Author: HARM

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


by HARM and Gecko

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

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

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

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


OPERATIONAL LAYOUT

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

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

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

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

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

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


INTELLIGENCE FAILURE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


DA’ESH IS NOT DEFEATED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By HARM and Gecko

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

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

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Syrian S-300 Ready to Use?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISRAEL WILL RETAIN A LIMITED STRIKING CAPABILITY

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

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

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

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

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

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


By HARM and Gecko

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

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Russia Simulates Air Attack on Norwegian Radar

1. Eleven Russian Su-24 tactical bombers (NATO reporting name: “Fencer”) conducted a simulated air attack on a Globus II radar station in Vardø (Norway) on February 14, 2018. The information…

1. Eleven Russian Su-24 tactical bombers (NATO reporting name: “Fencer”) conducted a simulated air attack on a Globus II radar station in Vardø (Norway) on February 14, 2018. The information was released yesterday by Lieutenant General Morten Haga Lunde, the Director of the Norwegian Intelligence Services (NIS). It is unclear whether the Norwegian Royal Air Force (NRAF) scrambled fighter jet interceptors to escort the Russian Fencers out of Norway’s flight information region.

2. The eleven Fencers launched from Monchegorsk Air Base, which hosts the 7000th Air Force Brigade of the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF). They egressed the Kola Peninsula and maneuvered towards the northern Norwegian coastline. The Fencers conducted multiple approaches towards the target (Globus II radar station) before returning home.

The RuAF Fencers’ flight path of the simulated air strike on February 14, 2018 based on NIS graph via T-Intelligence

3. The Globus II radar station (previously AN/FPS 129 FARE EYES) was developed by the United States in Vandenberg Air Base (California) and later moved to Norway, where is it operated by the NIS. The radar serves as part of a 29-sensor Space Surveillance Network (SSN) of the United States Strategic Command. The Globus II is an X-band radar, which is able to monitor, catalogue and track objects in the geosynchronous orbit. Russia claims that the Globus II radar is also capable of providing key telemetry for the U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) program, including targeting data for Aegis-capable destroyers.

4. Russia has simulated airborne kinetic strikes on the Globus II site in the past and has positioned the 9k720 Iskander-M (NATO reporting name: SS-26 “Stone”) short-range ballistic missile system 20 kilometers from Vardø in 2017. In 2018, Russia launched a massive electronic attack (EA) that disrupted Norway’s GPS signal during the NATO Trident Juncture exercise. Russia has also threatened strikes against other alleged and actual ballistic missiles defense radars in Europe, most recently on the U.S.-operated Aegis Ashore in Deveselu, Romania.


By HARM and Gecko

The cover photo is an original rendering 

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Russian “Kinzhal” Hypersonic Missile and MiG31Ks still at Flight Test Center (IMINT)

1. Satellite imagery shows several Kh-47 “Kinzhal” hypersonic aeroballistic missiles (NATO reporting name unavailable) next to Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) MiG-31K fighter jets (NATO reporting name: “Foxhound”) on the apron…

1. Satellite imagery shows several Kh-47 “Kinzhal” hypersonic aeroballistic missiles (NATO reporting name unavailable) next to Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) MiG-31K fighter jets (NATO reporting name: “Foxhound”) on the apron of the RuAF’s 929th State Flight Test Center (STFTC) in Akhtubinsk, Astrakhan oblast (Russia). The Kinzhals appear on Digital Globe images dating from September 3, September 6, September 22, October 16, and November 1, 2018. The discovery was made by Twitter user @reutersanders on February 10, 2019.

IMINT compiled by T-Intelligence showing Kinzhal near MiG-31Ks via Digital Globe

2. The Kh-47 Kinzhal is a modified version of the notorious 9K720 “Iskander” short-range ballistic missile (NATO reporting name: SS-26 “Stone”). With a claimed operational range of 2,000 km and Mach 10 speed, the Kinzhal is a very-long range standoff weapon, built to engage surface and maritime targets without entering adversarial airspace.  

Digital Globe image analysis via T-Intelligence

3. The MiG-31K (“Foxhound”) is Russia’s only fighter aircraft that is modified to carry and launch the Kinzhal. However, only a limited number (10-16 aircraft) are currently Kinzhal-capable. Russia claims that the Kinzhal has been successfully tested several times, since experimental combat duty commenced in the Southern Military District in December 2017. A squadron of 12 to 16 MiG-31Ks armed with Kinzhal missiles reportedly entered combat duty in April 2018. In addition, Russia is also modernizing the Tupolev Tu-22M3M bombers (NATO reporting name: “Backfire”) to carry up to four Kinzhal missiles. Tu-22M3M-launched Kinzhals could potentially have an extended range of 3,000 km.

4. According to official statements, the special purpose MiG-31Ks have conducted more than 89 Kinhzal-armed patrols over the Caspian and Black Seas. Media reports and Digital Globe’s satellite imagery confirm that the squadron is based at the RuAF’s 929th State Flight Test Center (STFTC) in Akhtubinsk. The Digital Forensic Research Lab has geolocated a MiG-31K Kinzhal test, which tool place on March 10, 2018 at the 929th STFTC.

5. Recent satellite imagery suggests that the MiG-31Ks are still at the 929th STFTC in February 2019. The fact that the aircrafts are still located at a test center and not deployed to an operational air base, almost one year after the Russian government announced the operationalization of the Kinzhal-capable MiG-31K squadron, could indicate that the development of Russia’s aeroballistic hypersonic missile project is moving slower than Moscow tries to suggest.

6. Overall, Russia’s new hypersonic kinetic capabilities should be taken with a grain of salt. Due to budgetary constraints, the Kinzhal will likely not enter into serial production anytime soon.


By HARM and Gecko

DISCLAIMER: Image analysis shows a very high similarity between the missiles at the 929th STFTC and the Kinzhal aeroballistic missile. There is however a remote chance that the missiles are dummies (inflatable structures or non-functional missiles) that were placed on the apron deliberately in order to deceive adversarial intelligence efforts.

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Airborne ISR over Transnistria Monitors Russian Drills

A Beech 200T (BE20) Super King Air aircraft outbound from Constanta (Romania) is currently flying Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sorties near the Russia-backed separatist republic of Transnistria (Moldova). The 200T…

A Beech 200T (BE20) Super King Air aircraft outbound from Constanta (Romania) is currently flying Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sorties near the Russia-backed separatist republic of Transnistria (Moldova). The 200T variant of the twin-turboprop aircraft is configured with a surveillance radar pod and vertical photography systems for aerial surveillance and reconnaissance. Based on initial observations, the BE20 calibrated its flight profile at a low-altitude of 3,000 meters and commenced with “donut rounds,” after reaching Transnistria’s northern edge. A typical BE20 low-altitude ISR mission takes approximately 5 hours. 

BE20 Flight (and 3D view) screen-grab from a public flight tracker via T-Intelligence

The ISR sortie, likely conducted by the U.S. Navy/Army, suggests significant nefarious activity on part of Russia in the breakaway Transnistria region. Russia has maintained a 1,200 troop presence in Transnistria since the 1992 conflict with the Republic of Moldova.

ASSESSMENT

The ISR is most likely collecting imagery intelligence on the recent activities of the Operational Group of the Russian Forces in Transnistria (OGRF-T). Military drills have been vaguely announced for mid-February and on February 4, the Russian Defense Ministry informed the public that the OGRF-T has finalised preparations. U.S. ISR sorties have been spotted periodically in January and almost daily between February 4 and 7.  The Russian Ministry of Defense has confirmed that the OGRF-T has conducted high-calibre firing drills from late January to February 1. The drills are part of a series of exercises organized in the Western Military District. Overall, the OGRF-T have increased their activities in Transnistria in 2017 and 2018, causing the Moldovan government push for the removal of foreign forces at the United Nations.  


By HARM and Gecko

DISCLAIMER: As the BE20 appears on flight trackers, the sortie is an intentionally public maneuver. This article has been updated.

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

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

As key IS-K territories are under pressure by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the rival Taliban, the group is seeking to capture new high-ground sanctuaries on the border with Pakistan. After defeating the Taliban in a turf war, IS-K is currently entrenching positions in the Korengal valley. While the group’s overall lethality has decreased, IS-K remains a threat for Transatlantic security interests and regional security. Since 2015, IS-K has conducted at least 83 attacks on government and civilian targets in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.


1.Since its inception in January 2015, the “Islamic State – Khorasan province” (IS-K) has been engaged in a multi-front war against the rival Taliban, the United States and the Afghan government. IS-K largely consists of disenfranchised Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) splinter groups, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and a small segment of foreign terrorist fighters (FTT) of other origin.

2. IS-K aims to establish an Islamic State in Central Asia (including, but not limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan), which would become a province of the wider global caliphate led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. IS-K is in contact and has received direct support from ISIS central. Furthermore, high-value individuals fleeing from the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields have found shelter in Afghanistan.

3. To reach its objectives, IS-K is mobilizing hardcore Sunnis by escalating sectarian and takfiri violence, degrading trust in the Afghan government, and confronting local competitors. IS-K’s public communication efforts paint the Taliban as puppets of Islamabad, unwilling to enforce Salafi/Deobandi principles and unable to expel foreign military forces from Afghanistan. While IS-K uses coercion and forced recruitment for population control, the group also leverages local dynamics to gain legitimacy and enlist indigenous support.

4. In 2019, IS-K is less popular and under more pressured than ever before. The group has banned drug cultivation and trade, executed community elders, and imposed Sharia law on isolated tribes, causing unrest and uprisings. At the same time, joint U.S.-Afghan special operations raids have re-directed IS-K’s expansion from the Spin Ghar mountain range to borderlands controlled by the Taliban, resulting in escalating violence between the two insurgent groups.   

