Category: Regions

Let the Skyfall: Radioactive Explosion in Russia Likely Connected to SSC-X-9 Missile Test

Russia’s secretive radioactive explosion is linked to the testing of a nuclear-powered unlimited-range cruise missile. 1. On August 8, 2019, around 9 AM local time, an explosion occurred on an…

Russia’s secretive radioactive explosion is linked to the testing of a nuclear-powered unlimited-range cruise missile.


1. On August 8, 2019, around 9 AM local time, an explosion occurred on an offshore platform (vessel or berch) near Nyonoska (Russia), which killed seven people (two servicemen and five Rosatom personnel) and released radiation in the region. As the explosion was caused by an isotope-powered liquid fuel engine, it is virtually certain that a nuclear-powered missile, likely a cruise missile, was being tested or prepared for testing. 

2. We believe that the missile in question is the 9M730 Burevestnik (NATO Reporting name: SSC-X-9 Skyfall). The SSC-X-9 is a nuclear-powered unlimited-range cruise missile that was announced by President Vladimir Putin as one of Russia’s six upcoming strategic weapons on March 1, 2018.

Production line of the SSC-X-9 Skyfall missile via Defence Blog

3. While a revolutionary concept, it is highly unlikely that the Russiann Ministry of Defence and the Russian defence industry possess the funds, technology, and know-how to successfully produce such a system. Given the engineering challenges and safety concerns, no other country has commissioned a kinetic solution with a nuclear-reactor on board. The United States was close to fielding such a design in the early 1960s. Known as Project Pluto, the United States developed a nuclear ramjet engine (Tory) to power a supersonic low-altitude missile (SLAM) capable of carrying multiple warheads. The project was canceled in 1964. However, as the SSC-X-9 was officially announced by President Putin, there is an enormous pressure on the Russian military to produce results. 

4. As nuclear-powered cruise missiles require a liquid fuel booster to bring them to ramjet speed before enabling the reactor, there is a high likelihood of booster failure during the launch phase due to heat exchange and critical mass constraints. This is what likely happened on the morning of August 8, 2019. 

5. According to sources in the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency, only two of the 13 known SSC-X-9 tests were successful. A partially successfully test took place in Pankovo (Novaya Zemlya) in Russia’s far north island archipelago in November 2017. The test saw the missile flying for a few miles (rumors suggest 35 miles), before crashing into the sea. The SSC-X-9 likely failed to reach ramjet speed and crashed or self-destructed when going off course. Since then, the Russian military has abandoned the Novaya Zemlya testing ground and replicated the SSC-X-9 testing infrastructure in Nyonoksa. Another moderately successful test was conducted on January 29, 2019 in Kapustin Yar. 

GEOINT comparison of Nyonoska vs. Kapustin Yar test sites by T-Intelligence

6. As accurately documented by Jeffrey Lewis and his team from the Middlebury Institute, the Nyonoksa Missile Test Center now hosts a testing pad that contains the same blue “environmental shelter” and launch rail system seen in Novaya Zemlya and Kapustin Yar, the two other locations that hosted SSC-X-9 launches. Operations security, and the objective of denying adversarial MASINT collection in particular, is likely the main reason why the Russians moved the SSC-X-9 testing further inland. 

GEOINT analysis by @@ArmsControlWonk shows layout similarity between the Pank’ovo (Novaya Zemlya) and the Nyonoska test sites.

7. In addition to the identical ground test layout, there is another factor linking the recent explosion near Nyonoksa to the SSC-X-9 project. AIS data shows the presence of a Russian military tug in the White Sea during the August 8 incident. Further research identified the tug as the nuclear-fuel carrier SEREBRYANKA. This radiological service vessel was previously spotted off the Novaya Zemlya coast during the SSC-X-9 test of 2017. The SEREBRYANKA’s task is to collect submerged radioactive material from the sea. 

GEOINT findings and analysis of the August 8 incident by T-Intelligence.

8. Days before the accident, the Russian authorities closed the area to maritime traffic and issued a notice to airmen (NOTAM), concerning a 27,000 square kilometer area between Nyonoksa and Novaya Zemlya. The distance from Nynoksa to the edge of the northern NOTAM area is 1,200 km (650 nautical miles). The NOTAM was in effect from 8 to 11 August, 2019. While NOTAM’s in the area are not a rare occurrence, many defence specialists have argued that the parameters of this airspace closure indicate the testing of a maneuvering missile (i.e. cruise missile) and not a ballistic missile. 

