The jets arrived at a new Russian airfield in the coastal province of Latakia, according to a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the information. The drones, he added, were roughly the size of U.S. Predators. In recent days, there were unconfirmed reports of additional aircraft arriving.
In addition to the fixed-wing aircraft, there are also 14 helicopters — Mi-24 Hind gunships and Mi-17 Hip transport helicopters — and a number of SA-22 surface-to-air missile systems, the official said. While there have been reports of Russian SA-10 Grumble (also known as S-300) surface-to-air missile systems being moved into the country, there was no indication of their presence at this time, the official said.
Russia has longstanding ties with President Bashar al-Assad’s government and has maintained a warm-water docking area in Tartus. Earlier this month, however, Russia began new construction at the Assad International Airport in Latakia, and soon after, satellite imagery confirmed the presence of Russian T-90 tanks, artillery and large transport aircraft at the airfield.
The Kremlin has pledged to support Assad, who has lost ground in recent months, but it has also voiced a desire to target the Islamic State.
Of the 28 Russian jets, four are believed to be SU-30 Flankers, while the rest are SU-24 Fencers and SU-25 Frogfoots — about a dozen of each.
The 24 Fencers and Frogfoots provide some indication of what type of operations Russia could conduct out of its revamped airfield: close air support.
“In terms of an air to ground fight and the threat on the ground posed by [Islamic State] and anti-Assad forces, they’re very capable platforms,” said a Marine close air support pilot who declined to be named because of his active duty status.
Both Fencers and Frogfoots are jets that fly “low and slow,” much like the United States’ vaunted A-10 Thunderbolt. According to the pilot, the Fencers and Frogfoots both excel in low-threat environments.
During the war in Ukraine last year, the Ukrainian Air Force lost multiple SU-25s to ground fire and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, known as MANPADS, fired by Russian-backed separatists.
Like the separatists, Islamic State fighters and anti-Assad fighters have been spotted with relatively sophisticated MANPADS, such as the Chinese FN-6 and Russian SA-16.
While fighters on the ground might pose a threat to the SU-24s and SU-25s, the Russian SU-30s are a “game changer” to U.S. forces flying in Syria, according to the pilot.
“The SU-30 is the equivalent to a U.S. F-18; it’s multi-role,” the pilot said, referring to the equal abilities the SU-30 has when it comes to attacking both air and ground targets. “If the Russians are going to support the war against [the Islamic State], it’s a great platform, and if they’re going to start trouble with [the United States] it’s a great platform for that, too.”
While there have been no concrete plans announced to make sure Russian and U.S. flights do not cross paths, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter spoke to his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, on Friday about future operations in the region.