5. IS-K has built its territorial foothold in the TPP’s and IMU’s areas of influence. While the group did not succeed in capturing urban centers or large rural areas, IS-K controlled a number of Uzbek-villages in Jowjzan province and continues to find sanctuary in key valleys in the N2KL area (Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar and Laghman) on the border with Pakistan. IS-K also operates an unknown number of cells in more than ten other Afghan provinces, including Kabul and Herat. In Pakistan (PAK), IS-K is embedded with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa tribal agencies.


ENVIRONMENTAL RECONNAISSANCE (RECCE)

6. N2KL is located in the Hindu Kush mountain range on the Afghan-Pakistani (AFG-PAK) border. The area is strategic, as insurgent groups are able to leverage the porous border area to establish sanctuaries and move supplies.

  • N2KL’s high, rugged, and mountainous terrain favors the defendant, as it is largely inaccessible by road and lacks landing zones for aircraft. Elevations range from 1,500 to 4,500 meters, with peaks of over 6,000 meters. The crests are sharp, slopes are steep, and the sparse mountain passes lie at an average elevation of 3,000 meters.
  • Like any other insurgent group active in the area, IS-K needs to control the narrow capillary valleys in order to exploit the N2KL area’s high-ground advantage. Some of the key valleys are Mohmand/Mahmud, Bagh Da’ara, and Takho (Nangarhar province), as well as Korengal and Pech (Kunar province).
  • The human terrain is even more challenging. The myriad of native tribes and ethnicities are hostile to foreign forces and prone to fratricide violence. Attempts to coerce the indigenous population into submission have traditionally led to violent uprisings.

7. Within the N2KL area, IS-K is currently the strongest in Nangarhar province. The group controls parts of the Spin Ghar mountain range in southern Nangarhar province and is highly active in the Mohmand and Takho river valleys in Achin district. Mohmand and Takho valley are inhabited by Mohmand Pashto tribesmen, whose settlement area extends across the AFG-PAK border into Tirrah valley. Deh Bala and Nazyan also experience significant IS-K activity. Over 60 percent of the provincial population is engaged in subsistence farming. Some inhabitants enjoy limited day-labor opportunities in Pakistan.

  • As IS-K is the direct successor of certain TPP groups, the group falls back on pre-established networks in Nangarhar. 90 percent of IS-K members are Sunni Pashto, mostly from the Orakzai and Afridi tribes native to the Orakzai, North Waziristan and Kurram tribal agencies in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (ex-Federally Administered Tribal Areas/ FATA).
  • TTP militants first arrived in Nangarhar province, after a Pakistani military offensive ousted them from FATA in 2010. As a tit-for-tat retaliation against Pakistan’s systemic support for the Taliban, the Afghan Government colluded with the TTP and Lashkar-e-Islam in Nangarhar for a brief period. Over time, almost 2,000 TTP militants settled in Nangarhar’s Mohmand valley, resulting in an open confrontation with the Taliban.  

Recce: Southern Achin District via T-Intelligence

  • American air strikes augmented by joint U.S.-Afghan special operations raids have denied IS-K most of the high ground, driving IS-K underground or across the border. In April 2017, the United States Air Force dropped the GBU-43 “Mother of All Bombs” on an IS-K cave network in Achin district, killing over 90 militants. The ANDSF evicted over 20 IS-K militants from the Tora Bora cave complex in Pachir Aw Agam District, after the militants took the White Mountain from the Taliban.  
  • The United States maintains at least two combat outposts (COP) in the Mohmand and Takho valleys, while the ANDSF operates a number of checkpoints throughout southern Nangarhar. As its territory was denied in southern Nangarhar, IS-K aims to expand elsewhere in the N2KL area.

8. In Kunar province, IS-K recently gained control of the strategic Korengal valley after months of fighting with the Taliban – this information was confirmed by Kunar Provincial Council member Abdul Latif Fazly. Together with Pech valley, Korengal forms a strategic corridor that stretches from the AFG-PAK border to Nuristan. With the Pech-Korengal corridor under its control, IS-K can now supply operations that reach deeper into Afghan territory. However, the valley remains virtually ungovernable and volatile for all parties involved.

Recce: Korengal, Kunar, Pech and Shuryek valleys (Kunar province) via T-Intelligence

  • The Korengalis are uniquely confrontational and hostile towards outsiders. The local population consists of isolated Durani Pashai-speakers and few Pashto Safi tribes, who have violently resisted all foreign forces entering the valley, including Soviet, American, Taliban, and al-Qa’ida forces. The local tribes are known for bad-blood violence against other tribes, particularly tribes in Pech valley and the eastern-dialect Pashai-speakers from Nangarhar. The Korengali Pashai are competing with the Pech valley Safi Pashto over timber trade in particular, while the Safi have a century-long feud with Korengali tribes that migrated from Nuristan.
  • While isolationist at heart, the Korengalis have increasingly come to accept anti-governmental insurgent groups.  The natives have been exposed to al-Qa’ida-associated Salafi/Deobandi preachers, TTP-established madrassas and foreign terrorist fighters over the past decades. The Taliban and now IS-K have managed to enlist the support of the local shura elders to legitimize their presence. The recent IS-K takeover of Korengal was enabled by the defection of an influential Taliban commander, who rallied local support for the group.

