In discussing a potential future conflict between Russia or China and America, I often point out the importance of the human factor. Wars are not fought by weapon systems, but they are used by soldiers under stressful combat conditions as part of a strategy created by higher ranked soldiers. And on this front, there are still significant questions about the capabilities of both Russian and Chinese soldiers. Raising further questions is an article of a Russian official blaming a missile failure because of the Syrian Desert.
Head of Russia’s Tactical Missile Corporation, Boris Obsonov said that Russia’s missiles failed in Syria because of unique desert conditions. While promising that the missile would work under “ideal circumstances,” he pointed out that there are no test ranges in Russia that simulate a warm desert that creates hazes, dust storms, and other factors that lessen the ability to target.
This is important for two reasons. First, the Russians are gaining valuable experience fighting in Syria. Their pilots are conducting sorties under combat conditions, and they are honing the use of technologies like smart bombs and laser-guided missiles as well. Though, they are still catching up to the United States who factors in these problems after on-and-off combat in desert conditions for the last 30 years.
But there are still mitigating factors that suggest Russia still hasn’t gotten the experience they need. War is never an “ideal experience” and there is always lots of dust, haze, fog, and smoke when people are shooting and launching missiles at you. This becomes evidence that Russia’s new systems won’t be able to perform in combat conditions. On top of literal fog and haze, there is the figurative fog of war that represents the stress and confusion that makes it hard to perform in combat conditions. If soldiers can’t use these systems in what is essentially semi combat and practice conditions against ISIS and rebel forces who lack countermeasures, it suggests they will have a difficult time in the case of actual war against a near peer adversary like the United States.
Diving a little deeper, Russian forces have more serious problems than a missile that fails in the desert. They have an aging population and limited economy that has difficulty funding normal business whenever the price of oil falls, which suggests they have little staying power in a major war. Russia has modernized some elements of its army, but the bulk of its soldiers, about two-thirds, are under-trained, under-paid, and ill-equipped. Soldiers are reported to defect, and in the past they sold weapons on the black market to supplement their incomes. The operations in Syria revealed “systematic” technical problems with many of the systems they have upgraded, including the Cobra attack helicopter. And their advanced Armata tanks have significant production problems as well. (Maybe it can take the F-35 out to dinner and compare notes on their dysfunction.)
We should study and assess every new weapon system. But we should also avoid fearmongering over every new weapon system. People fight wars and a weapon that wasn’t tested properly and then fails in a new climate shouldn’t be the highest concern. This is something to keep in mind every time you read a new fearmongering article with a clickbait title.