The NOTAMs and maritime traffic ban issued by Russian authorities in connection to the August 8 test and subsequent accident. (source: @ain92ru)

RADIOACTIVE HAZARD

9. Why the Russians ultimately decided to test-fire the SSC-X-9 from an offshore platform, instead of using the purpose-built testing ground in Nyonoksa, is unknown. We believe that safety concerns were among the principle reasons. However, while human loss and infrastructure damage has been minimized, the accident likely polluted the White Sea with radioactive material. Following the explosion, Russian port authorities have issued a no-sail notice covering a 250 square kilometer area off the Nyonoksa coast. The ban on maritime traffic is in effect until September 10, 2019.   

10. Severodvinsk, a city located just 45 km west of Nyonoska, registered a radiation spike of 2 µSv/h (microsievert per minute) between 11:50 AM and 12:30 PM local time on 8 August. This gamma radiation value is nearly 20 times higher than the normal value of 0,11 µSv/h. While such a radiation exposure is still considered safe for the population, inhabitants of Severodvinsk were quick to stock up on iodide tablets, creating a shortage in local pharmacies. The sensors in Severodvinsk reported a gradual decrease in radioactivity around 16:00 PM and a normalization shortly afterwards.

11. The 2 µSv/h value registered in Severodvinsk indicates that the radiation level around Nyonoska was double, if not higher. As Rashid Alimov from Russia’s Green Peace branch stated in the Barents Observer, the high radiation value means that beta and alpha radionuclides were released into the atmosphere. 

12. Radionuclides are radioactive atoms such as uranium, radium and radon, which are particularly hazardous in drinking water. Radionuclide-contaminated drinking water can cause or facilitate life-threatening conditions such as cancer, kidney disease, liver disease, and impairments of the immune system. As radionuclides decay, they emit alpha, beta and gamma particles, which have further harmful effects on humans.   

13. A number of photos that emerged on Twitter and Telegram show chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CRBN) defence units, suited in HAZMAT equipment, securing the accident site and evacuating the wounded. However, the Russian government and local authorities were quick to downplay the incident and claim that there was no danger for the population. 

14. The latest setback is unlikely to halt the SSC-X-9 ‘Skyfall’. While the prospect of an all-reaching, non-stop cruise missile would render existing missile defence technology obsolete, there is no reason to expect the fielding of the SSC-X-9 in the next decade. However, continued work on the program will provide the Kremlin with valuable psychological operations material for both domestic and foreign audiences. 


by HARM

The ‘X’ in the missile’s NATO reporting name stands for ‘experimental’.

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Haftar Goes After Tripoli, US AFRICOM evacs forces

On April 7, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) partially evacuated its military forces from Tripoli due do the deteriorating security situation in Libya. The AFRICOM personnel, tasked with supporting the U.S….

On April 7, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) partially evacuated its military forces from Tripoli due do the deteriorating security situation in Libya.

  • The AFRICOM personnel, tasked with supporting the U.S. diplomatic mission and counterterrorism efforts, was extracted by a U.S. Navy Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercraft from the beach of Janzour (15 km west of Tripoli). The LCAC dispatched from one of the U.S. Navy assets operating in AFRICOM’s area of responsibility – likely the San Antonio-class USS Arlington amphibious transport dock, which was last reported near Carthage on March 24. The evacuated personnel was transported to Catania, Italy.

  • The drawdown of U.S. forces also seems to include special operations units and intelligence personnel based in covert facilities throughout Libya. CIA-affiliated private airlines such as Tepper Aviation – likely tasked with extracting personnel – conducted several flights to Libya in the past 36 hours. On April 7, a Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Beech B300 King Air was tracked on ADS-B exchange while conducting sorties over Misrata, likely providing ISR for an ongoing evacuation. Misrata airfield is the main covert facility used by the U.S. and allies in Libya and the largest air base of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accords (GNA). The evacuation of U.S. personnel from Misrata has become necessary, as the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) under Haftar has recently announced plans to capture the city and establish a no-fly zone over western Libya.  

RECENT ESCALATION

After capturing the former Tripoli Airport on Sunday, the LNA is advancing towards Tripoli’s southern outskirts. Tripoli is currently controlled by the U.N.-recognized GNA which encompasses a myriad of militias, including Islamists. Haftar is in close contact with Russia and receives covert military support from Egypt, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and potentially the United Arab Emirates. As the LNA and GNA are preparing for a head-on confrontation over Tripoli and potentially Misrata, both sides are mobilizing their anti-surface and counter-air assets to support operations.

