Category: Euro-Atlantic

NATO Special Operators Among First Responders at Kabul Maternity Ward Attack

American and possibly British, Norwegian, and Australian special operations forces (SOF) were part of the reaction force that responded to the maternity ward attack in Kabul (Afghanistan) on 12 May…

American and possibly British, Norwegian, and Australian special operations forces (SOF) were part of the reaction force that responded to the maternity ward attack in Kabul (Afghanistan) on 12 May 2020, according to Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT). In the early hours of Tuesday, unidentified gunmen disguised as police officers stormed the Barchi National Hospital in Kabul. The attackers killed 24 people, including medical personnel, patients, and even two newborn babies. 



THE TIER ONE COUNTER-FORCE

In the SOF counterattack that ensued, the foreign and Afghan operators of the Crisis Response Unit (CRU) 222 managed to rescue 100 women and children, including three foreigners.

SOFs regularly operate without national identification and wear masks to conceal their identity for operation security (OPSEC) reasons and to preserve political deniability. Yet, there are still plenty of elements that can help identify a SOF group’s nationality, such as uniform camouflage patterns, gear, weapons, accessories, and other equipment pieces. 

Twitter users with knowledge of tactical equipment have recognized the country and units of the SOFs deployed on-site. As the tweets below show, one of the first special mission units identified is the Combat Applications Group(CAG) or 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (SFOD-D), which is more commonly known as “Delta Force.” Specializing in counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, and counter-proliferation, Delta is among the most secretive and lethal American SOF groups.

Twitter users recognized the American SOFs by their distinctive night-vision goggles (NVGs), custom pistol stock, pouch, and holster.  Social media speculations also place British SOFs, likely the Special Air Service (SAS) alongside Delta in one of the photos.

The Norwegian Forsvarets Spesialkommando (FSK) is another foreign SOF group recognized by Twitter users. While less known than its anglophone counterparts, the FSK is one of the most experienced NATO special mission units. Besides Afghanistan, they also operated, and are probably still active in Syria and Iraq.  

As Twitter users pointed out, at least one Australian SOF was also present during the counter-terrorist raid. If indeed from the land down below, the operator was likely part of the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), Australia’s equivalent of the British SAS. Australia is one of NATO’s closest strategic partners. Australian SOFs have seen extensive service alongside their Euro-Atlantic allies in the Global War on Terror.  

RESOLUTE SUPPORT MISSION 

Regardless of their exact unit or nationality, it is virtually certain that foreign SOFs played a significant role in neutralizing the terrorist threat in Kabul. Without them and their Afghan counterparts, the death toll would have been dramatically higher. 

The foreign SOFs are in Afghanistan as part of their respective national military deployments. Their objective is to conduct counter-terrorism missions and train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Army and Security Forces (ANASF). 

RSM Commands via NATO

Following the end of major combat operations, NATO initiated the Resolute Support Mission at the invitation of the Afghan government in 2015. RSM is a capacity-building operation and consists of 39 NATO and non-NATO participating states. RSM advisors train the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Air Force (ANAF) so that Kabul can defend itself after the end of NATO’s military mandate. The RSM also helped the ANA build its first-ever SOF component, including the Crisis Response Unit 222, that spearheaded the response to the maternity attack. 

Afghan CRU 222 operators via Recoilweb.com

Apart from the RSM, the U.S. SOFs are also engaged in Operation “Freedom’s Sentinel,” an overseas contingency counter-terrorism mission against ISIS’s regional franchise, the “Islamic State-Khorasan” (IS-K).

IS-K LIKELY BEHIND THE ATTACK

While the horrific attack is still unclaimed, “Islamic State-Khorasan” (IS-K) is the likely culprit. The Dashti Barchi Hospital sits in a predominantly Shia neighborhood – an area that IS-K has also attacked in the past. 

Afghan intelligence has captured the IS-K commander and two of his aides in Kabul, just a day before the attack. The senior operatives were likely in Kabul to oversee the execution of the mission. 

Another circumstantial piece of evidence linking the massacre to IS-K was a second attack on 12 May 2020. A suicide bomber killed at least 32 people at a funeral in Nangarhar province. While Afghanistan experiences sporadic countrywide violence daily, the funeral and hospital attacks may be connected. 



Shiite communities are IS-K’s main targets apart from political institutions, according to our assessment from 2019, which you can find here. The attack is consistent with IS-K’s strict interpretation of Sunni Islam, militant Salafism, which views Shiites and other Muslim sects as heretics. IS-K uses sectarian and takfiri violence to mobilize hardcore Salafists/ Deobandi and establish an Islamic State in South Asia, encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Kashmir region. 

IS-K has refrained from taking credit for its attacks in the past. In this case, the unclaimed attack on the maternity ward likely aimed at sabotaging the Afghan-Taliban peace process. By not claiming the attack, IS-K wanted to cast suspicion on the Taliban. IS-K has no interest in seeing a reduction of violence in Afghanistan. IS-K consists of disenfranchised Pakistani Taliban, splinter groups from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and a few foreign fighters. The Taliban is not only IS-K’s main competitor on the extremist market but also its existential threat. 

