Syria’s Most Dangerous Strike Fighter Squadron: The Role of T4 Base’s Su-24M2 Jets in Damascus Defence

As a leading client for Soviet combat aircraft during the Cold War, the Syrian Arab Air Force was prioritised by Moscow for delivery of sophisticated aerial warfare systems due to its strategic frontline position against both the United States, which it clashed with in neighbouring Lebanon, as well as with U.S. allies Turkey and Israel. The country was the first in the world to receive MiG-23 third generation fighters and S-200 long range air defence systems from the USSR, as well as one of the first two to field MiG-25 heavyweight interceptors intended to counter the F-15 Eagle fighters the U.S. was supplying to the Israeli Air Force. Syria began to receive its first fourth generation combat jets in the late 1980s, namely MiG-29 medium weight fighters of which 80 were expected to be received by the mid-1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, prevented large scale MiG-29 acquisitions with less than half the originally planned numbers being delivered. Alongside the MiG-29, the Syrian Arab Air Force acquired Su-24 strike fighters from the Soviet Union in 1990 with 22 Su-24MK jets delivered. These were heavier and had considerably longer ranges than the MiGs, and complemented the MiGs' specialisation in air to air combat by providing the Syrian fleet with an advanced precision strike capability against ground targets. 

Like the MiG-29, the enlargement of the Su-24M fleet halted after the USSR collapsed making the airframes delivered before 1991 highly prized. After Syria supported Libyan efforts to maintain its own Su-24 fleet, with post-Soviet Russia cutting off parts to the African state under Western pressure, the Syrian Air Force received two more fighters as aid from Libya. Su-24s were based at T4 Airbase in central Syria, and allowed the Syrian Air Force to strike targets across much of the Middle East and beyond. As Syria’s conventional forces deteriorated in the 1990s, and Soviet support and protection were lost, development of a viable asymmetric deterrent force which could ensure the country’s sovereignty became a priority with the Su-24 unit playing an important role alongside a growing arsenal of North Korean supplied ballistic missiles. The Su-24 unit were modernised to the Su-24M2 standard from 2010 improving availability, maintainability and combat effectiveness, with modernisation receiving continued funding despite the outbreak of a major Islamist insurgency in 2011. This reflected the continued importance attributed to the squadron. 

Su-24s became particularly useful as Syria faced the threat of a large scale NATO military intervention in support of insurgents particularly from 2013, providing a means of retaliating against key Western and Turkish targets to complement its ballistic missile and chemical weapons arsenals in deterring aggression. That year, in the face of British, French, Turkish and U.S. threats to attack, the Syrian Air Force flew Su-24Ms over the Mediterranean Sea to simulate strikes on British military facilities in Cyprus. This demonstrated an ability to respond to strikes without the need to escalate to using ballistic missiles. Su-24s were also used to extensively probe Turkish defences that year as the Turkish military increased violations of Syrian borders and airspace with massive support for insurgents and embedding of officers among their units as advisors. Syria’s Su-24 unit appears to maintain one of the highest levels of operational readiness in the country’s fleet, although the primary focus of the country’s air force has increasingly shifted towards air defence as insurgency in the country has largely been defeated and the primary threat has increasingly come from Turkish and Israeli attacks. 

With Russia investing in supporting the rebuilding of the Syrian Air Force, including provision of new MiG-29SMT fighters as aid in 2020 and beginning of joint exercises simulating air to air engagements in January 2022, the possibility of eventual Russian support to modernise the strike fighter fleet cannot be ruled out. This could include integration of new armaments and avionics onto the existing unit, supplies of retired Russian Su-24s to enlarge the fleet, or possibly eventually provision of the more advanced Su-34 which is notably significantly cheaper to operate and has a far superior performance. Should Syria’s economy make a smother recovery, despite severe Western economic sanctions, past trends indicate that modernisation of the strike fighter fleet including with a possible Su-34 acquisition remain possibly near the end of the decade.  

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