Author: HARM

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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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 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 – February 21, 2019

12. Israel announced the completion of Operation Northern Shield on January 13, 2019. Overall, the IDF has exposed and destroyed six cross-border tunnels. The last three tunnels (discovered on December 15, December 29, and January 12) were dug from the Ramyeh-Ayta al-Shab areas in southwestern Lebanon. In order to relieve the pressure on the vulnerable Galilee Pandhandle area, IDF engineers erected fences in the Adaisseh region.  The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center reports that the Hezbollah leadership, including its leader Hassan Nasrallah, have thus far preserved media silence and made almost no reference to the events.


by HARM and Gecko

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

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

1. Over the last years, Iran has visibly improved its air defense (AD) systems by phasing in modern indigenous surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. The Iranian SAM deployments primarily safeguard the regime as well as the nuclear and ballistic missiles (BM) programs. The protection of major population centers represents a secondary concern. Given the escalating tensions with Israel, the United States and the Gulf states, Iran will likely increase the readiness of its AD in the immediate future.  


OPERATIONAL DOCTRINE

2. The responsibility for the Iranian AD is shared between the Khatham al-Anbia Air Defense Base of the regular Iranian Armed Forces (Artesh) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF). The rivalry between Artesh and IRGC, alongside shortfalls in C4 infrastructure, prevents Iran from developing a truly integrated AD system.

3. Iran’s AD doctrine recognizes the asymmetric superiority of adversarial striking capabilities. The Artesh and IRGC-AF therefore deploy a minimal AD regime, which aims at SAM survivability on the first day of war, and seek alternative AD measures. The alternative tactics focus on detecting, jamming and intercepting hostile targets through passive aerial detection radars, electronic warfare means and air assets tasked with countering enemy ordinance.

4. In the medium to long term, the introduction of new, indigenously produced SAMs and radars will shift the Iranian AD doctrine back towards traditional assets. The growing availability of modern and domestically sustainable systems will allow Iran to gradually decommission outdated SAMs or provide combined saturated coverage over key areas.

5. The indigenous SAMs show both original features and marks of reverse engineering from Russian, Chinese and U.S. systems. Their effectiveness is difficult to assess due to operations security and lack of combat testing.


CAPABILITIES AND DEPLOYMENTS

6. The limited SAM inventory and the large Iranian territory mandate an austere deployment regime. Only Tehran and central Iran are comprehensively covered due to the presence of nuclear/BM sites and governmental institutions. Southern, western and northern Iran are partially sealed, while the eastern part of the country is almost entirely uncovered.

Overview map of the Iranian SAM deployment and systems

7. The Iranian geography significantly interferes with AD radar coverage. As 60 percent of Iran’s terrain has an elevation of over 1,800 meters, low-altitude radars are blocked in large segments. The Zagros-Alborz mountain ring (2000-5000 m elevation) in particular obstructs aerial detection radars based on the central Iranian plateau. Despite its geographical challenges, Iran has made little progress in procuring or modernizing aircraft (airborne early warning and control systems/AWACS) that could alleviate these blind spots.

8. We estimate that open-source IMINT findings account for approximately 40 to 50 percent of operational Iranian SAMs, including those garrisoned.


Tehran

9. The capital is Iran’s best defended area. Tehran’s AD network protects various nuclear and BM locations, including research and development facilities, storage sites and launch silos. Iran’s political bodies, military command centers and major bases are also located in the capital.

SAM deployments and key sites in Tehran

10. Tehran’s Area Air Defense (AAD) is formed by three layers of long-range SAMs: Two S-300PMU2 Favorites and one S-200VE Vega. The S-300PMU2s specialize in tracking small radar-cross section (RCS) objects such as cruise missiles, fighter jets and small-range ballistic missiles. The S-200 Vega is proficient at longer-ranges and higher-altitudes, but reliable only against large RCS objects such as AWACS, electronic intelligence (ELINT) and intelligence, surveillance & reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, and heavy lifters.

11. An abundance of legacy and newly produced short-/medium-range systems provide saturated Point Air Defense (PAD). Four legacy MIM-23 Hawks and one HQ-2 (Chinese version of the S-75) with minimal domestic upgrades form the weaker links in the PAD chain. Two indigenous Talash systems, armed with Sayyad-2 missiles (“Hunter-2” in Farsi), and one Ra’ad system (Buk imitation) strengthen Teheran’s PAD capabilities.

Sayyad-2/ Talash site in southern Tehran

12. Iran has invested massively to make the Sayyad the jack-of-all-trades missile for its indigenous SAM systems. The Sayyad-2 medium-range SAMs are versatile, cross-platform compatible, and domestically produced. The missiles are based on the U.S. RIM-66 naval SAM and can be fired from the Talash, the S-200, and other launchers. The long-range Sayyad 3 and the forthcoming Sayyad 4, which are based on the S-300’s 48N6E/2 SAM, will arm Iran’s Bavar 373 system.


The Heartland

13. SAM coverage in the Iranian Heartland (Isfahan province) is multi-layered and saturated. The AD bubbles protect some of Iran’s major population centers such as Qom, Isfahan and Natanz. The area also hosts key nuclear and BM sites, including an uranium production facility near Natanz as well as a uranium conversion center and BM-launch silos near Isfahan. An extensive network of bunkers traverses the hills and mountains around the two cities.

SAM deployments and key sites in the Heartland

14. Isfahan’s AAD double-layer consists of one S-300PMU2 and one S-200VE system, based close to Isfahan International Airport. Three MIM-23 Hawks and one Sayyad-2 capable Talash system provide PAD. The PAD assets are scattered to create overlapping coverage for the long-range SAMs and nuclear/BM sites.

S-200VE site in Isfahan, Iran. The site is located 380 meters north of the local S-300PMU2

15. The Natanz area is covered by the long-range SAMs based in Isfahan and Tehran. The area hosts only mid-, short- and very-short-range assets with limited engagement envelopes, which suggests a focus on countering saturation missile attacks.  Two HQ-2s, two 2K12 Kub and three Tor-M1E form the local AD bubble. The highly mobile Kub and Tor can be scattered easily and used for shoot-and-scoot tactics. We have identified at least 12 empty AD sites in the area that could host indigenous SAMs in the future.


Southern Seaboard  

16. The Southern Seaboard has a modest SAM coverage, which is currently transitioning to newer assets. The PAD-exclusive extremities and the SAM-free gap between Bushehr and Bandar Abbas are among the most vulnerable sections of the Iranian airspace.

