Why is Russia using ‘dumb bombs’ in Syria?

Two Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft are shown taking off from an airbase in Hmeimim, Syria in an image taken from video posted Tuesday on the Russian Defense Ministry website.
Two Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft are shown taking off from an airbase in Hmeimim, Syria in an image taken from video posted Tuesday on the Russian Defense Ministry website. AP

Russia has made little use of precision-guided bombs during its young air campaign in Syria, a choice that experts say increases the chances that more civilians will be killed in the strikes and that a stray bomb hitting Turkey could bring other NATO nations into the war.

That danger was illustrated over the weekend when a Russian aircraft crossed into Turkey and a second warplane breached a Turkish-monitored safety zone inside Syria as they conducted bombing runs in northern Syria. Turkey scrambled jets to intercept the intruders, and NATO issue a sharp rebuke over the incidents.

A repeat, however, is highly likely, because unlike the United States military, Russia doesn’t have a vast supply of the precision-guided weapons that have become the hallmark of American air power.

Since the start of the U.S.-led air war in Iraq and Syria more than a year ago, American military leaders repeatedly have boasted that the current U.S.-led air campaign is the most surgical that American forces ever have conducted, thanks to the use of laser-guided missiles, GPS targeting and other high-tech systems. Last week, Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, called the airstrikes over Iraq and Syria “the most precise in the history of warfare.”

“The amount of care that we have taken to preserve civilian life, to preserve civilian infrastructure is unprecedented,” he said.

Still, that care has not saved the lives of hundreds of civilians who’ve died in U.S. airstrikes. While the U.S. Central Command, which runs American military operations in the Middle East, has acknowledged responsibility for only two such collateral killings – the deaths of two children in a November 2014 bombing raid in Syria – human rights groups and local activists put the numbers much higher.

The first use of laser-guided missiles was by American bombers that destroyed the Thanh Hoa Bridge in North Vietnam on May 13, 1972. But such smart weapons were not employed widely until U.S. warplanes used them against Iraq in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm.

Russian bombing is likely to take an even higher toll, experts say, for one simple reason: Russia is bombing the old-fashioned way: flying its planes over the target, releasing the bombs and letting gravity carry them to their ground targets.

“I can’t definitively rule out that they haven’t used any of their advanced guided munitions, but so far there is nothing in the images and video we’ve seen of the actual strikes that indicates the use of those guided munitions yet,” said Sim Tack, a Russian military analyst with Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based group that sells geopolitical intelligence to U.S. and international corporations and government agencies.

Tack and other experts offered a range of theories for why the Russians aren’t using precision-guided missiles in Syria, from their much higher cost (precision-guided weapons cost from $26,000 to $1.1 million each; an unguided bomb as little as $600) and the Kremlin’s relative inexperience in employing them, to looser rules of engagement that allow Russian pilots to identify their targets with relative impunity from discipline over civilian deaths.

“There are at least some pilots in the Russian air force who have some capability of using (precision-guided weapons),” Tack said. “If the Russians wanted to make it a priority right now, they could do so. The fact that they are not probably means they’re fine with doing things as they are.”

But beyond the increased threat to civilians, Russia’s bombing strategy carries a still greater risk: Sparking a wider war by hitting Turkey, even if only incidentally.

Satellite imagery and reports from Syrians in the area indicate that some Russian bombs have landed as close as 200 yards from the Turkish border.

10,684 The number of Islamic State sites that U.S. Central Command says were hit by American bombs during the first year of Operation Inherent Resolve, including buildings, fighting positions, staging areas, Humvees, oil infrastructure, tanks and other targets.

“The lighter a bomb is, the more surface area it has, the higher you drop it from and the stronger the wind, the farther it can drift off course,” Tack said. “I would say that 200 meters is definitely dangerously close to the border, if that’s where they are conducting their bombings.”

Dmitri Gorenburg, a researcher at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian Studies and an analyst for the CNA think tank in Arlington, Va., said successive Russian governments showed little regard for civilian life during their short-lived 2008 war in the former Soviet republic of Georgia or earlier during two wars totaling more than 10 years in the vast country’s Muslim-dominated Chechnya region.

“In Chechnya, there was wholesale destruction of (the regional capital) Grozny, not just from aircraft but with artillery as well,” Gorenburg told McClatchy. “And if you look at (the Russian incursion in) Ukraine recently, there haven’t been too many qualms about using artillery on population centers. So Russia certainly has demonstrated less care about harming civilians.”

Gorenburg said that Russia may be more hesitant to use precision bombs simply because it possesses fewer of them than do the United States and its more technologically advanced allies.

“They don’t want to use up all their (precision-guided weapons) in Syria, so they use the dumb bombs instead,” Gorenburg told McClatchy. “From their point of view, given the scale of destruction that’s already taken place in Syria, it may not matter as much if some stray building gets hit.”

Gorenburg said that Moscow may be starting its air campaign by using bombs it had previously given or sold to the Syrian government, a longtime Russia ally.

“Because Syria uses the same (Russian-made) planes, they can use the bombs they’ve provided Syria the last few years,” he said. “They weren’t giving the Syrians anything too fancy or expensive.”

James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose