Category: Regions

Iranian Navy Bombs, Sinks Own Vessel

The Iranian Navy “Jamaran”, a Moudge-class frigate (IRIN-76) mistakenly hit an Iranian patrol vessel, “Konarak,” during a military exercise off the coast of Jask in the Sea of Oman. Officials say…

The Iranian Navy “Jamaran”, a Moudge-class frigate (IRIN-76) mistakenly hit an Iranian patrol vessel, “Konarak,” during a military exercise off the coast of Jask in the Sea of Oman. Officials say 19 sailors died, but rumors indicate that the death toll is as high as 30. The Iranian Navy initiated search and rescue to recover the wounded. Some of the survivors were evacuated to a hospital in Chabahar. 

FRIENDLY FIRE

Konarak was probably sailing in the designated “splash zone” or trajectory of Jamaran’s anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM), likely a “Noor” (copy-cat from the Chinese C-802), when the missile launched. Noor likely locked on Konarak, the closest and largest vessel it encountered when it turned on the radar for final target-acquisition. Alternatively, it could have been a targeting mistake from the Jamaran crew. 



A similar incident took place earlier this year when an IRGC missileer downed a civilian airliner (flight PS75) that departed from Imam Khomeini in Tehran, killing all 176 passengers. When it finally admitted to the wrong-doing, the IRGC claimed that it mistook the plane for an American bomber. Incidents like these raise questions over the Iranian military’s competency and preparedness.

UPDATE: As suspected, Konarak was laying targets for the training exercise, but did not vacate the area in time. Iranian media also released footage of the catastrophic damage inflicted on the Konarak. The ASCM wiped out the vessel’s bridge, which explains the high death toll, and destroyed the midship region.

THE NOOR: IRAN’S FAVORITE “SHIP KILLER”

With an engagement range of 120 km and a 165 kg warhead, Noor is notorious for its deployment during the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006. The IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) delivered hundreds of Noor ASCMs to its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, during the confrontation to enforce a coastal blockade against the Israeli Navy. One Noor managed to hit one Israeli corvette, the INS Hanit, killing four crewmembers.

Iran’s Noor (C-802) ASCM

The IRGC has also proliferated the Noor to its Yemeni allies, the Houthi. In 2016, an anti-ship missile hit an Emirati transport ship off the Yemeni coast. A week later, a salvo of similar weapons unsuccessfully targeted the USS Mason in the Red Sea. Missile forensics identified the Noor/C-802 as the striking platform. Noor/C-802’s NATO/ ASIC reporting name is “CSS-N-8 Saccade.” 



IRREGULAR WARFARE ON THE SEAS   

Iranian Navy and the IRGC-Navy exercises regularly feature the Noor/C-802. Small boat “swarms” and anti-ship missile saturation strikes are at the core of Iran’s maritime “guerilla warfare” strategy. The latest incident comes as Iran’s parallel navies are increasing readiness in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Sea of Oman. Tensions between U.S. and Iran spiked again after small Iranian vessels harrassed a convoy of American ships transiting the Sea of Hormuz last month.

The April incident led to a verbal exchange between Washington and Tehran, with both sides threatening to shoot each other. Despite the strong rhetoric, the Strait of Hormuz and adjacent waters are much calmer than last year. During the Summer of 2019,  Iran shot down an American drone over international waters and covertly attacked oil tankers linked to the Gulf states and seized British vessels. 

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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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Iran’s Space Launch Advances Ballistic Missile Tech, Violating U.N Sanctions

With the successful space launch of the “Nour-1” spy satellite on April 22, the Islamic Republic of Iran has likely violated international sanctions. The trouble with Iran’s recent space launch…

With the successful space launch of the “Nour-1” spy satellite on April 22, the Islamic Republic of Iran has likely violated international sanctions. The trouble with Iran’s recent space launch is the delivery platform – the Qased Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) – not the payload – the “Nour-1” military satellite (mil-sat). As SLV technology is interchangeable with ballistic missile (BM) technology, space launches can help to extend missile range, increase stability and payload capacity. 

Noor/ Nour-1 mil-sat launch on 22 April 2020. GEOINT analysis by T-Intelligence / Image courtesy of Planet Labs.



SPACE LAUNCH VEHICLE: FROM AND FOR BALLISTIC MISSILES

The “Qased” SLV (Courier in Persian) is a hybrid between the “Shahab-3” medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), with which it shares the first liquid-fuel stage, and the “Salman” solid rocket engine that provided the technology for the second stage. The third stage is likely also solid-fuel based. The multi-stage rocket allowed Qased to reach an apogee of over 420 km, despite its heavy payload. 

Iran’s proven ability to develop three-stage solid-fuel rockets, capable of boosting the payload at longer ranges and to higher altitudes than before, is a breakthrough in the pursuit of long-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which could reach the United States and all of Europe.

Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of Aerospace Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, stands in front of the Qased before launch. Photo credit: Tasnim news.

