Author: HARM

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.


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The cover photo is an original rendering 

By HARM and Gecko

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IMINT Reveals Kh-47 ”Kinzhal” Hypersonic Missiles & MiG-31Ks at Russian Flight Test Center

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.


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

Edited by 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 unmodernized F-16 Fighting Falcons (A/B configuration) 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 active-electronic scanner array (AESA) radar, called IRBIS-E, is the most advanced Russian-made airborne sensor and has a claimed detection range of over 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 this parameters, it is estimated that the IRBIS-E could detect the F-22A at a distance of 90 km.

6. Should the F-22 be drawn into a 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 Air Defense Command under the VAF fields two long-range S-300VM (SA-23 Gladiator) SAM systems used for area air defense (AAD) and several mid-range Buk M-2 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 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 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 Grizzly) 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. The VAF 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.

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 VAF’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 major 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.


By HARM

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 (see correction)

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

If you like our content, please consider supporting us with a coffee: buymeacoff.ee/ur9UYj038 

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Israel’s Christmas Raid in Syria: Target Assessment and Russian Reaction

In the night of December 25th, The Israeli Air Force (IAF) delivered its first clandestine strike on Syrian targets after President Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops. As assessed…

In the night of December 25th, The Israeli Air Force (IAF) delivered its first clandestine strike on Syrian targets after President Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops. As assessed in our latest policy impact analysis and recently reinforced by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the U.S. withdrawal will force Israel to ramp up its counter-Iran operations in Syria. The “Christmas raid” is as much a political statement as it is a continuation of the over 100 Israeli covert airstrikes in Syria. The Syrian Air Defense Forces (SADF) showed a mixed performance, but managed to intercept the majority of Israel’s air-launched missiles.


1. The IAF operation took place between 2200 and 2300 local time and targeted a ammunition warehouse in southern Syria. Israeli F-16 Sufa fighter aircraft fired Delilah cruise missiles – and possibly GBU39 glide-bombs –  from Lebanese airspace, using the IAF’s traditional standoff strike path. 

2. The SADF responded with surface-to-air (SAM) missile fire from its Pantsir S-2 and Buk-M2 systems,  intercepting the majority of Israeli missiles. The SADF’s S-200 and S-125 were also activated, but failed to affect the IAF’s fighter aircraft. This prompted the IAF to initiate a second wave of strikes at approximately 2240 local time. Social media sources claim that an unknown number of F-35I Adir joined the second round as counter-air escorts. 

3. We asses that the second bombing run reached its target. According to official statements, the IAF destroyed an ammunition cache and a parking lot on the Syrian Arab Army’s 4th Armoured Division base, injuring three Syrian soldiers. Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT) suggests that the targeted warehouse hosted Iranian-made Fajr-5 unguided surface-to-surface missiles that were scheduled for delivery to Hezbollah.

Target 1: Warehouse containing Fajr-5 SSMs (source: ImageSatInternational)

Target 2: Parking lot (source: ImageSatInternational)

4. According to Newsweek (quoting a U.S. defense source), the IAF targeted a Hezbollah delegation, which was boarding a flight to Tehran Mehrabad Airport to attend the funeral of Ayatollah Hashemi Alshaharoudi. While we cannot conclusively confirm this information, Iranian “Air Bridge” activity was indeed spotted during Christmas night. A Qeshm Fars 747 cargo plane [flight number QFZ9951]  from Damascus International Airport immediately after the IAF raid at 2334 local time. 

Screenshot of flight QFZ95591 egressing after the IAF raid

5. Yesterday’s raid revealed several problems of Syria’s aging SAM inventory. As video material shows, at least five failing SAMs crashed into the ground in Damascus instead of detonating in mid-air. One rogue missile even crossed the border into northern Israel and was intercepted by a Hadera-based air defense system. Contrary to initial claims, there is no evidence that the rogue SAM was a Syrian retaliatory strike.

The footage shows a Syrian SAM crashing on a residential area near Damascus: 

6. However, the SADF was generally successful in damage control. Familiar with the IAF’s flight paths, the Syrians focused on countering enemy ordinance  rather than enemy aircraft, relying heavily on point air defense systems.

