An excellent, astute observation of this “over the bow” missile launch by Russia into Iran.
The real headline: Russians buy air space with cruise missile demo, as U.S. forces retreat
The Pentagon released information Thursday that some of the cruise missiles launched by Russian warships into Syria the day before (Wednesday, 7 October) had crashed in Iran, instead of making it to their targets. The missiles were launched from the Caspian Sea, between Iran and southern Russia.
The global audience was apt to note the point that four of the 26 missiles launched by Russia crashed. But the more important point is that Russia launched the missiles in the first place.
The question is why. The answer is not darkly nefarious (not particularly, anyway), but it’s not obvious from the standpoint of tactical military operations either.
The Syria situation
The stage can be set with the background that Russia, the Syrian regime forces, and Iranian forces deployed to Syria started a major offensive against rebel groups this week. The strongest push appears to be in the major north-south line of communication (LOC) between Aleppo and Homs, anchored by Idlib and Hama. This area has little to no Islamic State (ISIS) presence. The rebels under attack there belong to the Free Syrian Army, the Al-Nusra Front, and other minor groups.
It looks to me like Russia launched the cruise missiles for two reasons. One was to demonstrate that she can. Basically, Russia was showing off. (I imagine there was an element of “proof of concept” in the missile barrage as well. But the self-propelled media fanfare that followed the event was a lot of regime showmanship.)
Russia lays groundwork to expand the theater
But the other was to demonstrate that Moscow has permission from Baghdad to use what is still formally Iraqi air space. There’s no real question that the Iranians will allow Russian missiles to go through their air space. But Iraq still has a pro forma tether to the U.S. regarding national defense – and is hosting a big concentration of U.S. forces, including strike-fighters, in the northern Iraqi-Kurdish enclave of Irbil, which lies in the path of Russia missiles coming from the Caspian. (See Map 2 for the discussion here.)
This concentration of U.S. forces would also lie in the path of bombers coming from southern Russia – or airborne early-warning and command/control aircraft, for that matter.
If Russia wants to be able to “fight the whole air space” – all the way from southern Russia to Syria – she needs to neutralize the potential spoiler represented by the U.S. presence in northern Iraq. Russia also needs to eliminate the inconvenience of “sneaking” tactical aircraft into Syria as she did in the days before the ground offensive started. Operationally, it’s very limiting to employ only aircraft that are actually based in Syria. Russia would prefer to have the option the U.S. has to operate from neighboring territory.