A year and a half ago, we reported that the Syrian government was using a modified L-39 training jet in a ground attack role.
The L-39ZA aircraft is an upgraded variant for light ground attack. It carries a GsH-23L 23mm twin canon with 150 rounds and outer pylons that can carry air-to-air missiles and ground attack munitions. It can carry almost 3,000 lbs. of munitions, which is very little.
Now, the Times of Israel is reporting, from a rebel video published on YouTube, that the Syrian rebels have seized their own L39s and are using them in attack roles as well. The video has since been made private.
The use of L-39s — on either side of the ongoing Syrian Civil War — is extremely telling. First, it clearly illustrates that that most of the advanced, extremely well-armed Cold War Era Soviet MiGs and Suhkoi jets that Syria possesses are most likely not airworthy. Syria has a lot of former Soviet air power, including the MiG-23, MiG-21, Su-24, and Su-17 for ground attack, and advanced fighters like the MiG-25 interceptor and MiG-29 air superiority fighter. The fighters have not been seen at all in the war, and the attack planes have only been seen sporadically. Second, the use of the L-39 may speak to the quality of pilots available on both sides of the war.
The L-39 is, by its nature, a training jet. The Czech-made plane is much easier to use and costs much less to repair and maintain than the bulkier, older Soviet planes. The L-39 would be much easier for inexperienced rebel and government pilots to operate.
But there is danger here, on both sides. The L-39 is not built to be defensive, at all. It can be shot down with shoulder-mounted missiles with even rudimentary radar-guidance. It looks like a tractor-trailer truck on radar — not meant to be stealthy. The plane does not have the durability of a well-maintained MiG or Sukhoi. It simply can’t take the punishment.
The use of old Mi-8 and Mi-17 attack helicopters and training jets as the primary airborne weapons of the war certainly has contributed to the high aerial combat losses seen over the past two years. We are not seeing a “clean” air war that Americans are used to from the first Gulf War in the 1990s.