7. Russia’s harsh reaction to the IAF’s “Christmas raid” testifies to the growing rift between Moscow and Jerusalem. In accordance to the deconfliction agreement, Moscow has thus far turned a blind eye to Israeli strikes in Syria, unless they were unannounced or engaged Syrian targets directly.  However, in response to the “Christmas raid” Russia has escalated its public rhetoric and reportedly considers tit-for-tat retaliations.

8. In the future, Russia will  potentially support Syria to engage IAF fighter jets when they enter Lebanese airspace. The imminent operationalization of the Russian-made S-300PM2 SAM system will provide the SADF with advanced long-range acquisition and engagement radars. It is virtually certain that the SADF will deploy at least one S-300 regiment in Damascus to provide area air defense over Syria’s most vital region.


By HARM and Gecko

The cover photo is a compilation of screenshots showing missile footage from the Christmas raid. Photo 1 shows an Israeli SAM launched from Hadera to intercept a rogue Syrian SAM. Photo 2 shows a Pantsir S-2 missile in flight, while 3 shows a Buk M-2 SAM launch in Damascus. 

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Consequences of the U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Syria

President Trump has announced a swift withdrawal of the 2,200 U.S. troops active in northeastern Syria, after claiming victory over Da’esh. The troops largely consist of special operations units, special…

President Trump has announced a swift withdrawal of the 2,200 U.S. troops active in northeastern Syria, after claiming victory over Da’esh. The troops largely consist of special operations units, special forces, engineers, state department personnel and forward air traffic controllers supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Trump’s decision was made without allied or cabinet consultation and was likely part of a deal with Turkey. While the troop withdrawal will negatively impact the counter-Da’esh campaign, it will potentially reinvigorate the U.S.-Turkish partnership. The decision is faithful to Trump’s original foreign policy views and shows the limits of John Bolton’s  influence in the National Security Council (NSC). The resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis suggests that the decision is irreversible at this point.


KEY POINTS:

1. With the troop withdrawal, the Trump administration returns to its original foreign policy rhetoric, abandoning regime change objectives and long-term engagements in the Middle East.

2. While the Trump administration did accelerate the counter-Da’esh campaign, the premature troop withdrawal provides the terror group with breathing room to regroup and potentially resurge.

3. As the U.S failed to prevent the formation of Iran’s ‘Shia Crescent’ land bridge in December 2017, the troop withdrawal will not significantly affect Washington’s counter-Iran posture in northeastern Syria and al-Tanf. Israel and the Gulf states will be forced to pick up the ball to contest Iranian influence in Syria.

4. The troop withdrawal has the potential to reinvigorate the U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership and gradually pull Turkey out of Russia’s orbit. The SDF will likely disintegrate and forge new alliances to prevent a third party takeover of the territory it has liberated.

5. The Trump administration has also ordered troop reductions in Africa and Afghanistan, significantly weakening the U.S.’ capacity to combat al-Qa’ida and Da’esh internationally.


1. THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR

  • Under the Trump administration, the United States canceled the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) train & assist program for Syrian opposition groups and focused exclusively on defeating Da’esh. This crippled the United States ability to influence the political resolution of the conflict. The U.S-sponsored Geneva Process remains insignificant and is overshadowed by the Russian-Turkish-Iranian trilateral formats.
  • According to  James Jeffrey, the U.S. Special Representative for the Syria Engagement, the Washington now seeks a “changed regime” (i.e. behaviour) rather than “regime change” in Damascus.
  • President Trump first expressed his intention to withdraw the 2,200 U.S. troops in northeastern Syria in 2017, in accordance with his campaign promise of military disengagement. The withdrawal was postponed at the NSC’s advice, which emphasized the need to stabilize the liberated territory in Syria and Iraq.

US Forces dismount from their Oshkosh M-ATV tactical vehicles while conducting a security patrol outside Manbij, Syria, June 24, 2018. Image: US Army/Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster

2. THE GLOBAL COALITION AGAINST DA’ESH

  • According to the U.S. government, the Coalition is currently transitioning to the next phase of the campaign against Da’esh. This will likely entail the end of major operations, including the air campaign, and the demobilization of the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force Inherent Resolve (CJTF-IF). Without CJTF-IF, French and British SOF and close air support missions will have a negligible impact on Da’esh.
  • Since 2014, the Global Coalition has made significant progress against Da’esh in Syria and Iraq. The Trump administration’s relaxation of the rules of engagement and the discrete troop surge in 2017 have notably accelerated the counter-Da’esh campaign. Da’esh has been stripped off its expansive proto-state and forced back into the form of a classical insurgency.
  • However, Da’esh is conserving its resources and regrouping in the mid-Euphrates river valley (MERV) in Syria as well as the southern Nineveh and Kirkuk provinces in Iraq. Between 8,000 and 25,000 Da’esh fighters remain scattered throughout Syria and Iraq, awaiting a re-surge opportunity. Da’esh thus remains capable of threatening regional stability and Transatlantic security.