Recce: Korengal Valley (Kunar province) and past US/ISAF-Eastern Command (2006-2010) combat outposts via T-intelligence

  • The IS-K control over Korengal will likely be short-lived. The Taliban are aggressively contesting the valley, while the Korengalis can be expected to grow hostile to the totalitarian governance model of IS.   

9. Jowjzan became an IS-K territory when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) merged with IS-K in mid-2015. As Jowjzan is Afghanistan’s only Uzbek-majority province, it traditionally served as a sanctuary for IMU.

  • IS-K/IMU have been particularly active in the isolated Darzab and Qush Tepa districts. In Darzab, the group directly controlled the Mughul and Sar Darrah villages, while, in Qush Tepa, IS-K’s strongholds were the Khanaq, Beg Sar and Chakma Chaqur villages. In these areas IS-K was at liberty to conduct limited hisba policing.

Recce: SE Darzab district (Jowjzan province) via T-Intelligence

  • The founder of IS-K in Jowjzan is Qari Hekmat/Hekmatullah, a defecting Uzbek Taliban commander. Native to the area, he mobilized the local Turkic community and facilitated the group’s territorial grip. In 2016 and 2017, IS-K grew largely unopposed, as the local Taliban wanted to avoid bloodshed among fellow Uzbeks. When negotiations failed in early 2018, the Taliban launched a full-scale offensive from the neighboring Faryab province.
  • Around that same time, a series of Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) and U.S. SOF operations focused on dismantling IS-K’s leadership. The high-value targeting campaign removed platoon leaders, shadow governors and the top emir from the battlefield. Qari Hekmat was killed in a U.S. strike in Qorogh village, Faryab, on 5 April 2018. Afterwards, the joint ASSF-U.S. operations advanced to night raids directly on Moghul and Darzab villages.
  • In mid-2018, IS-K in Jowzjan collapsed in the face of accelerated Taliban offensives. Mawlawi Habib Rahman, the new emir, and 230 IS-K fighters surrendered to the ANDSF in order to avoid the Taliban. The ANDSF airlifted the desperate fighters from their falling stronghold Moghul to Sheberghan. The IS-K fighters have joined the reconciliation process, which could potentially involve amnesty. Other IS-K fighters who evaded the Taliban fled to the neighboring Sar-e-Pol province.

10. In northwestern Afghanistan, IS-K seeks to exploit the growing ethnic tensions between Turkic, Pashtun and nomadic populations and leverage sectarian rifts with the Shia Hazara. The IS-K presence in the Northwest coincides with the Taliban’s attempt to contest government control in Faryab, Badghis and Herat province. Increased activities among Turkic populations could also increase the group’s reach into Central Asian states such as Tajikistan.


MASS-CASUALTY CAPABILITY (ATTACK MAP)

11. IS-K remains capable of conducting mass-casualty attacks against government and sectarian (mostly Shi’a Hazara) targets on a transnational scale. As our data analysis shows, Kabul and Jalalabad are particularly vulnerable to IS-K violence.

IS-K Attack map (2015-2018) via T-Intelligence

12. The data set consists of 83 attacks claimed by IS-K in Afghanistan and Pakistan from January 2015 to December 2018. Most attacks took place last year (48), followed by 2017 (20) and 2015-2016 (13). The lethality of attacks has gradually decreased, with a major drop in May 2018. Since then, the vast majority of IS-K attacks resulted in less than 20 casualties per attack. This coincides with IS-K’s territorial loss in Jowjzan and Nangarhar provinces. Out of IS-K’s top 10 most lethal attacks, only two were conducted in 2018:

  • Quetta, PAK – 94 killed, almost 150 injured (August, 2016)
  • Sehwan, PAK – 88 killed, 250 injured (February, 2017)
  • Kabul, AFG – 84 killed, 250 injured (July, 2016)
  • Kabul, AFG – 70 killed (April, 2018)
  • Quetta, PAK – 61 killed (October, 2016)
  • Kuzhdar, PAK – 56 killed (November, 2016)
  • Kabul, AFG – 51 killed (November, 2017)
  • Kabul, AFG – 49 killed (March, 2017)
  • Gardez, AFG – 48 killed (August, 2018)
  • Karachi, PAK – 46 killed (May, 2015)

13. Approximately 72 percent of the IS-K attacks targeted Kabul (39 percent) or locations in Nangarhar province (33 percent), primarily Jalalabad. Approximately 75 percent of IS-K targets were government sites, embassies or civilians, followed by 20 percent Shi’a gatherings or mosques. Overall, IS-K prefers suicide attacks augmented by small arms fire.


By HARM

Editing by Gecko 

The cover photo shows the GBU-43 (MOAB) detonation in Mohmand valley, Nangarhar Province in April 13, 2017.

