Let the Skyfall: Radioactive Explosion in Russia Likely Connected to SSC-X-9 Missile Test

Russia’s secretive radioactive explosion is linked to the testing of a nuclear-powered unlimited-range cruise missile. 1. On August 8, 2019, around 9 AM local time, an explosion occurred on an…

U.S.-led Coalition & SDF Terminate ISIS’ Physical Caliphate, COINOPS to Follow

On March 23, 2019 the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the liberation of Baghuz al-Fawqani, the “Islamic State of Syria and Iraq’s” (ISIS/Da’esh) last stronghold in Syria’s Mid-Euphrates River Valley…

Syrian S-300 Ready to Use?

Syria’s S-300PM2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system (NATO reporting name: SA20-B Gargoyle) has likely achieved initial operational capability (IOC) or is about to achieve IOC by May/June 2019. In response to…

IS-K Diverted from Nangarhar Province, Takes Korengal Valley from Taliban (COIN/OPS-BRIEF)

As key IS-K territories are under pressure by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the rival Taliban, the group is seeking to capture new high-ground sanctuaries on…

The Ayatollah’s Shield: SAM Deployments and Capabilities of the Iranian Air Defenses (IMINT)

1. Over the last years, Iran has visibly improved its air defense (AD) systems by phasing in modern indigenous surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. The Iranian SAM deployments primarily safeguard the…

Why Romania’s Defense Procurement Matters for NATO (and Should Worry Russia)

In 2017, Romania initiated a visionary defence procurement program that will reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank and make the Romanian military a leading force in the Black Sea by the early 2020s….

Hunting AQAP in Yemen: Joint UAE-US Special Operations Base in Mukalla (IMINT)

(1) The number of U.S. operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has drastically increased under the Trump administration. The U.S. has established its primary base of operations in…

A Week in Missile Tests: Russia, North Korea and the US

The Russian Federation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or “North Korea”) and the United States have each conducted major ballistic missile (BM) tests in the span of only…

The Russian Federation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or “North Korea”) and the United States have each conducted major ballistic missile (BM) tests in the span of only a few days between September 30 and October 2, 2019. 


RUSSIA: TOPOL-M/ SS-27 “SICKLE B”

The Russian Strategic Missile Forces test-launched a RT-2MP2 Topol-M (NATO reporting name: SS-27 “Sickle B”) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from a spaceport silo in Plesetsk on November 30, 2019. The ICBM landed 6000 km away in an undisclosed location on the Kamchatka peninsula. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the test fire confirmed the technical readiness of the Topol-M ICBM. 




Commissioned in 1997, the Topol-M is a three stage, solid fuel ICBM with a maximum operational range of 10,000 kilometers. Bearing similarity with the American Minuteman III ICBM, the Topol-M has a single, 500 kiloton-yield warhead. As a ground-launch system, the Topol can be fired from both reinforced missile silos and a mobile transporter erector launcher (i.e. MZKT-79221 “Universal” 8×8). 

Flight path of Topol-M/ SS-27 “Sickle-B” ICBM during the November, 30 2019 test (T-Intelligence)

Experts believe that the Topol-M has formidable evasive features that significantly increase the missile’s survivability against modern anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems. 

  • Short boost phase: Minimizes launch footprint and complicates early-warning threat acquisition. 
  • Flat ballistic trajectory: Complicates ABM interception. 
  • Maneuverable and enforced reentry vehicle (RV): Complicates ABM interception in terminal phase due to unpredictable attack path and renders the RV immune to radio, electromagnetic or physical disturbance. 
  • Countermeasures and decoys: Significant decrease in successful interception, as the vast majority of ABM system are unable to discriminate between targets. 

The Kremlin aims to augment its current nuclear ICBM capability through the phased deployment of the RS-24 “Yars” (referred to as the SS-27 Mod. B or SS-29), which contains multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) as opposed to the single-warhead Topol-M. The RS-24 is believed to be capable of a larger kilotone capacity and extended engagement range. 

In addition, Russia is developing a replacement for its obsolete R-36 ICBM, called the RS-28 Sarmat (NATO Reporting name: SS-X-30 Satan II). One “Satan II” ICBM is believed to be able to launch a combination of 10 to 15 MIRVs consisting of conventional nuclear warheads and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV), including the Avangard. 


DPRK: PUKUGUKSONG-3 

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) test-fired a previously unidentified submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) off Woffsan, on October 1, 2019. The SLBM was identified as the Pukuguksong-3 by the state-controlled media. 

Pukuguksong-3 launched from a submerged platform or submarine courtesy of North Korea state media

According to the Republic of Korea’s (ROK or South Korea) Joint Chiefs of Staff, who constantly monitor DPRK missile tests, the Pukuguksong-3 flew about 450 km on an eastward trajectory and reached an apogee of 910 kilometers. The SLBM landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the East Sea. 

Flight path of DPRK’s Pukuguksong-3 SLBM during the October 1, 2019 test (T-Intelligence)

Earlier in July, the DPRK revealed that the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) is developing an another indigenous diesel-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSB) in addition to the existing Sinpo-class SSB (also known as “Gorae”-class) that was deployed in 2014. The new SSB appears to be a modified version of the Russian-made Project 663 submarine (NATO reporting name Romeo-class), with a significantly larger and wider sail to accommodate one solid-fuel Pukuguksong-3 SLBM. The new submarine is expected to enter service in the Sea of Japan soon, according to DPRK-owned media. 

Kim Jong-Un inspect DPRK’s newest ballistic missile submarine. In order to conceal technical details, North Korea censored blurred the upper side of the submarine.



Washington has been aware of this new North Korean submarine for more than a year, a senior US official told CNN. Despite the KPN’s recent development of new subsurface capabilities, Seoul assessed that the Pukuguksong-3 was test-fired from a submerged launching platform instead of a submarine. However, the successful testing of the Pukuguksong-3 and the constant advancements in SSB technology show that the DPRK is pursuing a credible (nuclear) second strike capability that is more elusive and difficult to track than land-based systems. While neither of KPN’s nuclear-capable submarines can threaten the US western seaboard, they would represent a force multiplier when it comes to overwhelming ROK, Japanese, and even American (in Guam) ABM defense systems. 


US: MINUTEMAN III

The U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command successfully test-fired a Minuteman III ICBM from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, at 1:13 AM, October 2, 2019. The Minuteman’s RV traveled 6,760 km to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. 

Despite the “chain” of missile tests by Russia and the DPRK, the US Air Force (USAF) clarified that the test launch was not in connection to “world events” or “regional tensions.” In fact, the USAF tests its Minuteman III arsenal once or twice every year to ensure that the ICBMs are functional to fulfill their role for nuclear deterrence. The recent test was planned and organized six months to a year in advance. 

Flight path of Minuteman III ICBM during the October 2, 2019 test

Ever since the early 1960s, the Minuteman family of missiles has served as the backbone component of US nuclear capability. Starting with 2014, the Minuteman III became the sole American land-based nuclear system. With a maximum range of 13,000 km, the Minuteman III can carry three RV with a combined payload of 350 kiloton. However, under the New START treaty, the US and Russia modified their ICBM arsenal to carry only one warhead per missile. 