Afghanistan conflict map as of 29 February 2020 via Al-Jazeera

The Taliban has publicly denied involvement in the attack. While many Taliban cells continue to defy the “reduction of violence” agreement with Kabul, it is unlikely that the group was involved in the maternity ward massacre. Afghan President Ghani has nevertheless ordered the Afghan military to resume offensive operations against all militant groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban. President Ghani was likely concerned to look weak in the face of Tuesday’s bloodbath in the center of Kabul. 

The Afghan peace process remains as fragile as always. 

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Mission Failed: Inside Silvercorp’s Bizarre Plan to Overthrow Maduro

The Venezuelan authorities announced that they thwarted a coup against the Maduro regime, on 4 May 2020. Venezuelan forces captured eight and killed two men who tried to infiltrate the country’s…

The Venezuelan authorities announced that they thwarted a coup against the Maduro regime, on 4 May 2020. Venezuelan forces captured eight and killed two men who tried to infiltrate the country’s seacoast by boat. Among the arrested were two American citizens, both former U.S. Army Special Forces. Caracas claims that the infiltration attempt is proof of the Trump administration’s plan to overthrow the Venezuelan government. While the raiding party intended to oust Venezuela’s Socialist dictator, Nicholas Maduro, no evidence links the United States government to the operation. Instead, a group of Venezuelan dissidents led by the Florida-based security company “Silvercorp USA” is to be blamed.  

The recent events are nevertheless an excellent opportunity for the Maduro regime to stir anti-American fervor and to move against the opposition.   



SILVERCORP USA: FROM SECURITY AT CONCERTS TO REGIME CHANGE

Silvercorp, a Florida-based security company, was founded by former U.S. Green Beret Jordan Goudreau. Silvercorp has operated in over 50 countries and provided protection services for several Trump campaign rallies in 2018, as Bellingcat discovered. In early 2019, Silvercorp ran security for Venezuela Aid Live, a charitable concert on the Venezuelan-Columbian border. Through this Columbian connection, Silvercorp CEO Goudreau met with Venezuelan military dissidents to plot the overthrow of the Maduro regime in Carcass.

Goudreau at a Trump rally in Pennsylvania on 10 March 2018 (source: Bellingcat)

Goudreau liaised with retired General Cliver Alcala, the ringleader of a hotchpotch of Venezuelan military dissidents and former politicians. Alcala, who was a former associate of Hugo Chavez, claimed to be representing Juan Guaido, the leader of the Venezuelan opposition.

THE $212 MILLION CONTRACT

Reports suggest that the two sides signed a contract, which promises $50 million to Silvercorp in exchange for undisclosed security services. If successful, Silvercorps was to receive a total of $212 million, “backed/secured by Venezuelan barrels of oil.”  A scan of the contract was shared by @FactoresdePoder on Twitter. Guaido’s people argue that they only signed an exploratory contract and that they broke ties with Silvercorp in late-2019.

SILVERCORP’S UNILATERAL ACTION

Venezuelan military dissidents first met with the Trump administration to discuss military options against the Maduro regime in 2018. The White House nevertheless declined to partake in a coup. When the CIA learned of Silvercorp’s operation, it urged Mr. Goudreau to abort the plan, according to the website Connecting Vets.

Sources told Associated Press that Columbian intelligence also warned Alcala, Silvercorp’s Venezuelan accomplice, to stop promoting an invasion of Venezuela. Columbian authorities eventually arrested Alcala in March 2020 and extradited him to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges. 

Eventually, the Venezuelan opposition withdrew support for the operation and refused to pay even the contract retainer. Silvercorp’s CEO Goudreau nevertheless refused to drop the job, stating that he was a “freedom fighter” and wanted to liberate Venezuela. 



Preparations, therefore, continued on a tight budget. Goudreau allegedly raised funds from Roaen Kraft, a descendent of a cheese-making family, and his associates. The Associated Press suggests that Kraft lured further donors with promises of preferential access to the Venezuelan energy market. 

With funding secured, Goudreau recruited a few former Green Berets buddies to help him prepare the operation. After they drafted a plan, Gaudreau opened training camps in eastern Columbia, where Silvercorp trained around 300 Venezuelan dissident soldiers. 

OPERATION GIDEON

Silvercorp commenced with Operation “Gideon” on 3 May 2020 at 1700 hours local time. Mr. Goudreau publicly announced the operation in a Tweet (now deleted) on the same day. He tagged President Trump, probably a last attempt to secure political backing. 

3 MAY 2020: 62 Silvercorp operatives (60 Venezuelans, and two former U.S. Army Special Forces) left Columbia. 

The first of two amphibious assault groups attempted to disembark in the Bay of Macuto, four kilometers east of Venezuela’s main port (La Guaria), and 42 km north of Caracas. The Venezuelan Navy and Coast Guard captured them as soon as they began “hugging” the coastline.

