Six years after the large-scale operational debut in Syria, Russia continues to pour advanced capabilities and expand its military infrastructure in the war-torn country. Last week, Russia deployed MiG-31K interceptors,…
Six years after the large-scale operational debut in Syria, Russia continues to pour advanced capabilities and expand its military infrastructure in the war-torn country. Last week, Russia deployed MiG-31K interceptors, Tu-22M3 bombers, and other aircraft for a combined exercise with the Russian Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean. While Russia’s naval-air exercise coincides with British carrier operations in the region, the main question is whether the MiG-31s and Tu-22M3 bombers will make Syria their second home.
FOXHOUNDS KNOW HOW TO KILLJOY
On 25 June 2021, the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) deployed two MiG-31 supersonic interceptors (AFIC/NATO Reporting name: Foxhound) to Khmeimim air base, Syria. As announced by Russian media, the two MiG-31 are of the “K” variant.
MiG-31Ks are modified to carry the gargantuan Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM). One video released by the Russian Defense Ministry shows a MiG-31K taking off from Khmeimim AB armed with a Kinzhal on its centerline pylon, confirming the missile’s presence in Syria.
Screengrab from Zvezda TV video showing Russian MiG-31K taking off from khmeimim AB armed with Kinzhal missile (Killjoy)
The Kinzhal ALBM missile (Killjoy*) is one of the six “invincible” strategic weapons Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled in 2018. Russian officials allege that the Kinzhal can sustain speeds over Mach 10 and strike targets 1,200 km away.
For both the MiG-31s and Kinzhal missiles, the trip to Syria marks their first foreign deployment.
BACKFIRES ARE BACK
Three Tu-22M3 (Backfire-C) long-range bombers, a Tu-142MK (Bear-F), and an Il-38 (May) maritime patrol and submarine-hunting aircraft have joined the pair of MiG-31s in Syria.
The Tu-22M3 bombers first appeared a month ago and are now on their second visit to Latakia. Videos released by Zvezda TV show the Backfire bombers taxiing on the runway armed with Kh-22 anti-ship cruise missiles (AS-4 Kitchen). The anti-ship ordnance is in line with the supposed purpose of this deployment, the upcoming Russian air-naval drills in the Eastern Mediterranean.
AIR-NAVAL EXERCISES UNDERWAY
Two frigates (Admiral Essen and Admiral Makarov), two submarines (Stary Oskol and Rostov-on-Don), and the Moskva missile cruiser will also partake in the joint air-naval exercise off the Syrian coast. Russian officials describe the drills as “combat training tasks to ensure the security of the Khmeimim airbase and the logistics center of the Russian Navy Tartus.”
Russian NOTAMs relative to HMS Queen Elizabeth in the East Med (T-Intelligence map using data from ICAO)
Russia’s exercise occurs amid the entrance of the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group in the Eastern Mediterranean. HMS Queen Elizabeth is in the region to support the United Kingdom’s counter-ISIS mission, namely Operation Shader.
Even though Moscow has likely planned the exercise in advance, Russia suggests that the maneuvers respond to the HMS Queen Elizabeth. The Russian military may have expanded the scope of the training after learning about the British carrier group’s visit (e.g., redeployment of bombers back to Khmeimim AB, as the War Zone first suggested).
At the time of the writing, HMS Queen Elizabeth is operating off the Cypriot coast. With the Russian exercises underway, some interaction has already taken place between the two adversaries. RuAF aircraft used the British carrier as mock target practice, while a RAF F-35B armed with anti-ship missiles buzzed the Russian frigate Admiral Makarov.
While Russia’s naval-air exercise coincides and is potentially linked with the British carrier operations in the region, the main question is whether the MiG-31s and Tu-2MM3 bombers will make Syria their second home.
In late 2020, the War Zone broke the news that Russia is expanding the runway at Khmeimim air base, “which could help accommodate heavy airlifters carrying more cargo or other large aircraft, including possibly bombers.” The War Zone’s assessment proved to be true. Backfire bombers have visited Khmeimim AB twice in one month. The runway extensions also allow for Foxhounds to operate from the air base.
Using Sentinel 2 imagery we can see that the first clear signs of runway works appeared in July 2020. The construction advanced slowly throughout the year with another major change being visible in late 2020. The runway extensions seem to have only been finalized in early summer 2021.
As the screenshots bellow show, Russia extended the runway’s northern end by approximately 170 meters and southern end by 130 meters.
Planet Explorer screengrabs show measurements of Russia’s runway extensions on 29 June 2021
ENHANCED AIR PATROL
The runway extensions indicate that Russia foresees a starring role for Foxhounds, Backfires, and other large aircraft for Moscow’s future regional designs. Capable of supersonic speed and designed to intercept hostile aircraft, the MiG-31 Foxhound will undoubtedly improve Russia’s air policing capabilities. One video already shows a MiG-31, alongside Su-35 (Flanker-E), on combat air patrol in western Syria.
Armed with the notorious Kinzhal missile, the MiG-31 can also be a potent ship-killer, including against carriers, and a prompt nuclear delivery platform covering NATO’s southeastern flank.
REVIVING THE MIG-31 SALE TO SYRIA?
One low-probability, high-impact scenario worth considering is that Russia could use the MiG-31 deployment to revive the Syrian regime’s interest in the aircraft.
In 2007, the Russian press announced that Moscow planned to sell five MiG-31Es to the Syrian Arab Air Force. Iran was reportedly financing the purchase as a back-door deal. However, in 2009 the deal fell through, reportedly due to a Russian-Israeli quid pro quo arrangement. Israel was to provide UAV technology in exchange for Moscow halting the MiG-31 sale to Syria.
It is no secret that Moscow has instrumentalized its intervention in Syria to advertise its military equipment. While the Syrian regime’s economy is in disarray and the SyAAF can barely service the existing fleet, Moscow could provide financial assistance in the form of credit. If Moscow and Damascus are serious about rebuilding the Syrian military, a MiG-31 interceptor could be the way forward to deter Israeli air raids and allow the SyAAF to police its airspace.
PACKING A BIGGER PUNCH
The reason for the Backfire deployment is more straightforward. Like MiG-31s, Backfires are nuclear-capable. In addition, Backfires can carry an assortment of ship-killing missiles. Their primary role will likely be air strikes against Syrian opposition groups. With a payload of 24,000 kg, Backfires can rain down dozens of bombs within one run, increasing Russia’s operational efficiency. In contrast, the RuAF has relied on Su-34 and Su-24 fighter-bombers (both have 8,000 kg payload), or even multirole aircraft, to deliver air-to-ground attacks.
It is increasingly likely that Foxhounds and Backfires will make regular guest appearances in the Syrian theater and possibly make Khmeimim AB their second home.
*Thanks to a 2020 Norwegian Intelligence report quoted by the Barents Observer, we know that the AFIC/NATO codename for Kinzhal is “Killjoy.”
1x Project 16611 small hydrographic survey vessel (no. 01817).
The deployment was announced on 8 April but in a smaller number. The ships set sail on 11 April, with social media photos documenting their passage through the Don-Volga channel. Footage dated 16 and 17 April shows some of the Caspian task force vessels transiting the Kerch Strait that links the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea.
OSINT map shows sail path of the Caspian task force (T-Intelligence 2021)
Baltic and Northern Fleets: Both fleets deployed Project 775, or Ropucha-class, landing ships to the Black Sea. Capable of carrying over 450 tones of hardware, primarily tanks or other vehicles, the Ropucha was purpose-built for beach landings. As a versatile hauling platform, the Ropucha has been Russia’s maritime logistical workhorse to deploy and support forces in Syria.