The 50-years-old Minuteman III will continue to serve as America’s premier land-based nuclear capability until the mid-2030s, when the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (next-generation ICBM) will be deployed. 

 

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This is How Iran Bombed Saudi Arabia [PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENT]

American and Saudi investigators have concluded that the air attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais petrochemical facilities originated directly from Iran – not Yemen or Iraq – sources say.  The…

American and Saudi investigators have concluded that the air attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais petrochemical facilities originated directly from Iran – not Yemen or Iraq – sources say

The cruise missile and/or drone attack was likely staged from Iran’s Khuzestan province. As unidentified flying objects (UFOs) were spotted in Kuwait just before the attack, the kinetic platforms likely avoided the Persian Gulf, which is heavily monitored by the US Navy, and exploited a gap in Saudi Arabia’s SAM deployments. As PATRIOT radars (MPQ-53/65) have a 120 degree coverage (not 360 degrees), they were likely pointed towards the southwest and east to cover threats from Yemen and the Persian Gulf, leaving the northern approach largely exposed. When the (presumed) low-flying, slow moving and small RCS (radar cross-section) kinetic platforms entered “denied airspace” at the envelope edge of Saudi air defense systems, it was too late for the PATRIOTs detect the threat and react. 

Hypothetical path of Iranian air attack on Saudi oil facilities, visualized by T-Intelligence.

Even if the MPQ-53/65 radars were pointed northwards, the PATRIOT is inadequate to intercept small drones and tactical missiles, as it is primarily an anti-aircraft and (secondary) ballistic missile defense system. Modern short-range air defense systems (V/SHORAD) are the adequate aerial defense assets for such threats, preferably aided by networked sensors and including airborne coverage from AWACS planes. While the Shahine and Skyguard SHORAD systems were guarding Abqaiq, they have a 20 km engagement range against normal sized aircraft. As the Iranian kinetic “package” consisted of low-observable munition, the engagement range was much less shorter. Alternatively, the “package’s” terrain-hugging flight profile could have masked it with the “ground clutter” or its slow speed would have filtered it out on the radar doppler. However, Saturday’s attack was as much an air defense error as it was an intelligence failure. 

As Washington and Ryad disagree on how to retaliate against Iran, an official joint announcement blaming the IRGC for the attack has been repeatedly postponed. President Donald Trump is engaged in a re-election campaign and knows that the US public would not support a new conflict or military action in the Middle East. Therefore the White House opposes the US military spearheading a kinetic retribution against Iran. This leaves Saudi Arabia to either form a coalition of the willing with other Gulf states, an exhaustive and unlikely endeavour, or to act alone, which is not an option for the monarchy.



With the critical 72-hour time window for retaliation closed, it is possible that Iran might walk away unsanctioned for the “war-opening” attack on Abqaiq and Khurais. Absent red-lines, Tehran will potentially feel emboldened to prosecute other strategic targets, such as Saudi desalination plants or US bases in the Middle East. 


UPDATE September 19, 2019 – Saudi officials have showcased the wreckage recovered from the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks, confirming that the air attack was conducted by Iranian Delta Wing drones and cruise missiles. US Intelligence sources also confirmed that the attack was mounted from Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province and that the weapons were programmed to avoid the Persian Gulf. 

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Analysis of Iran’s Bavar 373 SAM: Indigenous Design or S-300 Copycat?

On August 21, 2019, the Iranian Defense Ministry revealed the “Bavar 373” long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, claiming that both design and production are completely indigenous. Iranian President Rouhani and…

On August 21, 2019, the Iranian Defense Ministry revealed the “Bavar 373” long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, claiming that both design and production are completely indigenous. Iranian President Rouhani and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Commander Hossein Salami were present at the unveiling.  


The Bavar 373 solves two problems for Iran, one military and one of political nature. On the one hand, the Bavar will augment Iran’s small inventory of long-range SAMs, providing much needed coverage for the undefended sections of Iran’s airspace. Tehran hopes that the Bavar 373 will have a deterrent effect, raising the costs of foreign military attacks. On the other hand, the indigenous system renders Iran independent from foreign technology, a lesson that Tehran learned the hard away when Russia stalled the sale of the S-300PMU2 (NATO Reporting name SA-20B Gargoyle) from 2007 to 2011 due to US sanctions. 

Bavar 373 Battalion Set: 

  • 6 x tractor erector launchers (TEL). Each TEL consists of four SAM canisters towed by a 10×10  “Zoljanah” truck. 
  • Undesignated active electronically scanned array (AESA) engagement radar, likely operating in X-band frequencies. 
  • Undesignated AESA acquisition radar, likely operating in S-band frequencies. The 8×8 “Zafar” truck serves as the radars’ transportable electronics tower (TET). 
  • Command & control unit, towed by an 8×8 “Zafar” truck. 

Bavar 373 Performance and Specifications (according to the Iranian Defense Ministry):

  • Maximum search range: 320km
  • Maximum tracking range: 260km
  • Maximum Interception range: +200km
  • Maximum Interception altitude: 27km
  • Number of tracking and engagement targets: 300 and 6 targets

TECHNICAL EVALUATION:

Contrary to critics, who have labelled the Bavar 373 an S-300 copycat, Tehran claims that the system is an original design. All officials speaking at the August 21 unveiling emphasized this fact and claimed that the Bavar 373 is superior to the S-300. While the Bavar 373 does indeed feature original elements and was produced by Iranian defence contractors, the system’s development would have been impossible without foreign technology. The Bavar 373’s dual-band sensor suite seems to be the system’s most valuable asset. The originality of the Bavar’s TEL and the claimed operational performance of the Sayyad-4 SAM are nevertheless disputable. 

HOT VERTICAL LAUNCH/SQUARE CANISTERS. While the Bavar is widely believed to be a S-300PMU2-inspired design, the system’s rectangular launch tubes more closely resemble the M901 launcher unit of the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-2 configuration. Like the Patriot, the Bavar 373 uses a hot launch technique instead of the cold ejection typical for Russian SAM launchers.

CLOSE UP: PAC-2 M901 launching station vs. Bavar 373

The S-300PMU2 uses gas to eject the SAM from a round cylinder, before the missile fires its thrusters. As the demonstration on August 21 showed, the Bavar’s Sayyad-4 powers its rocket engine inside the tube. The Bavar does, however, bear similarity with the S-300 when it comes to the full vertical launch position. In contrast, the American M901 fires from a 70 degree angle, a design feature copied by another Iran air defence system (Talash). 