SAM deployments and key sites on the Southern Seaboard

17. The Southern Seaboard is a strategically vital region due to the proximity of adversarial territories and international trade routes. Iranian SAMs are deployed to secure the southern airspace and to monitor the Persian/Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

18. The IRGC Navy (IRGC-N) is responsible for the Gulf, while the regular Iranian  Navy (IRIN) is tasked with protecting the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean. The operational headquarters and nearly 90 percent of IRGC-N/IRIN bases are located on the Southern Seaboard (Khuzestan, Bushehr, Hormozgan and Baluchestan provinces). Tactical air bases (TABs), vital oilfields, and a nuclear power plant are also situated near the coast.

SAM deployments and key sites on the the Persian/ Arabian Gulf coast

19. The Persian/Arabian Gulf is the only part of the Southern Seaboard that is adequately covered. Bushehr hosts a double long-range AAD layer. One rail-based S-200 Vega and one new S-300PMU2 (replacing a MIM-23 retired in May 2017), are positioned on the grounds of TAB 6 (Bushehr International Airport).

S-300PMU2 site near Bushehr International Airport, Iran. The SAM system replaced a decommissioned Hawk-23 MIM in May 2017. CORRECTION: The S300’s radars have been mislabeled. The engagement radar is actually the 96L6 “Cheeseboard,” while the acquisition radar is the 306N3 “Flap Lid” (as pointed out by Twitter user @border9999).

20. An outdated Hawk MIM-23 and a Talash system armed with Sayyad-2 missiles provide the PAD for the area. Besides naval bases, the saturated SAM deployments guard the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, which would likely figure high on adversaries’ target lists.

21. The Bushehr-based S-200 Vega also provides partial, but unreliable coverage (range edge) for Bandar Mahshahr. This renders the Mahshahr area open to air attack, as it has only one local PAD site (MIM-23 Hawk). However, at least three empty AD sites stand ready to host further SAM systems.

SAM deployments and key sites in the Strait of Hormuz

22. The Strait of Hormuz is moderately exposed.  The S-200VE deployed in Bandar Abbas leaves the area vulnerable to advanced fighter jets, low-observable cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The PAD layer consists of one Hawk MIM-23 and one Chinese HQ-2. While these systems focus on the low-altitude blindspot of the S-200, they are largely impotent in the face of maneuvering targets and powerful jamming.  

23. Abu Musa Island serves as a forward early warning post and staging point for special operations forces. Despite its strategic position near international shipping lines, the island lacks major military installations. The local MIM-23 Hawk site is a folder cannon, aimed at increasing the survivability of more important assets such as radars and missiles launchers on the mainland. An unknown number of naval SAMs carried by IRGC-N vessels provide additional AD in the Strait of Hormuz. The IRGC-N is scheduled to receive the latest naval version of the Sayyad in the near future.

24. A recently deployed MIM-23 Hawk in Chabahar is the only SAM system on the coast of the Gulf of Oman. As Chabahar is undergoing multi-billion-dollar investment and is on route to become Iran’s key deep-water port, the city will likely be one of the first recipients of the Sayyad 3 or 4 SAMs. The area hosts two major IRGC-N/IRIN bases and serves as a gateway to both the Strait of Hormuz and the eastern Iranian airspace.


The West

25. Iran’s western flank is poorly defended, even though the region, which hosts several TABs and nuclear/BM facilities, is in the immediate proximity of the U.S. military bases in Iraq and Kuwait. 

SAM deployments and key sites in the West

26. An S-200VE based in TAB 3 (Hamdan Airport) provides AAD over Hamadan, Kermanshah and Kurdistan provinces. Iran’s long-range Fa’ath 14 radar near TAB3 is within coverage, but lacks a PAD layer. The IR-40 nuclear reactor and the uranium enrichment facility near Arak are guarded by an AAD overlay of the Hamadan- and Tehran-based S-200 SAM systems. Two MIM-23 Hawks, stationed in the vicinity of the nuclear sites, provide an additional, yet limited layer of PAD.

MIM-23 site overlooking the IR-40 reactor in Hamadan, Iran

27. The Tabriz area in the Northwest completely lacks long-range SAM coverage. Critical military locations depend on one MIM-23 Hawk and one 2K12 Kub for PAD. The patchy AD coverage is puzzling, given the unique geo-strategic position of northwestern Iran. The underground BM launch complex near Tabriz potentially brings parts of Europe within striking range for Iranian Shahab missiles.

28. The southwestern airspace is even more vulnerable. The only SAM deployment in the area, a MIM-23 Hawk, is located on the ground of TAB 4 (Dezful Airport). Several empty AD revetments are scattered throughout the region.


The East

29. Iran’s eastern airspace almost entirely unprotected. Over 760,000 square kilometers  (40% of Iran’s territorial surface), including Iran’s second most populated city Mashhad, completely lack AAD. One MIM-23 Hawk provides weak PAD for TAB 14 (Mashhad International Airport) and an BM launch complex near Mashhad. 

SAM deployments and key sites in the East

30. The AD strategy for the East relies on alternative tactics. Early-warning and over-the-horizon radars (e.g. the Nazir radar with a 800 km coverage) detect and identify targets. Threat interception is carried out by outdated fixed-wing aircraft armed with air-to-air missiles, which are permanently held at high readiness. The AD strategy for the East also incorporates the use of electronic warfare (EW) assets. Iran’s EW has proven to be moderately efficient against U.S. UAVs in the past.

31. We asses the Iran will deploy one or two long-range SAMs in the East at the earliest possible date.  AAD is necessary to mitigate the risk of aircraft penetration and to protect Tehran and the Heartland from attacks with standoff-range low-observable ordinance. The deployment of U.S. F-35s in Kandahar Airbase (Afghanistan) and on amphibious carriers in the Persian/Arabian Gulf mandates Iran to expedite AD enhancements in the region.


by HARM and Gecko

Our IMINT analysis is based on openly available satellite data (Image Landsat/Copernicus).

The Sayyad-2 SAM engagement range varies between 60 and 76 km, depending on missile type.

IMINT can potentially confuse the MIM-23 Hawk with the Mersad, Iran’s domestic copy-cat.  Mersad’s Shlamche and Shahin SAMs have a 5-10 km shorter range than the MIM-23. An improved variant has a claimed range of 56 km. The engagement range of all pink color-coded AD rings can therefore vary from 40 to 56 km.

Previous assessments on Iranian SAM deployments have been conducted by Sean O’Connor in 2010 and Iran-GEOINT blog in 2017.