Mohmand valley is also known as Mamand and continues into Pakistan’s Anbar Mohmand tribal agency.

A small dissident segment of the IMU retained its allegiance to al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. The splinter group, which was announced on June 10 2016, denounced IS-K and claims the IMU brand.

Our data analysis encompasses the majority, but not all of IS-K attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Furthermore, not all attacks have been precisely pint-pointed, some are estimated (district, city, neighborhood), given the sparse information released in the media.

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Israeli/ U.S. airborne SIGINT on station for High-Value TEHRAN flight

1. At least two U.S. Air Force Boeing signals intelligence aircraft (SIGNT) – Boeing RC-135V (callsign: TIMEX21) and RC-135U (EXTRO21) – conducted SIGINT collection sorties over the Eastern Mediterranean between…

1. At least two U.S. Air Force Boeing signals intelligence aircraft (SIGNT) – Boeing RC-135V (callsign: TIMEX21) and RC-135U (EXTRO21) – conducted SIGINT collection sorties over the Eastern Mediterranean between 9 and 11 AM UTC time today. An Israeli Air Force (IAF) Gulfstream G550 Nachshon Aitam 676 SIGINT platform was also spotted over central and northern Israel. These platforms were on station, after a Syrian Air Ilyushin-76 heavylift cargo aircraft (RB/SYR9824) took off from Tehran Mehrabad International Airport (THR).

IAF-USAF SIGINT runs in Eastern Mediterranean captured by T-Intelligence via ADS-B exchange

2. The SIGINT platforms likely attempted to intercept communications between Syrian military and air control units to determine whether the cargo plane is a high-value target (HVT) that carries heavy weapons such as ballistic missiles (BM) destined for Iranian-affiliated paramilitary units. Should the presence of a HVT be confirmed, the IAF will likely conduct a tactical air strike to destroy the package. Both SIGINT collection sorties and air strikes have become common practices, as the IAF is attempting to curb the Iranian entrancement in Syria. Most of the Iranian military cargo eventually ends up in the hands of militias that operate against Israel, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Organization.

3. Syrian Air flight RB/SYR9824 (registration YK-ATB) left THR at 8:43 AM (UTC) westbound with no destination listed. When approaching the Syrian-Iraqi border around 10:12 AM, the flight turned its AVB transponder off. Twenty minutes later, the flight re-apparead over Homs province, Syria. Around 10:35 AM, the aircraft went dark again, while dropping to an altitude of 6,800 meters. As the aircraft made a northern course correction, the flight path of RB/SYR9824 suggests a destination north of Damascus. Whether this is indeed true or just a counter-surveillance maneuver to deceive its U.S. and Israeli watchers, is unknown.

Flightpath of RB/SYR9824 via FlightRadar24

5. In conjunction with its land-corridor, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) also operates an air route to supply its external branch, the al-Quds forces (IRGC- Quds), and affiliated Shi’a militias operating in Syria. Common destinations for the flights from Tehran and Kermanshah are the main Damascus airports (International and Mezzeh), Basil Al-Assad Airport in Latakia province and other airfields in Hama and Aleppo. Besides the civilian companies Mahan Air, Syrian Air and Fars Air Qeshm, Iran  is also known to use military aircraft operated by the Iranian Air Force (IRIAF) and the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF).

IRGC land-coriddor known as “Shi’a Crescent” via T-Intelligence

6. The presence of IAF/USAF SIGINT platforms does not automatically indicated that a HVT is onboard and that an Israeli air strike will follow. The IAF is tracking all suspicious flights inbound for Syria and Lebanon, many of which do not carry HVT cargo or whose payload does not mandate immediate kinetic action. The IAF/USAF SIGINT collections efforts could also be related to rumors indicating an imminent operationalization of the SyAAF’s S-300PM2 (SA-20B Gargoyle) surface to air missile system.  


by HARM

Editing by Gecko 

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USAF F-22A Raptors Could Ground Venezuela’s Su-30MK2s and Establish No-Fly Zone

The following analysis is neither news nor a forecast, but a purely hypothetical assessment. (a) If the situation in Venezuela escalates and Russia moves forward with its plans to establish…

The following analysis is neither news nor a forecast, but a purely hypothetical assessment.


(a) If the situation in Venezuela escalates and Russia moves forward with its plans to establish a strategic bomber presence in the Caribbeans, it is not out of the question that the United States will step up its opposition to the Maduro government. The Trump administration, alongside the European Union and the large majority of Latin American states, already provide political support to the Juan Guaidó interim presidency. Currently, the rift between factions of Venezuela’s armed forces and the Maduro government are growing. Suspicious of his own security forces, Maduro reportedly hired Russian private contractors to provide additional VIP protection.  Should the conflict turn into a civil war, the United States will likely support neighbouring allied countries such as Columbia. While National Security Advisor John Bolton is suggesting the idea of deploying 5,000 troops to Columbia, it is unlikely that such a plan is anything more than a psychological operation against Maduro and the Kremlin.

