Here’s how the Russian Air Force moved 28 aircraft to Syria (almost) undetected

An AN-124 Ruslan escorted by two Su-27s. (Image credit: Wiki)

It’s not easy to move 28 aircraft and keep the deployment confidential.

Satellite imagery released in the last couple of days has exposed the presence of 28 Russian aircraft at al-Assad airfield, near Latakia, in western Syria.

The photographs taken from space gave us the possibility to identify the combat planes as 4x Su-30SMs, 12x Su-25s (based on their color scheme, these are Su-25SMs belonging to the 368th Assault Aviation Regiment from Budyonnovsk) and 12 Su-24M2s along with about a dozen helicopters, including 10 Mi-24PN, Mi-35M and a couple of Mi-8AMTSh choppers, from the 387th Army Aviation Air Base Budyonnovsk.

One of our sources with IMINT Imagery Intel experience, who has had access to the imagery in the public domain, noticed something interesting on one of the Su-30SM: the first on the left (the one closer to the runway threshold) should be equipped with a KNIRTI SPS-171 / L005S Sorbtsiya-S mid/high band defensive jammer (ECM) at the wing tips. To be honest this is almost impossible to verify unless more high-resolution images become available.

Whilst satellite shots provided much details about the deployed assets, they obviously didn’t help answer the basic question: how did they manage to reach Syria undetected?

According to one source close who wishes to remain anonymous, the Russian combat planes have probably deployed to Latakia trailing the cargo planes that were tracked flying to Syria and back on, something that other analysts have also suggested.

There is someone who believes that during their ferry flight, some if not all the formation (each made of a cargo plane and four accompanying fast jets), may have made a stopover in Iran before flying the last leg to Latakia. This would also explain why some Il-76s (with an endurance that would allow a non-stop fly from Russia to Latakia) were observed stopping at Hamadan on Sept. 18-19, just before the Sukhois started appearing on the tarmac at Latakia.

Also interesting is the activity of several Israeli aircraft, including a G550 “Nachshon Aitam,” a sort of mini-AWACS equipped with 2 L-band antennas, on both sides of the fuselage, and 2 S-band antennas, on the nose and tail of the aircraft.

The G550, a so-called CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning) asset, flew a mission over the eastern Mediterranean Sea off Lebanon on Sept. 20 (and could be tracked online on…).  Just a coincidence?


Top image credit: Sergey Kustov via Wiki. Bottom image credit:


About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. It’s reassuring to know, thanks to that G550, that Israeli intelligence may have know about this covert ferrying operation in advance. It’s disturbing to think that the current U.S. administration may not have known or, worse still, may not care.

    • Do you expect USMIL forces in the region to publish such info right as they acquire it? Considering the amount of ISR/C4 assests in the region it is not difficult to assume that the USMIL was very aware of these movements.

    • I think they do care, which is why we are getting all these amazing updates about Russian activities. What the US, UK, Aus etc are up too – we have no idea exactly what assets are involved as we don’t get the same smashing satellite photos on this site.. Here we are getting a location, what end of the field they are and also details about the storage area and if its secured or not.

      1 thing i am curious about though. If the G550 has 2 LWB and 2 SWB radars, is it able to pick up an F35 which is invisible to SWB radar only?

    • we know everything. doesn’t mean we don’t care. what exactly would they be able to do? Intelligence gathering is the real war and on that front we cannot be touched.

    • the G550 was used to “shadow” the russian deployment, suck up ELINT and SIGINT but mainly confirm russian intensions. Israel conducts routine surveillance missions over lebanon to monitor the activities of Hezbollah.

      there is always strategic, tactic and capability surprise, mostly because the corrupting arrogance and complacency that “we know all because we are the worlds last superpower” … that russia would shore up Assad was expected after IS had gobbled up so much land mass and people. but i think russia and china want stability and a solution for syria that really works. bummer, that this solution is not the one the oil pipeline neocons want, or the saudis, the turks, even katar. but the civil war in syria cannot go on or europe (germany) will be flooded with more refugees than it can handle.

  2. More likely: every country in the region with advanced air defense radar clearly watched the Russian strike aircraft flying to Syria in normal fashion, and had no reason to “announce” it to the public.

    • Exactly, this is just a historical Russian deployment (first out of former USSR since Afghanistan) that happened in a very regular way. People are trying to mount it up with these claims about the need to keep cover (from what since wherever they flew they had authorization?) to deploy to Syria. This is not Top Gun or Tom Clancy, just the very boring and ordinary XXI century.

      • Not quite the first, Russian peacekeepers have been deployed under UN auspices to African countries, a Russian Army engineering contingent was sent to Lebanon in 2006 or so to rebuild bridges, and so on.

  3. Yet ISIS could drive around in convoys without getting hit by the US … but Russian planes are detected post haste!

  4. A couple of fairly minor points. First, since Russia flies Il-78 tankers, doesn’t it just make sense that on a long flight all the fighters are going to stay really close to it? Not to hide, but because it has all the extra fuel that they’re going to need to reach anywhere.

    Secondly, what happens on ATC radar when two aircraft get too close to each other? And don’t you think that fighters are going to be flying pretty close to each other and the tanker?

    They used to always have everyone but the tanker put their transponders in standby when we’d send a group of fighters out on a cross country. The tanker handled radio calls and the transponder for the entire group.

  5. Israel is Americas eyes and ears in the Middle East. Despite what the press prints, demonizing The Jewish State to appease the rowdy left wing rabble,the US Armed Forces use the IDF as a strong, main military partner in the area. I believe the alliance is very strong although somewhat covert as not to enrage some at home and abroad.

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