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

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

In 2017, Romania initiated a visionary defence procurement program that will reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank and make the Romanian military a leading force in the Black Sea by the early 2020s. The $11.6 billion shopping list includes top-of-the-line products such as Raytheon’s latest Patriot air defense system. The assets are specifically tailored to counter the Russian threat in the Black Sea – namely Russia’s naval supremacy, anti-access area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and theater ballistic missiles (TBM) deployed in Crimea. While ambitious in nature, Romania’s procurement program is continuously disrupted by governmental corruption and mismanagement resulting in indefinite delays for strategic air-naval programs.  


1. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 has shaken the Black Sea region from its century-long geopolitical slumber. Moscow’s military build-up in Crimea – only 400 km from the Romanian coast – has transformed the Black Sea into a substantial missile engagement and interdiction zone, placing the region at the very top of NATO’s agenda.

2. The Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) and Russian Navy (RuN) currently operate more than 15 naval and air bases in Crimea. The port of Sevastopol hosts the RuN’s 30,000 men strong Black Sea Fleet (BSF), which is responsible for operations in the Black Sea, Azov Sea and the Mediterranean.

3. Concerned about the mounting Russian presence at its doorstep, Romania has welcomed a number of strategic U.S. and NATO military installations on its soil. Over the past years, Bucharest has promised to allocate 2% of its GDP to defense in order to boost its naval warfare, missile strike and air defense capabilities. While the Romanian Ministry of National Defense (MoND) has made progress in all fields, systemic corruption and administrative inability continue to obstruct the procurement program. The naval branch remains notably exposed.

 VISUAL COMPARISON: Drag the bar left to see how Romania's defense procurement will change the regional air defense and artillery outlook


SEA COMMAND

4. Russia strives to establish naval supremacy in the Black Sea. The BSF currently consists of 47 warships and seven submarines, most of which are stationed in the strategic city-port of Sevastopol and the Novorossiysk auxiliary naval air base. While the fleet is largely outdated, around 18 new or modernized warships are expected to join the BSF by 2020.

5. Even in its current state, the Russian BSF holds strike superiority in both surface and subsurface naval warfare. All major vessels stationed in Crimea are equipped with standoff range anti-ship missiles (ASM) and anti-submarine weapons (ASW). The naval assets are supported by land-based (road-mobile, naval infantry and coastal batteries) and airborne (mostly Mi-14, Mi-24 and Su-30) ASM/ASW units. The large number and variety of surface and subsurface missiles pose an acute threat to NATO and the neighboring countries.

6. Consequently, Romania promised to prioritize naval defence procurement. The Romanian Navy’s (RoN) surface warfare capabilities will be enhanced by the acquisition of four multi-purpose corvettes, worth $2 billion, and an unspecified number of naval strike missile (NSM) coastal defense batteries. Two existing Type-22 corvettes,  the Regele Ferdinand and Regina Maria, will be modernized in the course of the same program. The corvettes are scheduled for commission between 2021 and 2023.

7. The missile type deployed on the new assets will be a decisive factor for the success of the surface warfare program. Given the BSF’s mass proliferation of supersonic anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles (such as the 3M-14 Kalibr/ NATO reporting name: SS-N-30), the RoN’s corvettes require adequate shipborne interceptors,  high-frequency surface wave radars and a potent striking capability. The tumultuous competition was won by Naval Group’s Gowind 2500-class multimission corvettes. Armed with MDA MM40 Exocet anti-ship missiles, VL Mica ship-based SAMs, torpedos and two cannon systems, the Gowind promises a low-observability system integration. The Egyptian Navy is the only other Gowind-operator.

The Egyptian Navy future GOWIND class corvette. They will be fitted with 8x Exocet MM40 Block 3 anti-ship missiles, 16x VL MICA surface to air missiles (both by MBDA), Torpedoes, a 76mm main gun (Oto Melara) and 2x 20mm remote weapon stations. Image: DCNS

8. While the corvettes will be an important addition on the surface, the RoN remains critically under-equipped for subsurface warfare in the short to medium term. The MoND’s ambitious submarine program aims to build three submarines and modernize the only existing one, the Kilo-class Delfinul, which is currently used for training. However, the lack of financial resources and technological know-how render it highly unlikely that Romania will commence with the submarine program before 2026.

9. The RoN’s seaborne (surface and subsurface) capabilities will be augmented by the Romanian Air Force (RoAF), which is responsible for policing the maritime airspace. In the past years, the Romanian maritime airspace has been repeatedly violated by the Russian Aerospace Force (RuAF) - especially when the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet and NATO’s Maritime Standing Group 1 and 2 conduct semi-permanent sea patrols in the region and dock in Romanian ports.

10. As part of its multirole fighter program aimed at increasing its maritime security and air defense capabilities, Romania purchased twelve F-16 A/B Block 15 Mid Life Upgrade (MLU) Fighting Falcons from the Portuguese Air Force. The combat weapons system acquired by the MoND for the Fighting Falcons consist of 30 AIM-120 AMRAAM and 60 AIM-9M Sidewinder air to air missiles and 10 GBU-12 and 18 AGM-65H/KB Maverick ground attack ordnance. The F-16s, assigned to the 53rd Warhawks Fighter Squadron have achieved operational capability in 2018 and later assumed air policing duties over Romanian airspace in mid-March 2019. The MoND plans to increase the RoAF’s F-16 inventory with 36 newly-built airframes needed to replace its obsolete MiG-21 Lancer C (NATO reporting name: Fishbed). 

11. While the F-16 AM/MB is a suitable for boosting inter-operability and for basic mission profiles such as air policing, close air support and ground attack, it does not sufficiently threaten Russia’s Anti-Access/ Area Denial (A2AD) zone in Crimea. The RoAF would have required fifth or fourth generation “plus” fighter jets or the latest block versions of the Fighting Falcon, capable of carrying anti-radiation missiles (ARM), ASM and standoff air-launched cruise missiles, in order to credibly challenge the BSF and SAM fortifications in Crimea. 


ANTI-ACCESS/ AREA DENIAL (A2AD)

12. The Russian forces in Crimea are safeguarded by a robust, multi-layered and augmented network of integrated area and point air defenses. Three Russian forces in Crimea are primarily defended by the S-400 Triumf (SA-21 Growler) the Kremlin’s latest SAM technology. The S-400 Triumf creates an impenetrable area air defense (AAD) cover, capable of parrying multiple airborne assets, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles in a 400 km radius. Furthermore, numerous S-300 (SA-20) SAM systems are scattered throughout the region, providing  an additional AAD layer. A very high, but unknown number of Pantsir S-1s (SA-22), BUKs (SA-11), 9k33 Osa (SA-8 Gecko) and anti aircraft artillery (AAA) provide point air defense (PAD) for military installations, artillery batteries and SAM sites.