(b) Overall, it is unlikely that the Trump administration will venture into regime change operations. Any hypothetical U.S.-led military engagement against the Venezuelan regime will likely be limited, as seen in the previous strikes against the Syrian government’s Shayrat airfield and chemical weapons sites. The most likely of the unlikely military engagements will be an air interdiction operation, aimed at reducing the government’s capability of inflicting mass-casualties on opposition targets. Also known as a No-Fly Zone (NFZ), the U.S. could ground the Venezuelan Air Force’s (VAF) aircrafts and suppress its air defences.

(c) The United States has never conducted air interdiction missions in an environment contested by fourth generation aircraft and advanced anti-access surface-to-air missile (SAMs) systems such as Venezuela’s Su-30MK2 and S-300VM SAM system respectively. While sidelined in the last NFZ operation in Libya, the F-22A could however take a control role in such a hypothetical engagement.


The Su-30MK2/ Flanker-C Threat

1. While overall modest, the Venezuelan Air Force (VAF) is regionally superior in terms of aircraft and air defense systems. The VAF’s combat aircraft inventory is particularly interesting, as it sports a combination of 20 mostly “canabilized” and unoperational F-16 Fighting Falcons A/B and 23 fourth generation “plus” Russian Sukhoi Su-30MK2 (NATO Reporting name: Flanker-C).

Four Su-30Mk2 VAF formation via Sergio j. Padrón (One Big Photo)

2. Like the Su-33 (Flanker-D) and Su-35 (Flanker-E), the Su-30MK2 Flanker-C is an evolution of the Su-27 family (Flanker-A/B). This variant was designed in particular to outmatch its American counterpart, the F-15 Eagle, in air superiority battles. While the United States stopped investing in the F-15 family (except for export) when transitioning to the F-22A Raptor as the nation’s air superiority aircraft, the Russians continued to enhance the Flanker-family. The limited number of Flanker-C aircraft in the VAF’s inventory will likely be a strong incentive for the U.S. to deploy the F-22A for air-to-air combat, at least in addition to the more equal F-15 or F-18 aircraft.

3. As in all fighter jet comparisons, there is much controversy about the balance of power between the F-22A and Russia’s Flanker-family. While the F-22A very low-observable (VLO) classified radar-cross section (RCS), supercruise speed and standoff sensors render it superior, some estimates claim that the Flanker-C/D/E is closing the gap in terms of avionics, maneuverability and armament.

4. In a hypothetical air combat maneuver (ACM) or dogfight, the F-22A Raptor could detect the Flanker-C using the APG-77, a long-range (160 to 250 km) low-probability of intercept radar, and engage it with standoff munition from beyond-visual range (BVR) without being detected. This is called the first look, first shot, first kill doctrine and its central to the F-22A engagement tactic.

5. The Flanker-C’s own passive-electronic scanner array (PESA) radar, called N-001 VEP, was developed for the Flanker-A in the 1980s to outperform the USAF’s F-15E Strike Eagle’s onboard sensor. Even with upgrades, the Flanker-C’s detection capabilities are vastly inferior to fifth generation sensors and obsolete against VLO RCS foes. Currently, the only Russian-made radar that can pose a threat to the F-22 is the IRBIS-E, an active-electronic scanner array (AESA) developed for the Flanker-E. The IRBIS-E is capable of detecting normal airborne targets at a distance of 300 km.  The F-22’s VLO RCS, while classified, is believed to be between 0.0001 and 0.0003 square meters, with the frontal aspect performing better. Within these parameters, it is estimated that the IRBIS-E could detect the F-22A at a distance of 50 to 90 km.

6. Should the F-22 be drawn into a small- or medium-range fight or acquire a horizontal ACM pattern, the Flanker-C becomes a challenging adversary. In visual range direct engagement, the F-22A major weakness is its smaller number of electronic warfare (EW) vulnerable air-to-air missiles that it can carry in comparison to the Flanker-C. However, the inclusion of the AIM-120 AMRAAM blocks C-D allows for a 120 to 160 km operational range with increased EW resilience. While the F-22’s VLO-nature mandates a limited and concealed payload, the jet can compensate the limited munnition number by participating in a combined strike force with the “missile truck” F-15 or other aircraft (tasked with targeting the VAF’s F-16s), even relaying targeting data via data link.

An F-22 flies over Andrews Air Force Base in 2008

7. The VAF lacks BVR standoff munition equivalent to the AIM-120 AMRAAM block C/D as well as the training and combat experience of American and Russian pilots. Furthermore, such direct comparisons are ineffective when applied to real combat scenarios. In a NFZ operation, the F-22A Raptors will likely be supported by AWACS, Electronic Attack (EA) aircraft and naval assets. At the same time, the VAF will seek to draw the ACM in the engagement range of its SAM batteries.  However, as the F-22As ACM tactics rely on standoff BVR combat, the air superiority jet will avoid medium-range fights at all costs and even disengage when necessary. In a 2017 joint aviation exercise, the F-22A exercised ACM against Malaysian Royal Air Force Su-30MKK (Flanker-G).