Shispotters documented their northbound pass through the Bosphorus strait on 17 April.
Russian Navy Russian Navy Ropucha Class Landing ships Alexander Otrakovsky 031, Kondopoga 027 (Cф Northern Fleet), followed by Kaliningrad 102 and Korolev 130 (Бф Baltic Fleet) have transited northbound through Istanbul today towards Black Sea pic.twitter.com/CsuNkn4Gdv
2x Project 775 landing craft ( Kondopoga 027 & Alexander Otrakovsky 031) – NATO reporting name: Ropucha-class
The maritime build-up augments Russia’s land maneuvers near Ukraine’s border that have been ongoing for the past month.
In addition to land and naval movements, Russia has also redeployed over 50 aircraft to Crimea. Ukraine estimates that Russia is now garrisoning nearly 110,000 troops near the Ukrainian border.
MANEUVERS: COASTAL DEFENSE, AMPHIBIOUS ASSAULT
Russian forces in Crimea will hold a myriad of land, air, and naval exercises until 1 May. Some are already underway, while others will commence this week.
The Russian drills have so far simulated the defense of Crimea and amphibious assaults of the enemy littoral – undoubtedly a message to Ukraine. Exercises involving marine and amphibious assaults are expected to continue. For example, in the next stage of a multi-phase campaign, Russian marines “will deliver artillery fire against a notional enemy’s coastal targets that will precede a seaborne assault on the shore.”
The satellite imagery below likely shows a Russian naval formation conducting a military exercise off the Crimean coast and near the Kerch Strait. Dated 19 April, the imagery was captured by the Sentinel-1’s synthetic aperture radar, a sensor that allows us to see through cloud cover. The exercise area is covered by a notice to mariners (NOMAR) that Russia issued a few days ago.
Sentinel-1 SAR satellite shows large and organized naval formation in a known Russian training area (T-Intelligence 2021)
The timelapse below shows the build-up of military hardware and logistics at the Opuk firing range. High-resolution imagery obtained by Der Spiegel provides a closer look at the staging ground.
Update: Monitoring the waters off Opuk, we have observed another spike in maritime activity on 21 April. The SAR imagery shows new Russian naval manoeuvres that are consistent with a coastal assault. With the exception of one search and rescue vessel (MMSI: 273145123), none of the ships were broadcasting AIS. No activity has been noticed on the previous day (April 20).
New Russian maritime drills spotted on satellite imagery on 21 April (T-Intelligence)
Using visual evidence published by Zvezda TV on 22 April, we were able to confirm that these vessels and movements are connected to Russia’s exercises.
RUSSIAN NO-FLY/NO-SAIL ZONE?
As it is standard procedure, Russia issued a series of notice to airmen (NOTAMs) and notice to mariners (NOMARs) ahead of its exercises, informing seafears and pilots of which areas they should avoid.
Map of NOTAMs and NOTMARs issued by Russia in connection to its military exercises in the Black Sea (T-Intelligence 2021)
Most “danger areas” are in effect until the end of April. However, in the Kerch strait, Russia plans to suspend the right of passage of foreign warships and “other state ships” until 31 October (purple rectangle). Russia’s state agency later claimed that “the planned restrictions will not affect navigation in the Kerch Strait or its entry points.”
Russia’s temporary air-naval restrictions will have severe ramifications for maritime traffic to and from the Ukrainian port cities in the Azov sea, such as the strategic city of Mariupol. Russia’s de facto blockade of the Kerch strait will also prevent the Ukrainian navy, primarily based in Odessa, from reaching Mariupol in the event of a crisis.
In addition, Russia aims to deter NATO countries from even considering a “freedom of navigation” operation through the strait or a port visit on Ukrainian coast in the sea of Azov. However, the alliance has never suggested that it is considering such missions.
DENYING NATO ISR ADVANTAGE?
Another key effect of Russia’s excessively large NOTAMs and NOMARs is that it could deter or significantly limit NATO’s ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) missions on Russia’s exercises.
U.S. and British reconnaissance aircraft have been intensively monitoring eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia’s Black Sea for the past weeks. Drones and maritime patrol aircraft are surveilling Crimea’s coast daily up until 19 April, keeping a close watch on Russia’s build-up – read more about NATO’s ISR operations here.
FORTE10 and P-8A Poseidon are doing their daily runs. Russian NOTAMs will probably complicate or even deny ISR sorties in some areas as RU naval drills are expected to grow. pic.twitter.com/XfJC2l4MEm
Given the latest NOTAMs, NATO surveillance platforms could be targeted by Russian anti-air fire or electronic attacks. From a legal standpoint, Russia has no authority to restrict the regional airspace, as Crimea is still internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory and falls under the Kiyv flight information region (FIR). However, the Russian build-up displays a credible capability and threat. It remains to be seen if NATO ISR missions will continue, and if so, how.
DETERRENCE TEST FOR NATO
The movement of extra-regional NATO vessels will also be indicative of whether Russia’s muscle-flexing and deterrence work. Two U.S. warships are currently on station in the Aegean Sea after President Biden abandoned plans to sail into the Black Sea, fearing that this move would provoke Russia.
Despite Washington’s reluctance, London has instructed two Royal Navy warships, one Type 45 destroyer and one Type 23 anti-submarine frigate, to deploy to the Black Sea. It remains to be seen if London will go through with the plan in May and if the U.S. warships will continue to idle in Greek waters.
One thing is certain, regional NATO countries and Ukraine would breathe easier knowing that advance British and American destroyers are in the Black Sea just in case Russia’s wargames turn out to be something else.
editing by Gecko
Update 23 April – added a new satellite image of Russian naval drills from 21 April and two explanatory paragraphs.
Update 22 April – additional comments have been added on the paragraph about NOTAMs and NOMARs to clarify Russia’s perspective on its plans to limit navigation through the Kerch strait.
U.S. and British reconnaissance aircraft are intensively monitoring eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia’s Black Sea coast amid fears of a renewed Russian offensive. RUSSIA’S 2021 BEAR SCARE In the past…
U.S. and British reconnaissance aircraft are intensively monitoring eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia’s Black Sea coast amid fears of a renewed Russian offensive.
RUSSIA’S 2021 BEAR SCARE
In the past month, Russia has moved over 14,000 soldiers and a vast array of capabilities, including Iskander ballistic missiles, tanks, howitzers, and thermobaric rocket launchers towards the Ukrainian border. Russia then launched thousands of snap exercises countrywide and established new field camps. One staging ground in Voronezh oblast, hosting over 400 military assets, has all the hallmarks of a logistics node that could support a line of communication into Ukraine.
OSINT map aggregating and georeferencing videos of Russian military movements near Ukraine, as documented on social media between March 27-30 (T-Intelligence)
Russia’s recent troop movements have alarmed the international community that fears a reignition of the war in eastern Ukraine or, even worse, the opening of a new front from Crimea.
Operating from international and Ukrainian airspace, U.S. and British drones and other specialized aircraft collect updated, real-time intelligence on Russia’s nefarious activities. Given the types of aircraft visible on openly available flight trackers, the two NATO members primarily collect imagery (IMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT).
IMINT ON DEMAND: RQ-4 IS OUR “FORTE”
Operated by the United States Air Force (USAF), the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone is at the forefront of Washington’s ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) operations in the Black Sea region. Based in Naval Air Station Sigonella (Italy), the RQ-4 Global Hawk with registration number 11-2049, either callsign FORTE10 and FORTE11, conducts frequent flights over eastern Ukraine.