13. The ground-based air defenses in Crimea are supported by a layer of electronic warfare (EW) and EW-countermeasure (EWCM) systems. The Russian tip-of-the-spear EW capability is the Krasukha 2/4, which is able to jam communications, low earth orbit spy satellites, missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). As EWCM, the Russians have installed radars that provide frequency diversity across the Crimean peninsula and interlink with the AAD and PAD layers.

14. A Podsolnukh over-the-horizon radar stationed on Crimea’s Southwestern coast furthermore provides early warning data, reaching as far as the Bosphorus. Supported by airborne and seaborne radars, the BSF can thus detect and - in case of war - rapidly engage adversaries entering the Black Sea.

15. In response to Russia’s A2/AD zone, Romania saw it necessary to acquire a long-range rocket artillery system capable of contesting Russian air defenses in Crimea. In order to pose a credible threat, the artillery system has to be battle-proven, technologically superior to its competitors and able to fire smart and cluster munition with a range of 400 km. As the U.S. High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) ticks all these boxes, Romania has placed a $1.5 billion order for 54 HIMARS and ammunition.

16. The HIMARS is the Pentagon’s long-range artillery of choice in the hottest conflicts. The system is currently stationed near the 38th parallel (South Korea) and the al-Tanf garrison (Syria) and is used to engage ISIS and Taliban targets in Syria and Afghanistan. After receiving its HIMARS batteries in 2019, Romania will be the first European operator of the system. The coast-based Romanian Marines Regiment will likely receive most of the HIMARS batteries, bringing the Western coast of Crimea within range.


THEATER BALLISTIC MISSILE (TBM) THREAT

17. According to NATO, Russia has moved the Iskander-M (SS-26 Stone) nuclear-capable mobile ballistic missile system to Crimea. Two videos, which surfaced on social media in 2016, show that at least five MZKT-79306 Iskander launcher trucks and support vehicles are present in Crimea. The domestic version of the Iskander-M has a maximum range of 450 km. The system is able to bypass enemy air defense systems by releasing decoy clusters at 30G speed in the terminal phase. The agile and evasive artillery system is considered to be the most dangerous theater ballistic missile (TBM) in Russia’s arsenal.

18. With its range of 450km, the Iskander-M directly threatens Southeastern Romania, where a number of high-value U.S., NATO, and Romanian military and command structures are located:

  • The NATO Force Integration Unit (NFIU) for the NATO Response Force  - Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (NRF-VJTF) in Bucharest;
  • The U.S. operated Mihail Kogalniceanu air base and the Babadag, Capu Midia and Smardan training ranges;
  • The RoAF’s 86th air base in Borcea - a NATO-interoperable airfield that hosts Romania’s F-16 squadron;
  • The RoN’s command headquarters for river boat patrol (Tulcea, Braila), the corvette squadron (Mangalia) and the frigate flotilla (Constanta).

19. To counter the Russian missile-threat, Romania has ordered seven MIM-104 Patriot 3 (PAC-3) long-range SAM systems manufactured by Raytheon. The PAC-3 is the latest configuration of the Patriot system. The PAC-3 updates are based on more than 20 years of U.S. battlefield experience and feedback from 13 foreign customers. The $3.9 billion order will be delivered to the Romanian Land Forces and the RoN in 2019.

20. The PAC-3 is highly efficient against evasive and fast-moving TBMs such as the Iskander-M and the Kalibr (in all versions). The PAC-3 batteries fire rockets equipped with Missile Segment Enhancements (MSE) to intercept and destroy enemy TBMs in their terminal phase. The MSE increases velocity, extends the flight range by 50% and has a lethality enhancer warhead to guarantee hit-to-kill performance. For now, Romania has ordered 165 MSEs for the newly acquired PAC-3 batteries.

21. The PAC-3 uses the C-band passive electronically scanned phased array AN/MPQ-65 radar, which is difficult to target for enemy anti-radiation missiles (ARM). The AN/MPQ-65 radar can track over 100 targets at high-altitude, without emitting signals that radar-homing missiles can lock on. This capability potentially discourages adversarial Suppression/ Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (S/DEAD) sorties.

22. The PAC-3 batteries will form an area air defense (AAD) barrier over Southeastern Romania, which will cover the highly populated and strategically important region. The PAC-3 AADs will receive short and medium-range point-area defense (PAD) from Romania’s existing SAMs and anti-aircraft artillery such as the MIM-23 Hawk and Soviet-made assets. Ultimately, the Romanian AAD- PAD bubbles will work interlinked with the U.S-operated Naval Support Facility in Deveselu (Romania) and the guided missile destroyers based in Rota (Spain) as part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. Together, the PAC-3-Aegis duo will provide a reliable, multi-layered, and integrated air defense network for NATO’s Eastern flank.


by HARM and Gecko

This assessment has been updated. 

This assessment does not include the products ordered by the Romanian Land Forces (RLF).  The RLF is currently operationalizing the first 12 of the total 227 8x8 Piranha V infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) purchased from General Dynamics. Starting in 2020, the land forces will also receive 347 8x8 Agilis vehicles (armored transporter, amphibious and IFV variants) jointly produced by the Romanian Military Vehicle Systems and Rheinmetall Defense.

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

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

(1) The number of U.S. operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has drastically increased under the Trump administration. The U.S. has established its primary base of operations in the city-port of Mukalla (Southern Yemen), which was liberated from AQAP by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and its local allies. The cooperation with the UAE enables the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Forces Command (JSOC) to target AQAP’s strongest cells in Yemen.

(2) Southern and Central Yemen are important recruitment and training grounds for AQAP. The rough, remote and hostile terrain provides sanctuary for high-value targets (HVTs) that have planned and continue to plan major attacks on American citizens and the U.S. homeland.

(3) AQAP’s power in Southern and Central Yemen has increased considerably during the Yemeni Civil War. The central government’s collapse allowed AQAP to establish large urban strongholds. AQAP dominates the Hadramawt, Mahrah and Shabwa provinces, and exerts significant control in Abyan and Bayda. AQAP cells have conducted attacks in major cities such as Aden, Hudayah and Sana’a. AQAP is currently estimated to have between 6,000 and 7,000 active fighters in Yemen.