HAFTAR’S NO FLY ZONE

Despite their threats of a no-fly zone, Haftar’s forces are unable to conduct air interdiction operations (neither airborne nor ground-based) against advanced adversaries such as the U.S., the U.K., Italy or France. However, the LNA’s air capabilities are slightly superior to the GNA. Haftar’s small aviation is able to conduct tactical air strikes at a higher pace than its Tripoli-foe and has the potential to engage in interceptions. Overall, both sides suffer from a severe lack of trained personnel, spare parts and logistical support, limiting their anti-surface an anti-air assets to low-intensity engagements.

  • The LNA’s air inventory consists of two Mirage F-1, twelve MiG-21MF (NATO reporting name: Fishbed-J), three MiG-23ML (Flogger), and one Su-22 fighter bomber (Fitter). It is believed that the vast majority of the LNA’s aircraft are serviceable due to repair and maintenance support provided by Egypt and the UAE. The LNA also fields several ZPU-2 and ZU-33-2 anti-aircraft artillery and Soviet-made shoulder-mounted man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS).
  • In contrast, the GNA operates two MiG-23ML (Flogger), one MiG-25 (Foxbat), five G-2 Galeb, thirteen L-39ZO Albatros fighter jets, eight Mi-24 and three Mi-35 attack helicopters (Hind and Hind-D). The Czechoslovak-made L-39ZO Albatros light aircraft serve as the GNA’s main attack aircraft, as the fleet has been repaired by Ukrainian specialists and undergone trainer-to-fighter conversion. Despite these limitations, the GNA is still able to neutralized “easy” targets (e.g. vehicle columns and exposed infantry units) of the “Islamic State” and LNA. In terms of anti-air systems, the GNA has one 2K12 Kub (NATO reporting name: SA-6 Gainful), which was recently declared operational and is believed to still house a few S-125 (SA-3) surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems.

  • Anti-surface operations are already underway. Recently, the GNA reportedly struck an LNA convoy near Garyan (90 km south of Tripoli). On April 8, an LNA MiG-21 bombed the runway of Mitiga Airport, near Tripoli. Furthermore, both sides have mobilized their SA-6 SAMs. However, there is no indication to whether those systems are operational. 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


by HARM and Gecko

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

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

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

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


OPERATIONAL LAYOUT

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

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

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

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

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

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


INTELLIGENCE FAILURE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


DA’ESH IS NOT DEFEATED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By HARM and Gecko

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

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

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Syrian S-300 Ready to Use?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISRAEL WILL RETAIN A LIMITED STRIKING CAPABILITY

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

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

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

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

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

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


By HARM and Gecko

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

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Russia Will Not Establish a Base in Somaliland, but the UAE is There to Stay

Contrary to rumors, the Russian Navy (RuN) will not establish a military base in the town of Zeila in northern Somaliland. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will however soon operationalize…

Contrary to rumors, the Russian Navy (RuN) will not establish a military base in the town of Zeila in northern Somaliland. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will however soon operationalize a air-naval facility in Somaliland, as part of a wider strategy to secure the region’s maritime trade choke points.


1. Rumors about Russia’s plans to establish a military base in the self-declared state of Somaliland have circulated since April 2018. The story was first reported by Somali outlets and then picked up by the British newspapers Sun and Express , pro-Russian outlets such as Southfront, and a number of Twitter users. Recently, the claim featured in Kenya’s major newspaper Daily Nation. The reports state that Moscow will recognize the independence of Somaliland in exchange for permission to build an air-naval base in Zeila/Sayla on the border with Djibouti, which will host 1,500 Russian troops, warships, and submarines. A meeting between the foreign minister of Somaliland and a Russian diplomat is cited as evidence for the deal.  

2. The story is almost certainly fake news, copied word-for-word from a Reddit post in the “Global Powers” role-playing thread, which was published 11 months ago. While the reddit post is still available , the Somali news outlets, which first spread the news, have since deleted their claims. 

Screenshot of “Global Powers” Reddit thread

3. IMINT obtained via Sentinel-2 satellite reconfirms that the port of Zeila has not seen construction activity in the past year. If Russia indeed plans to build a naval base in the area, some newly built infrastructure such as naval peers, fences and asphalt layering or evidence of exploratory activity should be observable by now.

4. In the current political and economic climate, Russia is unwilling and unable to build overseas military installations from scratch. As the case of Syria (Tartus and Latakia) shows, Moscow generally prefers to obtain leases for Soviet-build airfields/ports and other existing installations, which already have a baseline infrastructure. As the RuN is undergoing a modernization and downsizing program, it is highly unrealistic that Russia will be able to establish and maintain a 1,500 men overseas presence, including surface and subsurface vessel, as the rumors suggest.