8. Besides ACM, a hypothetical U.S. NFZ over Venezuela would also involve massive ship- and air-launched cruise missile attacks on the VAF’s airfields and logistics (fuel storage, hangers, etc.). This would reduce the number of fighter jets that the Venezuelans could get airborne in the first place. However, that would bring surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems into the equation.


Confronting the S-300VM/ SA-23?

9. Venezuela has the most the most robust air defense in the region. The Comprehensive Aerospace Defense Command (Commando de Defense Aerospatial Integral/ CODAI) tasked with defending Venezuela’s airspace, is directly subordinated to the Operational Strategic Command of the Ministry of Defense.  The mentionable assets operated by CODAI are three long-range S-300VM (SA-23 Gladiator) SAM systems used for area air defense (AAD) and several mid-range Buk M-2 (SA-17 Grizzly) for point air defense (PAD). Most assets are deployed to provide overlapping and saturated coverage over key governmental and military sites in Caracas.

Venezuela’s S-300VM (SA-23) via Defesanet

10. The SA-23 is a capable anti-access asset, threatening ballistic missiles, fighter jets, heavy lifters and even unmanned aerial vehicles. U.S. AWACS, AEW and ISR platforms would be at the highest risk, even at the SAM’s 200-350 km range edge. The U.S. operates its own S-300, acquired in the 1990s from Belarus that it uses for defense research and development purposes and for pilots to test ways to defeat the system. Likewise, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has likely acquired critical intelligence on how the system functions from allied S-300 operators such as Slovakia, Greece and Bulgaria, and Ukraine.

11. Theoretically, a F-22A or F-35B can enter a S-300 denied airspace and strike the battery or guide external-launched standoff and loitering munition to the target. Such a penetration would require a terrain hugging flight path, massive electronic attack support from airborne platforms, such as the E/A-8 Growlers, and a small payload for the F-22/F-35.  

12. The VAF uses the highly-mobile self-propelled Buk M-2/SA-17 SAM to counter air-breathing threats. As the SA-23’s long-range high-altitude coverage would push aircraft to fly low and use terrain to hide from radars, the Buk M-2 would have a greater opportunity to intercept missile attacks. Some analysts estimate that the SA-17 is performing better than the Pantsir S-1 (SA-20 Greyhound).

13. CODAI also operates SA-2 and SA-3 SAMs. However, NATO does not consider these systems as anti-access capabilities, given how inefficient they are in the face of current technology. On the other hand, CODAI is equipped with approximately 5,000 Russian-made Igla-S (SA-24) man-portable air defense missile systems (MANPADS). The shoulder-fired SAM is quickly deployable, difficult to track and poses a great threat to low altitude penetrations. 

14. Should the unlikely NFZ operation also contain a suppression/ destruction of enemy air defense (S/DEAD) element, the U.S. would likely conduct multi-platform air-naval saturation strikes, which would overwhelm the CODAI’s SAMs and subsequent radars. As seen in recent SEAD engagements, air defense unit cannot maintain a 24/7 high readiness. SAM systems can be caught off guard, the personnel can be unprepared or give in to psychological pressure. Overall, Venezuela will not be able to protect its airspace if the United States takes out its Flanker-Cs. Follow-up S/DEAD sorties might not even be needed.

15. In past NFZ operations, adversaries regularly complied to the new operational environment after the “first day of war”. The defenders chose to ground their aircraft and switch the SAM radars off to increase survivability of their armed forces, when attacking forces were reported in the area. In other engagements, such as the air campaigns in Yugoslavia and Vietnam, defending SAM personnel caused tactical surprises. While we cannot estimate how a hypothetical NFZ operation in Venezuela will turn out, it would certainly be the most contested airspace that U.S. forces experienced in the past decades.

UPDATE 24.2.2018

16. This analysis has been updated with an OSINT-based imagery intelligence map showcasing the known SA-23/S-300VM deployments at Manuel Rios air base (AB) and the Brazil-Guyana border. Several Flankers have been forward deployed from Luise del Valle Garcia AB (near Barcelona) to Caracas. Not all SA-23 tractor erector launchers (TELs) are concentrated in the pint-pointed positions. While impossible to verify at this point, a third SA-23 system is rumored to be deployed in an AB north of Caracas. 

VAF’s ABs and SA-23 sites via T-Intelligence


By HARM

Editing by Gecko

This analysis is neither news nor a forecast, but a purely hypothetical assessment.  

VAF’s official name is the Venezuelan National Bolivarian Military Aviation (VNBMA).

VAF placed an order for 12 more Su-30MK2 from Russia, rising the overall inventory number to 35, however a delivery or initial operational capability date has not been estimated or announced.

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Forensic Video Analysis: Syrian Air Defense Unit Abandoned Pantsir S-1 under Israeli IAI Harop Fire

During a raid in the night of January 20th 2019, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) prosecuted Iranian and Syrian ground targets in southern Syria. The operation included both ground attack…

During a raid in the night of January 20th 2019, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) prosecuted Iranian and Syrian ground targets in southern Syria. The operation included both ground attack and suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses (S/DEAD).