(4) In 2015, AQAP seized control of Mukalla (Hadramawt province), proclaiming it the capital of the Yemeni “wilayat.” As Mukalla is Yemen’s second largest city-port on the Southern seaboard after Aden, the city became an important revenue and recruitment source for AQAP.

(5) In mid 2016, AQAP was ousted from Mukalla by the UAE and an allied coalition of local tribesmen and secessionist militias that later formed the Southern Transnational Council (STC). The ground offensive was backed by limited U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) elements as well as by U.S. airborne and maritime intelligence support. The UAE claims that it has neutralized over 500 AQAP militants, however, media sources suggest that the Emiratis also bribed a number of jihadists to withdraw from the area.

(6) In 2017, the new U.S. Presidential administration authorized the Department of Defense (DoD) and the CIA’s Special Activities Division (SAD) to accelerate and expand operations against AQAP. Mukalla, now under UAE/STC control, has become America’s largest covert forward operating base (FOB) in Yemen.

(7) The SOFs deployed in Mukalla are drawn from all JSOC special mission units, but mostly the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (known as DEVGRU or Navy SEAL Team Six). The SOFs get airlifted from the U.S. Naval Expeditionary Base “Camp Lemonnier” in Djibouti to Riyan Airport in Mukalla. Camp Lemonnier is a hub for special operations in the Horn of Africa area and the most important launching pad for drone/unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes outside of Afghanistan.

(8) Flight traffic monitors show undesignated Dornier 328-110 turboprop commuter aircrafts departing Camp Lemonnier and “disappearing” over Mukalla after descending for landing. The Dornier 328 is the civilian version of the C-146A Wolfhound – the primary SOF air asset used to airlift fireteams or small cargo loads into semi-prepared airfields. JSOC is known to use the civilian version of the Wolfhound for SOF deployment in order to maintain operations security (OPSEC) standards.

Sample of D328 flights observed by T-Intelligence

(9) Image Intelligence (IMINT) based on commercial satellite imagery furthermore reveals a significant military expansion of Riyan Airport since it was liberated from AQAP. UAE/STC forces have built or considerably expanded at least 10 sites in vicinity to the runway, including observation posts, warehouses, fortified sites, patrol routes, a small seashore construction, and a number of unidentified buildings. A militarized checkpoint replaces the civilian airport entrance, which was closed in mid 2016. The main apron hosts military attack and transport helicopters, which can be used to forward deploy SOFs into combat areas.

Military enhancements of Riyan Airport near Mukalla, Yemen: July 1, 2016 (post-AQAP liberation) vs. June 23, 2018 (last available satellite imagery)

Military aircraft activity on the main apron and minimal enhancements around the taxiway: July 18, 2017 vs. June 23, 2018

Seashore constructions: July 1, 2016 vs. June 23, 2018

Logistics site “Delta” (West of the runway): July 1, 2016 vs. June 23, 2018

(8) Reports also suggest that a covert detention and interrogation center – run by local authorities and exploited by the UAE and U.S. for intelligence collection – has been established on the grounds of Riyan Airport. We assess that all of the airport enhancements serve military purposes. In 2018, enlargement and enhancement efforts continue.

(9) The mission profile of JSOC SOFs deployed in Yemen is to conduct reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and HVT-execution, including support for kinetic UAV strikes. They frequently liaise and coordinate with Emirati commandos and enlist the help of local STC-aligned tribesmen and militias.

(10) The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) also assists the U.S. counter-terrorism effort. The KSA commands a network of human intelligence assets that has infiltrated AQAP’s ranks. These assets provide critical intelligence and plant signal beacons on HVTs for UAV targeting missions. AQAP is trying combat the KSA-infiltration through strict counterintelligence measures, as announced in a propaganda video issued in early September 2018.   

(11) The unprecedented surge in SOF missions has produced valuable intelligence and eliminated several AQAP HVTs in Yemen. According to CENTCOM datasets assessed by The Long War Journal, the U.S. conducted 125 UAV kinetic strikes in 2017 – more than in the previous four years combined. With 33 strikes by September 2018, the U.S. is again on track to surpass the pre-2017 years. The SOF/UAV strikes have targeted AQAP training camps, checkpoints, safe-houses, and tactical positions in Abuan, Bayda, Mahraw, Shabwa and Northern Hadramawt – Northern Hadramawt hereby received the largest share of attention.  

(12) A U.S. UAV strike in the second half of 2017 reportedly killed Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, AQAPs most talented bombmaker. Al-Asiri was known for disguising bombs as printer cartridges, cell phones, and other devices or planting them in human bodies to bypass airport security. The UAE played a major role in the target-acquisition process, as Emirati commandos captured al-Asiri’s wife for interrogation. Al-Asiri’s death represents a crucial blow for AQAP’s capabilities.

(13) At the moment, the primary target of U.S. SOF/UAV operations in Yemen is AQAP emir Qasim al-Raymi, who is closely associated with Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQ’s top commander. In the past eight years, al-Raymi was unsuccessfully targeted by the U.S. at least three times. The last attempt took place in 2017, when a controversial DEVGRU-led raid on al-Raymi’s safe house in Yalka (Bayda province) failed to kill the target.

(14) It is highly likely that U.S. SOF/UAV operations in Yemen will intensify in the next years. The U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) is currently looking to contract private operators for airborne casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) and medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) in Yemen and the Horn of Africa area. According to the draft performance work statement published online, the Special Operations Command Center will be the beneficiary of these services. The call specifies that the private contractors have to be able to operate fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft on unprepared runways as small as 900 m, use night-vision goggles, carry no less than eight men or almost 2 tons of cargo, and refuel with running engines. Aircrafts need to be armored with lightweight, Level III (7.62 mm and 5.56 mm) Ballistic Protection Systems.

(15) The details of this commercial listing suggest a sustained expansion of the current SOF activities in and around Yemen. We asses that U.S. SOFs have moved further in AQAP-held territory and are building/planning to build FOBs with coaxial dirt runways to receive supplies and evacuate personnel. As these FOB postings are highly dangerous, the SOFs require MEDEVAC/CASEVAC assets that are available 24/7 and can work under heavy enemy fire.


DISCLAIMER: Some IMINT materials have been excluded from the analysis in order to safeguard U.S. OPSEC, as SOF missions in Yemen are ongoing.  

by HARM and Gecko

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U.S. on Alert as Idlib Offensive is Imminent: Threat of Chemical Attacks?