4 MAY 2020: A video on Twitter showed Jordan Goudreau and a Venezuelan commander of the assault, Javier Quintero Nieto, claiming responsibility for the incursion. Despite the setback, Goudreau and Nieto announced that the operation would go forward. They added that many other units are active in southern, western, and eastern Venezuela. The objective of the raid, as described in the video, was to prosecute Maduros’ hardline loyalists, free the political prisoners and spark a revolution to overthrow the regime. 

Later that day, the second assault force approached Playa de Chuao, a coastal town north of Caracas (Venezuela). Local security forces also interdicted this element. Eight men were captured, including the two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Aaron Barry. 

BOUNTY HUNTING?

In an interview with Venezuelan state media, Luke Denman later stated that the team’s objective was to seize an airstrip and bring in a plane to fly Maduro to the United States. In his own televised confession, Airan Berry names “La Carlota” (Air Base Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda) as being the airstrip they had intended to seize.  He also added that seizing Maduro however necessary was the operation’s end goal. The cells referenced by Goudreau and Quintero were likely responsible for getting a fix on Maduro, capturing him and bringing him to the airport. It is unknown why the objective was not to neutralize Maduro but to bring him out of the country – an infinitely more difficult task. There is reason to believe that Silvercorp was hoping to claim the $15 million bounty that the U.S. Department of Justice placed on Maduro’s head for narco-terrorism. The reward would have been an instant pay-off for Silvercorp’s “suicide mission.”



THE VENEZUELANS KNEW

It is virtually certain that the Maduro government was aware of the plot. Whether they collected intelligence on Silvercorp’s preparatory work in Columbia or were tipped off by the Associated Press reporting (the article appeared on 1 May 2020), Carcass prepared for the impending assault. 

Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) suggested the Venezuelan Navy and Coast Guard were on high alert for the past five weeks. On 30 March 2020, the Venezuelan Navy attempted to intercept the Portughese-flagged “RCGS Resolute,” an empty cruise ship en route to Curacao. A Venezuelan destroyer attempted to push the RCGS Resolute into Venezuelan waters but sank after ramming the cruise ship. The Venezuelans accused the cruise ship of transporting mercenaries and weapons but were unable to detain it.


On 29 April 2020, the Venezuelan Coast Guard moved two speedboats from Guiria to La Guaria, the approximate objective of Silvercorp’s first landing party.

In hindsight, Silvercorp should have read these movements as a sign that Caracas had caught up with its plot.

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Russian Pipelaying Vessel Enters Baltic Sea to Complete North Stream 2 

Gazprom’s pipelaying vessel “Akademik Cherskiy” is entering the Baltic Sea. The Russian-flagged vessel was likely dispatched to complete the remaining 6% of the controversial North Stream 2 gas pipeline. The…

Gazprom’s pipelaying vessel “Akademik Cherskiy” is entering the Baltic Sea. The Russian-flagged vessel was likely dispatched to complete the remaining 6% of the controversial North Stream 2 gas pipeline. The Akademik Cherskiy’s arrival in the Baltic Sea marks the end of a trip around the world that started in February 2020, when the vessel left its homeport Nakhodka on Russia’s Pacific coast. It is possible that the pipelayer will first conduct a port-call for maintenance and repairs in Kaliningrad or Sankt-Petersburg, before commencing work on the last segment of North Stream 2 near the Danish island of Bornholm. 


NORTH STREAM 2: A THREAT TO EUROPEAN ENERGY SECURITY 

North Stream 2 is a submarine pipeline that will carry natural gas from Russian fields to a terminal on Germany’s Baltic sea coast. The pipeline will more than double the existing capacity of the original North Stream, which was completed in 2011. Besides the Russian energy giant Gazprom, five European companies (OMV, Royal Dutch Shell, Uniper SE, Engie SA and Wintershall AG) participate in the North Stream 2 project.  

North Stream 2 route (source: ICIS.com)

North Stream 2 will significantly increase the EU’s dependency on Russian gas, which the Kremlin has never shied away from using as leverage. Considering the potential geopolitical impact of the pipeline, the Western European support of North Stream 2 has left the Eastern European countries feeling aghast and betrayed. While the EU has been advocating for the diversification of energy sources and suppliers for years, the Union’s core members now seem willing to continue embracing Russian gas.
Ukraine’s national security, in particular, will be impacted by North Stream 2. Before Russia’ annexation of Crimea and covert invasion of Eastern Ukraine, Gazprom was sending 60 percent of its gas exports to Europe through pipelines in Ukraine. While deliveries will continue until 2024, Ukraine’s status as a transit state for Russian gas will be weakened by the new pipeline. As a result, Kyiv will lose whatever geopolitical leverage it has against its hostile neighbor.  

