The Russian military has demonstrated its willingness to use less precise munitions in aerial bombardments in Syria.
Russia launched cruise missile strikes against targets in Syria from naval positions in the Caspian Sea last Wednesday. According to the Russian defence minister, ‘26 sea-based cruise missiles’ fired from ships in the Caspian Sea passed over parts of Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan and hit targets in Syria. We are aware that some flights were diverted the following day amid uncertainty about the situation. And we have recorded concerns among several airlines anticipating increased risk and possible flight restrictions in the area.
The cruise missiles reportedly did not exceed an altitude of 50m and so posed no direct risk to civil aviation. But their firing alongside other Russian military activity in support of the Assad government now raises questions about the risk of error and the safety of civil aircraft overflying the wider region. These areas include Syrian and Iraqi airspace, particularly the air corridor over the Black and Caspian Seas, eastern Turkey, and Iran, connecting the Gulf States and South and Southeast Asia to Europe.
(The attached map shows FAA NOTAMs restrictions over Syria in red and areas that airlines avoid according to tracking flight sites in yellow. In blue are areas within Russian missiles trajectories; along with the paths of last Wednesday’s missiles, as published by the Russian ministry of defence.)
According to the Kremlin’s website, the Russian defence minister said that four ships fired the 26 ‘Kalibr-NK’ cruise missiles to hit 11 targets in Syria. Video footage released by the Russian Ministry of Defence on YouTube shows that the ships were positioned in the south of the Caspian Sea, and that the missiles, seemingly launched overnight, flew over Iran and northern Iraq to strike targets in Syria. The defence minister added that the missiles hit all targets up to a distance of 1,500km.
The ministry said that Russian Gepard-class frigate ship ‘Dagestan’ and three smaller Buyan-M class corvettes fired the missiles. According to international news reports, the Caspian flotilla most probably fired Kalibr-NK 3M-14T missiles, which have a range up to 2,500km and fly at supersonic speed. According to a trusted expert source in the French air force who served in Russia, cruise missiles are designed to fly at low altitudes because it allows them to be less detectable. However, they can also reach a higher altitude and so technically pose a risk to civil aviation.
Concerns about the risk to civil aircraft overflying conflict zones have remained heightened since Malaysian airlines flight MH17 crashed in eastern Ukraine August 2014. The investigation into that incident is ongoing, but it is generally suspected that the plane was shot down in error by separatists in Donbass using Russian supplied Buk anti-aircraft missile. Suspected separatists downed a military plane at high altitude in the same area several days before (see our warning R-15-07-14-UKR/RUS).
Our above-mentioned source insisted that these recent Russian missile launches did not pose any threats to civil aviation because the Kremlin has no intent to do so and because the trajectories of those missiles are controlled. Russian forces can program their missiles’ trajectories with extreme precision, according to civil aviation route planning. The risk of accidental targeting of affecting civil aircraft does appear to be much lower than in Ukraine. There, rebel groups specifically used antiaircraft weapons systems, and had considerably lower capabilities, and quite probably lower technical competencies than Russian forces.
Flight tracking sites showed over the last week that commercial airlines are still using the airspace over northern Iraq and northern Iran where the missiles transited. There is no enforced no-fly zone over Iraq or Syria, but US civil aviation authorities have restricted commercial flights over Syria. So far as we can tell, there have been no NOTAM notices advising against flights over Iranian or Iraqi airspace to the east of Syria. We expect that this may change given criticism over how civil aviation authorities were slow to respond to heightened military activity in Ukraine prior to the MH17 disaster.
Russian press outlets reported in early September that Iran had granted Moscow permission to use its airspace for humanitarian planes to enter Syria. It is not immediately clear if Russia requested approval from Iran or the Iraqi government before launching these missile strikes. Russia and Iran both support the Assad government, and the position of the ships in the southern Caspian and the missile flight path over Iran suggests that there was some level of cooperation.
But according to unnamed US officials cited in the international press, four missiles did not reach targets in Syria and reportedly landed at unspecified locations in Iran. This has not been independently verified, but Russia’s recent actions raise already heightened concerns over an unintended attack between countries involved in the conflict in Syria and Iraq.
While Iran and Russia appear to be cooperating, Turkey has threatened to fire at Russian planes if there are further incursions into Turkish airspace. The US has also said that it will not cooperate with Russia militarily, and it is not clear to what extent – if at all – the two countries are communicating over locations of airstrikes. Both NATO and the Pentagon have expressed concerns over whether there are ‘proper deconfliction procedures in place’.
In any event, we anticipate further such missile strikes as Russia continues its military campaign in Syria. We advise that these may come from other Russian naval assets in the region, including the Caspian and the Mediterranean. The Russian military has already demonstrated its willingness to use less precise munitions in aerial bombardments in Syria. We are presently evaluating whether Russia has the intent or capability to use higher altitude and less precise ballistic missiles against Islamic State and other targets in Syria and possibly even in Iraq.
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Image: Still of a Russian ship firing a cruise missile – Video from the Russian ministry of defence