Key Point: Longer-term vs. short-term investments.
“A unique machine, a deadly aerial fist,” is how the official television channel of the Russian Ministry of Defense introduced the Su-35S superiority fighter earlier this week.
TV Zvezda’s three-minute clip of a recent Su-35S training sortie over Syria provides close-up shots of the fighter jet being prepped for flight, taking off, cruising over the Syrian coast, and firing flares. On their youtube account, they published slightly extended footage of the same exercise.
The first Su-35S fighters arrived at Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base in 2016, relatively late into the Syrian Civil War. They performed well in their role of covering for Russian ground-strike aircraft during bombing missions against Syrian opposition targets, but then again-- there were no immediate airspace threats facing Russia’s Syrian forces in early 2016. The Su-35S was therefore limited to an air deterrence role amid an ongoing diplomatic row between Moscow and Ankara that wound down only in the latter half of 2016.
Today, airpower continues to be the crucial military ingredient in the enforcement of Russian “de-escalation zones” strewn across the western parts of Syria, and in intermittent bombing runs against opposition stragglers and ISIS targets.
From the conflict’s earliest days through 2019, the Syrian venture continues to yield military value as a training and proving grounds for the next generation of Russian servicemen. As a Su-35S pilot told Zvezda, “here, we can realize the potential of the aircraft-- the tactical potential. For every pilot and co-pilot, this is a tremendous opportunity to hone their skills.” In a less covered but no less important development, it also provides Russian engineers with aircraft maintenance know-how after real, albeit low-intensity, combat missions.