US SANCTIONS FROZE PIPELINE AT 94%

Roughly 94 percent of the 1,230 kilometers (764 miles) long North Stream 2 pipeline was completed when the Trump administration put the companies of the consortium under sanctions.  The Swiss company Allseas Group SA stopped the process of laying underwater pipes in late December 2019, leaving a small gap in the pipeline located in Danish waters around the island of Bornholm (between Sweden and Germany’s Baltic coast).  Since then, the Kremlin has been scrambling for options to continue construction. The delay will push the opening to mid-2020 at the earliest. In 2019, the Russian Foreign Minister named the pipelaying vessel Akademik Cherskiy, which has now arrived in the Baltic Sea, as one of the available options to complete the pipeline. 



EURO-ATLANTIC SPLIT 

If work on North Stream 2 resumes, the split between the United States and the EU countries that participate in the energy project will likely deepen. The Central and Eastern member states of the EU will continue to side with the U.S. and promote the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). The 3SI’s main project is to facilitate the influx of American liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the Eastern European energy market as an affordable alternative to crude Russian gas. To this end, Poland has invested generously in its Swinoujscie LNG terminal on the Baltic Sea coast, where vessels from the United States can unload cargo.

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Race for Germany’s Next Fighter Jet Ends in Compromise

It seems that the race between Airbus’ Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing’s F/A-18E/F SuperHornet for replacing Germany’s aging Tornado fleet will end in a draw. According to German media reports, Berlin…

It seems that the race between Airbus’ Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing’s F/A-18E/F SuperHornet for replacing Germany’s aging Tornado fleet will end in a draw. According to German media reports, Berlin plans to acquire both airframes. The acquisition of both jets would be a compromise to protect the interests of the European defense industry and preserve the nuclear certification of the German Air Force. The German Defense Ministry has not dismissed the report but stated that the defense minister is yet to make an official decision. 

If the compromise comes to pass, the German Air Force (or “Luftwaffe” in German) will receive at least 78 and up to 90 Eurofighter Typhoons. The American part of the deal will include a mix of approximately 30 F/A-18E/F SuperHornet and 15 E/A-18G Growler aircraft. The Luftwaffe needs the E/A-18G Growler to maintain its capability to conduct electronic attack (EA) and suppression of enemy air defense missions and the F/A-18E/F SuperHornet for nuclear certification after the retirement of the Cold War veteran Tornado. However,  the two-fighter procurement plan could surge logistics and maintenance costs for the Luftwaffe in the long run. 



In early 2019, Germany ruled out the F-35A fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighter for replacing the obsolete Tornado fleet. Most NATO countries (United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Poland) are preferring the F-35A as their fighter jet for the next decades. The German armed forces were also reportedly pushing for getting the F-35. However, the German government has openly favored an upgraded Eurofighter Typhoon for commercial reasons. Airbus, the Eurofighter Typhoon producer is a joint French-German-Spanish venture, and the governments want to deepen their cooperation in the defense industry. 

The decision for the Eurofighter Typhoon seemed to be a “done deal,” until German officials received information from the Pentagon about the timeframe for certifying the Eurofighter to carry nuclear weapons, according to DefenseNews. Getting the Eurofighter approved would take between three and five years longer than the F/A-18, which qualifies for nuclear strike missions. 

Maintaining the Luftwaffe’s nuclear-delivery capability is key to Germany’s commitment to the NATO nuclear-burden sharing framework. This means that in case of war, German pilots will also equip their aircraft with American B-61 thermonuclear weapons and conduct airstrikes on enemy positions. 

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Royal Air Force Intercepts Russian Aircraft Three Times in Six Days

The British Royal Air Force (RAF) Quick Reaction Alert-North (QRA) from Lossiemouth scrambled three times in the past week to intercept Russian military aircraft transiting the United Kingdom’s flight information…

The British Royal Air Force (RAF) Quick Reaction Alert-North (QRA) from Lossiemouth scrambled three times in the past week to intercept Russian military aircraft transiting the United Kingdom’s flight information region (FIR). The British QRAs, often done in partnership with regional allies, are coordinated by the Combined Air Operations Centre (COAC) based in Uedem, Germany. COAC-Uedem acts as NATO‘s Command and Control hub for the northern air policing area. 

During their transits through the UK’s FIR, the Russian aircraft buzzed the flight corridors used by civilian airliners to enter and depart British airspace. The RAF jets, typically two or three Eurofighter Typhoons, activated their transponders to make themselves visible to air traffic controllers (ACT) while shadowing the Russian “visitors.” This allowed the ACT authorities to see where the uncooperating planes are and de-conflict the airspace accordingly. At times ACT had to divert commercial flights to mitigate the risk of collision with the “incognito” Russian aerial formation. 

Russian military activity in the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap has increased exponentially in the past years in terms of training exercises, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) sorties and maritime surveillance missions. The GIUK gap is very important for Russia to move its nuclear-capable submarines and ASW aircraft in and out of the North Atlantic in case of war. To better understand the enemy order of battle and tactics in the region, the Russian are deliberately testing the RAF and NATO’s overall QRA reaction (time and tactics) while also monitoring maritime movements. 

