Will Saudi jets change balance of power in Syria?

Deployment of kingdom’s air force has important implications for the coalition’s abilities in Syria.

Saudi soldiers
Saudi soldiers fire artillery towards three armed vehicles approaching the border with Yemen [File:Hasan Jamali/AP]

A surprise announcement this weekend accompanied the tentative truce proposals for Syria which were unveiled at the annual Munich Security Conference.

Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign affairs minister, announced on Saturday that Saudi Arabia would deploy fighter aircraft to Incirlik airbase, only 70 miles from the Syrian border.

On the face of it, this represents little more than Saudi Arabia attempting to demonstrate its dissatisfaction with any idea that President Bashar al Assad might be allowed to remain in power through a US-Russian negotiated peace settlement.

However, since Incirlik is only 100 miles from Latakia air base where Russia has based its attack and fighter aircraft in Syria, and is the main base from which Turkish aircraft operate in their continued airspace standoff with Russian interceptors, the Saudi deployment has important implications for the way in which coalition aircraft operate over northern Syria.


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Saudi Arabia has the choice to deploy a mix of ageing British made Tornado IDS bombers, modernised American made F-15SA fighter bombers and its newest aircraft; the air superiority focused Eurofighter Typhoon.

Reports suggest that several F-15SA aircraft have arrived in Incirlik, with more likely to follow.

The deployment of these modern and highly capable aircraft has important implications for the capability of coalition aircraft which might cross paths with Russian aircraft and defence systems in northern Syria.

The F-15SA is a twin-seat, long-range and extremely fast fighter bomber.

It is a version of the American F-15E Strike Eagle, which was itself based on the hugely successful F-15C/D fighter which formed the backbone of USAF air superiority capabilities throughout the late Cold War and still plays a key role supporting the stealthy F-22 Raptor in that role today.

The Royal Saudi Air Force’s F-15SA models are the most advanced F-15s currently deployed by any air force and can employ a wide variety of precision guided munitions such as JDAM and Paveway-series GPS/laser guided bombs, SLAM-ER cruise missile, Harpoon anti-ship missile and AGM-88B HARM anti-radar/air defences missile.

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It also has significantly greater air superiority capabilities than the F-16 multi-role fighters which make up Turkey’s own large fighter fleet.

The F-15SA can carry up to eight AIM-120C/7 AMRAAM missiles if required, guided by a modern and extremely potent APG-63(v)3 Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar, which can track multiple targets at once at very long range while remaining difficult to detect itself.

It is also equipped with up to eight of the latest AIM-9X Sidewinder short-range, dogfighting missiles and Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing Systems which allow the F-15SA pilot to lock on to enemy aircraft at extreme angles simply by looking at them.

Coupled with the high thrust-to-weight ratio of the basic F-15 airframe, these capabilities make the F-15SA a very potent match for even the most modern Russian Su-35S air superiority fighters which were deployed to Latakia to intimidate Turkey and further complicate NATO operations in Syria at the beginning of February.


Saudi Arabia could also chose to deploy its Typhoon aircraft which are at least as capable in the air superiority role, and have previously performed well in RSAF service dropping the extremely accurate British-made Paveway IV bomb against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant targets in Iraq.

Of course, aircraft capable of confronting potential Russian provocations over Syria are already in the region.

The USAF already has small numbers of the unrivalled F-22 Raptor, France has deployed its formidable Rafale, and the RAF has deployed six Typhoons to assist in strike operations against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

However, none of these nations is likely to risk any kind of incident with Russian aircraft at this stage, especially after the Turkish shooting down of a Russian Su-24 attack jet in November 2015.

As a result, the deployment of Russian air superiority aircraft and at least part of the extremely powerful and long ranged S-400 surface-to-air missile system at Latakia since the November shooting down have created an area in northwestern Syria which NATO aircraft avoid where possible.

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The Turkish air force, potentially an extremely powerful weapon against ISIL, would risk a highly dangerous confrontation if they enter Syrian airspace anywhere near Russian aircraft, as the Kremlin has repeatedly made clear.

This is what the Saudi F-15SA deployment may well change.

Firstly, the ongoing air campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen has shown that Riyadh is willing to employ air power on a large scale despite uncertain prospects for success and international controversy.


Furthermore, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are determined that there will be no peace settlement in Syria which includes President Assad remaining in power.

Russia has currently created a situation in which the military balance of power in Syria favours the regime.

Where U.S., British, French and Turkish warplanes will not or cannot risk striking, modern and powerful Saudi F-15SAs may well prove a potent force.

Riyadh is clearly determined to change the direction of events in Syria and the Kremlin values relations with the kingdom to a certain degree.

As a result, and the fact that Saudi aircraft are at least a match for its own, Russia may be forced to leave the Saudi contingent unmolested to conduct strikes against ISIL in areas of northern Syria where rebel forces are the main beneficiaries.

Of course, all this is unlikely to prove conducive to a ceasefire that has any lasting effect in Syria.

It is also likely to inflame tensions between Russia and Iran, who support Assad, and the international coalition which is focused on ISIL, but also eager to see the man responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties in Syria’s war removed from power as soon as possible.

Justin Bronk is a Research Analyst in Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera