Author: HARM

Lethal Stalkers: How Turkish Drones Are Neutralizing Haftar’s Pantsirs in Libya (BDA)

Turkish drones operating in Libya on behalf of the Government of National Accord (GNA) have neutralized ten of General Haftar’s Pantsir S-1E (NATO Reporting name: SA-22 “Greyhound) air defense systems…

Turkish drones operating in Libya on behalf of the Government of National Accord (GNA) have neutralized ten of General Haftar’s Pantsir S-1E (NATO Reporting name: SA-22 “Greyhound) air defense systems in less than a week. The Turkish aerial onslaught was the most significant suppression/ destruction of air defenses (S/DEAD) operation of the Libyan Civil War and a colossal humiliation for Russia’s prime counter-drone and short-range air defense. Forced into retreat, Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) has pledged to respond with the biggest aerial battle in Libyan history. 



OPERATION “VOLCANO OF RAGE” 

The GNA’s counter-offensive against LNA advances in western Libya and around Tripoli (“Vulcano of Rage”), which commenced in April 2019, has finally reached a breakthrough. Backed by Turkey’s S/DEAD campaign, GNA forces have secured the Tunisian border, recaptured the western shoreline, and pushed the LNA out of its strategic positions in Watiyah Air Base and south of Gharyan. GNA militias are now ready to retake northwestern Libya (Tripolitania), the country’s most populous region. 

Map of “Rage of Volcano” offensive via Rr016

BAYRAKTAR VS. PANTSIR 

Pantsirs provide point air defense for LNA tactical positions, and especially airfields. The airfields are vital for Haftar’s air wing as they host fighter aircraft refurbished with Egyptian, Emirati, and Russian assistance, as well as Emirati drones for airstrikes against the GNA. 

Emirati variant of the Pantsir S-1Export, which uses the Rheinmetal Man SX45 8×8 truck, via Portal Defensa

The Pantsir’s 96K6 surface-to-air missiles have an engagement range of up to 24 km. In comparison, Ankara’s Bayraktar 2TB unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), which was likely responsible for the strikes against Hafter, uses MAM-L Smart Micro Munition manufactured by Rokestan. The MAM-L can strike targets up to 14 km away. In theory, the Turkish UCAVs with their small warhead (max. 22 kg) and limited engagement range are not ideal for S/DEAD missions. Turkey likely leveraged the inexperience of the Pantsir crew members, who are a combination of Russian mercenaries (Wagner) and poorly trained Libyans (it is unknown whether the Emirati military advisors play an active role in operating the Pantsirs).  

Bayraktar TB-2 armed with MAM-L and MAC-C missiles via IslamicWorldNews

Part of Turkey’s tactics are long-endurance ISR sorties (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) that identify the perfect window of opportunity for a strike. The footage in the BDA section shows that most of the attacks caught the Pantsirs unprepared and inactive after the Turkish drones had stalked them for an extended time.

It is furthermore possible that Turkey used the Koral Electronic Warfare (EW) system to jam, deceive or paralyze the Pantsir’s radar. An electronic attack could explain how the drones managed to get within firing range even when the air defenses were up and running. Turkey deployed the Koral in Libya as part of a broader military assistance package, which includes frigates, air defenses, and even Syrian rebels, in early 2020. 

The KORAL Mobile Radar Electronic Warfare System is composed of Electronic Support and Electronic Attack System each mounted on an eight by eight tactical truck (photo credits: ASELSAN)

THE HUNT: BATTLE DAMAGE ASSESSMENT

The GNA claims that the drone campaign neutralized ten Pantsir S-1E air defense systems (9 destroyed, one captured) in four days, between 16 and 20 May. 

The GNA and affiliated press outlets released footage that confirms seven drone strikes, most of which have been validated through geolocation. Analysis of the footage, coupled with social media photos from the target sites, irrefutably prove that the raids hit five Pantsir batteries – four destroyed, one damaged. However, this does not mean that the rest of the strikes did not take place or that other missiles did not reach their targets. It is uncommon for militaries to publish targeting footage from all of their operations. 

We estimate that the loss of Pantsirs racks up a bill of at least $140 million for the United Arab Emirates, which supplied the systems to Haftar. 


16-18 MAY: RAID ON WATIYA AIR BASE

The GNA resumed its counter-offensive against the LNA in early May, pledging to recover Haftar’s gains from the past year. On 15 May, GNA forces encircled the LNA-held Watiya Air Base (WAB) in western Libya and called in Turkish air support to soften the enemy’s defenses. On the night of 16 May, Turkish drones took to the skies of Watiya and raided the strategic airbase. The drones struck two clamshell hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) in WAB’s southeast corner, damaging a Pantsir S-1E. The GNA captured the Pantsir (and a makeshift user manual) after the LNA withdrew from WAB on 20 May. 

The Pantsir S-1E system damaged after the drone raid on al-Watiya Air Base

The next day, Turkish drones bombed a third hangar, causing it to collapse on a Pantsir. Photos from the site show the Pantsir buried in concrete, seemingly totaled. This attack raised many questions, as the micro-munitions used by Turkish drones, do not pack a punch big enough to crumble a HAS. Possibly, a Turkish frigate off the Libyan coast launched a cruise missile that destroyed the “clamshell.” Alternatively, the drone attack triggered a series of secondary explosions, which caused the hangar to implode. 

BDA of the Al-Watiyah raids via ImageSat International

Left without anti-air cover and surrounded by the GNA, Haftar’s LNA withdrew from WAB on 18 May 2020. GNA militias secured the airbase immediately after. Social media postings of GNA fighters provide an on-site Battle Damage Assessment (BDA), which confirmes that one Patnsir was damaged and another destroyed (third hangar). 

The second Pantsir S-1 targeted, covered in concrete

The photos also showcased other military hardware left behind by the LNA, including several decommissioned Mirage-F1 and Su-22 (Fitter) aircraft and Mi-24 (Hind) and Mi-35 helicopters (Hind-E) dating back to the Gaddafi-era. 


18 MAY: SOUTH OF SIRTE

Hours before the LNA withdrew from WAB and some 300 km east, a Turkish drone executed another operation. The UCAV was monitoring an LNA military transport carrying an inactive Pantsir S-1 on its trailer. The truck was moving the Pantsir from Ghardabiya AB, near Sirte, to al-Jafra AB in central Libya. When the vehicle stopped around 70 km south of Sirte, the Turkish drone scored a direct hit on the Pantsir.

20 MAY: RAIDS ON TARHUNAH AND ELSEWHERE

Videos released to the press on 20 May, show a series of drone strikes that neutralized four Pantsirs in the town of Tarnurah. The airstrikes intended to soften Haftar’s defenses in the area.

The attack destroyed one inactive Pantsir, which was on the move in an intersection west of Tanurah. Two other Pantsirs were supposedly destroyed while sheltered in hangars. The videos show the missiles hitting the structures, but do not offer proof that confirms the “kills.” However, if the hangars were harboring Pantsirs, the air defense systems likely did not survive the attack. 

The fourth engagement shows an irrefutable kill of an active Pantsir – radar spinning and scanning. The official release claims that this strike also took place near Tarnurah.

The GNA also announced that it destroyed three other Pantsirs on the same day: two in “Wishka” and one in Suk el-Ahad. As they did not provide visual proof, we are unable to confirm the outcome or the location of the strikes. 


HAFTAR TO STRIKE BACK? 

The chief of the LNA’s air wing, Saqr Al-Jaroushi, vowed to unleash the “largest aerial campaign in Libyan history” with all Turkish positions now “legitimate targets for our airforce.” 

The GNA’s Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha said at least six MiG-29s (Fulcrum) and two Su-24s (Fencer) have flown into eastern Libya from Russia’s 55th Hmeimim Airbase in Syria, to bolster the LNA’s offensive capabilities. He added that Russian Air Force Su-35 air superiority fighters (Flanker-E) escorted the flight group. 

Mr. Bashagha’s accusations are consistent with unconfirmed reports from earlier this week, which claimed that six MiG-29s flew from Russia to Syria with a stop in Iran’s Hamadan Air Base. This formation may have continued to Libya. 



However, Scramble Magazine claims that the fighters jets were sent from Belarus, and not Russia. The aviation magazine assesses that the UAE procured MiG-29BM (Bolyshaya Modernizaciya) and Su-24M variants from the Belarussian Air Force for the LNA. They also said that Belarussian and Syrian pilots familiar with the airframes are likely involved in the operation. 

Geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) released by Maxar Technologies partially confirmes the reports. Satellite imagery of the LNA-held al-Jufra Air Base (JAB) shows at least one MiG-29 taxied on the runway as of 19 May. 

MiG-29 at al-Jufrah Air Base, Libya, on 19 May, via Digital Globe/ Maxar

Likely, JAB was also the destination of the Pantsir S-1E intercepted on the move south of Sirte on 18 May. It is possible that the Pantsir had been re-deployed to reinforce JAB’s aerial defenses before the aircraft build-up. 