(1) The White House and the U.S. Department of Defense are closely monitoring the situation in the greater Idlib region. Over the past days, the Bashar al-Assad regime has continued…

(1) The White House and the U.S. Department of Defense are closely monitoring the situation in the greater Idlib region. Over the past days, the Bashar al-Assad regime has continued to amass army formations and Iranian-backed militias in the main assault positions around the opposition-held stronghold.

(2) The 4th Armored Division has been moved to Northern Hama. Their position is strengthened by a rare deployment of the Republican Guards, both near Lataminah and Jabal al-Turkmen. In Western Aleppo, Iranian-backed militias, spearheaded by Hezbollah and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), are completing their transfer from the Deir ez-Zor frontline. The strategic Abu ad-Duhur airfield, located on Idlib’s Eastern flank, has been reinforced by the deployment of Assad’s most battle-hardened and elite unit, the Tiger Forces. Reconciled opposition groups from Da’ara province are also moving towards Idlib. The infantry build-up is supported by the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAF), which has dispatched Mi-8/17 helicopters to Hama airfield, and by an unprecedented Russian naval deployment in the Eastern Mediterranean. Two days ago, the Syrian army closed al-Duhr checkpoint, the last civilian crossing out of Idlib.

Military Situation in the “Greater Idlib” region (August 2018)

(3) As the start of the offensive seems imminent, the U.S., France and the United Kingdom have voiced concerns that the Assad regime will follow the “Eastern Ghouta model” and launch chemical weapons (CW) attacks on opposition-held towns.  Opposition groups claim that they have (unverified) information pointing towards the town of Kafr Zabl as the main target for the regime’s impending CW attack.

(4) The U.S. military and intelligence community are therefore on high alert for any signs that the Assad regime is readying chemical weapons for use in Idlib. The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has stated that its assets are prepared, should President Trump order a strike. The American-British-French coalition has issued several warnings for Assad: Fight fair or expect another retaliation.

(5) At the moment, Assad’s preferred solution still seems to be a Russian-brokered reconciliation deal with the opposition in Idlib, similar to the deals negotiated in Eastern Ghouta, Da’ara and Rastan. Since early-August, Russia has been conducting talks with leaders of the non-al Qa’ida (AQ) opposition (the Turkish-backed “National Front for Liberation”) at the Reconciliation Center on Hmeimim air base (Latakia). Turkey has been encouraging opposition groups to join the talks and is reportedly coordinating with Russia on a settlement. Currently, Russia and Turkey are trying to convince the opposition groups to hand over all weapons heavier than 23mm anti-aircraft twin-barrel autocannons to the Turkish Army.  

(6) However, the Russian and Turkish negotiation efforts have failed to produce meaningful results. The non-AQ opposition groups continue to strengthen their unified front and enhance frontline positions. The AQ camp in Idlib – Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Turkistani Islamic Party (TIP) and Tanzim Hourras al-Din – has slammed the idea of negotiations and is attacking any opposition group that has engaged in reconciliation talks with the government. Furthermore, the AQ-affiliated groups have refused Turkey’s proposal to join the “National Liberation Front.”

(7) The unsuccessful negotiations put the Assad regime in an increasingly difficult spot. According to intelligence estimates, a conventional military campaign to recapture Idlib would be devastating for the Syrian military with regard to resources, manpower, and capabilities. As Turkish troops are embedded in the Idlib frontline and equipped with man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), air support for the advancing troops would be extremely limited.  

(8) Should the reconciliation talks fail, a CW attack – as feared by the American-British-French coalition – is therefore becoming more likely. As the Eastern Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun precedents have shown, the Assad regime is  willing to use CW attacks to coerce opposition groups into surrendering. Although the CW-option would likely trigger new Coalition strikes on Syrian military installations, the Assad regime might be willing to take these hits to avoid a costly, “Aleppo-style” military campaign – especially if the strikes are expected to remain largely symbolic. After all, a full-scale military offensive will also cause international outrage, given the impending humanitarian costs, suffered by the almost 3 million internally displaced people currently living in Idlib.

(9) In this context, the recent deployment of “barrel bombing” Mi-7 helicopters to Hama airfield is highly suspicious – considering that a large-scale air campaign is out of the question due to the Turkish presence on the frontline. In the precedent cases, helicopters have been the delivery system of choice for CW attacks.

(10) Furthermore, Moscow already seems to draw up contingency plans for the case of an attack. Over the past days, Russian outlets have manipulated American warnings and established a counter-narrative. Sputnik News, RT and friendly/bot social media accounts are accusing the U.S. of conspiring with the opposition in Idlib to stage a false flag CW attack  justifying further strikes in Syria.

(11) In the meanwhile, the Coalition and Turkey are trying their best to prevent a conventional or CW bloodbath in Idlib. Ankara has authorized a variety of military deployments to reinforce its posture and deter pro-government attacks. Around 224 special operations forces were dispatched to the observation posts (OB-P) on Idlib’s frontline, while Leopard-2 tanks are amassing in Western Aleppo. Turkey is building a helipad near the “hottest” OB-P in Northern Hama and strengthening all OB-Ps through further concrete fortifications. Many civilians have reportedly fled their homes to camp next to the Turkish OB-Ps, as they are currently considered to be the safest areas in Idlib.

(12) However, the fate of Idlib also hinges on the resolve of the Coalition. If the Trump administration wants to prevent a CW attack, the White House has to draw a robust and credible red line this time. To change the regime’s cost/benefit calculation, Assad and his generals need to know that retaliation is not bound to limited or symbolical strikes. Severe blows against the amassed troops around Idlib, the vital air defense infrastructure and even regime change need to be (convincingly) on the table.

by HARM and Gecko 

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Operation Nightfall: Israel’s Ultimate Strike Against Iran in Syria

Creative Threatcasting Scenario (CTS) – CTS is a strategic foresight method, inspired by the work of the West Point Military Academy’s Threatcasting Lab. Based on current events and trend analysis,…

Creative Threatcasting Scenario (CTS) – CTS is a strategic foresight method, inspired by the work of the West Point Military Academy’s Threatcasting Lab. Based on current events and trend analysis, CTS develops creative narratives about possible futures. By creating tangible scenarios, CTS helps to anticipate watershed moments and prepare for upcoming threats.

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‘NIGHT OWLS’: MOSSAD MONITORS THE LOYALIST OFFENSIVE IN SOUTHERN SYRIA

(1) In late June 2018, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), supported by Russian Aerospace Forces, private contractors, and – covertly – by militias affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has launched an offensive to recapture the Southern Syrian provinces (Quneitra, Da’ara and Suweida) from the opposition/rebel forces. The offensive recently concluded with a decisive victory for the side of the Syrian regime, which will be referred to as THE LOYALISTS.