COMPARISON: S-300PMU2 TEL vs. Bavar 373 vs. PAC-2 M901 Launching station

SENSOR SUITE. For the public demonstration, the Bavar 373 was augmented by two AESA radars, one engagement and one acquisition radar. This configuration is similar to the Russian S-300. The MIM-140 Patriot uses only one radar. Both of the Iranian radars are unique in their design and show little to no similarity with their American or Russian counterparts. it is possible that Iran’s decade-long effort to develop AESA radars has finally paid off. Due to the AESA’s frequency-agility and low-probability of intercept, the Bavar’s radars are – at least in theory – highly resilient to jamming and anti-radiation missiles.  

The Iranian defense company Iran Electronics Industries has previously listed the Meraj-4 sensor as part of the Bavar 373. In the public demonstration of the Bavar, the Meraj-4 did however not feature. The Meraj-4 is a road-mobile S-band early warning 3D AESA radar. The manufacturer claims that is has a 400-500 km detection envelope, a 200 km tracking range, and a 360-degree azimuth. The Meraj-4 design shows undeniable resemblance to the Chinese-made JYL-1, a long-range S-band 3D air surveillance radar that has nearly identical specifications.  While the Meraj-4 was spotted as a road-mobile version, it is likely an element of Iran’s integrated air defence network rather than a permanent subsystem of the Bavar 373. 

COMPARISON: Meraj 4 (Iran) vs. JYL-1 (China)

MULTI-MISSION. The Bavar’s diverse sensor and kinetic solutions will enable the Iranian air defence units to conduct both anti-aircraft and missile defence missions. The Sayyad-4, in particular, was developed to intercept large radar-cross section targets at the engagement envelope edge, e.g. ballistic missiles in lower endo-atmospheric space. However, doubts remain whether the Sayyad-4 has the manoeuvring capability to prosecute evasive ballistic missiles in their terminal phase. The Sayyad-4’s demonstrated thrust vectoring control is only used for initial trajectory alignment. 

Bavar 373 live test compilation based on official footage.

Iran’s Sayyad SAM series is based on the US-made Standard Missile 1 (RIM-66) naval SAM acquired by the Imperial Iranian Navy prior to the 1979 Revolution. However, the Sayyad-4 is double in size compared to its predecessor and bears resemblance with the Russian long-range Fakel 48N6E/E2 SAM. 

COMPARISON: Sayyad 4 vs. Sayyad 2 and 3 vs. SM-1

VALIDATION AND SUSTAINABILITY. The recent downing of a RQ-4 Global Hawk drone by the Iranian Khordad the 3rdSystem (similar to the Russian Buk-M2) has validated Iran’s research and development efforts in air defence technology. Building a dual-band long-range SAM system based on multiple foreign sources is nevertheless significantly more complex than replicating short- and mid-range legacy systems. The Bavar 373 still has to prove its performance in actual engagements and deployments. 

Remote sensing operations using geospatial imagery will reveal in time how confident the Iranian Armed Forces are of the system’s performance. If the confidence level is high, the Bavar will likely be deployed as a solo long-range air defense asset for the poorly defended airspace in the east and south (protected by Khordad the 3rd or Talash mid-range SAMs for point air defence). If the system is deemed unreliable, it will likely supplement existing S-200 and S-300 deployments.   

It took Iran more than 10 years of design flops, development limbo, and dire financial conditions to produce the Bavar 373. There is no information on how many systems exist and will be produced. It is also unknown whether Iran is even able to mass-produce the system and maintain it. As the country remains under though political and economic pressure from the international community, Tehran frequently exaggerates its military capabilities for foreign policy and deterrence reasons.


by HARM and Gecko

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Let the Skyfall: Radioactive Explosion in Russia Likely Connected to SSC-X-9 Missile Test

Russia’s secretive radioactive explosion is linked to the testing of a nuclear-powered unlimited-range cruise missile. 1. On August 8, 2019, around 9 AM local time, an explosion occurred on an…

Russia’s secretive radioactive explosion is linked to the testing of a nuclear-powered unlimited-range cruise missile.


1. On August 8, 2019, around 9 AM local time, an explosion occurred on an offshore platform (vessel or berch) near Nyonoska (Russia), which killed seven people (two servicemen and five Rosatom personnel) and released radiation in the region. As the explosion was caused by an isotope-powered liquid fuel engine, it is virtually certain that a nuclear-powered missile, likely a cruise missile, was being tested or prepared for testing. 

2. We believe that the missile in question is the 9M730 Burevestnik (NATO Reporting name: SSC-X-9 Skyfall). The SSC-X-9 is a nuclear-powered unlimited-range cruise missile that was announced by President Vladimir Putin as one of Russia’s six upcoming strategic weapons on March 1, 2018.

Production line of the SSC-X-9 Skyfall missile via Defence Blog

3. While a revolutionary concept, it is highly unlikely that the Russiann Ministry of Defence and the Russian defence industry possess the funds, technology, and know-how to successfully produce such a system. Given the engineering challenges and safety concerns, no other country has commissioned a kinetic solution with a nuclear-reactor on board. The United States was close to fielding such a design in the early 1960s. Known as Project Pluto, the United States developed a nuclear ramjet engine (Tory) to power a supersonic low-altitude missile (SLAM) capable of carrying multiple warheads. The project was canceled in 1964. However, as the SSC-X-9 was officially announced by President Putin, there is an enormous pressure on the Russian military to produce results. 

4. As nuclear-powered cruise missiles require a liquid fuel booster to bring them to ramjet speed before enabling the reactor, there is a high likelihood of booster failure during the launch phase due to heat exchange and critical mass constraints. This is what likely happened on the morning of August 8, 2019. 

5. According to sources in the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency, only two of the 13 known SSC-X-9 tests were successful. A partially successfully test took place in Pankovo (Novaya Zemlya) in Russia’s far north island archipelago in November 2017. The test saw the missile flying for a few miles (rumors suggest 35 miles), before crashing into the sea. The SSC-X-9 likely failed to reach ramjet speed and crashed or self-destructed when going off course. Since then, the Russian military has abandoned the Novaya Zemlya testing ground and replicated the SSC-X-9 testing infrastructure in Nyonoksa. Another moderately successful test was conducted on January 29, 2019 in Kapustin Yar. 

GEOINT comparison of Nyonoska vs. Kapustin Yar test sites by T-Intelligence

6. As accurately documented by Jeffrey Lewis and his team from the Middlebury Institute, the Nyonoksa Missile Test Center now hosts a testing pad that contains the same blue “environmental shelter” and launch rail system seen in Novaya Zemlya and Kapustin Yar, the two other locations that hosted SSC-X-9 launches. Operations security, and the objective of denying adversarial MASINT collection in particular, is likely the main reason why the Russians moved the SSC-X-9 testing further inland. 

GEOINT analysis by @@ArmsControlWonk shows layout similarity between the Pank’ovo (Novaya Zemlya) and the Nyonoska test sites.

7. In addition to the identical ground test layout, there is another factor linking the recent explosion near Nyonoksa to the SSC-X-9 project. AIS data shows the presence of a Russian military tug in the White Sea during the August 8 incident. Further research identified the tug as the nuclear-fuel carrier SEREBRYANKA. This radiological service vessel was previously spotted off the Novaya Zemlya coast during the SSC-X-9 test of 2017. The SEREBRYANKA’s task is to collect submerged radioactive material from the sea. 