USAF RQ-4 drone at Naval Air Station Sigonella (T-Intelligence/Maxar Technologies)
Th RQ-4 Global Hawk is a long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), meaning it has a 24 hour+ flight autonomy. Combined with hi-resolution cameras, the RQ-4 can provide a crystal-clear, live feed of Donetsk and Luhansk’s frontlines to decision-makers and commanders back at base. As seen in the screenshots attached, the RQ-4 loiters extensively and publicly over designated areas of interest.
Example of flight path taken by a USAF RQ-4 drone on ISR mission (T-Intelligence/ FlightRadar24)
While FORTE10 was a daily visitor of the region even before the latest escalation, its recent activities are likely connected with Russia’s troop build-up. In the screenshot below (11 April), the RQ-4 (now FORTE 11) was orbiting over the Kherson-Mariupol area, north of Crimea, after completing multiple passes over the frontline in Donbas.
The drone’s flight path is unusual and suggests that U.S. commanders are seriously considering that Russia might open a new front in the war against Ukraine and seize the Crimean canal.
The same RQ-4 drone (reg. no. 11-2049) using callsign FORTE 11 on 11 April while surveilling the area north of Crimea (source: @GDarkconrad)
Ukraine dammed the North Crimean Canal in 2014. As a result, the Russian-occupied Crimea lost nearly 90% of its fresh water supply, leaving it dry. While Moscow plans to solve this issue by re-routing four rivers into the Mezhgorny reservoir by 2024, many observers fear that Russia might use military action to seize the Crimean dam.
Besides the “daily FORTE”, there various other NATO country platforms surveilling the Black Sea region.
POSEIDON IS WATCHING
Best known for its submarine-hunting capabilities, the U.S. Navy’s P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MAP) also packs a substantial ISR capability. Using its powerful APY-10 multi-mode synthetic aperture radar, the P-8A can detect, classify and track surfaced vessels. The P-8A Poseidon surveillance system also includes the MX-20 – a modular HD imaging system with large-aperture lenses for high magnification, laser-range finding, and laser illumination.
USN P-8A Poseidon aircraft on the second ramp at Naval Air Station Sigonella (Italy) – T-Intelligence/Maxar Technologies via Google Maps
Besides IMINT, the P-8A can exploit emission from the electromagnetic spectrum. Thanks to its ALQ-240 Electronic Support Measure (ESM) suite, the P-8 can geo-locate and classify enemy radar emitters. On top of that, the P-8 can launch drones equipped with specialized sensors to detect submarines based on fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field.
This sensor fusion is invaluable to keep a watch on the Russian Navy’s activity around the Crimea peninsula and Krasnodar Krai. The Poseidon becomes an ever more relevant platform as Russia recently announced that it would deploy ten warships from the Caspian Sea into the Black Sea.
OLD TIMERS LISTENING IN: P-3C ORION AND ARIES II
The Poseidon’s predecessor platform, the P-3 Orion, is the U.S.’s other platform tasked with monitoring Russia’s build-up from an air-naval perspective. A rare occurrence, the P-3 acts as a force multiplier for the U.S. ISR efforts.
We have observed two P-3 variants operating in the area: the P-3C Orion and the EP-3E ARIES. While the Orion is an old airframe, it can still pull its weight in maritime intelligence collection and fulfil SIGINT duties.
Photo of the ARIES II aircraft (reg. no. 161410) conducting Black Sea missions (copyright: Levery)
The other variant observed is an evolution and conversion of the Orion, known as the EP-3E ARIES II (Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronic System II). Operated by a crew of 22+ specialists, ARIES II provides near real-time tactical SIGINT and full-motion video intelligence to commanders. ARIES can also intercept human communications (Communication Intelligence/ COMINT) and exploit a wide range of electronic emissions from deep within enemy territory.
Plus, the EP-3E ARIES flight crew also brought some humor into the mix. During a flight around Crimea on 10 April, an ARIES II appeared on flight trackers with the callsign “AK47,” and claimed to be an “AirAsia” flight.
ARIES II aircraft (callsign AK47, reg. no. 161410) from Souda Bay Naval Air Station on Black Sea mission on 12 April (T-Intelligence/ FlightRadar24)
ELECTRONIC STALKERS: RC-135W RIVET JOINT FLIGHTS
The last but not least platform active in the area is the Royal Air Force’s RC-135W Rivet Joint, operated by the 51st Squadron from RAF Waddington. The RC-135W is an Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft that can monitor radars, communications, and other signals emitted by the Russian units in Crimea.
ELINT aircraft are particularly good at mapping out the enemy’s Electronic Order of Battle (EOB). EOB typically includes the identity, capability, operating details, and location of enemy threat emitters and their role within an integrated air defense network.
Compilation of RC-135W Rivet Joint missions near Crimea (T-Intelligence/ FlightRadar24)
RC-135W aircraft have started regularly operating in the Black Sea in late February/early March. This is likely when the first signs of Russian troop movements became apparent to the American and British intelligence community. Two RC-135W aircraft (reg. ZZ666 and ZZ664) conducted the recon runs using at least four different callsigns – RRR7227, RRR7238, RRR7239 and RRR7240.
Many of the aircraft listed have also operated simultaneously in the Black Sea theater. The tweet attached shows the airspace over the Black Sea on 6 April.
IMINT/SIGINT ops ongoing in the Black Sea region:
-US RQ-4 Global Hawk over E. Ukraine (the daily #FORTE10)
-RAF ELINT plane near Kerch strait
-P8 Poseidon joining the party pic.twitter.com/gdkw53rhDL
An RQ-4 UAV was completing its second orbit over Severomonsk, while the RAF’s RC-135W was active near the Kerch Strait. Outbound from Sigonella, a P-8A Poseidon was on its way to join to ISR party.
Another mentionable ISR party took place on 14 April and featured a different assembly of allied aircraft. A U.S. EP-3E Aries II from Souda Bay (reg. no. 16140) scanned Crimea’s southern coast for signals and other emissions. Further down south, a Turkish Navy ATR C-72-600 aircraft was patrolling the Black Sea’s midsection, making a rare appearance on flight trackers. The “no callsign” aircraft is the US Navy’s P-8A Poseidon (outbound from Sigonella) on its way for another mission over the Black Sea.
14 April: Aries II SIGINT plane (USN, not USAF as shown on flight radar), C-72-600 maritime patrol aircraft (Turkish Navy), P-8A Poseidon and a RQ-4 Global Hawk drone (NATO – not pictured) are active over the Black Sea in a joint ISR mission (T-Intelligence/FlightRadar24)
One of NATO’s few independently-operated RQ-4 Global Hawks was was also active in the region. However, the drone deactivated its transponder before we had the chance to screenshot it.
ISR platforms such as those observed on flight trackers enable commanders and decision-makers to “see and hear” what the Russian military is preparing near Ukraine. These missions are critical to ensure that NATO will not be caught by surprise should Russia mount a new sneak attack.
While Russia’s build-up is at 2014-2015 levels and poses a credible threat, there is still no clear indication that Moscow intends to launch a new offensive in Ukraine.
T-Intelligence will continue to monitor the situation.
This article has been updated on 14 April to include a new image of an ISR “party” and a paragraph explaining it.
Geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) shows a Russian military staging ground in Voronezh oblast. The newly discovered site has the hallmarks of a logistics node that could sustain a line of communication…
Geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) shows a Russian military staging ground in Voronezh oblast. The newly discovered site has the hallmarks of a logistics node that could sustain a line of communication to the Ukrainian border.
A Conflict Intelligence Team (CITEAM) investigation revealed that many of the Russian military columns tracked by the OSINT community, including T-Intelligence, for the past days, have reached their destination. CITEAM’s study points to a rural location near Pogonovo training center, south of Voronezh city
Armed with this information, we pulled 3m/px satellite imagery of the site. Temporal analysis (2 April vs. 6 April) indicates a dramatic increase in vehicle activity and infrastructure on 6 April 2021.
2 April vs. 6 April 2021: a countryside location south of Voronezh city becomes a staging ground for Russia’s recent troop build-up. (T-Intelligence)
High-resolution satellite imagery obtained by the New York Times provides a detailed look into the staging ground.
Approximately 400 vehicles are visible on the satellite imagery. Armored personnel carriers make up the bulk of the forces amassed at the staging ground. Heavy artillery, including 2S19 Msta-S self-propelled howitzers and TOS-1 Thermobaric rocket launchers, is also present in large numbers.
The military has also established semi-permanent living facilities such as barracks and field hospitals. With constructions visibly ongoing, the staging ground is expected to grow.
Ukraine’s Kharkiv and Samy regions are five hours away from the staging ground, significantly closer than Luhansk (under separatist/Russian control).
If the staging ground is to support a conventional offensive in Ukraine, it will likely serve as a near-theater logistics node, facilitating the flow of assets further down the line of communication. It is possible that other, smaller nodes are already being established and serviced closer to the border.
Despite the recent findings, there is still no indication that a new Russian attack is imminent.
See our previous situation reports on Russia’s latest troop movements (April 2; April 7)
The Russian Federation’s military build-up near Ukraine is expanding, drawing forces from the Central Military District and escalating as thousands of snap exercises take place throughout the country. Social media…
The Russian Federation’s military build-up near Ukraine is expanding, drawing forces from the Central Military District and escalating as thousands of snap exercises take place throughout the country.
Social media users have continued to capture scores of rail flatbeds hauling main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, rocket launchers, fuel trucks, and even air defenses.
Sequel to our initial report, here is T-Intell’s breakdown of the most noteworthy open-source information from 2-7 April 2021:
1. Probably the most noteworthy development is the deployment of units from the Central Military District (CMD) towards the Ukrainian border. Russia typically moves and parades units from the Southern Military District and Western Military District if it wants to “bear scare” Ukraine and the West.
However, this week, Conflict Intelligence Team (CITEAM) observed BMPs, MLRS, and other vehicles moving west from Yurga and Novosibirsk (Siberia) on railways.
Yet another video of a train with Russian military vehicles was posted on TikTok on April 2.@666_mancer spotted a carriage number and ran it through “gdevagon” – a railcar tracking databse.
Many vehicles’ license plates, which indicate the unit’s origin, have been partially covered to preserve some degree of operations security during the cross-theatre movement.
It is unusual for CMD units to deploy so far from “home” except for strategic exercises. This development sets the recent troop build-up apart from past “bear scares.”
2. Russia ordered all of its forces to conduct readiness inspections. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, a total of 4048 exercises of various scales will take place during April, including 812 bilateral exercises, at 101 training grounds and 520 facilities of the training and material base. Checks will take place in all military districts, and all types and branches of troops will take part in them.
One such snap exercise took place in Opuk training range, Crimean peninsula. Over 200 troops from the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade (Black Sea Fleet) simulated an operation to capture a beachhead. Ground forces assaulted enemy positions using BTR-82s armored personnel carriers and Mi-8AM and Ka-27 helicopters.
3. Enter the battle-hardened “Pskov paratroopers.” Train markings seen in a TikTok video suggest that Russia has instructed one of its most experienced units, the 104th Guards Air Assault Regiment, to join the build-up – CITEAM has found. Based in Cheryokva and part of the 76th Guard Air Assault Division, the 104th is a unit known for having fought and sustained heavy casualties in Eastern Ukraine. The forward-positioning of this echelon adds further credibility to Russia’s build-up.
Long-time Ukraine watchers may remember the Russian 76th Guards Air Assault Division, whose soldiers were killed in Eastern Ukraine in summer 2014.https://t.co/H9KNfI6CnP
4. Advanced air defenses spotted on flatbed railcars, ready for deployment. A video shows a Pantsir S-1 (AFIC/NATO reporting name: SA-22 Greyhound) and numerous S-300 tractor erector launchers (SA-20B Gargoyle) without their missile tubes in an unidentified railway terminal – reportedly Voronezh. This deployment was probably connected with the snap air defense exercise in the Ashuluk training range on 6 April.
Video frame collage showing Pantsir and S-300 systems
5. Russia continues to amass a diverse and increasingly credible posture. The hardware spotted on the move in the past three days include (but are not limited to):
T-90 main battle tanks (moving from Makhachkala to Crimea);
T-72 main battle tanks and BMP-3 infantry fight vehicles (Kropotkin train station, Krasnodar);
2S4 Tyulpan 240mm self-propelled mortar system (Krasnodar)
Tunguska anti-air artillery (on the move M1 highway);
6. Despite multiple social media claims, large-scale fighting has not reignited in Donbas. However, there has been a spike in ceasefire violations. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SSM) recorded 1,424 ceasefire violations in the Donetsk region between 2-5 April. In the previous reporting period (2-3 April), the mission recorded 594 ceasefire violations. In Luhansk, the SMM recorded 126 ceasefire violations, a slight decrease from the 427 violations noticed in the previous reporting cycle.
In addition, the SSM also noted the disappearance of seven multiple launch rocket systems (BM-21 Grad, 122mm) and five towed howitzers (2A65 Msta-B, 152mm) from a warehouse in the non-government-controlled Luhansk region on 1 April 2021. The report specifically mentions that this is the first time these heavy weapons have disappeared.
7. The Russian-backed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) has announced military conscription for citizens born 1994 – 2003. Signed on 25 March, the DPR plans to implement the draft between 1 April 2021 and 5 July 2022. Despite the symbolic timing, DPR only expects to mobilize around 200 conscripts. Conscription campaigns are likely to continue and, in time, increase in scope.
#Ukraine: Russian-backed separatist of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) have announced military conscription for citizens born 1994 – 2003. This comes at a time of drastically increased fighting on the frontlines in the Donbas. Not looking good. pic.twitter.com/pwn03I0Cc6
What initially seemed like another annual “bear scare” – Russia’s typical postures ahead of negotiations – has now turned into a credible threat for a renewed offensive against Ukraine. This reading is based on logistical and military indicators that measure capability for an invasion, not the intention – which is political.
Russia’s intentions remain unclear, and our confidence levels for large-scale conventional operations against Ukraine are low to moderate. We maintain our assessment that Russia aims to posture and intimidate. However, given the forces’ heightened readiness and hardware deployed, this can change at any moment.
special credits to @GirkinGirkin for aggregating a vast amount of media material from Russian-language accounts
Videos on social media show a massive Russian military deployment near the Ukrainian border in the past 72 hours. Main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, rocket…
Videos on social media show a massive Russian military deployment near the Ukrainian border in the past 72 hours.
Main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, rocket launch systems, logistics trucks, and amphibious trailers (bridge-layers) have poured into occupied Crimea, Krasnodar Krai, and Rostov oblast.