1. A video released by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) shows two SAM systems destroyed by Israeli missiles. The first one, either a 9K33 Osa (NATO reporting name: SA-8) or a 96K6 Pantsir S-1 (SA-22), was overwhelmed by an IAF saturation strike. The SAM system, based 5 km south of Damascus International Airport, fired for effect, but missed the interception. The SAMs detonated in mid air. The site coordinates are 33°20’54.4″N 36°28’08.1″E

2. The second target was a Pantsir S-1 (SA-22) stationed on the grounds of Damascus International Airport. Forensic video analysis shows three interesting details:

  • Heat signature: either the driver’s door is left open, with heat emanating from the cabin, or the vehicle’s power generator is left running.  
  • The planar array search radar antenna is switched off.
  • A vehicle is parked 3-5 meters behind the Pantsir – possibly a missile transloader.

3. We assess that the Pantsir (SA-22) was active and engaged in air defense. After consuming the munnition and receiving homing alerts, the crew deactivated the system’s antenna and fled. The crew was not caught off guard due to lack of personnel or low readiness, contrary to what some observers suggests.

4. Due to its location, the Pantsir (SA-22) was one of the most tactically important point air defense (PAD) systems in southern Syria. The system provided PAD for local long-range systems such as the S-200 (SA-5) and covered Damascus International Airport, which has been a bi-monthly, if not weekly, target of the IAF. If any crew was kept on high readiness, it was this Pantsir (SA-22) crew. The site coordinates are 33°22’56.5″N 36°29’38.4″E

5. As the IAF targeted the system, the Pantsir’s counter-D/SEAD protocol kicked-in and alerted the crew that enemy anti-radiation missiles (ARMs) were homing on its sensor emission. In such situations, the crew needs to deactivate the radar (flip the antenna off) and go mobile, leaving the position acquired by the enemy ARM. The crew indeed turned the radar off, but then – most likely – panicked and abandoned the Pantsir, leaving the door wide open/ the generator running. 

6. The supply vehicle spotted in the footage suggests that the Pantsir was about to be re-armed. The 2F77M is the designated transporter/transloader for the Pantsir (SA-22) and Tunguska (SA-19) SAM system family. The transloader is a 6×6 KamAZ-43101B truck.

Video Forensic Analysis via T-Intelligence (corrected)

7. The Syrian Pantsir (SA-22) air defense systems were likely targeted by the Israeli-made IAI Harop loitering ammunition, a low-observable (LO) anti-radiation “suicide” drone. The drone is designed to bypass enemy radars and loiter around the battlefield to find and engage evasive SAMs. For guidance, the drone can autonomously home on the enemy’s radar emission or be remote-controlled by a human operator (human-in-the-loop mode). The IAI Harop does not carry a warhead but self-destructs when reaching the target. This drone was credited for destroying another Syrian Pantsir (SA-22), during Israel’s Operation House of Cards on May 10, 2018.

T-Intelligence compilation of Harop drone demonstration by IAI

8. During the current raid, the IAF also destroyed a 3D long-range JY-27 early warning radar near Damascus International Airport. The JY-27 “Wide Mat” works at a very-high frequency (VHF) and can theoretically detect LO and very LO aircraft. The system is heavily inspired by Russia’s own VHF-band counter-LO aircraft radar, the “Box Spring” (1L13 Nebo SV and 1L119 Nebo SVU). The site was a key component of Syria’s evolving air defense network. With the JY-27 destroyed, the IAF mitigates the risk of having its F-35I Adir LO RCS detected.

Key takeaways from the January 20th raid:

9. The SADF has visibilly improved its effectiveness in countering ordinance. This is due to sustained Russian training, through which the Syrian Air Defense Forces (SADF) of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) learned how to operate advanced point air defense SAM systems, namely the SA-22 and SA-17.

10. The SADF’s improved capability has a considerable tactical impact, as it forces the IAF to conduct saturation strikes in order to guarantee that the missiles reach their targets. In turn, more aircraft, heavier payloads (leading to an increased radar-cross section) and multiple bombing rounds will be necessary for future raids.

11. The repeated destruction of Syria’s Pantsir S-1 (SA-22) air defense systems will potentially discredit the newest generation of Russian-made systems in the eyes of Middle Eastern customers. The Pantsir S-1 is a highly-mobile low-altitude medium-range self-propelled SAM system. Armed with twelve 57E6 SAMs and a 30mm autocannon, the system was designed to counter precision-guided munition. It is marketed as an effective solution to defend against U.S.-made maneuvering cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk and ARMs (U.S-made AGM-88 HARM or British ALARM), which have historically overwhelmed Soviet-made SAM systems. The latest Israeli raids have however repeatedly overwhelmed and destroyed the system.


by HARM and Gecko 

CORRECTION: It is likely that the element marked as an open door is the vehicle’s running generator. While this does not dispute the analysis, the content has been edited accordingly

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