5. While Somaliland hosts a Soviet-built airstrip and harbor in the city of Berbera, the Parliament of Somaliland granted exclusive access to the UAE in May 2016. The 30-year concession authorizes the UAE to establish a 42 square kilometer base in Berbera, consisting of naval facilities and two parallel runways. The air-naval base is intended to support heavy aerial traffic and host various naval assets, including warships, to launch operations against the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen. The base is expected to become operational in June 2019.

6. As part of its maritime strategy, the UAE has also established military bases in Yemen’s main ports (Aden and Mukalla), Eritrea, and temporarily on Socotra Island. Through the Horn of Africa deployments, Abu Dhabi aims to secure the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which represents a strategic choke point for oil transports to the European and North American markets. The Iranian-backed Houthis have conducted numerous seaborne attacks against commercial vessels transiting the strait, forcing Saudi Arabia to suspend oil shipments in the area.  

Foreign military bases in the Horn of Africa via T-Intelligence

7. The UAE’s presence in Somaliland is not limited to military interests. The Emirati  company DP World currently holds a 51% stake in the Berbera port and plans to invest $442 million. Abu Dhabi is expected to revamp the local civilian airport and build roads to Ethiopia. Emirati soldiers will train Somaliland’s coastguard to combat piracy and supply Somaliland with coastal surveillance systems, similar to capacity building programs in Somalia’s autonomous region of Puntland.

8. Since Berbera is unavailable as a Somaliland base (and the Zeila deal fake news), Moscow is seeking other options to gain a foothold in the Horn of Africa region. Russia and Sudan are reportedly discussing the establishment of a “naval supply center” on the Red Sea coast. In fall 2018, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov furthermore announced plans to establish a “logistics center” on Eritrea’s Red Sea coast. While Lavrov did not provide specifics, possible locations include the ports of Massawa and Assab, which offer strategic access to the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The UAE already operates a air-naval installation in Assab.

9. The establishment of small logistics facilities in the Horn of Africa region could provide critical operational support for Russia’s expanding military and commercial interests in Africa and allow Moscow to compete with its Western adversaries, while keeping the initial investment and footprint low. This approach fits within Russia’s overall Africa strategy, which relies on politically deniable subversive operations spearheaded by irregular assets such as private military corporations (PMCs) and intelligence agencies.


By Gecko

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US, UK and France Will Maintain Multinational Peacekeeping Force in Syria

Despite the initial announcement to withdraw all U.S. servicemen from Syria, the Trump administration will keep 400 troops in northeastern Syria and al-Tanf as part of a “multinational peacekeeping force.” Since…

Despite the initial announcement to withdraw all U.S. servicemen from Syria, the Trump administration will keep 400 troops in northeastern Syria and al-Tanf as part of a “multinational peacekeeping force.” Since the U.S.-led Coalition against ISIS (Da’esh) is transiting to the next phase of contingency operations, the reduced troop count is adequate to maintain military pressure on the terror group, prevent a large-scale Turkish attack on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and restrict Iran’s freedom of operations in Syria. Former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and several military commanders publicly disagreed with Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, arguing that a continued U.S. presence is necessary to prevent the resurgence of Da’esh (Consult our assessment on the CONSEQUENCES OF A U.S. TROOP WITHDRAWAL FROM SYRIA here).

While officially branded as a “monitoring and observer force”, the remaining U.S. troops will likely consist of special operations force (SOF) elements tasked with terminal attack control (for air operations), indigenous capacity building, direct action, reconnaissance and counter-insurgency operations. Regular troops will provide force protection. Air assets based in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility will continue to provide close air support and prosecute the remaining Da’esh high-value targets (HVTs) scattered in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. Besides American forces, the multinational peacekeeping force will likely include French and British SOF elements, which have liaised with the Coalition since 2014.  Allied contribution to the multinational peacekeeping force could bring the troop count to over 1,000.

Reports suggest that the U.S. administration is also pursuing other NATO allies to contribute to the force. As the Da’esh threat is an inherently transnational issue that concerns the security of all NATO and European Union states, a concerted effort is required. Countries such as Belgium, Denmark and Germany, that still have citizens under Da’esh command, should have a particular interest to commit troops or expand their Iraq deployments to prevent battle-hardened jihadists from returning to their home countries in Europe.


Photo credit: Cpl. Carlos Lopez (Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade)

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Russia Simulates Air Attack on Norwegian Radar

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

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

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

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

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

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


By HARM and Gecko

The cover photo is an original rendering 

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Globe image analysis via T-Intelligence

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

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

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

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


By HARM and Gecko

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

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Airborne ISR over Transnistria Monitors Russian Drills

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

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

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

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

ASSESSMENT

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


By HARM and Gecko

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

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