GEOINT findings and analysis of the August 8 incident by T-Intelligence.

8. Days before the accident, the Russian authorities closed the area to maritime traffic and issued a notice to airmen (NOTAM), concerning a 27,000 square kilometer area between Nyonoksa and Novaya Zemlya. The distance from Nynoksa to the edge of the northern NOTAM area is 1,200 km (650 nautical miles). The NOTAM was in effect from 8 to 11 August, 2019. While NOTAM’s in the area are not a rare occurrence, many defence specialists have argued that the parameters of this airspace closure indicate the testing of a maneuvering missile (i.e. cruise missile) and not a ballistic missile. 

The NOTAMs and maritime traffic ban issued by Russian authorities in connection to the August 8 test and subsequent accident. (source: @ain92ru)

RADIOACTIVE HAZARD

9. Why the Russians ultimately decided to test-fire the SSC-X-9 from an offshore platform, instead of using the purpose-built testing ground in Nyonoksa, is unknown. We believe that safety concerns were among the principle reasons. However, while human loss and infrastructure damage has been minimized, the accident likely polluted the White Sea with radioactive material. Following the explosion, Russian port authorities have issued a no-sail notice covering a 250 square kilometer area off the Nyonoksa coast. The ban on maritime traffic is in effect until September 10, 2019.   

10. Severodvinsk, a city located just 45 km west of Nyonoska, registered a radiation spike of 2 µSv/h (microsievert per minute) between 11:50 AM and 12:30 PM local time on 8 August. This gamma radiation value is nearly 20 times higher than the normal value of 0,11 µSv/h. While such a radiation exposure is still considered safe for the population, inhabitants of Severodvinsk were quick to stock up on iodide tablets, creating a shortage in local pharmacies. The sensors in Severodvinsk reported a gradual decrease in radioactivity around 16:00 PM and a normalization shortly afterwards.

11. The 2 µSv/h value registered in Severodvinsk indicates that the radiation level around Nyonoska was double, if not higher. As Rashid Alimov from Russia’s Green Peace branch stated in the Barents Observer, the high radiation value means that beta and alpha radionuclides were released into the atmosphere. 

12. Radionuclides are radioactive atoms such as uranium, radium and radon, which are particularly hazardous in drinking water. Radionuclide-contaminated drinking water can cause or facilitate life-threatening conditions such as cancer, kidney disease, liver disease, and impairments of the immune system. As radionuclides decay, they emit alpha, beta and gamma particles, which have further harmful effects on humans.   

13. A number of photos that emerged on Twitter and Telegram show chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CRBN) defence units, suited in HAZMAT equipment, securing the accident site and evacuating the wounded. However, the Russian government and local authorities were quick to downplay the incident and claim that there was no danger for the population. 

14. The latest setback is unlikely to halt the SSC-X-9 ‘Skyfall’. While the prospect of an all-reaching, non-stop cruise missile would render existing missile defence technology obsolete, there is no reason to expect the fielding of the SSC-X-9 in the next decade. However, continued work on the program will provide the Kremlin with valuable psychological operations material for both domestic and foreign audiences. 


by HARM

The ‘X’ in the missile’s NATO reporting name stands for ‘experimental’.

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Is Boeing’s AI-Powered Drone the Loyal Wingman of Tomorrow? The Aussies Think So.

Details on the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) “Loyal Wingman” project remain classified and sparse. During the project reveal in Melbourne (Australia) on February 27, 2019, drone-producer Boeing has nevertheless…

Details on the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) “Loyal Wingman” project remain classified and sparse. During the project reveal in Melbourne (Australia) on February 27, 2019, drone-producer Boeing has nevertheless disclosed some juicy bits of information. The “Loyal Wingman” drone, officially designated as “Airpower Teaming System” (AST), will spearhead electronic warfare (EW) and intelligence gathering sorties in contested or denied environments, which are deemed too dangerous for manned assets. 

With a performance range of 3,700 km (2,200 miles), the unmanned aerial vehicle’s (UAV) airframe will receive a low-observability coating that will significantly boost its survivability in sensor-rich and hostile airspaces. Besides stealth, the “Loyal Wingman” will provide another fifth generation avionic element, namely enhanced networking capability. Towards this objective, the drone is designed to network sensor data, air control, and targeting information with allied airframes such as Australia’s E-7 (airborne early warning and control aircraft), EA-18G Growler (electronic attack aircraft), F/A/-18E/F SuperHornet (fighter jet), and P-8 Poseidon (naval aviation maritime security patrol aircraft). In the future, the UAV will be able to network with other drones and the RAAF’s expanding fleet of F-35A Joint Strike Fighters. These features will allow the “Loyal Wingman” to become a force multiplier, while keeping Australia’s fighter pilots and small airfleet out of harm’s way. 

The technology behind the “Loyal Wingman’s” visionary features is Artificial Intelligence (AI). The RAAF’s “Project Jericho” employs AI technology in four key areas: combat cloud, advanced sensing, human-machine augmentation, and autonomous processing. On the battlefield of tomorrow, the RAAF expects that information will be too overwhelming for humans to process in a timely manner. Special purpose AI capabilities, including deep learning algorithms with cutting-edge processing speed, can mitigate this problem and optimize the individual-machine performance. In other words, the “Loyal Wingman” could drastically reduce the time in which a nearby pilot, ground station analyst, or political decision-maker receives key intelligence (and not only unprocessed information). This would provide unprecedented decision-making advantages and improved situational awareness.

AI augmentation could, however, go even further. Experts believe that the “Loyal Wingman” could use its deep learning processors and computing power to study the flight patterns, radar cross sections and combat maneuvers of adversarial aircraft and devise options to outmaneuver them. The UAV could also provide telemetry for intercepting enemy ordnance, using mathematical scheduling and estimation models, and link with other drones for swarming attacks. AI could therefore truly push the technology aboard the “Loyal Wingman” to the edge of fifth generation aerial combat. 

The “Loyal Wingman” is expected to embark on its maiden flight in 2020. The United States Air Force is pursuing a similar UAV project called “Skyborg,” which is expected to make its debut in 2023.


by HARM 

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USS Chancellorsville Avoids Collision with Russian ‘Admiral Vinogradov’

On June 7, 2019 at 11:45 am, the Russian Navy Udaloy-class destroyer Admiral Vinogradov (DD572) made an unsafe maneuver against the Ticonderoga-class guided missile destroyer USS Chancellorsville (CG-62). The latter…

On June 7, 2019 at 11:45 am, the Russian Navy Udaloy-class destroyer Admiral Vinogradov (DD572) made an unsafe maneuver against the Ticonderoga-class guided missile destroyer USS Chancellorsville (CG-62). The latter was recovering its Seahawk helicopter on a steady course, when the Russian destroyer closed in at 50 to 100 feet. The USS Chancellorsville was forced to execute all engines back full and maneuver to avoid collision. The two vessels came so close that U.S. sailors were able to photograph their Russian counterparts sunbathing on the front deck. Moscow blamed the U.S. for the incident and claimed that it took place in the East China Sea.