FIRST INTERCEPTION

The first interception this week took place on 8 March 2020, when a composite formation of Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) and Russian Navy (RuN) buzzed both the Norwegian and the British FIRs. The Russian composite formation consisted of one Tu-142 MK ASW and maritime patrol aircraft (AISC/NATO Reporting name: Bear-F), one Tu-142MR/M submarine communications relay variant (Bear-J), and one MiG-31 (Foxhound) operated by the RuAF.

The Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) scrambled first and deployed two F-16AM fighter jets, which conducted an initial visual identification of the Russian aircraft formation, and (for the first time) two F-35A stealth multirole fighters. When the two Bear’s continued their flight further down over the North Sea, two RAF Eurofighter Typhoons intercepted them. 

The Tu-142s are the maritime variant of the notorious Tu-95 strategic bombers and were built to hunt NATO submarines. The Russians were likely collecting intelligence on the NATO naval buildup in Norway for the multinational exercise “Cold Response” as well as communicating with submerged platforms.



SECOND INTERCEPTION

RAF Lossiemouth dispatched two QRA Typhoons to intercept and shadow two Russian Tu-142 (Bear-F) aircraft as they approached the UK’s area of interest on 11 March 2020. The British Typhoons intercepted the Russian “Bears” west of the Shetland islands, inside the UK’s FIR, and shadowed them south towards Ireland. French aircraft took over QRA duty for the airspace until the Bay of Biscay, where the Bears returned north and were again intercepted by the RAF jets. 

THIRD INTERCEPTION

RAF Lossiemouth scrambled three QRA Typhoons to intercept and shadow two Russian Tu-160 long-range strategic bombers (“Blackjack”) on 12 March 2020. The flight path and pattern was identical to the one from the day before.

SECURING THE SKIES TRANSPARENTLY

The RAF Lossiemouth QRA team proved that it can secure British and NATO skies at a moment’s notice 24/7 and 365 days per year. However, thanks to its social media and communications team, RAF Lossiemouth demonstrated how a military operation can be done efficiently and transparently.  

The RAF Lossiemouth has actively engaged with the public through its Facebook and Twitter accounts, explaining why and how the interceptions were conducted, sharing photos from the QRA scrambles and even publishing ADS-B/ Mode-S tracking codes so that enthusiasts can track their aircraft using flight trackers.

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NATO to Hold Emergency Article 4 Meeting After Deadly Attack on Turkish Forces in Idlib

NATO’s decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council (NAC), will meet on Friday (28 February 2020), following a request by Turkey to hold consultations under Article 4 of the Washington Treaty…

NATO’s decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council (NAC), will meet on Friday (28 February 2020), following a request by Turkey to hold consultations under Article 4 of the Washington Treaty on the situation in Syria. Under article 4 of the Treaty, any Ally can request consultations whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.

WHAT HAPPENED? 

A pro-government attack killed 33 Turkish soldiers in northwestern Syria last night. The attack took place in the village of Balyun (Idlib province), where the Turkish military had diverted to hold the frontline against the advancing pro-government forces (e.g. Syrian Arab Army, Iranian-backed Shiite militias and the Russian Aerospace Forces and advisors). Initially, only 9 casualties were reported, but the death toll spiked overnight to over 30 KIA. Turkey was only able to evacuate the wounded by land, as Russia reportedly refused to deconflict the airspace for Turkish helicopters. 

WHO CONDUCTED THE ATTACK?

Ankara identified “regime forces” as being behind the mass-casualty attack, although there is reason to believe that the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) bombed the Turkish military position. Ever since Turkey demonstrated a willingness to use MANPADS (Man-portable air-defense systems) in Idlib earlier this month, when it shot down two Mi-17 Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) helicopters, Damascus grounded its helicopter fleet. This left Russia as the only force engaged in air operations over Idlib. While some of the few SyAAF fighter jets are still air-worthy (one MIG-23 “Flogger” was recently spotted airborne) they have limited capability to conduct precision airstrikes at night (e.g. small to no inventory of thermal/ infrared-targeting pods). 

The Kremlin, however, claims the Turkish forces were hit by Syrian artillery shelling and that Turkey had not informed Russia in advance about their recent movements. Moscow’s’ claims are difficult to believe as both the Russian and Turkish command centers are keeping tabs 24/7 on each other through drones, satellite imagery, and other ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) assets. Russia has also been aware of the recent Turkish troop surge in southern Idlib and even targeted a Turkish military convoy in the area several days ago. Russia is also using small unmanned aerial systems to direct Syrian artillery on Turkish and opposition forces.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that the Turkish re-positioning has been pre-coordinated with Russia and that even ambulances came under fire during the medical evacuation. 

TURKISH RETALIATION

The Turkish military released a video showing that it executed a series of UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) strikes against pro-government positions and vehicles in retaliation for the attack. 

CAN TURKEY INVOKE ARTICLE 5? 