Visual comparing the territory held by Da’esh in 2015 and December 2018.

  • Post-liberation stabilization efforts, which focus on local force capacity building, will remain crucial for preventing the resurgence of Da’esh. The SDF will require additional training missions to raise an adequate number of indigenous Arab Sunni troops that can stabilize and police the MERV. According to the Joint Chief of Staff Joseph Dunford, the SDF currently lacks 30,000 men in the MERV area, a likely hotspot for Da’esh’s comeback.
  • President Trump seems to rely on the pro-governmental camp to fill the vacuum, rebuild the area and contain Da’esh in MERV. It is however highly unlikely that the Assad government and Iranian forces will be able to effectively stabilize the region.
  • The only viable –  yet unlikely – option is for France, the United Kingdom and other Coalition members to increase their troop presence and fill the security void created by the U.S. pullout. There is hope that some of the U.S. forces will be re-deployed to the border city of al-Qa’im on the Iraqi side. This would allow them to conduct cross-border special operations into Syria, augmented by CIA drone strikes.

3. COUNTERING IRAN

  • Since the pro-governmental victory over Da’esh in Al Bukamal, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)  commands an uninterrupted land corridor, nicknamed “Shia Crescent”, which links Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. The U.S. presence in Syria has failed to obstruct this corridor.
  • The al-Tanf garrison and the 55 km exclusion zone do not effectively counter the “Shia Crescent.” The presence of U.S. and Maghawir al-Thawra forces was intended to provide border security for Jordan, guard the al-Rukban camp, and halt the free flow of Da’esh fighters across the Syrian-Iraqi border. While the U.S.-held positions block the shortest land route from Tehran to Damascus or Beirut, the IRGC can still move forces through the strategic Al Bukamal border crossing.  

Iran’s “Shia Crescent” land corridor

  • Further countermeasures against the Iranian presence in Syria would bring U.S.-backed elements in direct confrontation with the IRGC or its proxies. Instead, the U.S. will likely pursue its counter-Iran strategy on different battlefields. The withdrawal from Syria will free special operations forces, intelligence agents and forward air traffic controllers for other deployments.  
  • The U.S. withdrawal will force Israel and the Gulf states to pick up the ball and devise measures against Iran’s growing presence in Syria.

4. TURKEY AND THE SYRIAN KURDS

  • As major U.S-backed operations against Da’esh are ending, rebuilding Washington’s strategic partnership with its NATO ally Turkey takes precedence over the protection of the SDF. Sources suggest that President Trump made his decision after a phone call with the Turkish President Erdogan. In addition to the troop withdrawal, the U.S. approved the sale of the MIM-140 Patriot surface-to-air missile system to Ankara in order to stop Turkey from acquiring the Russian S-400 system (SA-21).
  • The U.S. troop withdrawal in early 2019 will leave the SDF without a credible force protection against Turkey (in the North) and the pro-governmental camp (in the West). The SDF will only be protected by the small French and British SOF presence in northern Syria, which will remain after the U.S. pullout.
  • Turkey aims to destroy the self-proclaimed “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria,” which it perceives to be a covert  Kurdish political project. In particular, Turkey aims to degrade the YPG, the SDF’s strongest member and Syrian affiliate of the PKK.  Ankara will likely try to topple the SDF’s military city councils in northern Syria and replace them with Islamist opposition groups, mainly consisting of Arab and Turkmen Sunni fighters. Similar to previous operations,  the prospective Turkish offensive in northern Syria (Eastern Shield) will be branded as an “intervention against terrorism,” referring to both YPG and Da’esh.
  • In the medium to long term, the Kurdish elements within the SDF can be expected to seek a deal with Damascus and cede their territory to the Syrian Arab Republic in exchange for protection. As the territory east of Euphrates holds 90 percent of Syria’s oil reserves, it is critical for Syria’s economic reconstruction.
  • The Arab Sunni militias within the SDF will likely diverge on this issue. Some groups might welcome  reconciliation with the regime, while others will join the Turkish-backed opposition fronts in Northern Aleppo. The Sunni Arab tribes in MERV represent a wild card, as certain tribes have shown strong anti-Shia and Salafist sentiments, which could drive them back into Da’esh’s hands.
  • These likely developments will pit Turkey against the pro-governmental camp. Russia will attempt to mediate the conflict in order to uphold the Astana and Socchi accords. The accords are more vital for Russia than for any other actor, since they formalize Moscow’s “triumph” without demanding additional military resources.