Target (TGT) designates the incident location – 23°49’19.00 N 126°39’37.00E – aprox. 36 km north of the P-8 aircraft (ACFT).

However, imagery released by a U.S. P-8 Poseidon maritime security and anti-submarine aircraft shows that the Russian destroyer was pushing towards the Chancellorsville, while the U.S. vessel was dropping speed. Furthermore, GPS coordinates from the P-8’s infrared search and track camera show both the aircraft (ACFT) and the two vessels (TRT) maneuvering in the Philippine Sea, as confirmed by the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

Photo taken by the P-8 Poseidon aircraft via U.S. Navy

The combined presence of the USS Chancellorsville and P-8 Poseidon as well as the deployment of a Seahawk during the incident indicate that the assets were on anti-submarine duty in support of the Pacific Fleet’s Carrier Strike Group Five. Given this situation, it is highly likely that the Russians approached the USS Chancellorsville to conduct a close inspection of weapons system loadout. The American destroyer is equipped with the latest Aegis air defense suite (i.e. Baseline Nine, SM-6 etc.), engagement and sensor fusion technology (i.e. Cooperative Engagement Capability/NEC, Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air/ NIFC-CA) that enables beyond visual range engagement at classified ranges. The USS Chancellorsville also carries the Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missile (TALM) and the latest block-version of the Harpoon anti-ship missile.

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Here’s Where Russia Will Deploy Nuclear-Capable Tu-22M3 Bombers in Crimea (IMINT)

Russia continues the wholesale militarization of the Crimea peninsula with the upcoming deployment of nuclear-capable long-range Tu-22M3 bombers (NATO reporting name: Backfire-C) to Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye air base. The airfield’s large aircraft…

Russia continues the wholesale militarization of the Crimea peninsula with the upcoming deployment of nuclear-capable long-range Tu-22M3 bombers (NATO reporting name: Backfire-C) to Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye air base. The airfield’s large aircraft revetments and logistics facilities can host at least 20 Backfires. With the Backfire eyed as a future launching platform for the Kinzhal hypersonic aero-ballistic missile, Russia intends to increase pressure on the U.S. Aegis Missile Defense systems (Ashore and Afloat) in Europe.

Hvardiyske/ Gvardeyskoye Air Base IMINT via T-Intelligence based on Digital Globe and Planet Labs imagery


On March 18, Viktor Bondarev, the chairman of the defense and security committee of Russia’s upper parliament house, announced that Moscow will deploy nuclear-capable Tu-22M3/Backfire-C bombers to Crimea in response to the U.S. missile defense systems in Romania.

Over the past years, NATO Enhanced Air Policing fighter jets have intercepted several Backfires over the Black Sea, which simulated mock bombing runs in Romania’s flight information region. Recently, the aircraft also served in Syria as a frontline bomber against unsophisticated ground targets. The Backfire was originally developed for the Soviet Air Force and Navy to prosecute targets – particularly maritime targets like U.S. carrier strike groups – in peripheral-range missions. The internal weapons bay and external pylons can carry up to 24,000 kg of ordnance, including nuclear which makes the Backfire ideal for saturation strikes.

Russia plans to upgrade 30 of the 63 Backfires that are still in service to the advanced M3M variant. The M3M variant will be compatible with new generation ammunition such as the standoff/extreme-range Kh-32 cruise missile, the Kinzhal hypersonic aeroballistic missile, and potentially the 3M22 Zircon (NATO reporting name: SS-N-33) anti-ship hypersonic missile. Live trails of the first M3M commenced in mid 2018.

The Backfire deployment in Crimea will likely take the form a small-scale forward deployment from their home bases in Belaya (Irkutsk) and  Shaykovka (Kaluga). However, our IMINT analysis concludes that – if needed – Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye air base could host 20-30 bombers on high-readiness and up to 50 aircraft for storage and maintenance.   

Hvardiyske/Gvardeyskoye is the home base of the 37th Composite Aviation Regiment (CAR), which currently operates the Su-24M and Su-25 (NATO reporting names: Fencer and Frogfoot). 37th CAR Frogfoots were airborne during Russia’s blockade of the Kerch strait in October 2018 and Fencers have harassed U.S. and NATO vessels in the Baltic and Black Seas in the past. The 37th CAR was established as part of the 27th Compose Aviation Division (CAD) in 2014. The 27th CAD also commands the 38th Fighter Aviation Regiment in Belbek, which operates two Su-27P/SM (NATO reporting name: Flanker) squadrons. Like all forces deployed in Crimea, the units are subordinated to Russian’s 4th Air and Air Defense Army (Southern Military District) in Rostov-on-Don.

In response to the Russian plans, Washington deployed six B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers from the 2nd Bomber Wing to the Royal Air Force base in Fairford on March 14, 2019. During their first major European exercise since 2003, the B-52s conducted theater familiarization flights and enhanced interoperability with NATO partners.


by HARM and Gecko

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U.S.-led Coalition & SDF Terminate ISIS’ Physical Caliphate, COINOPS to Follow

On March 23, 2019 the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the liberation of Baghuz al-Fawqani, the “Islamic State of Syria and Iraq’s” (ISIS/Da’esh) last stronghold in Syria’s Mid-Euphrates River Valley…

On March 23, 2019 the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the liberation of Baghuz al-Fawqani, the “Islamic State of Syria and Iraq’s” (ISIS/Da’esh) last stronghold in Syria’s Mid-Euphrates River Valley (MERV). The victory marks the end of the terror group’s physical caliphate, which once stretched from central Iraq to northwestern Syria and encompassed almost 10 million people. The remaining Da’esh fighters (Iraqi, Syrian, and foreign terrorist fighters/FTFs) made their last stand in a in a pocket of four square kilometers, consisting of a makeshift tent camp, desolated houses, and underground tunnels.

As the conventional campaign ends, the post-physical-caliphate era begins with 10,000-20,000 Da’esh fighters on the loose across Syria and Iraq, ready to resurge at the right time, while their wives and children guarantee a transgenerational survival of the jihadist struggle.


OPERATIONAL LAYOUT

1. The battle for Baghuz al-Fawqani began in late December 2018. The offensive marked the last phase of Operation Roundup (OR), a joint effort of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) to clear the MERV and the Syrian-Iraqi border from Da’esh remnants.

2. OR was spearheaded by the SDF’s Deir ez-Zor and al-Hasakah local Arab Sunni affiliates, the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC), and the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DMC). When the offensive stagnated in late 2018, the SDF was forced to deploy the battle-hardened Manbij Military Council (MMC) and the Kurdish YPG militia – the PKK’s Syrian affiliate – from Raqqa and the Kabur valley to finish the job. YPG-led operations were however repeatedly halted due to Turkish cross-border attacks in northern Syria.

