Russian President Vladimir Putin has thrust a much-modernized air force into the civil war in Syria, but the U.S. military says his bombers still drop mostly gravity “dumb” bombs as the West accuses Moscow of indiscriminately killing rebels and civilians alike around strategic cities such as Aleppo.
“This is not the Soviet air force in Afghanistan or the Russian air force in Georgia, but a very modernized force capable of precision attacks upon selected targets using both conventional and nuclear weapons,” said Jacob W. Kipp, a Russian military analyst, referring to spotty performance in past conflicts.
But in the age of precision bombing, even as Mr. Putin sends to Syria new, maneuverable Sukhoi-class jet fighters, Russia is running an air campaign of a past era — dropping tons of iron bombs.
Russian media contend that gravity bombs, guided by computerized systems, can be just an accurate as those directed by a GPS system, a laser or TV optics.
The U.S. military and human rights groups scoff at the assertion. They point to the rubble of northwestern Syria after Russian and Syrian bombers pass. Amnesty International charges that Mr. Putin is violating international treaties that ban purposeful bombings of civilians and says he may be guilty of war crimes.
“They’re using mostly dumb bombs, guided only by gravity and fins,” Army Col. Steven Warren, the top military spokesman in Baghdad, told The Washington Times.
“No way to know for sure if every single bomb they drop is a dumb bomb or if they’re mixing in guided munitions as well,” he said. “We’re assessing based on the results, which don’t show much precision.”
Those results are bombed-out homes, schools and clinics as Mr. Putin tries to destroy all enemies of his ally and host — the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Col. Warren told reporters last week: “We all saw the reports of continued indiscriminate bombing by Russian and regime forces, and even the use of barrel bombs. We also saw the reports of two hospitals and a school in northern Syria being struck. This reckless disregard for civilian casualties only complicates the situation and prolongs human suffering.”
In contrast, the U.S. is taking the high ground. It says it meticulously chooses and hits Islamic State targets. In fact, air planners are so cautious that air war analysts argue that U.S. Central Command is being too nice by, for example, continuing to let terrorists operate in their proclaimed capital of Raqqa, Syria.
“When conducting our operations, the U.S. military goes to extraordinary lengths to limit the risk of civilian casualties, and in our campaign to defeat ISIL we will continue to do so,” said Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook, referring to the Islamic State.
The U.S. command exclusively uses precision-guided munitions, such as satellite-guided bombs and missiles, and ordnance directed remotely by a pilot flying a drone.
“Jihadi John,” the infamous Londoner turned Islamic State executioner, was assassinated this way as he sat in a car in Raqqa. Recent bomb-camera footage shows the U.S. striking Islamic State cash centers — the money used to pay foreign fighters — in Islamic State-occupied Mosul, Iraq, while leaving adjoining structures standing.
“We’re able to do very precise weaponeering in order to strike and then also minimize civilian casualty,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Brown, the U.S.-led coalition’s top air commander.
‘Dumb’ bombs vs. ‘smart bombs’
Not so the Russians since they answered Mr. Assad’s call for help in September, greatly altering the war’s course. Mr. Assad’s days seemed numbered. Now, U.S. intelligence thinks his rule could last for the foreseeable future.
Aviation analysts say only Russia’s newer Su-30s jets have the capability to drop precision-guided “smart” bombs. But the workhorses in this war are Su-24s, which have been seen in Syria toting “dumb” gravity bombs for delivery.
Mr. Kipp, a former director of Fort Leavenworth’s Foreign Military Studies Office, said Mr. Putin is not following U.S. air power strategy. Instead he is using the same type of brutal campaign the Russians unleashed on Chechen separatists and the capital of Grozny in 1999.
“Dumb bombs were very effective, along with mass artillery,” Mr. Kipp said.
Explaining the Putin way of war, he added: “Precision weapons have a higher cost and should be used against high-value targets, especially leadership positions and high-value fixed infrastructure. In the absence of effective air defense systems, regular gravity bombs are particularly useful in urban warfare where the objective is to break the relationship between the civilian population and opposing military force on the ground.”
The battleground today pits an alliance of state actors — Syrian troops, Russian forces, Lebanese Hezbollah militias and Iranian units — against a hodgepodge of rebels “with no effective unified force at their command,” Mr. Kipp said.
Amnesty International said in a December report that Russia is recklessly bombing civilians.
“In some attacks, the Russian armed forces appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military objective and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians,” the human rights group said. “In others, they seem to have attacked military objectives and civilian objects without distinction, or caused disproportionate harm to civilians when striking military targets. Such attacks may constitute war crimes.”
“There is also evidence that they unlawfully used unguided bombs in densely populated areas and inherently indiscriminate cluster munitions,” it added.
Last week, bombs hit two hospitals, refugee centers and a school in northwestern Syria, killing scores of civilians.
“There’s only two people that were flying in that area, the Russians and the Syrians, because we don’t fly there,” Gen. Brown told reporters at the Pentagon. “And if I was putting money on it, because the Russians are flying much more than the Syrians, it’s probably the Russians.”
The Russian military has argued that its SVP-24 bomb navigation system makes “dumb” bombs just as accurate as “smart” munitions.
The Times contacted a renowned aviation analyst. “There is no evidence to support the proposition that Russians can drop dumb munitions any more accurately than Western air forces,” said the analyst, who asked not be identified because of the sensitive nature of data he collects.
This analyst referred to the “ugly appearance” of Russian weapons designated FAB-100 and FAB-250, which are “dumb” general-purpose bombs.
Although Moscow claims it is bombing Islamic State targets, the U.S. said the lion’s share of tonnage is dropped on rebel groups opposed to Mr. Assad.
The U.S. says its air campaign is strictly aimed at the Islamic State.