OSINT map aggregating and georeferencing videos of Russian military movements near Ukraine, as documented on social media between March 27-30 (T-Intell)
The troop movements are so big that Russian agricultural machinery manufacturers and farmers have complained to the government that they cannot move their equipment ahead of the harvest season because the military requisitioned all of the flatbed railcars.
While the recent movements are out of the ordinary, they are not unprecedented. Russia has periodically launched large-scale snap deployments in an attempt to “bear scare” before upcoming negotiations or to test its adversaries ever since it invaded Ukraine in 2014.
HYPOTHESES FOR THE RECENT SITUATION:
1.Tit-for-tat for Ukraine’s moderate troop surge near Donbas and Luhansk in early March (following an increased number of ceasefire violations by Russia in Donbas).
In early March, a string of videos and images surfaced on social media, reportedly showing Ukrainian military hardware, T-64 tanks, APCs, and other vehicles, moving by train towards the war-torn Donbas.
NEW – Ukraine military moving ‘T-64 tanks’ loaded on train towards Donbass frontline near Russian borderpic.twitter.com/rSk7atBufw
While most of the footage remained unverified, the vast majority of the media material was genuine (not recycled from other build-ups), and a small amount could even be authenticated. For example, the images below show Ukrainian military vehicles on flatbed railcars in the Dnepropetrovsk train station.
Geolocation of images showing Ukrainian military vehicles in Dnipro train station
The deployments followed an uptick in ceasefire violations that resulted in Ukrainian soldiers’ death and increased sightings of advanced Russian weaponry in the Donbas.
Russia’s latest saber-rattling is likely a direct response to the presumed Ukrainian reinforcements in the east.
2.Posturing for ceasefire negotiations.
This is a strong candidate theory considering that talks between the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, OSCE) on Ukraine to extend the ceasefire monitoring mission beyond April 1st, have nearly failed. However, the OSCE managed to extend the mandate for another year in the final hours of March 31st.
3.Preparations for a renewed offensive against Ukraine.
The hardware type deployed and deployment locations are consistent with preparations for a multi-front assault on eastern Ukraine. Russian forces could escalate violence in Donbas while simultaneously assaulting Mariupol from Crimea to finish off the land-bridge linking Donbas with the occupied peninsula.
Russia’s movements have certainly stirred international anxiety, and NATO seems to be taking the risk seriously. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Milley had a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Gerasimov, discussing the recent troop build-up on March 31st. The U.S. European Command has reclassified Ukraine’s risk status from “possible crisis” to “potential imminent crisis.”
There has also been a spike in aerial intelligence collection sorties off the Crimean coast. A British Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft and American drones are among the platforms that “glued their eyes” on Russia’s military manoeuvres.
RAF RC-135W Rivet Joint (#ZZ666) ELINT aircraft active off the Crimean coast, sniffing radars and whatnot…. 📻📡
While the recon run is seemingly connected to Russia’s recent troop build-up, keep in mind, these sorties have taken place before, even in the past weeks. pic.twitter.com/aD5fHzdVb9
Aerial activity around #Crimea: U.S. RQ-4 Global Hawk, from Sigonella, collecting IMINT off the Crimean and Russian coasts. In paralel, a RuNavy Tu-154M flying towards the Azov Sea. pic.twitter.com/hyTSZhhVf3
While a renewed invasion is the most impactful scenario, it is also the most unlikely at this point in time.
Apart from the mentioned hypotheses, there could be a myriad of other reasons that contribute to the latest actions, such as the relocation of 56th Airborne brigade from Kamyshin to Feodosia, unannounced military exercises, or extended deployments post-drills.
The recent movements are likely just another “bear scare,” however, one should never rule out the possibility of a renewed Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine. Ultimately, this is a fluid and volatile situation that can escalate or cool down at any moment. Prudent caution is advised.
ALERT: Read our second part report on Russia’s build-near near Ukraine’s border, here, encompassing the latest developments between 1-7 April.
This article is an extended version of the situation report that we shared on Facebook on 1 April 2021.
Update [2 April 2021, 1700z – CET] to include tweet of flight tracker showing P-8 Poseidon patrolling near Kerch strait.
Update [7 April 2021 1700z – CET] to include link to our second report on the issue.
Russian military activity in the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap has increased exponentially in the past years. Launched from the Northern Fleet “bastion,” submarine-hunting, anti-surface, and maritime surveillance missions are at the…
Russian military activity in the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap has increased exponentially in the past years. Launched from the Northern Fleet “bastion,” submarine-hunting, anti-surface, and maritime surveillance missions are at the forefront of Russia’s sorties in the GIUK. These operations often come close to Norwegian, Icelandic, and British airspace, forcing NATO to scramble interceptors and shadow the visiting aircraft. With Russia’s newfound interest in the Cold War-era flashpoint, NATO is gearing up to level the playing field.
I. RUSSIAN AIRCRAFT SHADOW NATO AIRSPACE
1.The Russian aircraft launch from air bases in the Kola Peninsula and travel south through the Barents and Norwegian Seas. During their forays, they regularly pass through NATO flight information regions (FIRs) without broadcasting their position or communicating with civil authorities. The Norwegian, Icelandic, and British FIRs have seen the most “visitors.”
Map shows OSINT observations of Russian aircraft transits through NATO areas of interests and main QRA launch points
2.Airspace around the world is divided into Flight Information Regions (FIRs). Each FIR is managed by a controlling authority, which is responsible for ensuring that air traffic is deconflicted and safe.
SCRAMBLE, SCRAMBLE, SCRAMBLE
3.Because of the flight path, the Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) is the first to detect and respond to Russian flybys. The RNoAF regularly scrambles F-16s and, more recently, F-35A stealth fighters from Bodø and Ørland to monitor and conduct visual identification of the visiting formations. As the Russians proceed southwards, the RNoAF hands the interception duties to other NATO forces.
4.The British Royal Air Force (RAF) scramble interceptors from RAF Lossiemouth, the air base responsible for defending the UK’s northern airspace. Lossiemouth’s Eurofighter Typhoons are on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), which means they are ready to respond to any threat, at any moment – 24/7. T-Intelligence has frequently reported on RAF’s Lossiemouth successful interceptions of Russian aircraft in the past three years.
5.In many instances, Russian transited FIR corridors used by civilian airliners to enter and depart British airspace. In at least one situation, the British air traffic control (ATC) had to divert commercial flights to mitigate collision risk with the “incognito” Russian aerial formation.
For those wondering why the RAF shadowed Russian aircraft in international airspace west of Ireland yesterday, their routing cut straight across the routes taken by airliners crossing the North Atlantic (and the TU-142MR trails an antenna several kms long when talking to subs). pic.twitter.com/3QKx3ltT0W
6.NATO aircraft serving in the Icelandic Air Policing mission (Iceland does not have an air force) have also intercepted Russian aircraft. NATO QRA aircraft have frequently encountered Tu-142 maritime patrol aircraft, Bear F and J versions, and MiG-31s.
7.The Combined Air Operations Center (COAC) from Uedem, Germany, coordinates NATO interceptions in the GIUK. The COAC also deploys E-3 Sentry aircraft from Geilenkirchen (Germany) to provide air control and battlespace awareness. COAC-Uedem serves under the Allied Air Command (AIRCOM), which is NATO’s core headquarters responsible for air operations.
8.Russian aerial formations in the GIUK typically consist of Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) Tu-160 Blackjack bombers and Russian Navy (RuN) maritime patrol aircraft, namely Tu-142 variants. On some occasions, we noted RuAF-RuN composite formations of Blackjacks, Bear-F s (anti-submarine & maritime patrol), or Bear-Js (airframe designed to communicate with submarines). MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors have sometimes, although seldom, escorted the Bears.