Territorial control in Syria as of December 23, 2018.

5. STRATEGIC OUTLOOK

  • Thus far, the plans for U.S. troop reductions are limited to deployments in Africa and the Middle East. The U.S. presence in South Korea and Europe remains unchanged for the moment.  
  • In the Middle East, the U.S. is not only leaving Syria. President Trump is also withdrawing half of the 14,000 U.S. servicemen in Afghanistan. This withdrawal endangers the survival of the Afghan government and severely incapacitates both Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (against Da’esh Khorasan) and NATO’s Operation Resolute Support (non-combatant/capacity building mission).
  • U.S. Congress is also pressuring the Trump administration to cease military activities in Yemen. The Department of Defense has already stopped aerial refueling for Arab Coalition fighter aircraft.
  • Information on the fate of the 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is still pending. There is reason to believe that a troop reduction has to be expected.
  • U.S. AFRICOM will experience a 10 percent troop reduction, directly impacting U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn region.

by HARM and Gecko

The Syrian border town of al-Bukamal is also known as Abu Kamal 

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (abbreviated as PKK in Turkish) is a Kurdish separatist and Marxist revolutionary insurgent group. The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by NATO, the European Union and the majority of the United Nations member states.

The U.S. troop withdrawal provides Russia with the opportunity to expand its anti-acess area denial (A2/AD) capabilities across the Euphrates river, further flanking NATO’s southeastern border. This adds credibility and prestige to Russia’s re-expanding military engagement overseas.

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The Big Picture Behind Israel’s Operation Northern Shield

1. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have initiated Operation Northern Shield to identify and destroy Hezbollah cross-border tunnels in Northern Israel. At the moment, the IDF is operating exclusively on…

1. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have initiated Operation Northern Shield to identify and destroy Hezbollah cross-border tunnels in Northern Israel. At the moment, the IDF is operating exclusively on Israeli soil and has shown little intent to expand its operations across the Lebanese border. However, Jerusalem’s growing distrust of the United Nations Interim Force Lebanon (UNFIL) and the Lebanese government increases the likelihood of unilateral action on Israel’s part.

2. Operation Northern Shield takes place during a critical time for Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing criminal charges. The situation in Gaza and the West Bank remains volatile after last month’s 300-missile-salvo launched by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the recent lockdown of Ramallah.

3. According to Israeli Intelligence, Hezbollah plans to capture Israel’s northern region of Galilee, by moving militiamen through the tunnels. The surprise attack will be covered by cross-border ballistic missile (BM) fire. It is virtually certain that Hezbollah has stockpiled a generous inventory of small-range BMs to use against Israel. Intelligence suggests that Hezbollah’s weapons stockpiles are concentrated in three locations around Beirut “Rafiki Hariri” International Airport.

Hezbollah Missile Sites in Beirut, Lebanon (T-Intelligence)

4. The BMs have been airlifted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) al-Quds Force to Syrian airfields and, more recently, directly to Beirut International Airport. The Israeli Air Forces’ (IAF) covert raids on the Iranian shipments have reduced, but not completely stopped the weapon transfers. Intelligence dating from September suggests that the latest IRGC shipments included GPS components, which can upgrade Hezbollah’s unguided rockets with precision-guided capability.

5. In Syria, Shi’a militias – including Hezbollah units – have likely reoccupied their positions near the Golan Heights, despite Russia’s guarantees that they will withdraw from the Israeli border. Iran also maintains a direct presence on the border, as IRGC advisors are embedded with key Syrian Arab Army units. Considering the IRGC’s entrenchment in Southern Syria and Iran’s longstanding investment in Hezbollah’s capabilities, there is mounting evidence of a bigger play against Israel.