3. The U.S.-led Coalition/CJTF-OIR continued to assist the SDF with advisors, special operations forces (SOF), artillery and air support. The Coalition’s Combined Air Operation Center (COAC) based in al-Udeid air base (Qatar) employed a variety of aircraft for close air support (CAS), based on targeting data from SDF-embedded forward air traffic controllers/SOFs. While CJTF-OIR statements only mention the F-15C*, IMINT shared by twitter user @obretix and SOCMINT reports also indicate the presence of the following aircraft:

  • B1b Bomber, AC-130 Spectre gunship, Apache attack helicopters, U28A tactical ISR, MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (United States Air Force);
  • Beechcraft 350 ISTAR and Tornado fighter jet (British Royal Air Force);
  • Rafale F4 (French Air Force).  

4. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), U.S. and French infantrymen furthermore assisted the SDF with cross-border artillery fire from Fire Base Shaham (near al-Qa’im, Iraq) and other combat outposts in the MERV. ISF and select Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) deployed on the Iraqi-Syrian border to prevent Da’esh fighters from escaping to Iraq.

5. Pro-government forces stationed in Al Abukamal blocked the western escape route from Baghuz. While it is unknown whether the Syrian Arab Army coordinated with the Coalition or the SDF, the pro-government forces engaged Da’esh fighters who attempted to cross the Euphrates river and escape into the desert.


INTELLIGENCE FAILURE?

6. Despite the high-number of airborne ISR platforms and intense SIGINT and GEOINT collection efforts, the CJTF-OIR and SDF have consistently been mistaken about the enemy and civilian presence in the Baghuz pocket.

7. The initial estimate of the enemy’s order of the battle (January 2019) was between 600 and 1,400 fighters, shielded by over 2,500 civilians. After the evacuation of the Baghuz pocket, the SDF nevertheless estimated that 1,600 Da’esh fighter were killed and 25,000 civilians left the enclave. The intelligence failure repeatedly delayed the ground assault and allowed Da’esh to go on the offensive:

a. Da’esh exploited the considerable civilian presence to complicate and deter air strikes.

  • The CJTF-OIR reported only 97 strikes between February 24 and March 9 2019, resulting in 137 engagements that targeted 228 Daesh tactical units and destroyed 71 tactical vehicles, 35 vehicle borne improvised explosive devices, 17 supply routes, 11 fighting positions, 10 weapons caches, eight staging areas, four command and control nodes, two tunnels, two heavy machine guns, one anti-aircraft gun, one fuel tanker, and one boat.
  • In the previous months, the number of engagements was significantly higher (646 strikes between January 13 and 26, 179 strikes between January 27 and February 9, and 186 strikes between February 10 and 23).

b. Starting in mid-February, the SDF and Da’esh struck a number of deals that facilitated the exit of non-combatants (wounded fighters, spouses, children and captives) from Baghuz. This forced the SDF to pause the military offensive and organize the flow of refugees to the al-Hawl internal displaced people (IDP) camp (Hasakah province). The main screening points were established east of the riverside tent camp on the SDF-held Jabal Baghuz, a 240 m high cliff. Testimonies from aid workers suggest that no party was expecting or prepared to face such a challenge.

8. A second CJTF-OIR/SDF intelligence failure was to believe that the besieged Da’esh fighters would quickly surrender to avoid a “bloodbath.” To keep their own losses to a minimum, the CJTF and SDF pursued a strategy of “bombing Da’esh into surrendering.” However, this expectation was not only unrealistic (based on previous battles and lessons learned), but also counterproductive, as it provided Da’esh with immense propaganda potential to divinize their “last stand.”

9. When the SDF resumed ground operations on March 11, Da’esh met the advancing force with rocket-propelled grenades, mortar attacks, sniper fire and suicide vehicle-borne  improvised explosive device (VBIED). A number of female fighters/Da’esh wives engaged in firefights with the SDF. Even when the SDF was “in the wire,” the jihadists barricaded themselves in tunnels and continued with suicide attacks on the surface.


DA’ESH IS NOT DEFEATED

10. Although the physical caliphate has been 100% liberated, Da’esh still poses a lasting threat to regional and international security. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) estimates that absent counterinsurgency pressure, Da’esh will likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory in the MERV.

a. Da’esh maintains a residual presence of over 20,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq. Da’esh still controls remote and sparsely populated areas both states. The jihadist ranks consist of senior leaders, fighters and facilitators. The group also operates sleeper cells in cities, which are capable of conducting targeted assassinations and mass casualty attacks. Ultimately, the dispersed Da’esh fighters are working towards overhauling their transnational networks and regaining an offensive military capacity.

  • In Syria, Da’esh maintains a heavy presence in the Markaz al-Mayadin subdistrict (Deir ez-Zor province) and the oil-rich al-Sukhnah subdistrict (central Homs province). The pro-government camp, which controls this territory, has not taken adequate measures to limit the group’s freedom of movement such as airborne patrols or 24/7 checkpoints. As a result, Da’esh cells have already conducted attacks and will likely increase efforts to disrupt traffic on the Palmyra/Tadmur-Deir ez-Zor highway and seize oil pumping stations in central Syria. Da’esh cells also conducted several IED and suicide attacks in Manbij, Raqqa and Tabqa, which resulted in civilian and Coalition casualties, in the last year. The MERV area is equally challenging to stabilize, as the territory is sparsely populated, porous and dominated by local tribal dynamics. The SDF will need approximately 30,000 local Arab Sunni recruits to conduct indigenous-led stabilization operations in Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa province.
  • In Iraq, Da’esh is mostly active in Kirkuk, Nineveh and Salah ad-Din province. Da’esh fighters are regularly conducting night raids, kidnappings and assassinations. The joint CJTF-OIR-ISF Operation Last Warning (OLW) targets the remaining Da’esh pockets where they are most likely to resurgence (Anbar desert, Wadi Hauran, and southern Nineveh). However, the Iraqi Security Forces are years, if not decades, away from operating without CJTF-OIR support. The NATO Training Mission-Iraq remains vital for local capacity building.

Syria and Iraq Situation map as of March, 2019 via T-Intelligence

  • In Afghanistan, joint U.S.-Afghan SOF and air operations redirected the expansion of IS-Khorasan (IS-K) from the Spin Ghar mountain range (southern Nangarhar province) to the Pakistani borderlands controlled by the Taliban, resulting in escalating violence between the two groups. IS-K is currently entrenching positions in the infamous Korengal valley (Kunar province), while losing the Darzab enclave in the Uzbek-majority Jowjan province [MORE ON IS-K IN AFGHANISTAN].

b. The situation in Al Hawl IDP camp poses a critical threat for post-caliphate stabilization efforts. Al-Hawl has been overwhelmed by the influx of non-combatants from Baghuz. The 25,000 new inhabitants mostly consist of Da’esh fighters and their families, who remain unrepentant and radicalized. As assessed by U.S. CENTCOM General Joseph Votel, the large-scale surrender in Baghuz “is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and the preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge.” Like its predecessor organization Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Da’esh will likely attempt to destabilize or attack camps and prisons in order to replenish its ranks with battle hardened fighters. Da’esh-affiliated media are already calling for attacks on SDF positions all over Syria.

c. Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) have proven to be the group’s die-hard element in the battle for Baghuz. If allowed to return to Europe/North America, they will pose an immediate threat to their home countries. However, due to the lack of evidence necessary for valid convictions, Western governments prefer to leave FTFs in SDF custody (short-term solution) or have them transferred to the Iraqi authorities (for conviction).