Compilation: NATO QRA aircraft intercepting Russian aircraft over the GIUK (T-Intell)
9.Judging by the airframe composition, the Russians primarily conduct anti-submarine warfare (ASW) exercises in the GIUK. ASW is the art of detecting, denying, and engaging enemy submarines. Airframes like the Bear Fs can drop buoys that survey the seas for submarines. Once detected, Bear Fs can transmit the targeting data to Russian submarines via Bear-J communication relay. The kill-chain also works vice-versa, with submarines indicating the enemy positions to Bear-Js that, in turn, relay them to surface ships and aircraft. Alternatively, Bear-Fs can be armed with anti-ship missiles and anti-submarine torpedoes, being able to prosecute enemy vessels without assistance. However, the latter option is less likely as the Russian Navy, as its Soviet predecessor, emphasizes the concept of combined forces – coordinated operations among surface, subsurface and aerial assets.
10.The presence of Blackjacks, which can carry and launch up to 12 cruise missiles, indicates that the Russians are also rehearsing anti-surface warfare (ASuW). This means that NATO bases in Norway, the UK, and Iceland and ports and vessels are on the mock-kill list. These objectives are essential for NATO’s Transatlantic sea lines of communications (SLOCs) – the strategic corridor linking North America to Europe.
11.Besides rehearsing specific mission profiles, Russian flybys in NATO flight information regions (FIRs) test the readiness, disposition, response time, and interception tactics of NATO QRA bases in the GIUK – RAF Lossiemouth (UK), Keflavik (Iceland), and Bodø and Ørland (Norway). While seemingly generic, this kind of intelligence is critical for any air force that wants to stay prepared for wartime operations.
12.To understand why the Russian military is conducting these flights – and, likely, covert sails – through the GIUK, we must examine the region’s importance to Russia’s overall naval strategy and disposition.
II.THE GIUK GAP: WHY IT MATTERS TO RUSSIA
13.The GIUK gap is a series of strategic routes between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. The GIUK connects the North Atlantic to the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea – which is why it matters to Russia.
14. From a geographical perspective, the GIUK is a two-way street. While historically the Gap has favoured the defenders of the North Atlantic, forces moving towards the Norwegian Sea must also funnel through these waterways.
15.The Barents Sea hosts the crown jewel of the Russian Navy – the Northern Fleet. Nowadays, the Northern Fleet is a flotilla in name only. In 2014, the Fleet became an autonomous command, known as Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command. Since 31 January 2021, the Northern Fleet is a military district, the highest military-territorial division of the Russian Federation. The Northern Fleet Military District (NFMD) commands airbases, harbors, nuclear storage sites, and shipyards sprawling from the Kola Peninsula to the Arkhangelsk Oblast and Arctic archipelago.
16.The importance of the NFMD stems primarily from its submarine force. More specifically, the Russian nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs in the US Navy terminology), which continue to stir anxiety on both sides of the Atlantic.
17.At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence assessed that the Soviet Northern Fleet would cut NATO’s Transatlantic sea lines of communication (SLOC) in case of war. But as open-source intelligence from the CNA later found, counter-SLOC was a low-priority mission for the Soviets, or it became so in the 1980s. The introductory comments from this declassified CIA report captures the growing realization among the U.S. intelligence community that “sea denial operations in the North Atlantic are not a high priority item for the Soviet naval efforts” (Director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner in 1978).
Russian SSBNs in 2021 (T-Intelligence compilation using Google Earth imagery)
WITHHOLDING STRATEGY AND BASTION DEFENSE
18.Instead of staging a battle for the Atlantic, the Soviets were primarily concerned with defending the Northern Fleet’s SSBNs. Capable of launching long-range nuclear attacks, the SSBN fleet was to be preserved as a second-strike capability following a limited nuclear exchange. This came to be known as the “withholding strategy” or the “pro-SSBN” mission.
19.To enhance SSBN survivability, the Soviets designed a multi-layered and all-domain concept known to the US intelligence community as Close Abroad Bastion (CAB), or simply “bastion.” Bastions were intended to prevent NATO submarines from infiltrating the SSBN area of operations such as the Bering Sea or the Arctic Ocean, where Soviet submarines would hide underneath the polar ice caps, and surface when needed to fire. As periodically demonstrated, Russia’s submarines are still able to surface from under the thick arctic ice.
(The video below shows a Russian submarine ice exercise that took place near Alexandra island, in the Franz Joseph archipelago on 26 March 2021).
20.The bastion concept called for the wholesale mining of the sea approaches, hunting enemy submarines with a combination of ASW aircraft, attack submarines, and warships, and lining up friendly shores with coastal defense batteries.
21.The Soviets established two bastions, one in the Sea of Okotoks (Soviet Pacific Fleet) and another in the Barents Sea (Soviet Northern Fleet). In 1988, the U.S. Navy intelligence estimated that only 25% of the Northern Fleet would not have been dedicated to the pro-SSBN mission in case of war (see page 53).
RUSI Graphic shows estimated Russian bastion area in the Northern Fleet Military District
22.In response to the bastion strategy, the U.S. Navy launched a series of operations to infiltrate Soviet bastions and keep tabs on the Northern Fleet’s submarines around the clock. On 20 March 1993, an American submarine and a Russian SSBN collided off the Kola peninsula, underscoring just how easy it was for the U.S. Navy to infiltrate Russia’s bastions. The international incident forced both the U.S. and Russia to rekindle their submarine “cat-and-mouse” tactics.
23.Nowdays, the Russian Navy is no more than a shadow of its Soviet predecessor. In 1990, the Red Fleet had approximately 600 ships, of which 59 SSBNs. In 2015, the Russian Navy only operated around 170 boats – 13 of which were SSBNs. The number of SSBNs is down to 10 in 2021.
24. After decades of declining capabilities, Russia’s submarine force is now poised to grow and evolve for the first time. As part of a master plan to overhaul the Navy’s underwater capabilities, Russia is developing six submarine classes simultaneously: Borei-II (SSBN), Bolgorod (strategic), Khabarovsk (cruise missile), Yasen-M, Lada, and Improved Kilo.
25.At the center of the Navy’s modernization program is the Poseidon weapon (AFIC/NATO Reporting name: Kanyon) – a nuclear-tipped, autonomous torpedo with unlimited range. Naval warfare expert H.I. Sutton describes Poseidon as a “second-strike doomsday weapon to literally go under missile defenses.” Alongside Bulava, a modern submarine-launched intercontinental-ballistic missile (ICBM), the Poseidon will spearhead a new generation of Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD).
26.As the vast majority of these new toys will be in service with the NFMD, Russia has started paying more attention to the GIUK. Russia must closely surveil the GIUK Gap to mitigate and deny enemy infiltrations. This explains the periodic NATO interceptions of Russian maritime patrol and ASW aircraft in this area.
Technical details of Poseidon/Status-6 were likely deliberately leaked on state TV before President Putin could announce the new weapon
28.Russia also prepares to contest the GIUK in case of war. Therefore, Russia’s assertive behavior in the GIUK can be interpreted as a form of active forward-defense of the bastion concept, which inevitably entails anti-surface warfare against British, Norwegian, and American forces.
29. Another reason for Russia to consider forward-defense in the GIUK is the threat posed by NATO stand-off weaponry. For example, a Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile can be fired from 1,600 km away (Block IV), meaning that Russian forces must intercept enemy launch platforms earlier and at a greater range.