6. We assess that Israel acted in response to the following threat scenario:

  • Assault: Hezbollah will aim to infiltrate Northern Israel under BM fire cover and capture the extremities of Panhandle Galilee on the north-south axis, isolating the Golan Heights from the west through blitz light-infantry tactics. In parallel, the IRGC and affiliated Shi’a militias positioned in Quneitra and Suweida (Syria) will initiate cross-border attrition attacks on the Golan Heights from the east. Hezbollah’s special forces unit will spearhead the assault, accompanied by sniper teams and anti-tank units tasked with harassing IDF troop reinforcements. We judge that the assault phase depends heavily on a small initial IDF presence in the North due to urgent threats in Gaza and the West Bank – a situation developing at the moment.
  • Tactics & Objectives: The campaign is estimated to be IRGC-advised and conducted asymmetrically in Hezbollah-trademark fashion. The attacking forces will aim to deliver a sustained harassment and maximum pressure campaign, based on the lessons learned in Syria. The conflict will inevitably attract a large number of Shiite fighters from across the Middle East and the “Shi’a Crescent” corridor will be key for the attacking forces’ combat mobility and logistical operations. While it is unlikely that Hezbollah and other IRGC-backed elements will be able to capture Galilee and the Golan Heights, militiamen will seek to entrench themselves in the area and establish staging points for continuous attacks on Israeli troops. Hezbollah will capitalize the infiltration for propaganda and eventually press for political negotiations to legitimize its revisionist claims.     

Hypothetical Operational Layout of the Hezbollah Assault (T-Intelligence assessment and visual)

7. Our threat scenario is based on the following capabilities and trend indicators:

  • All three cross-border tunnels identified thus far are located in the Galilee Panhandle. The tunnels sit in key tactical positions on the borderline. A topographic study of the area shows that the tunnels run through the Lebanese mountain valleys that can be used to cut the Panhandle off along the Hula and the Upper Jordan river valleys near the Golan plateau.
  • The Sochi Accord enabled the IRGC-backed Shiite militias to re-deploy part of their forces from Idlib and reinforce their positions at the Syrian border.
  • Recent escalations in Gaza and the West Bank (Ramallah) have forced the IDF to divert its capabilities to the South.
  • IRGC cargo airlifts, presumed to carry BMs and other weapons, have recently been rerouted from Syrian airfields to Beirut International Airport.
  • The number of United States Special Operations flights to Lebanon has grown over the past months. We assess that U.S. intelligence, working in close cooperation with Israel, is aware of Hezbollah’s intensified operational readiness in Lebanon. (MAGMA13 and 14 flights fly-in from al-Udeid, Qatar and Jordan)

High interest flights outbound of Lebanon [SAMPLE] courtesy of @CivMilAir

  • The number of IAF flights over Lebanon has recently increased, likely for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes.

8. While we are confident that Iran’s success in the Syrian Civil War will translate in ambitious (covert) operations against Israel, we cannot assess whether an Hezbollah operation was imminent. Israel likely decided to act preemptively and, in the process, to test international reactions.

9. Hezbollah denies the Israeli claims. Both the U.N. mission and the Lebanese government have refused to attribute the cross-border tunnels to the Lebanese group. UNFIL authorities are liaising with both the IDF and Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and have hosted a tripartite meeting in order to guarantee transparency.

10. IDF engineers and bomb disposal units have identified and destroyed three 200-meter long tunnels that stretched 35-37 m inside Israeli territory. The IDF placed a camera inside the first tunnel and caught two individuals on tape. One of them was identified as Dr. Imad “Azaladin” Fahs, a commander of the local Hezbollah unit. Hezbollah has denied the allegation and claimed that the men in the video were drug dealers. The IDF fired on another Hezbollah unit that attempted to recon the IDF’s presence in the Kadesh valelly.

11. Israeli officials seem to put little faith in the LAF’s commitment and capacity to counter Hezbollah. UNFIL has also been largely unsuccessful in identifying and preventing Hezbollah’s activities in southern Lebanon. The growing frustration and distrust between the parties will increase the likelihood of further unilateral action on Israel’s part. 


UPDATE December 16, 2018 – The IDF has uncovered a fourth cross-border tunnel. The location has not yet been revealed. 


by HARM and Gecko

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