Recently released satellite images of the airfield Russia uses in Syria suggest that a contingent of jets from Russia’s lone aircraft carrier, which is floating off Syria’s coast, have been moved inland.
The pictures taken Nov. 20 and released to the defense analysis company IHS Janes, show nine jets adjacent to the tarmac at Khmeimim air base in northern Syria. They are the same types as those flown off the Admiral Kuznetsov, an aging, Soviet-era heavy-aircraft-carrying missile cruiser that began launching jets into Syrian airspace earlier this month.
If confirmed, the transfer of the aircraft from ship to shore is just one more wrinkle in the Kuznetsov’s very public insertion into the Syria campaign, an action that began in October when the 1,000-foot hulk steamed through the English Channel on its way to Syria and continued earlier this month when a carrier-based jet crashed into the Mediterranean before landing.
Critics have derided the Kutznetsov — with its myriad mechanical problems and propensity to belch black smoke — for being nothing more than a propaganda tool for the Kremlin. Others point to the Soviet-era ship and its small detachment of trained pilots and aircraft as a modest attempt to field a maritime task force capable — at least on some levels — of mimicking its U.S. supercarrier counterparts.
The nine aircraft in the satellite images include eight Russian navy Su-33s and one MiG-29K, parked alongside Russia’s normal array of Su-34s, Su-35s and Su-24s. When Russia began its air campaign in Syria, about a dozen Su-25 ground-attack jets were stationed at Khmeimim but returned to Russia following President Vladimir Putin’s March announcement that he was withdrawing some of his forces.
On Nov. 14, a Russian Mig-29K from the Kuznetsov crashed in the Mediterranean. Citing the Russian news outlet Gazeta, IHS reported that the crash was the result of a problem with one of the Kuznetsov’s arrestor cables, forcing the jet to circle the carrier. Arrestor cables are spread across the flight decks of aircraft carriers to catch jets as they land at high speeds, and unlike U.S. carriers, the Kuznetsov does not have a catapult to launch its aircraft; it relies on a ramped deck to help get the jets aloft.
While in its holding pattern, the MiG’s engines failed and the jet went down several miles from the carrier. The pilot, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense, was recovered without incident. Despite the Nov. 14 crash, the Russian Interfax news agency reported that the Kuznetsov was participating in strikes in Syria the next day, as Russian and Syrian government forces began their renewed blitz on eastern Aleppo. The Kuznetsov first deployed with about 20 fighters aboard — a mixture of Su-33s and a small number of Mig-29Ks — as well as a number of helicopters that provide search-and-rescue capabilities and air traffic control.
The MiG-29K is a multi-role fighter capable of attacking both targets in the air and on the ground, and is a newer, carrier-based variant of the traditional MiG-29. The Su-33, on the other hand, is designed to primarily go after other fighters. Videos posted on social media have shown both aircraft in the skies over Syria.