30.Besides its role for forward defense, the GIUK gap remains a strategic chokepoint for Russia to move warships into the North Atlantic. As outlined in its 2015 maritime strategy, the Russian Navy must ensure the “free access of the Russian fleet to the Atlantic.”
31.Russia’s interests beyond the GIUK gap stretch from overseas combat operations and joint drills to seabed warfare (attacking underwater internet cables) and intelligence collection on American submarines.
III. NATO COUNTERMEASURES: BACK TO THE FUTURE
32.As Russia’s activities in the High North increased, the Bastion concept, the SSBN threat, and the GIUK dilemma re-emerged on NATO’s agenda. The Alliance and member states have undertaken a series of measures to curtail Russia’s revanchist designs in the GIUK gap and the Arctic.
NATO LEVEL MEASURES:
Establishment of a new NATO headquarters, called the Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2020. The new HQ will help NATO navies from both sides of the pond better coordinate operations in the Atlantic.
Icelandic Air Policing (IAP) upgraded to QRA. Lacking an air force and witnessing various airspace intrusions from the Russian Air Force, Iceland requested NATO assistance in 2006. NATO established an Icelandic air policing mission in 2008. In 2014, IAP was put on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), increasing the readiness and requirements for air policing in response to the increased Russian activity.
Increased integration under the Allied Air Command (AIRCOM). AIRCOM is NATO’s core headquarters responsible for air operations. Operating under AIRCOM, the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) from Uedem, Germany, commands NATO’s Air Policing missions in the North on a tactical level. Thanks to COAC, multinational air policing in the GIUK gap is conducted more effectively and in an integrated matter.
Increase and expansion of joint military exercise in the High North. The most notable joint drill was Trident Juncture 2018 (TRJE18), organized in Norway. Encompassing over 50,000 troops from 31 member states and partners, TRJE18 was NATO’s biggest exercise since 2002. The GIUK featured heavily on the exercise agenda. In response, Russia launched electronic attacks on Norway and Finland, jamming GPS and disturbing civilian air traffic in the High North.
Budgetary increases enabled many member states to implement ambitious procurement plans that impact the GIUK region. For example, the UK is in the process of acquiring no less than nine P-8 Poseidon “submarine-hunting” aircraft. Five of which are already in service with RAF Lossiemouth. Norway (like the UK) has already purchased a bulk of F-35 stealth fighters and builds new warships and submarines.
The US Navy is re-establishing the 2nd Fleet that patrolled the Atlantic Ocean in the Cold War. The 2nd Fleet was terminated in 2011 in a move to save costs.
The US military has undertaken various measures to enhance its ability to respond faster to potential flashpoints in the High North. At the center of these measures is Norway, where U.S. Marines train annually for arctic warfare, and American vessels (including submarines) conduct port visits.
Most recently, the US Air Force has deployed B-1b bombers to Norway for the first time. Until now, most US operations in the Arctic military were staged out of the UK. In addition, the local press reported that Norway is considering leasing its naval base near Olavsvern (Norway’s far north) for use by American submarines.
Russian flights and sails through the GIUK will persist as a form of forward-defense of its Barents Sea bastion. Russia must also maintain a foothold in the NATO-dominated waters around the UK and Iceland to secure access into the North Atlantic for peacetime and combat operations, unconventional warfare, and other objectives.
NATO’s response so far has been adequate to Russia’s resurgence. However, the Alliance must take further measures, especially strengthening ASW capabilities, to effectively counter Russia’s increasingly sophisticated submarine forces.
The age of anti-submarine warfare in the High North is back.
This strategic analysis was enabled by Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT). Now you can learn OSINT too! Head over to Knowmad OSINT and check out our training offer.
Armenia’s Prime-Minister Nikol Pashinyan shocked the Russian Defense Ministry when he complained about the Iskander-E missile system’s ineffectiveness in a public interview (23 February 2021). PM Pashinyan said that the Iskander missiles launched…
Armenia’s Prime-Minister Nikol Pashinyan shocked the Russian Defense Ministry when he complained about the Iskander-E missile system’s ineffectiveness in a public interview (23 February 2021). PM Pashinyan said that the Iskander missiles launched during the short war with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region “didn’t explode or maybe 10 percent of them exploded.” When asked why the Iskander disappointed, Pashniyan hinted at the missile’s old age: “I don’t know… maybe they were weapons from the ‘80s.”
In response to Pashiynan’s claims, Russia has released a video montage showing two successful Iskander strikes – both ballistic and cruise missile variants – in Syria. But instead of clearing the Iskander’s name, Russia has inadvertently proved that it has targeted hospitals – an allegation that Moscow has perpetually disputed despite evidence to the contrary from open-source investigations (e.g. New York Times) and even the United Nations (UN).
The second clip from the compilation shows an Iskander missile hitting an H-shaped building. Twitter user and geolocation wizard @obretix identified the target as a hospital in Azaz, near the Turkish border. While the footage is undated, the attack seems to match reports from early 2016 about an unclaimed strike on Azaz hospital.
An Airwars assessment from 19 January 2016, quoting two Syrian sources, informs: “Russian forces targeted the town of Azaz with two ballistic missiles, causing the death of one civilian and injury of several others.”
A Reuters report from 15 Feb 2016 similarly mentions an unattributed missile strike on a “hospital and school sheltering refugees in Azaz, Syria,” quoting local residents and medics. A Physicians Across Continents (PAC) Facebook post corroborates the Reuters report and describes an airstrike on Azaz hospital.
Breaking news: At least 14 dead as missiles hit hospital and school sheltering refugees in Azaz, Syria, medics and residents say
Sentinel-2 satellite imagery from that time is sparse and does not cover every day. However, when comparing imagery from 17 January vs. 16 February, there seems to be a “splash” mark on the impact area seen in the footage.
T-Intell retroactive battle-damage assessment of Iskander strike on Azaz hospital @ Sentinel 2 satellite images via Sentinel Hub and frame extracted from RIA footage
Google Earth Pro high-resolution imagery from 20 March 2016 shows the same area at Aziz hospital visibly scared.
The Iskander is not the first Russian system that is publicly scrutinized. Observers, including T-Intelligence, have noted the ease with which Turkish drones managed to hunt down Russian-made Pantsir aerial defense systems in Syria and Libya. The Russian Defense Ministry is growing increasingly defensive about the effectiveness of its capabilities. However, with this latest “public relations” stunt, Russia has foremost proven that it bombs hospitals, not that the Iskander-E works.
On the night of 15 February, approximately 14 rockets landed in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). TARGET: ERBIL Three projectiles hit the military annex of Erbil…
On the night of 15 February, approximately 14 rockets landed in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Three projectiles hit the military annex of Erbil International Airport that the Coalition built to service counter-ISIS operations. Three housing facilities were destroyed in the attack, killing one contractor (non-US) and injuring others.
Battle Damage Assessment: Contractor housing facilities destroyed at Erbil Air Base
At least two other rockets landed in residential areas, destroying public and private properties and injuring bystanders.
The unexploded ammunition recovered by Kurdish counter-terrorism forces is identical to the Iranian-made “Haseb” 107mm rocket artillery, a copy of the Chinese Type 63. This type of munition is ubiquitous among Iraqi Shiite militias courtesy of the IRGC-Quds Force.
Iranian rockets used in the attack
The Haseb has a short-range (7-10 km), which meant the aggressors launched the attack from proximity. As Haseb rockets can be launched from the back of a minivan or pick-up truck, they can easily be smuggled in denied areas.
