Syria Is Putin's Spanish Civil War

In this photo made from video footage provided by the Russian Defense Ministry on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015, a Russian Tu-22M3 bomber drops bombs on a target. Russia has unleashed another barrage of airstrikes against targets in Syria, including the first combat launch of a new cruise missile from a Russian submarine in the Mediterranean Sea, the country's defense minister said Tuesday. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

In this photo made from video footage provided by the Russian Defense Ministry on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015, a Russian  Tu-22M3 bomber drops bombs on a target. Russia has unleashed another barrage of airstrikes against targets in Syria, including the first combat launch of a new cruise missile from a Russian submarine in the Mediterranean Sea, the country's defense minister said Tuesday. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Let me start by saying that there is no such thing as a perfect parallel in history. People, terrain, technology, politics are all ephemeral. On the other hand, there are threads that can sometimes be identified. One of those threads, I would contend, is that there is a very rough and imprecise symmetry between Russia’s actions today and the actions of Hitler’s Germany. I don’t think Putin is a modern day Führer. He’s much more the quintessential strongman who has a general strategy and acts opportunistically to forward it. He’s very cognizant of Russia’s incredible weakness… something I don’t think our own national leadership fully comprehends… and he knows the West with a depth of understanding that we can’t match. This is why he is so successful and we, under the supine and vacuous leadership of Obama, get our asses handed to us with monotonous regularity:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

So you can sort of see what we are up against.

In 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out and Hitler, in one of the very few laudable actions one can attribute to his regime, decided to assist the Nationalist forces under General Francisco Franco (who remains dead) against the communist-owned Republicans. There were multiple motives involved. Hitler didn’t want to see another communist regime and he wanted to divert attention from his real objectives in Central Europe. Germany had developed a variety of new weapons and tactics during its military cooperation phase with the USSR. It had just broken free of the Versailles Treaty and begun a military build-up. Spain seemed to be a promising proving ground for tactics, weapons, and leaders.

In July 1936, Legion Condor was activated. It started out as transport aircraft and quickly grew into fighters, bombers, anti-aircraft guns, tanks, and maritime reconnaissance aircraft.

Russian involvement in Syria is for the purpose of propping up a client state. The intervention there has had sufficient profile that as far as most of the West is concerned Ukraine and the Baltic States have ceased to exist. Smart money says that’s where Putin’s real interest lies but right now he has us fixated on Syria. But Russia has a very pressing problem that could hamstring Putin’s plans. The Russian Army stinks. This is not new. Stinking is baked into the Russian military. They are in a post-Soviet world, however, where they can’t play the “quantity has a quality all its own” card because they are in a demographic death spiral. In terms of population they are in 10th position, sandwiched between Bangladesh and Japan… which is an apt metaphor for what Russia is. They don’t have a great industrial base. Their equipment comes in a couple of varieties: the stuff they show the West at trade shows and air shows and the crap their own military uses. Russian aircraft fly under very tight ground control and the pilots log well under half the flight time of US pilots and only a third of the hours US pilots flew just a few years ago when we had an actual president. The army relies on conscripts, draft evasion is virtually a sport, and non-commissioned officers such as form the backbone in most NATO armies are non-existent.

The Russians saw how quickly one of their top clients, Iraq, was put out of action in the Gulf War and they are very cognizant of the gap between their abilities and the abilities of virtually any Western army.

Syria has been used as an exercise to simulate fighting a major expeditionary war.

Air Bridge. The Russian put together a major aerial deployment of forces from Russia to Syria. It didn’t have to be done the way it was but the planning and execution exercise Russia’s ability so carry out a strategic deployment.

Combined Air-Ground Operations. As a definitional matter Joint, whether a command or staff or operation, refers to two or more military services working in tandem and Combined means two or more nations. The Russians have been flying air strikes in support of Assad’s forces. This means that somewhere up on that front line you have Russian air liaison officers working with Syrian ground forces. This is something that is new to the Russian military. They may not be hitting much, and I suspect a portion of what they Russians are hitting is friendly, but air-ground operations are something that have to be learned and kept fresh. The very high sortie rate (2,300 sorties in 48 days) they are running in Syria suggests they are testing and improving their ability to run high-tempo air operations as much as engaging in combat. We can also bet they are rotating their best pilots in and out of Syria so they can bring the lessons home to their squadrons. The lessons they learn here will show up, eventually, in Ukraine. Or Latvia. Or Estonia. We could very well be seeing the beginning of something like the USAF Combat Controllers.

Strategic bombers. For all the angst Russian strategic bombers cause by flying near Guam, Sweden, Alaska, etc. the Russians are really in the infancy of having a strategic bombing force. They had virtually no experience in strategic bombing in World War II and do not seem to exercise that capability all that often. In the aftermath of the November 17 bombing of a Russian MetroJet airliner, the Russians launched a major strike on ISIS positions using strategic bombers based in Russia. The strike involved a substantial portion of the strategic bombers in the Russian air force. They used iron bombs (with spectacular inaccuracy) and cruise missiles. Did any target in ISIS-istan rate a cruise missile? Of course not. This was a mission that was designed to integrate dissimilar aircraft flying from multiple bases into a single strike package. They did this three days running. I suspect that tempo took a toll on decrepit Russian airframes and soused Russian ground crews and they are still recuperating.

Speaking of cruise missiles. As the Russian strategic air force was striking ISIS, Russian surface combatants in the Caspian Sea fired 18 cruise missiles at ISIS targets. I don’t have Time On Target data but I would bet those missile hit simultaneously with the Russian strategic bomber strikes. Again, there was no military necessity involved, this was a command and control exercise of a joint force striking a hard to hit target deep in enemy territory.

And more cruise missiles. On Tuesday, Russian strategic bombers were back in action. This time they had a different playmate. A Russian diesel-electric Kilo-class submarine fire cruise missiles. This particular boat, named Rostov-on-Don, is a “Project 877” type designed for littoral anti-submarine and anti-shipping operations.

In addition to tweaking Obama and making the Turks look about for their brown trousers, the Russians seem to be using targets and operations in Syria as a way of refining inter-service cooperation and testing staff processes more than fighting a war. And just like the lessons of Spain were evident in Poland and France of 1939 and 1940, we will see the lessons they have learned here put to use much closer to home.