(2) Before commencing with the operation in Southern Syria, Russia secretly promised Israel that IRGC-backed militias will not partake in the offensive. In exchange, Jerusalem did not intervene. Israeli Intelligence (Mossad) and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have been tasked with monitoring the implementation of the secret deal with all available resources (code-name: OPERATION NIGHT OWLS).

(3) Counter to Russian statements, human intelligence reports from Southern Syria suggest that IRGC-backed militiamen swapped uniforms and blended into the ranks of the SAA to discreetly partake in the offensive. These elements were then tasked with assaulting key positions in Western Quneitra close to the slopes of the Golan plateau. The IRGC-backed militiamen are exclusively supplied through selected SAA infantry bases located in the wider Damascus region (code name: BREAD-BASKET), which have been known for hosting Iranian advisors and capabilities in the past.

(4) Reports furthermore suggest that the BREAD-BASKET receives supplies directly from Iran. In recent months, land-transports via Iraq and the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal (code-name: SHI’A CRESCENT) have hereby started to replace airlifts from Tehran to Al-Assad International Airport or Mezzeh Airport.

(5) Israeli intelligence is highly concerned by this trend, as land-transports allow for greater operational security (OPSEC) on the part of the Iranians. Since airlifts have precise origins and rely on predetermined landing zones, the IAF was able to identify and destroy high-value Iranian deliveries in the past. However, monitoring for intermediate missiles that are moved by truck through the SHI’A CRESCENT is like looking for a needle in the haystack.

(6) The findings of OPERATION NIGHT OWLS are dramatic. Mossad is in possession of indisputable evidence that the LOYALISTS currently positioned on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights are indeed IRGC-backed Shi’a militias. Moreover, the delivery of Iranian intermediate missile systems to these militias via the SHI’A CRESCENT land-route and the BREAD-BASKET distribution hubs appears to be imminent.

(7) The deployment of intermediate missiles near the Israeli border will weaken the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) zone, which was established by the IDF on the Golan Heights from 9 May 2018 onward. It will also severely reduce the missile-interception window of the Patriot, Iron Dome and David’s Sling air defense systems. Israeli intelligence doubts that it can identify Iranian “care packages” for the IRGC-backed militias before they become operational on the frontline.

 

THE PRIME MINISTER AUTHORIZES OPERATION ‘NIGHTFALL’

(8) The findings of the NIGHT OWLS investigation have de-legitimized Russian guarantees. Prime Minister Netanyahu therefore authorizes the military to commence with OPERATION NIGHTFALL.

(9) The objectives of OPERATION NIGHTFALL are:

  • Create a 20km deep buffer zone (code name: SECTOR DAVID) below the Golan Heights, encompassing Quneitra province and parts of Da’ara. SECTOR DAVID will be placed under the control of Israeli-backed opposition groups such as the “Knights of Golan”, “Fursan al-Jawlan,” and other CIA-vetted Southern front groups.
  • Create a contestation area (code name: SECTOR GOLIATH) over the wider Damascus area, including the capital itself. Destroy the BREAD-BASKET, Syrian airfields, and the Syrian air defense infrastructure. The IRGC and affiliated militias will lose their safe haven for troop deployment, military posturing and logistics.

(10) SECTOR DAVID is key for Israel’s most vital security interests. Firstly, it will provide more missile-interception time for the Golan-based SEAD. This will increase anti-air efficiency and push enemy infantry away from the borderline. Secondly, it ensures that – if a war does break out –  it will not be fought on Israeli territory. SECTOR DAVID will also host the refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) looking for shelter after the LOYALISTS’ Southern Syria offensive.

(11) The Druze-majority villages and towns in SECTOR DAVID will be exempted from opposition control and will be placed under direct Israeli protection. This measure is important to avoid unrest among the Israeli Druze population, and to prevent the rekindling of LOYALIST sentiments among the Syrian Druze.

(12) The establishment of SECTOR GOLIATH serves to irreversibly degrade Iran’s military influence in Southern Syria and to consolidate SECTOR DAVID. Destroying the Syrian anti-air defense infrastructure will grant the IAF complete air superiority over Syria – if the Russian systems continue to be inactivated due to political considerations and technological secrecy. This would leave the IRGC, their clientele militias, and the SAA vulnerable to strategic strikes. The elimination of the BREAD-BASKET will furthermore ensure that IRGC-backed groups will lose their regional distribution hubs, further degrading their supply chains. This will force them to partially or fully withdraw from the Damascus area.

(13) A partial or full de-militarization of Damascus will likely force the Assad regime to seek refuge and establish a temporary government in the Russian-protected Latakia province. The Syrian President has sought sanctuary in the Russian-operated Khmeimim Air Base during past Israeli and U.S. attacks on Damascus.

(14) President Donald J. Trump, encouraged by anti-Iran hawk National Security Adviser John Bolton, can be expected to extend either political or (limited) military support to the Israeli operation, as the U.S. also seeks to roll back Iranian influence in the region. As it has occured in the past, Secretary of Defense James Mattis will likely attempt to minimize direct U.S. involvement in order to avoid backlash against the U.S. troops operating in Northern Syria. The White House could mandate the Department of Defense (DoD) to – covertly – aid OPERATION NIGHTFALL in the following ways:

  • Provide IAF fighter jets with Friend-or-Foe (FoF) codes to disguise them as Coalition aircrafts, as practiced in previous Israeli shadow-raids.
  • Engage Syrian targets with Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities that can jam or disrupt anti-aircraft radars and communications.
  • Supply the IDF with Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) data on LOYALIST movements, using RQ-4 “Global Hawk” drones operating in the Eastern Mediterranean.

(15) Arab Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the Kingdom of Jordan will potentially allow air passage for IAF jets conducting target re-attacks and aerial refueling.

(16) OPERATION NIGHTFALL requires the instatement of a commercial flight ban for at least 72 hours. While this may alert the LOYALISTS to the time-window of the attack, a commercial flight ban is necessary for the safety of civil aviation.

(17) The Russian response in those 72 hours will be key for enabling or disrupting Israel’s operational objectives. Russian intelligence will attempt to intercept Israel’s plan, while the IDF will engage in intense counter-surveillance methods to camouflage its operational preparations. Moscow will act in accordance with its intelligence on and estimates of Israel’s intentions.