Almost certainly not. As Article 6 stipulates: “the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:

  • on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America, on the Algerian Departments of France 2, on the territory of Turkey or the Islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer;
  • on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.”

Article 5 is the cornerstone of NATO and states that an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all of its members. Article 5 cannot be used to draw collective military support for extraterritorial operations or wars-by-proxy. 

WHAT WILL ARTICLE 4 BRING? 

Article 4 meetings usually result in political support from the other 28 members and possibly a largely defensive military support package. Ankara has previously used Article 4 at least three times to request NATO augment Turkey’s air defense capabilities. This time, however, the Turkish government will likely pressure its allies to provide more support. President Erdogan has recently threatened to allow the millions of refugees that were forced to the border by the pro-government offensive, to flee for Europe. 


FOR CONTEXT

The pro-government camp and the Turkish-backed opposition groups (National Front for Liberation/NFL) are both on the offensive in Idlib. With Turkish artillery and limited air support, the NFL has recaptured Nayrab and Saraqib on the M5 highway- positions that it lost less than a month ago (see Facebook post). 

After capturing the M5 highway, the pro-government camp reshuffled its forces to south-central Idlib province, where it aims to dislodge the Opposition forces from the M4 highway section linking Latakia province to Saraqib city.

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Russian, American Satellites Play Cat-and-Mouse in Space

The United States Space Force confirmed that two Russian “inspector” satellites have stalked a U.S. spy satellite in the low-Earth orbit (LEO), in the past weeks. The American satellite, known…

The United States Space Force confirmed that two Russian “inspector” satellites have stalked a U.S. spy satellite in the low-Earth orbit (LEO), in the past weeks. The American satellite, known as “USA 245”, is one of the highly-secretive and advanced KH-11 Block IV geospatial intelligence spacecraft. Built by Lockheed Martin as part of the U.S. “Keyhole” program, the KH-11 uses a 2.4 diameter prime mirror, which enables ultrahigh-resolution of 15 cm (objects that are minimum this size can be seen on satellite photos). The KH-11 satellites are operated by National Reconnaissance Office.

A KH-11 satellite was likely the GEOINT platform that photographed Iran’s failed space launch in August 2019 (photo in the post). President Donald J. Trump later tweeted the photo. In addition to its high-end electro-optical digital imaging, KH-11 satellites can be tasked with certain ELINT missions. 

COSMOS 2542 AND 2543 

The Russians claim that their sensors, named “Cosmos 2542” and “Cosmos 2543” are in space to conduct maintenance inspections of other Russian satellites. However, Russia has been lying about its space operation ever since it placed the satellites into orbit on November 26, 2019. Initially, Moscow only announced Cosmos 2542 as being launched into space. But after two weeks of orbiting, Cosmos 2542 literally “birthed” a second, smaller satellite (Cosmos 2543). The two satellites then approached USA 245 instead of drifting away as Cosmos 2542 usually did. 

A visual timeline of the Cosmos-2452 launch on November 25, 2019, via RussianSpaceWeb.com

UNUSUAL ORBITAL ACTIVITY

Between January 20 and 23, the Russian spacecraft essentially matched orbits with the American spy satellite. The distance between the Russian and American parties was fluctuating from 150 to 300 km. The Russian satellites traversed a clever orbit that allowed them to inspect the KH-11 from multiple angles while keeping the American satellite in sunlight for most of the time. This put the KH-11 in perfect light and distance for the Russian spacecraft to photograph the American satellite and in particular, its high-tech lenses. 

Credits for the discovery and orbital activity analysis goes to geospatial expert @M_R_Thompson who’s close observation of the three spacecraft made it to OSINT circles since January. 

DIRECT/ SOFT KILL PRACTICE?

The unusual behavior of the two Russian satellites suggests that they were either attacking, simulating an attack, or collecting intelligence on the American spacecraft. Many agree that the Kremlin would have gained little from photographing the KH-11’s optics. This opens up the possibility that the Russian satellite duo was practicing an attack on USA 245. The simulated attack could have been either direct – donating near the target – or through soft-kill techniques. For example, the Russian satellites could have deployed low-energy lasers or chemical sprayers to blind USA 245’s camera lens and therefore render it useless. High-frequency microwaves or radiofrequency jammers could have also been used to disrupt the KH-11’s function. 

Types of anti-satellite attacks via the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)

NEED FOR U.S. SPACE FORCE, BIGGER THAN EVER

Situations like this underline the importance of the newly established and independent U.S. Space Force. As opposed to Russia and China, the U.S. military is heavily dependent on the orbital “high-ground” to command, control and execute operations in case of war. With the threat of Chinese and Russian anti-satellite capabilities growing at a rapid pace, Washington took the U.S. Space Command from the Air Force and transformed it into a separate service. Given the plethora of American intelligence collection, communications, early warning, and missile defense satellites, the U.S will only benefit from having a platform dedicated to safeguarding these assets.