Images released by Kurdish authorities show the launch vehicle, a light food truck, with a disguised rocket artillery system. The vehicle appears to have infiltrated the city under the cover of delivering food to a local market.
USUAL SUSPECTS: IRAQI SHIITE MILITIAS
A group calling itself “Saraya Awliya al-Dam” (Custodians of the Blood) claimed responsibility for the attack. According to the Washington Institute, Saraya Awliya al-Dam is just a cover used by Asaib al-Haq (AHH), a seasoned Iraqi Shiite militia with strong ties with Iran. The U.S. Department of State designated AHH as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on January 3, 2020.
Iranian-backed attacks on Coalition forces in Iraq are not new. The targeting of Erbil is, however, largely unprecedented (the Sept 2020 attack is the only exception) and could indicate an expansion of Iranian-approved targets. If that’s the case, Iraq’s most stable area is now in Tehran’s crosshairs.
During the latest military exercise(“Great Prophet” 15), the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF) demonstrated how Iran would attack U.S. military bases and warships in the region. Great…
During the latest military exercise(“Great Prophet” 15), the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF) demonstrated how Iran would attack U.S. military bases and warships in the region. Great Prophet 15 (GP15) was Iran’s third drill in almost two weeks – at a time of rising tensions due to the U.S. President Donald Trump’s departure from the White House.
GP15 is part of a series of annual wargames organized by the IRGC to test new capabilities and tactics. Initiated on 15 January, this year’s exercise featured two stages during which the IRGC-AF simulated a combined drone and missile attack on enemy “U.S.” air defenses, bases, and warships in the Middle East.
The IRGC-AF successfully test-fired some of its newest and most sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and ballistic missiles (B.M.s), including a long-range anti-ship variant that could theoretically target U.S. aircraft carriers.
The IRGC-AF exercise had three main objectives: To respond to the tensions with the United States, reinforce Iran’s strategic deterrent, and test new ballistic missile technologies.
IRGC-AF “Great Prophet 15” exercise in Garmsar Missile Test Range (Semnan province, Iran) captured on Sentinel-2 imagery:
-Activity hinted on 12 Jan. imagery (before exercise)
-Missile launch burn marks visible on 17 Jan (after).
(1)In the first phase of GP15, the IRGC-AF simulated a drone swarm attack on enemy radar sites and air defenses. Footage released by Iranian media showcased the following UAVs:
Shahed 161 combat reconnaissance drone (at least four) flying in formation. One of the many drone variants that the IRGC-AF developed based on the U.S. RQ-170 captured in 2011.
Shahed 161 during GP15
Shahed 129 medium altitude long-endurance (MALE) drone. At least one was shown taking off, armed with Sadid-345 glide bombs, and then airborne. Similar with the Israeli Hermes 450 and American MQ-1 Predator, the Shahed 129 is one of Iran’s most seasoned UAV. The IRGC-AF operated the Shahed 129 extensively in the Syrian Civil War, and it continues to support it with upgraded ordnance and sensors.
Shahed 129 with Sadid-345 bombs participates in GP15
Unidentified loitering munition (aka “suicide drones”) neutralizing target buildings and a mobile surface-to-air missile (SAM) system.
A rare sighting: the IRGC’s coy suicide drone makes a cameo at GP15, destroying a variety of targets.
This unidentified model is similar to the suicide drone Saudi Arabia recovered after the Iranian attack on petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq-Khurais and Afif in 2019. Unable to identify the drone, the Saudis have labeled it “Delta Wave UAV.” Experts have pointed out that Delta Wave might be an evolution of the Toofan-2 suicide drone that Iran unveiled in 2015.
Comparison between the suicide drone from GP15 and the airframe wreckage from Abqaiq-Khurais and Afif, Saudi Arabia (2019)
(2) The use of drones and specifically “suicide drones” for S/DEAD roles (suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses) is a logical tactic for Iran. Due to their stealthy characteristics, suicide drones can fly below the radar to strike enemy air defenses and heavily defended targets. With the drone-cruise missile attack in 2019 on Saudi Arabia, Iran has already proved this works in a real-world engagement.
(3) An advantage of loitering munition is that it is inexpensive, especially compared to ballistic missiles tipped with anti-radiation warheads like the IRGC used for SEAD in previous exercises.
(4) After the SEAD mission, the IRGC-AF fired its second kinetic package, a barrage of rockets and missiles, to destroy the enemy base. The ballistic missile attack could have also played a support role in saturating the enemy air defenses. Footage from the exercise shows the coordinated launch of thirteen Zolfaghar/Dezful missiles on 15 January.
Dezful ballistic missiles lined up to fire in anger (frame from @Imamedia video)
(5) IRGC-AF claims to have tested new high-performing variants of the Zolfaghar and Dezful ballistic missiles (B.M.), as well as Zelzal (guided artillery rocket). Iran alleges that these new variants feature radar-absorbent material and a detachable warhead. Video analysis of exercise footage confirms the latter capability.
(6) In the second and final stage of GP15, the IRGC-AF turned its attention to the maritime domain. At least three Sejil-2, two Gadhr, and one Emad medium-range B.M.s struck naval targets in the Gulf of Oman and the northern Indian Ocean on 16 January 2021.
There were SIX (6) missiles on the second day of “Great Prophet 15”. And THREE (3) solid propelled Sejjils. pic.twitter.com/Tn2fPDO9SY
(7) The main event of GP15 was the maiden launch of a long-range anti-ship ballistic missile (AshBM). The missile traveled for 1,800 km to the northern Indian Ocean, where it reportedly hit a floating target.
(8)The U.S. military confirmed the event, adding that two Iranian missile splashed down 32 km from a commercial vessel and 160 km from the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group (CSG). The missile test did not pose a threat to the Nimitz carrier or its escorts.
Overview: Possible Iranian AshBM attack route towards the Arabian Sea and the location of the U.S. Nimitz aircraft carrier the day after the missile test
(9)Iran already possesses short-range AshBM, namely the Khalij Fars (200 km) and Zolfaghar Basir (700 km), ideal for overwhelming enemy targets in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. However, a functional long-range capability would be a game-changer.
(10) If the new Iranian AshBM is indeed a credible threat, the U.S. would need to withdraw its aircraft carrier from the 1,800 km engagement range in the event of a war. Having to operate from such a distance would significantly reduce the effectiveness of offensive naval operations. Fighter jets would have to travel farther, reducing sortie rate and operational tempo, while most ship-launched missiles would be entirely out of range.
(11) Pushing American carriers and destroyers far away from Iranian shores adds another layer to Iran’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. While Iran has produced a massive and diverse arsenal of short-range missiles (both cruise and ballistic) that brings the entire Gulf region in the IRGC’s crosshairs, long-range advancements are relatively rare.
(12) There is nevertheless reason to be skeptical about the Iranian claims. Currently, information on the AshBM is minimal. We know that a missile test took place and that a warhead crashed into the Indian Ocean after a 1,800 km flight. There is no image or video of the missile. It is not even clear if the long-range AshBM is an entirely new model or a spinoff of one of the missiles launched on Saturday.
(13) Furthermore, the kill chain to strike a U.S. carrier guarded by Aegis-capable destroyers is very complicated especially in wartime conditions, as the WarZone eloquently explained. While the recent exercise may not represent a clear and immediate threat to carrier operations in the region, it does indicate that Iran is getting closer to limiting the U.S. Navy’s freedom of movement in the area.
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