 

THREE SCENARIOS: POSSIBLE OUTCOMES OF OPERATION NIGHTALL

(a) ‘LIGHTS OUT’ – THE OPTIMISTIC OUTCOME

(18) The IAF completes OPERATION NIGHTFALL in less than one week, leaving the LOYALISTS without any air defense systems in Quneitra, Suweida, Da’ara, Rural Damascus and Damascus. Key military locations are targeted and destroyed, including major infantry bases (battalion, regiment, brigade level), Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) strategic airfields (cargo warehouses and air strips) and anti-aircraft sites.

(19) The LOYALIST forces deployed in Southern Syria retreat to Damascus and – later – to Hama province. Israeli-backed opposition forces reassemble to take key villages and towns along the Israeli-Syrian border. SECTOR DAVID is secured.

(20) With air defenses disabled, and military supply routes blocked, the Assad regime evacuates for Russian-protected Latakia. A symbolic air strike hits the Presidential Palace in Damascus. Israel establishes full air dominance over the Damascus area. SECTOR GOLIATH is secured.

(21) The U.S. voices strong support for the operation and mandates the Central Command (CENTCOM) to covertly aid the military effort.  Sunni Arab states allow IAF jets to refuel in their airspace, leading to an unprecedented level of Israeli-Arab cooperation in face of the Iranian threat. The U.S-operated al-Tanf garrison in Syria is enforced with additional HIMARS batteries to deter LOYALIST retaliations against the Jordanian Kingdom.

(22) Russian intelligence was either unable to anticipate Israel’s intentions or the Russian government was unwilling to act. Israel negotiates a ceasefire with Russia, placing the now demilitarized Damascus area under Russian protection. Russian military police units are deployed in the capital and key surrounding locations. SECTOR GOLIATH becomes a Russian-protected area, free from IRGC-backed forces. The deal with Israel can be expected to amplify the already existing tensions between the Russian Armed Forces and Hezbollah.

(23) Iran has been successfully and indefinitely ousted from Southern Syria. The IRGC has lost all strategic hubs in Damascus, including the Al-Assad International and Mezzeh airports. Only selected bases in Hama and Aleppo remain as safe havens. Since air transport has become near impossible, Iran now fully relies on the SHI’A CRESCENT transport route. Neutralizing the SHI’A CRESCENT become Israel’s next strategic objective in order to consolidate SECTOR DAVID and SECTOR GOLIATH and to remove Iran from Syria once and for all.

CTS concept art: IAF air campaign over Damascus as seen through the thermographic camera of an F-16D.

(b) ‘GUARDIANS OF THE GOLAN’ – THE MODERATE OUTCOME

(24) Israel expels the LOYALIST forces from Southern Syria through repetitive surgical shadow raids and artillery strikes (surface-to-surface missiles) in Quneitra, Da’ara and Suweida. The remaining Israeli-backed opposition forces retake key positions. Further logistical and operational support from Israel allows the opposition groups to expand their territory and secure SECTOR DAVID. Israel recruits around 500 militiamen from the “Knights of the Golan,” establishing a border force that will patrol the demilitarized “Alpha” zone of the 1974 agreement.

(25) The IAF neutralizes selected anti-air artillery (AAA) and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites in Damascus in order to enable further air strikes on a limited number of BREAD-BASKET bases. The IAF will also seek to disproportionately retaliate against LOYALIST (accidental or intentional) provocations on the Southern Syrian front. The Israelis will use those incidents to cherry-pick Iranian-affiliated high-value targets (HVT) over the course of several weeks.

(26) Russian intelligence has uncovered IAF plans to wage a “Show and Awe” styled campaign over Damascus in advance. This has led to heightened tensions between Moscow and Jerusalem. Russia threatens to replace the SAA’s destroyed S-200s, Pantsirs (SA-75) and SA-8 Geckos’, with newer versions, including the S-300 systems. This forces Israel to abandon objective SECTOR GOLIATH.

(27) The Trump administration voices support for the operation, but does not mandate the DoD to provide military aid. Arab Sunni states fail to facilitate flight routes for the IAF’s bombing raids.

(28) The situation is bound to remain highly volatile, given the fragile and uncertain status quo. Israel indefinitely abandons plans for SECTOR GOLIATH. Instead, Jerusalem focuses on consolidating SECTOR DAVID by strengthening local opposition forces and obtaining security guarantees from local stakeholders. Iranian supply hubs have been severely damaged, but not completely removed. While IRGC-backed forces are significantly weakened, they remain a long-term threat to Israel. The IAF will continue to intercept key Iranian transports on the SHI’A CRESCENT route. Iran might seek to retaliate against OPERATION NIGHTFALL, by activating Hezbollah to mount missile attacks on Israeli soil from Southern Lebanon.

CTS concept art: IDF units in the Golan Heights fire SSMs on IRC-affiliated militias in the Sa’sa village (Southern Syria).

(c) ‘CHECKMATE’ – THE PESSIMISTIC OUTCOME

(29) OPERATION NIGHTFALL ends before it begins. An immediate and steadfast Russian response forces Israel to abort the mission.

(30) After acquiring critical early-warning intelligence on Israel’s objectives, Russia moves S-300s to Damascus during the 72-hour civilian airline ban. The Latakia-based S-400 Triumph system is activated to intercept incoming attacks on LOYALIST positions. Moreover, a significant number of Russian Aerospace Forces are mobilized to conduct air policing missions in the skies of Southern Syria, using a variety of advanced assets, including four Su-35s (air-defense fighter jet) and six Su-34s (air superiority fighter jet).

(31) Israeli intelligence furthermore reports the violation of Lebanese airspace by Russian fighter jets. This is interpreted as an attempt of the Russian Aerospace Forces to block the traditional flight path used by the IAF to strike Damascus.

(32) The Trump administration is hesitant whether to support Israel. President Trump pays lip service to OPERATION NIGHTFALL in order to increase pressure on Iran in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) re-negotiations. Yet, the overall objective of the Trump administration is the withdrawal from the Syrian Civil War. The U.S. is focused on securing its gains in Northern and Eastern Syria and remains unwilling to re-enter the Southern Syrian war theater. Israeli Intelligence believes that it cannot rely on support from the U.S.

(33) In consequence, IRGC-backed militias reinforce their positions on the Israeli border. With the SHI’A CRESCENT corridor and the BREAD-BASKET installations untouched, the delivery of intermediate-range missiles to the frontline is weeks, if not days away.

(34) The Assad regime intensifies revisionist claims for the Golan plateau. The IDF increases its troop readiness and capabilities in the Northern Military District. Israeli security and emergency services conduct multiple mass-casualty exercises in order to prepare the population for upcoming missile attacks.


by HARM and Gecko

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