Russian Military Used Syria War to Train Forces and Learn U.S. Combat Moves, Says General

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a ceremony bestowing state awards on military personnel who fought in Syria, at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 28, 2017. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Russian has used the war in Syria to train scores of its servicemen and to pick up valuable glimpses of the United States' own tricks and tactics on the battlefield, a top Air Force intelligence general said.

Moscow launched an aerial campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, and though the operation's targets overlapped with those of the U.S.-led coalition at times, the two have had several tense standoffs. The latest close encounter between U.S. and Russian jets came last month, when a U.S. spy aircraft had to fire flares in a bid to avoid collision with incoming Russian Su-25 fighter jets.

Those encounters, and the tense coexistence of the competing forces in Syria, have given Moscow the opportunity to get well informed about how U.S. forces operate, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for intelligence Lieutenant General VeraLinn "Dash" Jamieson said.

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"In the skies over Syria, it's really just been a treasure trove for them to see how we operate," Jamieson told congressional staffers and reporters on Thursday during an Air Force Association briefing in Washington, D.C., according to the armed forces news site Military.

Changes in Russian operations include the first-time frontline use of more high-end technologies, such as precision-guided munitions and long-range bombers on deployments "18 to 24 hours long," according to Jamieson. The shift comes "because our adversaries are watching us, they're learning from us," she said.

That is not to say Russian operations are close to identical to U.S. tactics. But it is all part of a war effort far from national borders that U.S. forces are familiar with but is a first for post-Soviet Russia.

"They have conducted really what I would characterize as their first 'away-game' operations in a complete and continuous deployment arena," Jamieson said. Fighting with a full array of air forces, Navy and ground troops in an alliance with Syria and Iran, Russia's joint environment "wasn't as integrated as we operate…[but] it is a change for them," she stressed.

The number of staff and units drafted into Russia's deployment over the last two and a half years also shows that Moscow is using Syria as a "testing ground" for new martial techniques.

"By their own account, Russia has cycled nearly 85 percent of all line-unit aircrew from across their air force into combat operations" in Syria, said Jamieson. "One of the things they learned from us was, 'It's one thing to be in an exercise and train. It's a whole other thing to be in combat and face an adversary and threat.' And they wanted to test that out. Not just for the few, but for the majority of their line aircraft and pilots."

Russia's Chief of General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov suggested as much in an interview with pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda last month, but did not credit the U.S. for inspiring any part of the effort.

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"We practically had no experience of deploying the army and the armed forces at such a distance, on the territory of a country that does not border with our country," Gerasimov said, casting his mind back to the start of the operation. "There was only one example in 1962," he added, referring to Soviet troop deployments to Cuba.

Through the course of the intervention, the command of 90 percent of divisions and over half of brigades and regiments underwent battle-testing. A plan consisting of three-month rotation deployments for units ensured that Moscow would provide real battlefield experience to "test" the mettle of some forces and, above all, the top brass.

"That is what we did, and not only [with] servicemen. The main thing was to test the commanders, the officers," Gerasimov said. "We had all the commanders of the military districts spend quite a long time there." The majority of Russia's armed forces is divided into four geographic military districts, whose commanders answer to Moscow. All those top officers spent "quite a while" in Syria at some point or another, Gerasimov said.

Russian defense officials have repeatedly boasted that hundreds of its new items of military kit and engineering have been tested in Syria, with the Kremlin maintaining that the reason for the intervention was to combat extremists such as the Islamic State militant group.