11. CJTF-OIR will gradually disengage from major military operations and reduce the troop count from 2,200 to 400 in Syria. In this last operational phase, CJTF-OIR will provide security, planning and support to the Iraqi government and appropriate authorities in Syria to prevent Da’esh from resurging. CJTF-OIR can be expected to keep air-land ISR and CAS assets in Iraq and prosecute high-value targets using SOFs and UAVs.


By HARM and Gecko

Due to operations security (OPSEC) CJTF-OIR does not report the number or type of aircraft employed in operations, the number of munitions dropped in each strike, or the number of individual munition impact points against a target.

YPG social media accounts refer to the battle for Baghuz as Operation Fight Terrorism and to the MERV offensive as Operation Jazzira Storm.

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Syrian S-300 Ready to Use?

Syria’s S-300PM2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system (NATO reporting name: SA20-B Gargoyle) has likely achieved initial operational capability (IOC) or is about to achieve IOC by May/June 2019. In response to…

Syria’s S-300PM2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system (NATO reporting name: SA20-B Gargoyle) has likely achieved initial operational capability (IOC) or is about to achieve IOC by May/June 2019. In response to the Ilyushin-20 incident of September 2018, Russia transferred three battalion sets (with eight 5P85SE launchers each) of the SA-20B/S-300PM2 version (domestic/non-export) from its own inventory to the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF). The SA-20B Gargoyle does however not pose an imminent threat to Israel and the U.S.-led Coalition, as the operation of the SAM system is likely subject to political restrictions imposed by Moscow. Our assessment is backed by four key indicators:


1. IMINT dating from February 5, 2019 shows that three of the four SA-20B tractor erector launchers (TELs), which were deployed in the Masyaf hills (Hama province) in October 2018, are now erected. When TELs assume vertical position, the SAM system is usually combat-ready. The company ImageSateliteInternational (iSi) has run a SAR filter analysis on the IMINT evidence, which concluded that the TELs are not dummies. However, the iSi analysis does not show any engagement or acquisition radars near the TELs. While the lack of radars could indicate that the SA-20B is not fully operational yet, it is also possible that the system is linked to Russia’s SA-21 96LE “Cheese Board” and 92N6E “Grave Stone” radars, which are deployed only 1.3 km away. The latter is a plausible explanation, since Russia vowed to integrate Syria’s air defense network with its own in late 2018. Alternatively, the Masyaf hills might be a temporary training/IOC deployment, before the SA-20B is relocated to Damascus, Syria’s most important area and bi-monthly target of Israeli raids.

2. Israeli Air Force (IAF) raids in Syria have completely stopped after the large-scale ground attack/suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) raids on January 20, 2019. This is likely due to ongoing negotiations between Israel and Russia regarding the use of the SA-20B in Syria (see 6).

3. IAF and U.S. Air Force (USAF) airborne ELINT and SIGINT collection sorties over the Syrian coast spiked in early 2019. USAF Boeing RC-135V, RC-135U, P-8 Poseidon and IAF Gulfstream G550 Nachshon Aitam 676 aircraft made bi-weekly appearances on open-source ADS-B receiver platforms. The IAF-USAF intelligence collection sorties likely aimed to determine the enemy’s electronic “order of battle”, including frequencies, radars and overall sensor characteristics as well as locations, while also monitoring other objectives such as Iranian weapons transports to Syria and the activities of the Russian Navy’s Mediterranean Task Force in Tartus.

4. The previous indicators are likely linked to a notice to airmen (NOTAM) issued by Syrian authorities, which informs of a potential anti-aircraft artillery risk for aircraft up to 200 nautical miles (396 km) outside Damascus. The NOTAM is in effect from January 18 to April 18, 2019 and mandates commercial operators to conduct their own risk assessment and exercise caution. It is virtually certain that the NOTAM points towards Syrian air defense drills involving long-range SAMs. The January-April time frame coincides with the expected IOC/completion of training for the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) air defense units. If Russia is indeed serious about integrating the Syrian and Russian air defense networks, the drills likely rehearse force integration and interoperability, featuring both SyAAF and Russian SAM systems. Notably, the NOTAM’s 200 nm risk range coincides with the maximum engagement range of the SA-21-compatible 40N6 SAM, which entered into service in late 2018. While the NOTAM is necessary for the safety of civil aviation (especially for Beirut, Tel Aviv, and Euro-Arabian transit flights), the unusually long time frame of the NOTAM likely serves to impede adversarial intelligence collection efforts (see 3.).  

SA-20B IOC DOES NOT RESULT IN IMMINENT SAM THREAT

5. While SyAAF servicemen might operate the system, Syria will likely require Russian approval before engaging targets with the SA-20B. Russia will not risk having its advanced SA-20B system devalued by yet another SyAAF mishandling or destroyed over a skirmish between Israel and Iran:

6. Russia has a bad track record of SAM-induced aviation accidents. With view to the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which was downed by Russian separatists/servicemen, and the Ilyushin-20 aircraft, which was destroyed by the SyAAF near Latakia (regardless of IAF interference), Moscow will likely take adequate measures to mitigate the risk of friendly fire and significant collateral damage in the future.

7. The SyAAF already lost three SA-22 Greyhounds (Pantsir S-1/2), Russia’s premium point air defense systems, and countless other auxiliary equipment such as an SA-5 engagement radar and a ultra-high frequency early-warning sensor to the IAF. Even the most tactically important air defense locations (Mezzeh and Damascus International Airports) were either caught off guard or overwhelmed by Israel’s standoff and self-sacrificing ordnance.

8. Despite the loose Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria, the two countries do not have a mutual-defense agreement and Moscow feels no obligation to safeguard Tehran’s assets. In fact, the Kremlin has tolerated the IAF’s operations in Syria over the past years. Iranian officials, including the Hashmatollah Falahatpisheh (the chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee) have publicly condemned Russia for preventing the SyAAF to use the SA-20B during the IAF’s January 20 raid. Russia’s only red-lines are safeguarding its own military assets and preserving the SyAAF’s air defense systems, which were necessary to deter U.S. regime change attempts in the past. The transfer of the SA-20B to Syria is best understood as an act of deterrence rather than an act of aggression towards Israel. Overall, Russia wants more transparency and consultation with Israel in the spirit of the (unofficial) bilateral deconfliction line. The Russian approach seems to be successful. In a meeting in late February Netanyahu has reportedly supplied Putin with intelligence on IRGC targets that Israel plans to prosecute, while Putin allegedly assured his counterpart that the SA-20B will not harm IAF jets.

