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Why Russia is Deploying the MiG-29SMT to Syria

September 17th - 2017

In early September 2017 Russia's Defence Ministry confirmed the deployment of MiG-29SMT multirole fighters to Syria. This will make it the first MiG fighter deployed to Russian airbases in Syria - and the first MiG deployed by the Russian military in the entire Syrian war other than the carrier based MiG-29K fighters which operated from the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. Based on the original MiG-29 in service since 1985, the SMT variant is heavily upgraded with a large 950 litre spine conformal fuel tank giving it a much enhanced maximum range of 1,800 km - as well as in flight refuelling capabilities to further extend this. With more advanced avionics, two MFI-10-6M displays and a IKSh-1M HUD as well as improved capabilities for carrying guided air to ground munitions, the MiG-29SMT is a potent multirole platform. It's maintenance requirements are also significantly lower. As an unspecialised platform however the MiG-29 is not as capable in either air to air combat or air to ground strikes as its high performance Sukhoi counterparts previously deployed to Syria such as the Su-35 and Su-34. With the advanced Sukhoi fighters deployed since 2015 and the war already winding down and set to end within months, the Russian Air Force's reasons for deploying these lighter platforms are brought to question.

Just as conflicts in Libya, Iraq, Gaza and Afghanistan made excellent testing grounds for the latest NATO weapons from the MOAB in Afghanistan to the F-35 in Gaza and the Dassault Rafale in Libya - so too has Russia derived significant benefits from its experience in using its latest weapons against Islamic State and Al Qaeda forces in Syria. With its latest Su-35 air superiority fighter having already been modified based on combat experience in Syria, and with the war drawing to a close, the deployment of the MiG-29SMT could be interpreted as a attempt to test the systems in combat before the fighting stops and the opportunity passes. Another key reason for the deployment could be related to the need to reequip the Syrian Air Force for more effective independent operations. The air force is today has suffered extensive personnel and equipment losses, and almost exclusively relies on second and third generation platforms such as the MiG-21 and MiG-23 for operations against insurgent groups. With the war drawing to an end, Syria is set to acquire more modern capabilities to both combat insurgent ground and to defend its airspace. With the Syrian government having contracted 24 MiG-29SMT fighters in 2009, the delivery of which was scheduled for 2012 but delayed due to the war, it is highly plausible that Russia is deploying these same fighters to familiarise the Syrians with them - so that the Syrian Air Force can more quickly be modernised.

With threats from both remaining elements of the insurgency and from hostile neighbouring powers which regularly threaten and carry out incursions against Syria, the acquisition of aerial warfare capabilities with the ability to engage both air and ground targets is essential. With specialised high performance platforms such as the Su-34 or Su-30 likely to be unaffordable in the near future, investment in potent multirole aircraft is feasible choice for the Syrian military. The fact that the MiG-29SMT is a low maintenance platform makes it particularly desirable for a country during times of post war reconstruction when resources are limited. With the Russian Air Force set to reduce its presence in the country following the end of the war, assisting Syria in fielding more potent air force capabilities to better protect its own interests will lift some of the burden from the Russian Air Force. The advanced SMT variant of the MiG-29 is therefore ideal for beginning to restore the Syrian Air Force, while acquisitions of specialised platforms can potentially be provided to built on these capabilities later on.

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