Haftar’s aerial reinforcements signal that the Libyan Civil War will likely re-escalate. It remains to be seen how the GNA’s main allies, Turkey, Qatar, and Italy, will react. 

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What We Learned From Israel’s Latest Airstrike Spree in Syria

Over the past eight years, The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has conducted over 300 “unclaimed” airstrikes against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and its axis of transnational Shiite militias (the…

Over the past eight years, The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has conducted over 300 “unclaimed” airstrikes against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and its axis of transnational Shiite militias (the Iranian Threat Network/ITN) in Syria. Israel’s covert air campaign aims to avert an Iranian entrenchment in Syria and prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah and other militias that threaten Israel. 

In 2020, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has conducted 14 operations in Syria (by the date of the publication of this analysis). The IAF operations have targeted at least 23 different locations all over Syria, except for the northeast corner. Five of the 23 airstrikes occurred in the two weeks between 20 April and 4 May, indicating an increase in Iranian threat network (ITN) activity. 

Thanks to ImageSatInternational’s battle-damage assessments and reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, as well as social media intelligence (SOCMINT), we were able to draw the following conclusions:

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME

The recent Israeli airstrikes in the provinces of Quneitra, Suweida, Da’ara, and the Damascus area indicate that the IRGC’s external operations branch, the Quds Force (IRGC-QF), and the ITN still hold positions near the Israeli border despite Russian statements to the contrary. 



Southern Syria has been the IAF’s primary area of operations for the past eight years. The vast majority of IRGC weapon shipments end up in Syrian military bases around Damascus and warehouses across the Lebanese border. With the Israeli-held Golan Heights just a stone’s throw away, Jerusalem is concerned that the ITN will use southern Syria as a springboard to attack Israel.

The IAF has also raided Damascus International Airport (DAI), where IRGC-linked airliners deliver missiles, munitions, and other weapons. While DAI is probably one of the most recurrent targets of the IAF, the airstrike on 13 February 2020 marked a premier. After years of hesitation, the IAF bombed the IRGC’s headquarters in Syria, a three-floor glasshouse near the airport entrance. By the time of the strike, the Glasshouse had nevertheless become a symbolic target due to extensive media coverage. 

Like before, the IAF has also prosecuted high-value targets (HVT) targets on Syrian soil. In late February, the IAF successfully neutralized the local Hezbollah operative Imad Tawil who was driving in the town of Hader, near the Israeli border. Imad Tawil was facilitating Iran’s efforts to secure a foothold on the Golan Heights, according to local media reports.  

On 18 April, an Israeli drone unsuccessfully targeted Hezbollah commander Mustafa Mughniyeh, son of the group’s late second-in-command Imad Mughniyeh near the Lebanese border. As video surveillance seems to show, Mustafa Mughniyeh and his security detail managed to flee the vehicle before the bombs hit. 

ABU KAMAL IS THE NEW FLASHPOINT

The Syrian-Iraqi border became the IAF’s new focal point after IRGC-backed forces captured the town of Abu Kamal from ISIS in late 2017. Because of its geostrategic position, the border crossing near Abu Kamal is a critical node in Iran’s logistical land-bridge, which stretches from Iran to Lebanon (the “Shiite Crescent”). All Iranian weapons that enter Syria via Iraq have to pass through Abu Kamal. 

In 2019, Iran built an underground super-warehouse, called “Imam Ali” garrison, to shelter some of the cargo entering Syria. The Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), an umbrella of over 60 Iraqi (mostly) Shiite militias loyal to Iran, control the Imam Ali site as well as the entire Syrian-Iraqi border. Kata’ib Hezbollah, Badr Organisation, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Asaib al-Haq, and the Imam Ali Brigades (IAB) are some of the most influential PMU groups invested in Syria.

Key Iraqi PMUs, also known as “Special Groups” by the CIA (T-Intelligence). NOTE: Kataib Hezbollah’s Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis died in a US airstrike in Baghdad in January 2020.

Other Shiite militias, including Brigade 313 (Syrian), the Liwa Fatemiyoun (Afghan Shiite Hazaras), and Liwa Zainbiyoun (Pakistani Shiite Zaidi) are also operating in the area and elsewhere in Syria. SOHR estimates that the Iranian threat network (ITN) has around 6,200 fighters in the Mid-Euphrates River Valley (MERV) area. 

Naturally, the target-rich Abu Kamal area has become a hotspot of IAF activity. In 2020, the IAF bombed IRGC-QF and PMU positions in eastern Syria on three different occasions (January, March, and May). 

In January, Israeli aircraft destroyed an IAB convoy near Abu Kamal, resulting in 8 Iraqi militiamen KIA. The Iraqis were reportedly delivering missiles to Hezbollah. During the same raid, the IAF also struck an arms depot in the same area. 

On 11 March, the IAF prosecuted PMU installations around Abu Kamal again, including the “Imam Ali” garrison. Later in May, Israel raided a series of militia positions throughout the MERV. Overall, the three operations killed at least 48 Iraqi militiamen and Iranian operatives. 

Maintaining maximum pressure on the Abu Kamal logistic node is imperative for denying Iran freedom of movement in Syria. The IAF needs to demonstrate that no matter the distance, Israel is willing and able to prosecute targets anywhere in the region. To make the point even clearer, Israel raided IRGC and PMU positions in Iraq five times last year. 

THE IRGC IS MOVING UNDERGROUND

The IAF’s recent airstrikes revealed that the IRGC is increasingly relying on underground storage solutions to protect its weapons from Israeli attacks. While the Imam Ali garrison is the largest storage facility, Iran has built many other underground depots throughout Syria. 

Battle damage assessment (BDA) of the 20 April 2020 strike shows that Israel bombed nine underground storage facilities north of Palmyra. The bunkers likely harbored weapons delivered either by land via Abu Kamal or by air to the nearby Tyias Air Base.

A week later, on 27 April, Israel bombed a similar facility in Mezzeh Air Base in Damascus. While the airstrike damaged the entrance to the depot, it is unknown whether it also destroyed the underground bunker. Partly operated by the SyAAF Intelligence Directorate, one of the IRGC’s closest Syrian partners, Mezzeh Air Base is a safe-haven for Iran’s militias.  

If Iran continues to build storage bunkers, it will force Israel jets to fly with ground-penetrating ordnance instead of cruise missiles. As bombs have a smaller operational range than cruise missiles, the Israeli jets will need to fly closer to their targets, which will expose them further to Syrian air defenses. For example, the Delilah cruise missile can be fired from a maximum distance of 250 km away. In comparison, the GBU-39 small diameter bomb, which has a warhead four times bigger than Delilah’s, is only capable of traveling 64 km in ideal circumstances. A hardened penetration bomb as the BLU-109, with an 874 kg warhead, will require a release from an ever closer range. An increased payload also translates into a larger aircraft radar-cross section, making it easier for Syrian radars to detect the IAF jets, and a decreased flight maneuverability and range. 

An Israeli F-16I armed with a BLU-109 forged steel point tip, and a BLU109 JDAM, 2000lb bunker-buster penetration bomb.

ISRAEL CONTINUES TO DEFY THE SYRIAN S-300

Israel’s daring strikes near Homs and Shayrat, deep inside the engagement range of Syria’s S-300’s (NATO reporting name: SA-20B “Gargoyle”), have proved again that the IAF enjoys air superiority over Syria. While there are also topological and tactical factors at play, it is virtually certain by now that Russia, who gifted the S-300 to the SyAAF, has forbidden the Syrians from using it against Israeli aircraft (read more about the S-300 issue here).

Masyaf-based SA-20B approximate engagement range via T-Intelligence. (Radar detection is not modeled on the area’s topography)

On 31 March, the IAF disrupted flight operations at Shayrat Air Base by bombing the runway and air traffic control equipment. The attack also destroyed a warehouse, likely harboring Iranian weapons. However, after the Syrians patched the runway craters up and replaced the navigation beacons, aerial activity at Shayrat resumed within two weeks. 

On 1 May, another Israeli raid, this time near Homs, shook the earth when it destroyed a weapons depot, setting off a chain of secondary explosions. As the BDA shows, the Israeli attack has completely wiped out the warehouse and the adjacent parking lot.

HEZBOLLAH IS STILL RECEIVING PRECISION-GUIDED MISSILES 

On 4 May, Israeli missiles struck a missile production facility in al-Safirah, an area south of Aleppo. The al-Safirah plant is one of three facilities that are associated with the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), the regime’s prime proliferator of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). While the SSRC has traditionally focused on producing Scud ballistic missiles and chemical agents for the Syrian regime, it now works under Iranian control to “home grow’ precision-guided munition (PGM) for Hezbollah and other groups. 

Back in 2016, Iran initiated a back-up plan to funnel PGM technology to Hezbollah, as a response to the relentless Israeli raids. Instead of struggling to deliver ready-made missiles, the IRGC shifted to smuggling GPS conversations kits and missile components to Hezbollah. Under Iranian supervision, Hezbollah engineers learned to produce the weapons themselves. Using specialized facilities, they aim to convert Hezbollah’s inventory of 150,000 “dumb” rockets into PGM (you can read more about the Iran-Hezbollah PGM program and Israel’s response to it, here).

In 2019, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) publicized the location of four such missile conversation and production sites in Lebanon, indicating that Iran PGM’s program is bearing fruit.

The PGM program, as all Iran extraterritorial activities, was directly supervised by the late Gen. Qasim Soleimani. Likely, his sudden assassination in Baghdad earlier this year interrupted the operation.  



However, the IAF’s airstrike on 4 May brought new evidence that Iran’s PGM “do-it-yourself” program is continuing and proliferating also inside Syria. If this is true, then Hezbollah and other militias hostile to Israel are still obtaining advanced striking capabilities from Iran despite Israel’s extensive air campaign for nearly a decade. 

Should Hezbollah manage to convert even a quarter of its inventory of 150,000 “dumb” rockets into missiles that can strike targets with pinpoint accuracy, Israel’s national security will be severely threatened.  


by HARM

Editing by Gecko

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Iran’s Space Launch Advances Ballistic Missile Tech, Violating U.N Sanctions

With the successful space launch of the “Nour-1” spy satellite on April 22, the Islamic Republic of Iran has likely violated international sanctions. The trouble with Iran’s recent space launch…

With the successful space launch of the “Nour-1” spy satellite on April 22, the Islamic Republic of Iran has likely violated international sanctions. The trouble with Iran’s recent space launch is the delivery platform – the Qased Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) – not the payload – the “Nour-1” military satellite (mil-sat). As SLV technology is interchangeable with ballistic missile (BM) technology, space launches can help to extend missile range, increase stability and payload capacity. 

Noor/ Nour-1 mil-sat launch on 22 April 2020. GEOINT analysis by T-Intelligence / Image courtesy of Planet Labs.



SPACE LAUNCH VEHICLE: FROM AND FOR BALLISTIC MISSILES

The “Qased” SLV (Courier in Persian) is a hybrid between the “Shahab-3” medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), with which it shares the first liquid-fuel stage, and the “Salman” solid rocket engine that provided the technology for the second stage. The third stage is likely also solid-fuel based. The multi-stage rocket allowed Qased to reach an apogee of over 420 km, despite its heavy payload. 

Iran’s proven ability to develop three-stage solid-fuel rockets, capable of boosting the payload at longer ranges and to higher altitudes than before, is a breakthrough in the pursuit of long-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which could reach the United States and all of Europe.

Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Aerospace Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, stands in front of the Qased before launch. Photo credit: Tasnim news.

This is why Iran violated UNSC Resolution 2231, which calls on Iran to avoid “any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”

PAYLOAD ENABLES IRANIAN GEOINT CAPABILITY

Having the Nour-1 satellite in space is not a game-changer, although this will enable Iran to collect Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) without depending on third-parties. The mil-sat operates in the Low-Earth Orbit, namely in a 444 x 426 km orbit at 59.8 degrees inclination, and circles the Earth every 90 minutes (high temporal resolution), which makes it ideal for remote sensing. Nour-1 is believed to have a reasonably high resolution and will reportedly be joined by two other spy satellites in the future.

The upper photo shows Nour-1 completing a pass over the continental United States. The lower photo shows the satellite high above the northern Arabian peninsula. (Screenshot from a satellite tracker)

Nour-1’s success is, however, largely political and for domestic consumption. On the one hand, the launch has broken the decade-long spell of unsuccessful launches and stagnant research. On the other hand, it validated the IRGC-AF’s space program, which was responsible for the space launch, to the detriment of the Iranian Space Agency.

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Russian Aerospace Forces Deploy New S-350 “Vityaz” SAM System near Sankt-Petersburg (Asset Recognition and Geolocation)

After long delays and setbacks, the S-350 “Vityaz ” SAM system finally entered service with the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF). The S-350’s first deployment is at the Gatchina training center…

After long delays and setbacks, the S-350 “Vityaz ” SAM system finally entered service with the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF). The S-350’s first deployment is at the Gatchina training center in Leningrad oblast. 


We geolocated the exact deployment site shown in the “Zvezda TV” video to these GPS coordinates 59°32’44.4″N 29°56’46.1″E

The RuAF is scheduled to receive 12 battalion sets of the S-350 (incl. 144 TELs) before 2028. The S-350s will replace the RuAF’s outdated stockpile of S-300P/PS designs (SA-10/B “Grumble/-B”) and modernize Russia’s integrated air defense system. 

As a short-to-mid range system, the S-350 will cover the air defense gap between the Buk-M3 (and augment it) and the long-range S-400 (SA-21). Moscow is marketing the S-350 as its newest solution against low-flying, radar-evading air-breathing threats (e.g. aircraft, cruise missiles), but that is also capable of countering ballistic missiles. 

Geolocation and asset recognition based on media forensics analysis via T-Intelligence

The S-350 Vityaz will employ two SAM-types:

-9M100; maximum engagement range: 15 km

-9M96/E (SA-20); maximum range of 120 km. 

One S-350 TEL can carry up to twelve missiles.

The Five Eyes’ Air Force Interoperability Council has yet to designate a code name (i.e. NATO reporting name) for the new Russian anti-access system.


This report was originally published on our Facebook page on 27 February 2020. 

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Evacuation “Shattered Glass”: The US/ Coalition Bases in Syria [Part 2]

DISCLAIMER: This compilation is based on publicly available information collected through open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques. The release only covers the Coalition/US bases that have been sanitized and evacuated. An exception…

DISCLAIMER: This compilation is based on publicly available information collected through open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques. The release only covers the Coalition/US bases that have been sanitized and evacuated. An exception is the well-known al-Tanf garrison in the 55-km exclusion zone. Positions in eastern Syria, which are still manned by the Coalition, will only be published after the forces have withdrawn. T-Intelligence has been aware –  down to exact grid coordinates – of the location of CJTF-OIR/ US bases in Syria since their construction. However, out of respect for OPSEC and force protection, we have refrained from revealing their locations. 


This is the second part of our Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) release on the military installations of the Coalition Joint task Task Force-Operation “Inherent Resolve” (CJTF-OIR) in Syria. You can find the first part of the series, which covers the military bases in Aleppo province and provides a background of the Coalition’s mission in Syria, here. The second part features the former CJTF-OIR bases in Raqqa province. 


COALITION BASES IN RAQQA PROVINCE

Combat operations in Raqqa province began in mid-2015, when the CJTF-OIR and its local partner forces (YPG Kurdish militia and select Sunni Arab groups) liberated Tel Abyad and parts of the Turkish borderlands from ISIS. Afterwards, the CJTF-OIR focused on the main strategic objective of expelling the jihadist terror group from its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. 

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the Coalition’s airpower and special operations forces (SOFs), initiated a five-phase offensive to besiege ISIS forces in Raqqa. Operation “Wrath of the Euphrates” commenced on 6 November 2016 from the city of Ain Issa, which had been liberated in the previous months. Ain Issa was a key location for the Raqqa campaign as it hosted a significant CJTF-OIR mission support site, a logistics center, and a major internally displaced people (IDP) camp. 

AIN ISSA COP

Ain Issa COP on 24 February 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36.3854, 38.87328

Type: COP

Built: January 2017

Purpose: Multi-purpose Mission Support Site (MSM)

Infrastructure: The pre-existing site, a 400 square meter walled courtyard with a large two-story building, likely served an administrative role for nearby grain silos. After liberating the area from ISIS, the Coalition expanded the infrastructure in terms of size and structures. The CJTF-OIR has built around five large buildings/warehouses, several barracks tents, and a plethora of prefabricated one-story structures. A second walled site, primarily used for parking lorries and storing shipping containers, was built west of the dirt road. The outpost also includes five houses with courtyards southwest of the parking lot. A wider security perimeter was built to secure the entire area. The location is ideal to defend Ain Issa from attacks from the southeast. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF-OIR in November 2019. Under SDF control since then. 


AIN ISSA LB 

Ain Issa LB on 14 October 2018 via CNES/ Airbus

Coordinates: 36°25’49.5″N 38°47’07.9″E

Type: Logistics base (LB)

Built: February 2018

Purpose: Host and dispatch logistics along the line-of-communications to in-teather mission support sites and other facilities such as the nearby IDP camp near Ain Issa. 

Infrastructure: Previous to ISIS and the Coalition occupation, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) used the site for training. The Coalition took advantage of the semi-prepared land and established a large logistics base (LB). The LB consists of three clusters of buildings (at least 10 buildings each), traversed by a dirt road leading to a large asphalt pen. The latter was intended to host military and logistics vehicles, but also helicopters if necessary. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF-OIR in November 2019. Currently under SDF control. 


The first objective of phase one, neutralizing ISIS defenses south of the M4 highway, was achieved on 16 November 2016, when the SDF liberated a terrorist stronghold in the village of Tel Salman. With the preparations for the second phase of the operation underway, the CJTF-OIR went to work and built a major fire base near Tel Salman. 

TEL SALMAN FB

Tel Salman FB on 24 February 2018 via CNES/ Airbus and Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°15’37.3″N 38°55’44.6″E

Type: Fire base (FB)

Built: March 2017

Purpose: Fire support 

Infrastructure: The FB was initially an empty plain with a 1 km-long runway. The base was constructed around the runway in record time to forward deploy fire support assets in support of the siege of Raqqa, namely the M142 HIMARS multiple rocket launcher system (MRLS), mortars and howitzers. Multiple layers of sandbags and dirt walls separate the small housing units from ammunition depots and the many artillery firing positions on the FB’s ground. The base also dispatched field artillery units to the frontline. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF in November 2019. Under Russian or pro-government control since December 2019. 


The second phase of the offensive targeted Raqqa’s western countryside, aiming to cut ISIS’ lines-of-communications to Aleppo province and further reduce the group’s territory. This phase was concluded when the SDF reached the outskirts of Tabqa in mid-January 2017. As the advance brought the SDF 30 km west of Raqqa, the CJTF-OIR established forward logistics bases and more artillery nests close to the frontline. 

BIRSAN LB

Birsan LB on 4 April 2018 via CNES/ Airbus

Coordinates: 35°59’03.0″N 38°35’31.0″E

Type: LB (forward in-theater)

Built: 3 June 2017 

Purpose: Support the CJTF-OIR and SDF ground offensive against ISIS in Raqqa city. 

Infrastructure: The position was established shortly after Bîrsan (also known as Bir Sana/Ber Viya), a Kurdish village, was liberated from ISIS on 3 January 2017. Dirt revetments were built to define the site’s layout and to serve as a fortification layer. The pre-existing eight houses were re-purposed. The existing infrastructure was augmented with several new structures, including a 100 square meters warehouse, to extend site storage capacity. Some areas were kept clear of structures to store large shipping containers and other logistics crates and to provide a parking space for M114 Humvees, MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles, NSTVs (Non-Standard Tactical Vehicles), and other military vehicles. The dirt road that connects the site to the main road is secured by a checkpoint and anti-VBIED (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) obstacles. 

Status: Under SDF control. 

During phase three in March 2017, which isolated Raqqa city from its western and eastern extremities, the Coalition launched an airborne operation that dropped SDF fighters and U.S. Army Special Forces deep behind enemy lines. After a few days of fighting, the CJTF-OIR captured the so-called “Tabqa triangle”: The city, the dam and the airfield. The latter was a Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) base that had housed the 12th Attack Squadron and the 24th Helicopter Brigade until it was seized by ISIS in August 2014. 


TABQA AIR BASE

Tabqa AB on 5 April 2017 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 35°45’21.7″N 38°34’25.9″E

Type: Air Base (AB)

Built: seized by CJTF-OIR on 26 March 2017 

Purposed: Rotary-wing aircraft FARP (minimal use)

Infrastructure: The AB has been rendered inoperable by successive bombing campaigns against ISIS, first by the SyAAF and then by the CJTF-OIR. The vast majority of buildings and structures have either collapsed or are in an advanced state of degradation. No significant reparations (if any) have been observed on the AB since the Coalition seized it. The high repair costs and immediate proximity to enemy territory (ISIS and SAA) were likely the main reasons why the Coalition did not invest in the AB. However, it was likely used as a Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) for attack helicopters, while on close air support (CAS) duty over Raqqa. 

Status: Re-occupied by the SAA in November 2019. 

The fourth phase, which targeted the rural belt around Raqqa city, took nearly three months to complete. The fifth phase and subsequent battle for Raqqa took place between 6 June and 17 October 2017, ending with a costly victory for the SDF. The vast majority of the city was leveled by airstrikes, artillery fire, and IEDs, while thousands of ISIS fighters evacuated to the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) under a secret deal with the SDF. We documented the fight in a daily journal, which you can find here (volume 1) and here (volume 2). 


OBSERVATION POSTS 

In November 2018, in response to Ankara’s threats of invasion, the CJTF-OIR established at least three observation posts (OPs) on the Turkish border. Manned by less than 50 U.S. Special Forces (SFs), the aim of the OPs was to alleviate Turkey’s security concerns over cross-border weapons smuggling between the YPG (the SDF’s main fighting force) and Turkish PKK cells. The U.S. and Turkey also conducted joint patrols on both sides of the border and exchanged intelligence as part of a “security mechanism” deal to de-conflict northern Raqqa province. 

Observation posts: Tel Musa (upper left), Tel Abyad (lower left) and Tel Arqam (right)

However, as in the case of the Manbij de-confliction agreements, the border “security mechanism” failed to satisfy Turkey’s security needs. In anticipation of Turkey’s air-ground assault on the Tel Abyad- Ras al Ayn (Serekaniye) axis, the U.S. SFs withdrew from their border outposts on 8 October 2019. The forces were repositioned south of the M4 highway, which would become the boundary of Ankara’s Operation “Peace Spring.”


by HARM and Gecko 

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Evacuation “Shattered Glass”: The US/ Coalition Bases in Syria [Part 1]

Disclaimer: This compilation is based on publicly available information collected through open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques. The release only covers the Coalition/US bases that have been sanitized and evacuated. An exception…

Disclaimer: This compilation is based on publicly available information collected through open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques. The release only covers the Coalition/US bases that have been sanitized and evacuated. An exception is the well-known al-Tanf garrison in the 55-km exclusion zone. Positions in eastern Syria, which are still manned by the Coalition, will only be published after the forces have withdrawn. T-Intelligence has been aware –  down to exact grid coordinates – of the location of CJTF-OIR/ US bases in Syria since their construction. However, out of respect for OPSEC and force protection, we have refrained from revealing their locations. 


THE MISSION

The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) led by the United States (U.S.) has built around 20 major military sites in northern and eastern Syria since the fight against ISIS began in 2014. This includes semi-prepared landing zones (LZs), forward operating bases (FOBs), fire bases (FBs), and combat outposts (COPs).  The installations have housed military personnel, received and administered frontline logistics, provided medical facilities, and were used to mount and execute combat operations. The military infrastructure was key in supporting three main operational objectives: 

  • Combat operations against ISIS
  • Capacity building for local partner forces
  • Deterring attacks from adversarial forces

At the apogee of the campaign against ISIS in 2018, around 2,000 CJTF-OIR multinational forces were stationed in Syria, consisting of SOF (special operations forces), SF (special forces), JTAC (joint-terminal attack controllers), logisticians, engineers, airfield support personnel and clandestine servicemembers. Their numbers began to decrease after the defeat of ISIS’ physical caliphate in early 2019 (read more about the battle of Baghuz here). In October 2019, President Donald J. Trump ordered the U.S. troops, which account for the bulk of CJTF-OIR forces in Syria, to leave the country. 

What should have been an orderly and gradual withdrawal turned into an emergency evacuation, when Turkey announced a military offensive in northern Syria. Operation “Peace Spring” was a unilateral and poorly coordinated move that threatened CJTF-OIR personnel and bases. U.S. forces were forced to retreat from northern Syria, particularly from Aleppo and Raqqa provinces. The United Kingdom, France and other in-theater CJTF-OIR partners also withdrew their troops. The retreating Coalition forces had no time to dismantle or destroy their bases. As videos would later show, they left behind furniture, personal items, provisions, and occasionally “easter eggs” for the new occupants. Russian soldiers have since taken over the abandoned Coalition bases. 

Around 500 CJTF-OIR forces – mainly U.S. troops – continue to operate in eastern Syria, where they are tasked with securing the local energy infrastructure against ISIS resurgents. The forces are stationed in the Mid-Euphrates River Valley and near the Syrian-Iraqi border. 


ALEPPO PROVINCE (WEST OF EUPHRATES) 

The CJTF-OIR made its operational debut in Syria during the siege of Kobani (northeastern Aleppo province) in 2014. After partnering up with the Kurdish YPG militia and select Arab Sunni groups, the CJTF-OIR liberated the Upper Euphrates Valley and northern Raqqa province, where the Coalition established its first military bases.

MISTENUR HILL (KOBANI) FOB

Mistenur Hill FOB on November 25, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°52’31.4″N 38°21’50.4″E

Type: FOB

Built: Between late 2014 and early 2016

Purpose: Secure Kobani from the south and forward deploy SOF elements on Syrian soil.

Infrastructure: The FOB was built from scratch next to a radio antenna site in Kobani’s southern hills. CJTF-OIR forces have erected a central two-story building surrounded by several small structures. A tall, thick concrete wall serves as the compound’s external fortification layer. Observation towers overlook the perimeter in all cardinal directions. Unconfirmed information suggests that the FOB started as a joint French-U.S. SOF garrison. 

Note: During Turkey’s Operation PEACE SPRING, FOB Mistenur hill came under ‘danger close’ artillery shelling from across the border (read more about the incident here). 

Status: Evacuated. 


KOBANI LANDING ZONE (KLZ) 

Kobani Landing Zone (KLZ) on January 6, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°39’00.7″N 38°18’12.4″E

Type: LZ

Built: March to September 2016

Purpose: Enable heavy airlift operations and serve as close air support (CAS) staging area. 

Infrastructure: U.S. Air Force engineers have built the semi-prepared airfield from scratch near the village of Sarrin. The 2,000-meter long dirt runway received America’s largest heavy lifters (C-5 and C-17) that brought the bulk of logistics required for CJTF-OIR’s operations, including vehicles, munnition, construction materials, and other equipment. The U.S. has also built a large campground (more than 50 tents, warehouses, and depots), which provided housing facilities for personnel and logistics. Landing pads, reinforced revetments and a few hangars were added to station rotary-wing aircraft. 

Note: KLZ was the last CJTF-OIR facility to be vacated in Aleppo province. It stayed open until the last vehicles and personnel had evacuated from Aleppo province. 

Status: Evacuated. Under Russian control since November 15, 2019. 


LAFARGE CEMENT FACTORY (LFC)-HQ 

LaFarge Cement (LFC) Factory on September 1, 2016 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates:36°32’43.7″N 38°35’15.7″E

Type: HQ

Built: 2010 (by LaFarge)/ occupied since 2015 

Purpose: Command and Control (C2) of in-theater counter-ISIS operations. 

Infrastructure: The cement factory, which was originally built by the French company LaFarge, was repurposed as the CJTF-OIR’s Syrian-headquarters and C2 center. The pre-existing buildings also served as barracks and logistics depot. The site’s large and wide parking facilities were used to store vehicles and helicopters. 

Note: The factory survived the war and continued to produce cement under ISIS occupation thanks to the protection taxes that the company paid to local armed groups including ISIS. LFC officials admitted to this practice in 2017, after French prosecutors charged the company’s former CEO with terrorism financing. French officials intervened on behalf of the company to stop the U.S. from bombing the factory in 2014.  The CJTF-OIR evacuated LFC on October 16, 2019, after the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) advanced to the M4 highway and came dangerously close to the facility. To sanitize the area and destroy the material left behind, two USAF F-15E jets bombed LFC.

Status: Evacuated. Likely under SDF control. 


ALEPPO PROVINCE (EAST OF THE EUPHRATES) 

Successive victories against ISIS east of the Euphrates allowed the Coalition and the SDF to expand operations in Manbij district, west of the river valley. Due to its large population and proximity to the Turkish border, Manbij was a key city for ISIS. The terrorist group used Manbij to plot attacks on European targets (e.g. Bataclan theater attack) and to receive foreign terrorist fighters transiting through Turkey. 



The SDF liberated Manbij in August 2016 with the intention to cleanse the entire area of ISIS. Alarmed by the SDF’s advance towards the Turkish border, Ankara mobilized its assets in the Syrian armed opposition and launched Operation “Euphrates Shield.” The Turkish offensive blocked the SDF’s advance westwards and threatened to capture Manbij. This forced the CJTF-OIR to change its posture in Aleppo province from post-ISIS stabilization operations to deterring a Turkish-backed attack.  To this end, the U.S. installed a multi-layer security perimeter around Manbij city: Two combat outposts (COPs) west and north of Manbij, armed checkpoints, and air-land patrols. 

WEST MANBIJ COP

Manbij COP West on March 23, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°29’42.9″N 37°49’32.1″E

Type: COP

Built: May 2017 (expansion started) 

Purpose: Post-ISIS stabilization operations,  monitor and de-conflict the M4 highway that links Manbij to Arimah (under Syrian-Russian control) and al-Bab (under Turkish-SNA control). 

Infrastructure: The CJTF-OIR has enhanced a pre-existing “T-shaped” compound that encompassed three buildings and two large transmission antenna towers. The Coalition erected around 20 tents and halls in the compound and sectioned the site with multiple sandbag layers. A 300-meter-long driveway with anti-VBIED barriers at both ends links the compound to the motorway. The COP was continuously expanded throughout 2019, until U.S. forces received the order to withdraw. 

Status: Evacuated. Under Russian and/or Manbij Military Council (MMC) control since October 15, 2019.


NORTH MANBIJ COP

Manbij COP North on September 1, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°36’40.0″N 37°55’39.8″E

Type: COP

Built: March to November 2018

Purpose: Monitor and de-conflict the Sajur River Valley (SRV) and the North-South access points to Manbij city. 

Infrastructure: The COP was built from scratch near the village of Dadat. Within just several months, the camp was visibly consolidated and sectioned in multiple areas with sandbag layers. The living quarters (sleeping tents, chow hall) and operations center in the middle, armory in the second layer, and multiple fortified combat positions were established in all cardinal directions. Annex sites were established south and west of the road. The COP continued to expand throughout 2019, until the evacuation. 

Status: Evacuated. Under Russian and/or Manbij Military Council (MMC) control since October 15, 2019. 

All diplomatic and military efforts (e.g. “Manbij Roadmap”, combined-joint patrols) failed to de-escalate the dispute between Turkey and the U.S. over Manbij. The risk of “blue-on-blue” incidents remained high until the last Coalition forces left the area. 

In the aftermath of the withdrawal, the SDF’s Manbij Military Council (MMC) struck a deal with pro-government forces to secure the Manbij pocket. While the city remains under the MMC’s exclusive control, the Russian military police and the Syrian Arab Army are now patrolling the Sajur River Valley and the M4 highway. Negotiations about the fate of Manbij are still underway between Qamishli and Damascus.


by HARM and Gecko

The second part will feature the CJTF-OIR installations in Raqqa Province.  

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Is Turkey Sending Syrian Rebels to Libya?

Mounting evidence shows that Turkey is deploying “Syrian National Army” (SNA) militiamen to Libya by using commercial airlines. In December 2019, major media outlets broke the news that Ankara plans…

Mounting evidence shows that Turkey is deploying “Syrian National Army” (SNA) militiamen to Libya by using commercial airlines. In December 2019, major media outlets broke the news that Ankara plans to send SNA militants to reinforce the “Government of National Accord” (GNA). Since then, there has been a growing number of indicators and reports that confirm the deployment. In addition to the SNA personnel, Turkey is also in the process of dispatching regular troops to Libya.

BACKGROUND: THE LIBYAN CIVIL WAR

Since the overthrow of dictator Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has been experiencing a civil war between the GNA, which is recognized by the United Nations (UN), and the self-styled “Libyan National Army” led by renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar. The GNA currently controls less than 20 percent of Libya, but its territory includes the capital Tripoli and the densely populated Tripolitania region. The GNA’s armed forces consist of Islamist militias linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. They are backed by Turkey, Qatar and Italy. 

Led by Gen. Haftar, the LNA is a hotpotch of Arab nationalists (including some Qaddafi loyalists), foreign paramilitary units (e.g. Russian, Sudanese, Chiadian), Madkhali salafists and tribal militias based in Eastern Libya. The LNA receives political and military support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Jordan, Russia and France. The LNA controls the vast majority of Libya’s territory, including the oil-rich southern and central regions. 



Despite the international arms embargo, which bans all weapons transfers to Libya (UN Resolution 1973), the GNA and LNA have received an abundance of military capabilities from foreign backers, including aircraft and air defense batteries.

Thanks to the wholesale influx of sophisticated military hardware from its supporters, the LNA is currently the most capable fighting force on the battlefield:

  • The UAE deployed Chinese-made “Wing Loong II” UCAVs, Pantsir S-1 (NATO Reporting name: SA-22 “Greyhound”) and MIM-23 HAWK air defense systems as well as support personnel (e.g. missileers, UCAV and radio-electronic operators). 
  • Jordan and Egypt provide armored vehicles and spare parts for the legacy MiG and Sukhoi aircraft that the LNA has inherited from Qaddafi’s regime. The Egyptian Air Force donated five MiG-21MFs (NATO Reporting name: “Fishbed-J”) to the LNA’s air wing.
  • Russia provides political support and has sent hundreds of Wagner contractors and a Pantsir S-1 air defense systems (NATO Reporting name: SA-17 “Greyhound”) to reinforce Gen. Haftar’s camp. 

France is secretly supporting Gen. Haftar. Beyond the provision of several US-made Javelin anti-tank missiles, the extent of French support is nevertheless unclear.

COMPILATION: Advanced foreign weaponry in service or support of the LNA

On the GNA side, Turkey provides the bulk of military equipment. Ankara has been supplying the GNA with infantry fighting vehicles (e.g. Kipri 8×8), unmanned aerial combat vehicles/UCAV (e.g. Bayraktar-2TB), small arms and ammunition for years. Turkey’s “partner-in-crime” and fellow Muslim Brotherhood supporter Qatar provides the bulk of finances that keep the GNA functioning, including the salaries of most militias. Italy is also providing direct support to the GNA in the form of medical assistance, diplomatic outreach, and intelligence. 

THE LNA GAINS THE UPPER HAND

In early 2019, Gen. Haftar announced Operation “FLOOD OF DIGNITY” with the objective to capture western Libya and eventually Tripoli. After successive victories, the LNA reached Tripoli’s suburbs by mid-April 2019. In Ghuryan and southern Tripoli, the LNA encountered a stiff GNA defense augmented by Turkish UCAVs. With the ground advancement blocked, the LNA focused on aerial warfare and targeted GNA airfields that support UCAV operations. However, due to its prolonged forward deployment, the LNA’s supply lines became overstretched and therefore untenable for offensive operations. Gen. Haftar was forced to de facto halt the offensive until the LNA  air wing neutralizes the enemy’s aerial capabilities.

Operation “Flood of Dignity” (operational map) by Rr016

INCREASED TURKISH MILITARY ASSISTANCE TO TRIPOLI

As Gen. Hafar’s forces were threatening to gain the upper hand in the civil war, Turkey has found that only direct intervention can save the GNA from collapse. 

Turkish President Erdogan and GNA Prime Minister al-Sarraj signed two memorandums of economic and military cooperation in late November 2019. Based on these agreements, the GNA submitted a formal request for Turkish military assistance in the form of air, land and maritime forces. President Erdogan ratified the request for assistance and ordered the Turkish Joint Chiefs of Staff to draft deployment plans. 

By the time the Turkish Parliament approved the military mission on January 5, 2020, President Erdogan revealed that Turkish troops are already in Libya in a non-combatant capacity and that “other units” will fight on the battlefield. By “other units’, President Erdogan is believed to hint at Syrian militamen.



REPORTS OF SNA DEPLOYMENT TO LIBYA

Quoting senior Turkish and Libyan sources, Bloomberg was the first outlet to report that Ankara will send SNA groups to reinforce the GNA. In January 2020, The Guardian confirmed the presence of around 2,000 SNA militants in Libya and recorded that their numbers are expected to grow to 5,000 over the next weeks. SNA fighters had signed six-month contracts directly with the GNA, rather than with the Turkish military, The Guardian’s sources say. The Syrian rebels will earn $2,000 (£1,500) a month – a vast sum compared to the 450-550 Turkish lira (£52-£72) they earn in Syria. All fighters have been promised Turkish passports, medical care and repatriation to Syria in case of death. 

These reports are consistent with the claims of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which estimates that 300 Syrian rebels are already in Libya. 

The Sultan Murad Division, Suqour al-Sham Brigade, Faylaq al-Sham, Sham Legion and Mutasim Division are the SNA groups headlining the Libyan deployment. These groups, which are dominated by Syrian Turkmens, have spearheaded all of Turkey’s previous offensives in northern Syria. The U.S. government and Amnesty International have accused some of these groups of war crimes against Kurdish civilians during Operation “OLIVE BRANCH” and Operation “PEACE SPRING”. 


VISUAL EVIDENCE OF SNA PRESENCE

Besides media reports, two phone-recorded videos of military-age males (MAMs) with Syrian accents, claiming to be in Libya to fight against Haftar, provide visual evidence.

Geolocation of the video allegedly showing SNA fighters in Libya

We managed to geolocate the footage, assuming that it was shot in very close proximity of the second video that surfaced on social media, which was geolocated by @S_Corsto in southern Tripoli.

While this confirms the videos’ geographical location is indeed the GNA-held Tripoli, we cannot vouch for the authenticity of the MAMs’ claims or that they are SNA fighters. 

Another piece of hard evidence is a “selfie” taken by a group of five MAMs in front of a fixed-wing cargo aircraft (identified as an Airbus Atlas-400M), supposedly on their way to Libya. Judging by the color scheme and visual elements, the Airbus A400M belongs to the Turkish Air Force. This adds credibility to reports that the Turkish Air Force, together with civilian Libyan airlines, is transporting SNA forces to Libya.

A group of unidentified MAMs pose in front of a Turkish Air Force Airbus A400M

UPDATE January 18, 2019: A video that emerged on social media allegedly shows dozens of Syrian rebels on board an Airbus 320 operated by the Tripoli-based “Afriqiyah Airways.”

TURKISH-LIBYA AIR-BRIDGE

Evidence of the Turkish “air-bridge” to Libya started to surface on social media in late December 2019. It involves the Turkish Air Force and a few Libyan commercial airliners. 

At the beginning, SNA fighters are bused from northern Aleppo province to Gaziantep, a major city in southeastern Turkey. From Gaziantep, the Turkish Air Force flies SNA militiamen into Istanbul by the Turkish Air Force, using Airbus Atlas-400M fix-wing cargo aircraft. For example, call signs “ESEN 01”, “ESEN 02”, “ESEN 03” and “ESEN 04” have been regularly spotted between Gaziantepe and Istanbul, since the air bridge reportedly started on December 27, 2019. As military flights, their ADS-B/Mode-S information, namely origin, destination and flight history, are hidden or incomplete. 

After arriving in Istanbul at Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) or Ataturk International (IST), the SNA militiamen board “friendly” Libyan civilian airliners that regularly fly to the two GNA-held airports in Libya, Tripoli Mitiga International Airport (MJI) and Misrata Airport (MAR). In particular, one “Libyan Airlines” Airbus A330-202 fixed-wing aircraft (registration number 5A-LAT/ LIMA-ALPHA-TANGO) is believed to be spearheading the covert airlift operation. In addition, one Libyan Wings Airbus 319-112 (registration no, “52-WLC”) and another Boeing 737-8GK (registration no, “5A-DMG”) operated by Buraq Air are believed to be involved. 

While all three aircraft are regular operators of Turkish and Libyan destinations, only the Libyan Airlines’ 5A-LAT is of particular interest due to its nefarious flight pattern that is consistent with counter-surveillance measures:

  • LOW PROFILE: 5A-LAT has almost exclusively chartered Istanbul-MJI/ MAR flights for the past months. As a regular operator of this route, 5A-LAT should be the aircraft that attracts the least attention for illicit airlift operations between Turkey and Libya.

SAMPLE: Recent flight history of the Libyan Airways aircraft with registration number 5A-LAT

  • DECEIVE AND COMPLICATE: 5A-LAT has frequently spoofed its ADS-B data to name Tripoli (MJI) as a destination, when it actually landed at Misrata/ MAR.

SAMPLE: 5A-LAT descends for landing at MAR despite filing MJI as its destination, on January 8, 2020

In some instances, the aircraft even took off from Istanbul without transmitting any official destination. The technique is used to deceive and complicate adversarial intelligence collection efforts. 

SAMPLE: 5A-LAT leaves IST without a transmitting a destination on January 9, 2020

  • DENY: 5A-LAT has almost always disabled its ADS-B transponder, when it entered Libyan airspace en route to MJI or MAR. In some instances, the aircraft also deactivated its transponder during its departure from Libya or Turkey, despite having stated its destination. We assess that this is not a deceptive act, but a security measure, when transiting Greek and Egyptian flight information regions (FIRs) or when in range of the LNA’s aerial systems. With foreign assistance, the LNA has conducted air strikes against GNA-held airports, which destroyed aircraft and infrastructure, in the past. Due to their ability to carry military equipment, weapons or fighters, cargo planes are high-value targets on the Libyan battlefield.

SAMPLE: 5A-LAT reactivates its transponder after clearing out of Greek and Egyptian FIRs, only to “go dark” again before landing in MJI, on January 15, 2020.

The Boeing 747-412 with registration number ER-BBJ is another aircraft of interest for the Turkish-Libyan airbridge. The ER-BBJ is operated by the Moldovian company “AeroTransCargo” and is exclusively used for cargo deliveries. AeroTransCargo’s sub-company “Airstok” has managerial links with a Libyan charter Global Aviation Services Group (GASG), which was reported by the United Nations for smuggling pistols to Tripoli (MJI) in 2017. According to C4ADS, at least four AeroTransCargo aircraft – registration numbers ER-JAI, ER-BBJ, ER-BAJ, and ER-BAM – traveled between Turkey and MJI under GASG call signs between April 19, 2017 and May 5, 2019. 

The ER-BBJ made at least 5 flights from Istanbul (SAW) to MJI in December alone. 

SAMPLE: ER-BBJ disabled its transponder while passing through Greek airspace and FIR, and before entering Libyan airspace, on December 15, 2019.

During its flight, the aircraft used the same counter-surveillance techniques as 5A-LAT, deactivating its transponder (Mode-S in the ER-BBJ’s case) when nearing Egyptian/Greek FIRs and while approaching Libya. The ER-BBJ deliveries were sometimes succeeded by increased military activity between the GNA and LNA.  However, AeroTransCargo firmly denies allegations that it is smuggling weapon systems into Libya. 


ROLE OF SNA, TURKISH INTENTIONS UNCLEAR

The introduction of SNA groups reflects a quantitative increase in Ankara’s commitment to  Tripoli and their mutual economic interests. The move is designed to reverse the setback that GNA forces suffered in 2019, by injecting several thousand battle-hardened fighters in the GNA’s ranks. Depending on the exact troop number, the influx of several hundreds to thousands of Syrian rebels will have a minimal to moderate impact on the battlefield. Ankara hopes that the new contingent will break the deadlock in southern Tripoli and Guryanh and push Haftar’s offensive back. 

Besides acting as “canon fodder,” the SNA could serve in external security roles, guarding Turkish military garrisons and forces in Libya. Notoriously undisciplined and poorly trained, the SNA fighters are however unlikely to be tasked with training and advising missions, which will be exclusively performed by regular Turkish troops. 

The status and timetable of the SNA deployment remains unclear and very fluid. Turkey has likely calculated that the increased military support to the GNA will force Gen. Haftar to sign a ceasefire. It is likely that Ankara’s latest threats were exclusively aimed at pressuring the LNA to halt its operations against Tripoli and that President Erdogan did not seriously plan to conduct a prolonged military campaign in Libya.

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The US Finally Retaliated against Iranian Proxies. Now what?

The American air strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), one of the strongest Iraqi Shiite militias, on 29 December are a “game-changer.” The strikes prove that the United States is finally…

The American air strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), one of the strongest Iraqi Shiite militias, on 29 December are a “game-changer.” The strikes prove that the United States is finally willing to retaliate militarily against Iran’s covert aggression. While the kinetic retribution will instate some degree of deterrence, Washington will likely remain passive towards Iranian activities in Iraq. In response to the air strikes, Iran could provide its Iraqi partners, such as KH, with air defense assets. 


FAILURE TO RETALIATE ENCOURAGED IRANIAN ATTACKS

Ever since he took office, U.S. President Donald Trump refrained from using force to retaliate against Iranian attacks. The President long believed that crippling economic sanctions are enough to bring the Mullahs to the negotiating table, while military options will only pull the U.S. further into the Middle Eastern quagmire/spiral of unwinnable and open-ended conflicts. Absent red lines and a credible deterrence, Iran was free to attack U.S. interests or allies –  as long as Tehran could cover its tracks. The September air raid on the Saudi Aramco petrochemical facilities, for example, proved how much damage Tehran can cause, while remaining unpunished. 


THE PMUs, AN ARMY OF “SPECIAL GROUPS”

After the Aramco attack, Iran moved to the next and most important point on its target list: Coalition facilities in Iraq. Through its ideological vanguard, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and its coalition of Shiite militias, the Islamic Republic in Tehran sought to render Iraq an inhospitable location for the Coalition. Those militias – referred to by the CIA as “Special Groups” (SGs) – provide the bulk force and command structure of the 100,000-men strong Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in Iraq. The PMUs are a coalition of militias established or reactivated by a 2014 fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani that calls on Shiites to fight ISIS. 

COMPILATION of Iraqi Tier One SGs and their leaders. ANNEX shows groups of interest that patrol the Syrian-Iraqi border on behalf of the IRGC.

The strongest and largest SGs are KH, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), the Badr Organization (BO), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HHN) and Kata’ib Imam Ali (KIA). Their leaders are open about their close relationship with Iran and many have even served under IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasim Soleimani in the Iran-Iraq War. These groups and their predecessors are responsible for thousands of American casualties during the Iraqi war and are the culprit behind the hundreds of rocket attacks on Coalition bases in the past year. 

The SGs share ideological and strategic objectives with their Iranian allies: 

(1) to evict Coalition forces from Iraq (if necessary by force);

(2) to establish a Komeinist regime in Baghdad;

(3) to export the Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East;

(4) to destroy Israel. 


STEP ONE: EJECT THE COALITION FROM IRAQ

The Coalition (“Operation Inherent Resolve”; OIR), was formed by the U.S. to combat ISIS at the invitation of the Iraqi government in 2014. The Coalition gathered more than 40 international members to conduct airstrikes against ISIS and provide training and advice to the Iraqi Security Force (ISF). The Coalition and the IRGC-backed SGs both fought against ISIS and, despite their differences, even coordinated at times. However, with the threat of ISIS physical caliphate removed, Iraqi SGs resumed their campaign to force U.S. and Coalition forces out of Iraq. 

In 2019, the SGs began targeting Coalition installations in Iraq with rocket salvos. While the fire was mostly indirect and ineffective, it occasionally injured Coalition forces and killed Iraqis serving in the ISF. The rocket attacks targeted everything from airfields, government facilities, civilian sites to training camps. Left unpunished, the attacks escalated and multiplied in the second half of the year. Only when a 30+ rocket salvo fell on the K-1 air base near Kirkuk on 27 December 2019, leaving one American dead and others severely wounded, the IRGC and its partner forces crossed a “red-line.”


K-1 ATTACKS PROMPTS COALITION TO RETALIATE

The attack on K-1 air base prompted the United States to seek retribution, which came in the form of a F-15E “strike package” from Jordan. The American jets prosecuted five sites used by Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), two in Syria and three in Iraq. The target list was carefully picked to strike the IRGC where it hurts the most, namely the land line-of-communication (LOC) linking Iran with its allies in Syria and Lebanon.

All KH targets that were prosecuted by the F-15s are located in the immediate vicinity of the Al Abukamal and al-Qa’im crossings on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Control over these locations is vital for the IRGC to maintain its LOC open. Iran’s expansive transnational logistical operation requires regional warehouses and assets in place to facilitate the free flow of cargo. With the destruction of KH’s headquarters (HQ) and ammunition caches, Iran’s LOC took tactical – albeit only temporary – damage. 

South of Al Abukamal, the IRGC, KH and other groups jointly operate one of the largest Iranian-financed military installations abroad. The compound is known as “Imam Ali” and serves as a major logistics node for the military capabilities flowing on the land-bridge. The compound hosts several ammunition depots, barracks and – according to ImageSatIntel – is undergoing construction to shelter an underground tunnel network. Despite multiple Israeli Air Force covert raids, Imam Ali garrison continues to expand and distribute military capabilities to Iraqi SGs operating in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

Sunday’s air strikes demonstrate that the US is willing to prosecute Iraqi SGs if they kill U.S. personnel in Iraq. However, this experience will likely prompt the SGs to expedite their effort to establish an air wing under Iranian supervision. 


AIR FORCE FOR THE PMUs

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the KH leader and PMU deputy commander, issued an order to establish an air force for the PMU on 4 September 4 2019. The air wing will be headed by Salah Mahdi Hantoush. Iraqi Prime-Minister Abel Abdul Mahdi rejected the idea, fearing that the PMU will further develop as a parallel armed force, similar to the duality of  IRGC and regular Iranian Armed Forces. Muhandis nevertheless defended his proposal, pointing to Israeli Air Force (IAF) attacks against several KH camps on Iraqi territory. Pressured by the PMUs, the Iraqi government imposed stricter airspace regulations that require “all Iraqi and non-Iraqi partners” (including the OIR-Coalition) to seek approval from the Iraqi command before flying in Iraqi airspace.

Despite the strong rhetoric from Baghdad, the PMUs perceive the Iraqi government as unable or unwilling to protect them from external attacks. The core SGs in the PMU also see the Iraqi government as an existential threat, as Baghdad seeks to integrate them into the Armed Forces. This would mean that SGs such as KH, BO and other groups need to disband their political wings and assimilate into the ISF. Despite paying lip service to the process, the big SGs are unlikely to give up their political power or their military autonomy. 



The IRGC is expected to meet al-Muhandis’ wish and aid the PMUs in forming an air force. First, the IRGC will likely supply them with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that will provide a degree of defense against air attacks. The IRGC-Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF) are likely to provide the PMUs with the “Khordad the 3rd” (Buk M-2 rip-off), “Mersad” (MIM-23 Hawk copy) and “Sayyad-2” SAM systems. The IRGC-AF could also arm their Iraqi counterparts with expandable unmanned aerial vehicles (X-UAVs) and cruise missiles, similar to those used in the Aramco attacks. [MORE ABOUT IRANIAN-PRODUCED SAM SYSTEMS]

The deployment of such systems in Iraq would significantly interfere with Coalition air operations in Iraq. Coalition aircraft would be subjected to a SAM threat, especially in the border areas, making even the most routine operations such as ISR more difficult. Attacks against Iraqi SGs will be rendered more complicated, as the Coalition will need to use more sophisticated weaponry and assets and always be ready to shift from ground attack to Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). 

Restricting the airspace is another step in making Iraq an increasingly inhospitable place for the Coalition, which could eventually led to a withdrawal of forces from the country.


TARGET: US EMBASSY BAGHDAD

Thousands of Hizbollah supporters have breached the GREEN ZONE and are trying to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. BO leader, Hadi al-Amiri and AAH leader, Qais al-Khazali are present in the crowd. The situation is ONGOING.


By HARM

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U.S. Aircraft Carrier Transits Strait of Hormuz After Months of Loitering in Open Waters

After nearly six months of staying in open waters, the “Abraham Lincoln” Carrier Strike Group (CSG) completed a scheduled transit through the Strait of Hormuz (SH) into the Persian Gulf…

After nearly six months of staying in open waters, the “Abraham Lincoln” Carrier Strike Group (CSG) completed a scheduled transit through the Strait of Hormuz (SH) into the Persian Gulf on November 19. Carrier Air Wing Seven (encompassing over 30 F/A-18E/F SuperHornets), the guided-missile cruiser Leyte Gulf, and guided-missile destroyers Bainbridge, Mason, and Nitze are assigned to the strike group. 

