Israeli aircraft in this conflict, but have been unable to provide any justification for their claims. Israel claims the destruction of 85 Syrian MiGs (including Mig-21s as well as Mig-23s). However, at low altitude the Syrian Air Force effectively used Aerospatiale Gazelle helicopters in anti-armour role against advancing Israeli ground forces. In one such engagement, an Israeli tank column was stopped for some hours by SAF Gazelle missile strikes while approaching Ein Zehalta.
Since the Lebanon War, the Syrian Air Force has attempted to procure Russian-made aircraft, but the full extent of this refurbishment is not known, nor are the exact numbers of planes or what types of aircraft are being supplied to the Air Force. This uncertainty is due to the degree of secrecy maintained by the Syrian government with regard to its military. It is known, however, that the Syrians have procured MiG-29s and Su-24s, which should give its Air Force a major improvement, although a rumor regarding the purchase of Su-27s that circulated in the 2010s has proven to be unfounded. In 2008 the Syrian Air Force was reportedly taking deliveries of 8 examples of new MiG-31E from Russia, as well as the MiG-29SMT and Yak-130, although delivery of the MiG-31s may have been cancelled by Russia due to pressure from Western governments.
In July 2012 at the Farnborough Air Show it was announced that Russia would not deliver any new aircraft including the MiG-29M/M2s and Yak-130s while there was still a crisis in Syria, but it would still respect any previous refurbishment and maintenance contracts such as the Mi-25s.
During the initial phase of the Syrian civil war, up to mid-2012, the Syrian Air Force was involved in secondary roles, with no firing from aircraft and helicopters.
The situation changed on 22nd March 2012, with an escalation in the use of airpower by Government forces, starting with armed Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopter gunships firing rockets and machine guns. The air war escalated further in mid June 2012, with the use of Mi-24/25 attack helicopters capable of dropping standard aviation bombs weighing up to 250 kg, while the transport helicopters started dropping barrel bombs, aerial IEDs.
On 24th July 2012, attack sorties by fixed-wing aircraft were reported by the rebels and recorded on video: initially L-39 COIN armed trainers began using rockets, bombs and guns but they were quickly joined by MiG-21s and MiG-23s. A few weeks later Su-22 ground attack aircraft were used and in November 2012, Su-24 medium bombers were filmed bombing rebels. In December 2012, conventionally armed Scud missiles and other similar ballistic missiles were fired against rebel positions.
Following a report on the appearance of newly delivered S-8 air-to-ground rocket pods previously not operated by the Syrian Air Force, being employed on different aircraft, on 22nd October 2013, a S-8 armed MiG-29 was spotted and recorded on video while flying over Damascus, suggesting that the type was pushed into action for ground attack, possibly after the pilots attended specific training on the type. Subsequently MiG-29’s were recorded performing rocket and gun attack runs on rebel positions.
The first reported activity of Syrian MiG-25 aircraft in the civil war was recorded on 8th February 2014, when two Turkish Air Force F-16s were scrambled to intercept a Syrian MiG-25 which was approaching the Turkish border. On 27th March 2014, a MiG-25 was clearly filmed while flying at medium altitude over Hama Eastern countryside, possibly delivering the bomb seen hitting the ground in the same video. Until February 2014, Syrian MiG-25s were not seen, perhaps due to the type of war, different from the role of the MiG-25 and possibly due to initial technical difficulties in keeping the MiG-25 fleet operational. The use of the MiG-25 in the Syrian Civil War marks the starting point since when all the known types of Syrian combat aircraft and ballistic missiles came into use.
With the start of aerial operations by the Syrian Air Force, in August 2012, online publications probably overestimating rebels’ claims on the number of destroyed aircraft, assumed that the Syrian Air Force was suffering significant technical difficulties, resulting in less than half of the best SAAF ground attack aircraft such as the Mi-25 Hind-D being serviceable. The publications reported that an increased number of conflict fronts and severe maintenance burdens dramatically worsened the situation, which was reportedly difficult before the war. These problems were thought to account for the use of L-39ZA (attack variant) jets, before further escalations. Operational limitations were overcome during 2013 as Syrian pilots and technicians with the assistance of foreign advisers and technicians began to improve their operational skills. In December 2013 Jane’s reported that the Syrian Air Force had dramatically improved its operational capabilities during 2013, and was now frequently conducting up to 100 sorties per day with half of these constituting combat sorties.
Insurgents counter the Syrian Air Force with truck mounted, medium and heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, small arms fire and starting in late 2012, MANPADS up to modern Russian and Chinese designs.
As the Syrian Air Force became more involved, the insurgents obtained more anti-aircraft equipment, captured air defense sites and warehouses while receiving shipments of Chinese and Russian material from external sponsors. An improvement in accuracy was achieved and several Syrian Air Force jets and helicopters were shot down from August 2012. Since insurgents besieged many airports, many of the aircraft were shot down taking off or landing. The raiding and shelling of airbases led to aircraft and helicopters being damaged or destroyed on the ground.
In spite of occasional losses the Syrian Air Force remained largely unchallenged, efficient and feared by the rebels. Compared to Western air forces fighting against similarly armed enemies in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the main disadvantage of the Syrian Air Force is the lack of precision guided weapons which allow the aircraft to stay out of range of small arms fire, AAA and MANPADS, while bombing accurately. The same weakness prevents them from hitting targets of opportunity in the same mission. In 2014, Jane´s Defence and Combat Aircraft Monthly report some MiG-29s and possibly some Su-24s capable of launching precision guided ammunitions.
Syrian pilots spend most of their flying time at low to medium altitude where battlefield threats are more potent. Based on the aircraft type, Syrian pilots use different attack techniques for unguided munitions. L-39s attack in a dive, fast jets usually attacked in a low to medium altitude bombing run at high speed, firing thermal decoy flares against IR homing missiles and zooming after the attack. Later, fast jets added rocket and gun diving attacks.
Helicopters were seen flying at unusually high altitudes which minimized their accuracy and increased collateral damage, but reduced losses since they did not have the high speed and acceleration of jet fighters; the altitude putting them out of range of most of the ground threats. Mi-24/25 gunships were observed delivering decoy flares as well.
The Syrian Air Force frequently attacks insurgent forces with helicopter gunships in populated areas with unguided weaponry and the bombings often cause collateral damage to the civilian population and infrastructure and warplanes.From the end of 2012 until December 2014, Syrian Air Force L-39 were seldom seen, one of the two airbases for L-39 was captured and the other was besieged. In December 2014, videos surfaced showing the aircraft coming back to operational status after a factory overhaul inside Syria.
At the beginning of August 2015, a summary of the recent Syrian Air Force activity reported that during July 2015, the Syrian Air Force performed 6,673 air attacks, the highest number since the beginning of the war. It was reported that between October 2014 and July 2015, at least 26,517 attacks were made. This showed that aircraft losses had been overestimated, while the airframe overhauling and rotation increased the overall combat readiness of the Syrian Air Force since Syria could not count on replacements, apart from some refurbished ex-Iraqi Su-22s, delivered from Iran in the Spring of 2015, which had been flown there during the Gulf War in 1991. In early 2015, it was rumored that Russian pilots were flying operations for the Syrian Air Force. No independent source confirmed the claim and no Russian pilots were reported among shot-down crews in the following months.
On 18th June 2017, US military bosses have confirmed a U.S. F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian regime Sukhoi SU-22 after the regime warplane dropped bombs near SDF fighters south of Tabqa.
Hobbymaster Syrian Air Force models available at Flying Tigers.
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