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Poland Signs Contract for Dozens of F-35A Stealth Fighters

The Polish government has signed a contract with Lockheed Martin to buy 32 F-35A stealth multirole fighter jets for the Polish Air Force, on January 31, 2020. The contract is…

The Polish government has signed a contract with Lockheed Martin to buy 32 F-35A stealth multirole fighter jets for the Polish Air Force, on January 31, 2020. The contract is estimated to be worth  $4.6 billion, making it the biggest military purchase in the country’s history. The first F-35As are expected to arrive in Poland in 2026. 

The groundbreaking purchase makes Poland the first Central and Eastern European country country to acquire the fifth generation aircraft. Warsaw joins the exclusive club of current or future F-35 operators, that includes six NATO members (United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark), Japan, Australia, Singapore and the Republic of Korea. 


REPLACING OLD SOVIET AIRCRAFT

The American defense contractor will deliver the latest configuration (Block 4) of the F-35’s Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) version. The Block 4 features an expanded missile capacity, from four to six internally carried missiles, improved sensors and data-link, and advanced computing power. The Polish Air Force (PoAF) will use the F-35s to replace the Soviet-era legacy Su-22 fighter-bombers  (NATO Reporting name: “Fitter”) and MiG-29 air superiority jets (“Fulcrum), and will serve alongside its existing fleet of 48 F-16s. 

ENHANCING POLISH AIR FORCE CAPABILITIES

With the F-35 in service, the PoAF will posses a top-of-the-line air defense capability and striking platform. Poland will enjoy unmatched interoperability in joint force and Coalition operations. In addition to national air policing, the F-35A will enable Poland to conduct Destruction/ Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (D/SEAD), Offensive Counter Air (OCA) and to prosecute targets defended by enemy anti-access/ area-denial (A2/AD) “bubbles.” 

STEALTH

The F-35 is known for its low-observability (or stealth), sensor fusion, increased situational awareness and integrated electronic warfare system, but also for its production delays and constant software patches. Born from the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, the F-35 was designed as a jack-of-all-trade platform to satisfy the operational requirements of the three major U.S. military branches. As the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps have different needs and operational doctrines, the JSF’s initial requirements mutated in the compromise and more economical formula we have today. However, the one element that remained universally embraced was stealth. 

Contrary to widespread misperception, stealth is not invisibility. Rather, stealth gives the F-35 the ability to elude or greatly complicate an enemy’s ability to find and destroy an aircraft using a combination of tactics and technology. In general, stealth is the ability to evade detection by radar, infrared sensors or emission interception. Stealth provides greater survivability and access, allowing aircraft to operate in contested A2/AD environments, that legacy fighters simply cannot penetrate or evade. 



An integrated airframe design, advanced radar-absorbing materials, low-probability of intercept sensors and other features maximize the F-35’s stealth features. This allows the F-35 to defeat upper band radars (X- and Ku-bands) that are used by air defense systems for SAM engagement control. The aircraft performs less effective against early-warning and acquisition radars operating in the lower bands (UHV/ VHF), however these sensors are unable to provide engagement guidance , and can only “paint” a vague picture of threat. 

REAL TEST AFTER 2026

With the F-35 purchase, Poland sets an example for the other NATO militaries that are still struggling to transition from the defunct Warsaw Pact model. However, the real test begins after 2026 when the PoAF will have to undertake the exhausting task of absorbing the F-35 fleet into operational use and keep its combat readiness rate high. Another Herculean challenge will be to provide constant maintenance to the “needy” platform, in the form of software patches, logistical support infrastructure, weapons integration, LO coating maintenance and other aspects.

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Serbia to receive Russian-made Pantsir-S1 Air Defense Systems in late February

Russia’s delivery of Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems (NATO Reporting name: SA-22 “Greyhound”) to Serbia will commence in late February this year. The first shipment is rumored to consist of…

Russia’s delivery of Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems (NATO Reporting name: SA-22 “Greyhound”) to Serbia will commence in late February this year. The first shipment is rumored to consist of six Pantsir-S1 batteries.

The Pantsir-S1 is a road-mobile self-propelled SAM system designed to provide point air defense air defense against precision-guided attacks from short-to-medium range and low altitudes. The Pantsir’s main armament is the 57E6/E short-range SAM, which can engage targets at a range of 12 to 20 km and altitudes varying from 5 to 15 km. The Pantsir can carry a maximum of 12 SAMs. As a secondary capability, the battery is equipped with two 30mm twin-barrel cannons. The Pantsir’s sensor package consists of a target detection and designation radar, target and missile tracking radar, and electro-optical sensor systems.

CONTROVERSIAL COMBAT PERFORMANCE

Russia advertises the Pantsir as being a highly resilient air defense system against enemy anti-radiation missiles and drones, however, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) has repeatedly overwhelmed and destroyed Pantsir batteries operated by the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) in the past years. A Russian report also revealed that the Pantsir performed poorly in its role to defend the Russian 555th Khmeimim Air Base (Syra) against small consumer drones launched by the Syrian armed opposition groups. This forced Russia to deploy additional assets such as the Tor-M2 to reinforce its defenses after a drone attack damaged multiple aircraft in January, 2018. 