ISRAEL WILL RETAIN A LIMITED STRIKING CAPABILITY

9. Since there is no known SA-20B deployment in the Damascus area, the IAF’s traditional standoff engagement flight paths are not yet threatened. While long-range 48N6E2 SAMs (designed to counter aircraft and ballistic missiles) fired from the Masyaf-based SA-20B can engage targets over Damascus city, kill probability on the range edge will be very low, especially against low observable (LO) munition. However, the IAF will encounter significant political-military hardships, should it wish to prosecute the Iranian missile production and storage facilities in Hama province, which the IRGC deliberately established in close proximity to the Russian SAM systems. In this situation, closer Israeli-Russian coordination (i.e. intelligence sharing, pre-strike notifications) rather than unilateral military action could enable the IAF to reach deep into Syrian airspace.

Masyaf-based SA-20B engagement range via T-Intelligence

10. If cooperation with Russia fails, the IAF has a number of (last resort) options to bypass or suppress the SA-20B. Israel has trained to defeat the advanced SAM system ever since Iran acquired the SA-20 (S-300PMU2/export) in the early 2010s. The IAF regularly conducts joint exercises and exchanges intelligence with allied/friendly air force operating the SA-10 (S-300PS) or the SA-20A (e.g. Hellenic Air Force, U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Ukrainian Air Force).

IAF 201st air squadron flies over Greece in a joint exercise with the Hellenic Air Force in December 2018 via iaf.org

11. Besides LO anti-radiation “suicide” munition (e.g. IAI Harop), the combination of the Israeli-upgraded F-35A (F-35I Adir) in stealth mode and the recently acquired Ukrainian-made Kolchuga-M electronic support complex represent a joker card for the IAF.  However, knowing that both Russia and Iran are very interested in registering the F-35’s combat performing radar cross section (RCS), the IAF needs to be very smart about when and where it employs the aircraft in “stealth mode”. While the IAF has already used the F-35I Adir on two unnamed fronts (likely Syria and Gaza), it is highly likely that its very-low observable (VLO) characteristics were not exploited.

IAF’s F-35I Adir flies off the Beirut coastline with radar deflectors to deliberately exaggerate RCS – via Israel Television News Company / Screenshot


By HARM and Gecko

Initial Operational Capability (IOC) refers to the minimum operational threshold of a system during the post-production deployment process. Inherently, IOC refers to the first time a system is turned on for final refinements before proceeding to Full Operational Capability (FOC). Depending on the defense product, the transition from IOC to FOC could take from several months to a year.

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Russia Will Not Establish a Base in Somaliland, but the UAE is There to Stay

Contrary to rumors, the Russian Navy (RuN) will not establish a military base in the town of Zeila in northern Somaliland. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will however soon operationalize…

Contrary to rumors, the Russian Navy (RuN) will not establish a military base in the town of Zeila in northern Somaliland. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will however soon operationalize a air-naval facility in Somaliland, as part of a wider strategy to secure the region’s maritime trade choke points.


1. Rumors about Russia’s plans to establish a military base in the self-declared state of Somaliland have circulated since April 2018. The story was first reported by Somali outlets and then picked up by the British newspapers Sun and Express , pro-Russian outlets such as Southfront, and a number of Twitter users. Recently, the claim featured in Kenya’s major newspaper Daily Nation. The reports state that Moscow will recognize the independence of Somaliland in exchange for permission to build an air-naval base in Zeila/Sayla on the border with Djibouti, which will host 1,500 Russian troops, warships, and submarines. A meeting between the foreign minister of Somaliland and a Russian diplomat is cited as evidence for the deal.  

2. The story is almost certainly fake news, copied word-for-word from a Reddit post in the “Global Powers” role-playing thread, which was published 11 months ago. While the reddit post is still available , the Somali news outlets, which first spread the news, have since deleted their claims. 

Screenshot of “Global Powers” Reddit thread

3. IMINT obtained via Sentinel-2 satellite reconfirms that the port of Zeila has not seen construction activity in the past year. If Russia indeed plans to build a naval base in the area, some newly built infrastructure such as naval peers, fences and asphalt layering or evidence of exploratory activity should be observable by now.

4. In the current political and economic climate, Russia is unwilling and unable to build overseas military installations from scratch. As the case of Syria (Tartus and Latakia) shows, Moscow generally prefers to obtain leases for Soviet-build airfields/ports and other existing installations, which already have a baseline infrastructure. As the RuN is undergoing a modernization and downsizing program, it is highly unrealistic that Russia will be able to establish and maintain a 1,500 men overseas presence, including surface and subsurface vessel, as the rumors suggest.

5. While Somaliland hosts a Soviet-built airstrip and harbor in the city of Berbera, the Parliament of Somaliland granted exclusive access to the UAE in May 2016. The 30-year concession authorizes the UAE to establish a 42 square kilometer base in Berbera, consisting of naval facilities and two parallel runways. The air-naval base is intended to support heavy aerial traffic and host various naval assets, including warships, to launch operations against the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. The base is expected to become operational in June 2019.

6. As part of its maritime strategy, the UAE has also established military bases in Yemen’s main ports (Aden and Mukalla), Eritrea, and temporarily on Socotra Island. Through the Horn of Africa deployments, Abu Dhabi aims to secure the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which represents a strategic choke point for oil transports to the European and North American markets. The Iranian-backed Houthis have conducted numerous seaborne attacks against commercial vessels transiting the strait, forcing Saudi Arabia to suspend oil shipments in the area.  

Foreign military bases in the Horn of Africa via T-Intelligence

7. The UAE’s presence in Somaliland is not limited to military interests. The Emirati  company DP World currently holds a 51% stake in the Berbera port and plans to invest $442 million. Abu Dhabi is expected to revamp the local civilian airport and build roads to Ethiopia. Emirati soldiers will train Somaliland’s coastguard to combat piracy and supply Somaliland with coastal surveillance systems, similar to capacity building programs in Somalia’s autonomous region of Puntland.

8. Since Berbera is unavailable as a Somaliland base (and the Zeila deal fake news), Moscow is seeking other options to gain a foothold in the Horn of Africa region. Russia and Sudan are reportedly discussing the establishment of a “naval supply center” on the Red Sea coast. In fall 2018, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov furthermore announced plans to establish a “logistics center” on Eritrea’s Red Sea coast. While Lavrov did not provide specifics, possible locations include the ports of Massawa and Assab, which offer strategic access to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The UAE already operates a air-naval installation in Assab.

9. The establishment of small logistics facilities in the Horn of Africa region could provide critical operational support for Russia’s expanding military and commercial interests in Africa and allow Moscow to compete with its Western adversaries, while keeping the initial investment and footprint low. This approach fits within Russia’s overall Africa strategy, which relies on politically deniable subversive operations spearheaded by irregular assets such as private military corporations (PMCs) and intelligence agencies.


By Gecko

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