This was the first SH transit for the Nimitz-class USS “Abraham Lincoln” (CVN-72) ever since it was hurried to the Middle East in May 5, 2019, in response to undisclosed intelligence warning of an imminent Iranian attack. However, after decades of American aircraft carriers sailing through the SH, the U.S. Navy made the decision to keep the CVN-72 in open waters for security reasons. Satellite imagery showed the CVN-72 loitering in a “tight operational box” in the North Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and occasionally conducting port calls at Duqm, Oman for the past five months. 


The Iranian militaries regularly rehearse asymmetric tactics to trap and sink U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf in case of conflict. Aircraft carriers are particularly vulnerable when passing through the SH, which is 30 km at its narrowest. The recent decision to forward deploy CVN-72 into the enclosed Gulf could indicate that the threat posed by Iran decreased to an acceptable level for transiting the strait.

THE IRANIAN THREAT

The intelligence alerting to an imminent Iranian threat proved valid as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) staged numerous – convert and overt – attacks and provocations against commercial vessels and Western navies transiting the local waterways and even raided petrochemical facilities onshore: 

  • On June 13, 2019, The Panama-flagged “KOKUKA COURAGEOUS” (KG) and the Marshall Islands-flagged “FRONT ALTAIR” (FA) were attacked with seaborne ordnance (limpet mines or anti-ship missiles) by an unconfirmed aggressor in the Strait of Hormuz (SH). The US Navy has since released a video, filmed by a P-8 maritime security aircraft, which allegedly shows an Iranian naval unit removing an unexploded limpet charge from the KG’s hull, likely in an attempt to destroy evidence. 

  • The covert attack on KG and FA took place nearly a month after four commercial vessels (two Saudi Arabian tankers, one Norwegian tanker, and an Emirati bunkering ship) were damaged using limpet mines in the Emirati port of Fujairah (Gulf of Oman). Both operations are believed to have been conducted by the IRGC-Navy’s special operations forces known as the “Sepah” specialized in underwater demolition, sabotage, search & destroy and unconventional operations – a loose equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s DEVGRU (or “SEALs”). 
  • On June 20, 2019, the IRGC-Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF) downed a U.S. Global Hawk BAMS-D unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) near the SH using a “3rd Khordad” surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. Tehran accused the U.S. of violating its airspace while Washington claimed that it remained in international airspace. The Department of Defense drafted plans for retaliation against Iran’s coastal aerial defense systems and radars but the operation was later aborted by President Trump. The attack was a major milestone for Tehran. The IRGC proved that it can attack the U.S. and get away with it while also validating its indigenous defense technologies. 

  • On July 18, 2019, the USS Boxer downed an IRGC-AF UAV that closed within a threatening range, as the amphibious ship was transiting through the SH. The Marines on board the Boxer neutralized the threat through a “soft kill” approach (i.e. electronic attack) using the Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS). The day before, a U.S. Seahawk helicopter chased away an Iranian Navy Bell 212 helicopter that approached the Boxer shortly after it entered the SH. 
  • On July 20, 2019 the IRGC-Navy seized the British-flagged STENA IMPERO (SI) through an air-naval assault on the commercial ship near the SH. Tehran justified the operation as “tit-for-tat” after the British Royal Marines seized an Iranian-owned Panemese-flagged very large crude carrier (VLCC) vessel (“GRACE-1”) in Gibraltar found to be in breach of European Union (E.U.) oil embargo against the Syrian regime. Gibraltar authorities released the vessel (renamed as “ADRIAN DARYA-1”) in good faith on August 15, after receiving assurances from Tehran that it will not sell oil to Syria. However, DARYA-1 sailed to the Syrian coastline, where satellite imagery showed it unload oil via ship-to-ship (STS) transfer. Iran was late to reciprocate and only released the SI on September 27, 2019. 

  • On September 15, 2019, the Saudi Aramco petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were the subject of a low-observable and clandestine air attack involving nearly 20 expandable-UAVs and cruise missiles. In comparison to the countless other missile attacks mounted by the IRGC’s Yemenite partner force, “Ansar Allah” (Houthi) on Saudi/ Emirati oil facilities in the past, the September 15 raid was conducted directly by IRGC elements, and likely from Iranian territory. 

TF-IMSC

The growing asymmetric maritime threat posed by Iran prompted Washington to establish a multinational operational task force that would police the Middle Eastern seas and ensure the freedom of navigation in the region. The Task Force (TF) is known as the “International Maritime Security Construct” (IMSC) and encompasses the United Kingdom, Australia, the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, besides the U.S. TF-IMSC is headquartered with the U.S. Fifth Fleet command center in Manila, Bahrain. 

While the TF-IMSC is likely in the lengthy process of joint force integration, the CVN-72 is expected to project power and deter attacks on commercial shipping until its substitute, the USS Harry S. Truman” (CVN-75)  enters the Fifth Fleet area of operations.

UPDATE: CVN-72 LEAVES THE PERSIAN GULF

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Taiwan Resumes F-16 Overhaul, Continues Procurement Program Despite Transition to Asymmetric Warfare Doctrine

The Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) will proceed to overhaul its 142 F-16 A/B multi-role fighter jets. The modernization program “Phoenix Rising” was repeatedly delayed due to a shortage…

The Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) will proceed to overhaul its 142 F-16 A/B multi-role fighter jets. The modernization program “Phoenix Rising” was repeatedly delayed due to a shortage in manpower at Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC). Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa said that the problem was solved, after the AIDC hired 200 additional employees for the F-16 purpose-built facility in Taichung. Around 142 F-16 A/Bs of the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) will be upgraded to the latest F-16 Block 70/72 or “Viper” (V) configuration. Announced in 2016, the $5.3 billion “Phoenix Rising” overhaul program is expected to be completed by 2022.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION APPROVES F-16V SALE TO ROC

In addition, the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) will also receive 66 brand-new F-16 V fighter jets as part of a historical arms sale, which was authorized by the Trump administration in August 2019. Afraid to damage relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which views the ROC as a rogue province, the Bush and Obama administrations had previously refused the sale of modern F-16 jets to Taiwan. 

The Block 70/72 or Viper variant combines capability upgrades that render the F-16 relevant in today’s competitive age, while maintaining the jet’s cost-efficiency. The features include Norhrop Grumman’s AN/APG-53 scalable agile beam radar, an active electronically scanned radar, a Raytheon-built mission computer, the “Link16” datalink, an advanced cockpit display, an enhanced electronic warfare suite, and the integration of newer weapons systems. Following the upgrades and acquisition, the RoCAF’s F-16s will be able to fire the AGM-154 Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW), the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), and the AIM-9X Sidewinder infrared-guided air-to-air missile (AAM). The ROC expects to jets to be delivered between 2023 and 2026.

F-16 outfitted with a DB-110 ISR pod (rendering via Collins Aerospace)

According to local media, Taiwanese legislator Lu Yu-ling told parliament that the RoCAF is looking to acquire the UTC Aerospace Systems MS-110 multispectral airborne reconnaissance pod, which is a derivative of the company’s DB-110 dual-band long-range oblique photography pod. The MS-110 will provide the RoCAF with the capability to collect advanced imagery intelligence (IMINT) from a standoff range of 80 nautical miles, thus offering early-warning on potential enemy build-ups across the Taiwanese strait. 

Daytime visible image scan at 11 nautical miles from a Royal Air Force Tornado aircraft (Unclassified Crown Copyright). At a heigh of 6 nautical miles, the MS-110 pod can photograph and scan an area of 200 nautical miles across the horizon.

 

INTEGRATING THE “VIPER” INTO TAIWAN’S “OVERALL DEFENSE CONCEPT” 

While “Phoenix Rising” and the large F-16V procurment will enhance Taiwan’s deterrence posture, it will not change the balance of power in the region. Despite significant foreign purchases and idigenous developments, Taiwan’s military capabilities do not measure up to the People’s Liberation Army-Air Force’s (PLAAF) inventory of over 1,500 aircraft and China’s growing navy. To address this issue, Taiwan has adopted a new military doctrine based on asymmetric warfare. 

The “Overall Defense Concept” (ODC) calls for the wholesale mining of the Taiwan strait and the ROC shores as well as for targeting advancing enemy forces with a barrage of anti-ship/coastal defense missiles and swarms of small and fast-moving boats. By imposing great costs on an amphibious assault through affordable means, Taiwan would be preserving its conventional capabilities for joint operations, once the United States Navy comes to its rescue. If they survive the PLA’s and PLAAF’s anticipated missile barrage on Taiwanese airfields, the RoCAF’s F-16s would play air defense and anti-surface roles in a projected conflict. 

The ODC is part of the “resolute defense, multi-layered deterrence” strategy introduced by the Tsai administration. Beijing pursues an increasingly hardline policy against Taiwan, since the Tsai administration is unwilling to abide to the “One China” policy. The PRC is actively seeking to restrict Taiwan’s participation in the international community and engages in political warfare, aimed at undermining democracy in Taipei.

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