SLAVIC SHIELD 2019

Serbian President Alexandar Vucic first announced that Belgrad had ordered the Pantsir SAM systems during a visit at “Slavic Shield 2019,” on October 24, 2019. As the first exercise between the Serbian Air Defense Units and the Russian Aerospace Forces, Slavic Shield 2019 deepened joint force interoperability and served as a technology demonstrator for Belgrade. During the event, Russia airlifted a multi-layered and diverse package of SAM systems to Milenko Pavlović Air Base in Batajnica (Serbia), including a S-400 SAM system (SA-21 “Growler) and several Pantsir-S1 batteries. This allowed Serbian military officials to inspect the equipment and simulate integration into Belgrad’s air defense network. In addition to the Pantsir, President Vucinic expressed interest in the S-400, but clarified that Serbia cannot afford the system.

Serbia President Vucic at “Slavic Shield 2019” Photo: Damirir Banda, MC Odbrana

Although Belgrad has repeatedly named Russia as it main defense partner and source of military donations, an official booklet of the Serbian Ministry of Defense shows that Serbia’s main military donor is the United States. Serbia received $10 million in military assistance from the U.S. in equipment and money between 2014 and 2018. Second on the donor list is China, which has donated around € 5.2 million, followed by Norway with € 586,000, Denmark with € 494,860 and the UK with £ 169,000, respectively.

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The Drone-Type that Killed Gen. Soleimani, Now in Romania

The United States Air Force (USAF) will deploy MQ-9 Reaper drones to the 71st Air Base in Campia Turzii (Cluj county), Romania. The mission, starting in January 2020, has been…

The United States Air Force (USAF) will deploy MQ-9 Reaper drones to the 71st Air Base in Campia Turzii (Cluj county), Romania. The mission, starting in January 2020, has been fully coordinated with the Romanian government. Directed by the U.S. European Command’s air component, the deployment serves to promote stability and security within the region, and to strengthen relationships with NATO allies and other European partners. The MQ-9 Reapers have been previously deployed to the 71st AB in July 2019, when they were temporarily re-positioned from their traditional staging area in Poland.

The U.S. Air Force built this hangar, which could house manned or unmanned aircraft, at Campia Turzii from October 2017 to May 2018. Documents obtained by Defense News show plans to build a hangar to accommodate medium-altitude, long-endurance drones like the MQ-9. (Valerie Insinna/ Defense News)

The U.S. Department of Defense has invested over $3 million in the modernisation of Romania’s 71st AB in the past two years. Part of the infrastructure upgrade package was the construction of a $950,000 hangar that is able to house medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drones such as the MQ-9 and support drone operations. 

The MQ-9 Reaper is one of the most advanced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) ever built. As a multi-role platform, the MQ-9 can perform a variety of missions, including intelligence, reconnaissance, target-aquisition and surveillance (ISTAR), ground attack, close air support (CAS), and combat search and rescue. 

While the Reaper is most known for its kinetic strikes against terrorist leaders (including IRGC-QF Gen. Soleimani on January 3) and other high-value targets, the drone is a very effective ISR/ ISTAR asset. The MQ-9’s endurance is 30 hours when conducting ISR sorties, with decreases to 14 to 23 hours (depending on the loadout) when carrying weapons. The Reaper has a 1,850 km range (1,000 nmi; 1,150 mi) and an operational ceiling of 15,000 meters (50,000 ft). It’s sensor suite includes a syntethic aperture radar and infrared forward-looking infrared, which can stream live footage at views ranging from 19mm to 560mm. 

During its stay in Romania, the MQ-9 will likely be tasked with gathering intelligence on enemy intentions and capabilities in the region. The Black Sea will be a main focus of its ISR mission, where the UAV will monitor the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet (BSF) for nefarious activity, force buildup and forward deployments. The collection of Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) on Russia’s BSF activities is not only important for NATO’s Eastern flank, but also for monitoring Moscow’s force deployment to Syria. The ports of Sevastopol and Novorossysk are Russia’s main logistics bases supporting expeditionary operations in Syria, and are periodically sealifting capabilities to Tartus (Syria). 

In addition to the Black Sea, the MQ-9 will likely also fly over Eastern Ukraine. American UAVs were frequently spotted on ADS-B receivers loitering over the frontline in Donbas and Luhansk, monitoring for enemy activity (e.g. ceasefire violations, Russian supplies, tactical movements). 



When used as a striking platform, the Reaper can field a “cocktail” of weapons systems such as the GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb, AIM-9 “Sidewinder” air-to-air missile, GBU-38 with JDAM, and the more famous AGM-114 “Hellfire” air-to-surface missile. Due to its armament, the UAV can target and destroy light infantry, surface vessels and armored tanks. 

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