This is why Iran violated UNSC Resolution 2231, which calls on Iran to avoid “any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”

PAYLOAD ENABLES IRANIAN GEOINT CAPABILITY

Having the Nour-1 satellite in space is not a game-changer, although this will enable Iran to collect Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) without depending on third-parties. The mil-sat operates in the Low-Earth Orbit, namely in a 444 x 426 km orbit at 59.8 degrees inclination, and circles the Earth every 90 minutes (high temporal resolution), which makes it ideal for remote sensing. Nour-1 is believed to have a reasonably high resolution and will reportedly be joined by two other spy satellites in the future.

The upper photo shows Nour-1 completing a pass over the continental United States. The lower photo shows the satellite high above the northern Arabian peninsula. (Screenshot from a satellite tracker)

Nour-1’s success is, however, largely political and for domestic consumption. On the one hand, the launch has broken the decade-long spell of unsuccessful launches and stagnant research. On the other hand, it validated the IRGC-AF’s space program, which was responsible for the space launch, to the detriment of the Iranian Space Agency.

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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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Turkish Drone Destroys Syrian Pantsir-S1 Air Defense System

A Turkish “Bayraktar-2TB” UCAV (unmanned aerial combat vehicle) neutralized a Syrian Pantsir-S1 aerial defense system (NATO/AISC reporting name: “SA-22 Greyhound ”). This is more like a #Syrian Pantsir-S1 (AISC/NATO: SA-22)….

A Turkish “Bayraktar-2TB” UCAV (unmanned aerial combat vehicle) neutralized a Syrian Pantsir-S1 aerial defense system (NATO/AISC reporting name: “SA-22 Greyhound ”).

The footage clearly shows that the Pantsir was on (generator emits thermal signature) and its radar active (antenna is spinning). The scorched ground left of the vehicle, caused by successive missile launches, even suggests that the Pantsir has recently engaged aerial targets. There is no indication that Turkey employed stand-off munition instead of the Bayraktar’s trademark MAM-L. This means that the Turkish drone was within the Pantsir’s engagement range when it destroyed the air defense system. In theory, the Pantsir S 57E6/E SAM has a superior engagement envelope (max. 20 km) compared to the MAM-L (max. 14 km). 

The Pantsir’s failure to detect and engage the Turkish UCAV adds to previous reports that the system is underperforming in combat and tests. This is a major blow for the Russian defense industry, which has heavily marketed the Pantsir series of air defense systems as the “jack-of-all-trades” against low-observable munitions and drones. 


The Israeli Air Force has also previously destroyed at least two (visually confirmed) Pantsir-S1s in Syria in 2018 and 2019. 


Turkey released another video showing the targeting of a Pantsir-S1 system several days ago. In that case, however, there is reason to doubt that engagement took place in Syria. As many correctly argued, the Pantsir from that video seems to be mounted on a Rheinmetall/MAN-SX45 chassis truck, a configuration used by the UAE. Syrian Pantsirs use 8×8 KAMAZ-6560 TLARs. This suggests that the Turkish UCAV destroyed an Emirati Pantsir-S1 in eastern Libya.


This article has originally appeared on our Facebook page, on 4 March 2020. 

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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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Evacuation “Shattered Glass”: The US/ Coalition Bases in Syria [Part 2]

DISCLAIMER: This compilation is based on publicly available information collected through open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques. The release only covers the Coalition/US bases that have been sanitized and evacuated. An exception…

DISCLAIMER: This compilation is based on publicly available information collected through open-source intelligence (OSINT) techniques. The release only covers the Coalition/US bases that have been sanitized and evacuated. An exception is the well-known al-Tanf garrison in the 55-km exclusion zone. Positions in eastern Syria, which are still manned by the Coalition, will only be published after the forces have withdrawn. T-Intelligence has been aware –  down to exact grid coordinates – of the location of CJTF-OIR/ US bases in Syria since their construction. However, out of respect for OPSEC and force protection, we have refrained from revealing their locations. 


This is the second part of our Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) release on the military installations of the Coalition Joint task Task Force-Operation “Inherent Resolve” (CJTF-OIR) in Syria. You can find the first part of the series, which covers the military bases in Aleppo province and provides a background of the Coalition’s mission in Syria, here. The second part features the former CJTF-OIR bases in Raqqa province. 


COALITION BASES IN RAQQA PROVINCE

Combat operations in Raqqa province began in mid-2015, when the CJTF-OIR and its local partner forces (YPG Kurdish militia and select Sunni Arab groups) liberated Tel Abyad and parts of the Turkish borderlands from ISIS. Afterwards, the CJTF-OIR focused on the main strategic objective of expelling the jihadist terror group from its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. 

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the Coalition’s airpower and special operations forces (SOFs), initiated a five-phase offensive to besiege ISIS forces in Raqqa. Operation “Wrath of the Euphrates” commenced on 6 November 2016 from the city of Ain Issa, which had been liberated in the previous months. Ain Issa was a key location for the Raqqa campaign as it hosted a significant CJTF-OIR mission support site, a logistics center, and a major internally displaced people (IDP) camp. 

AIN ISSA COP

Ain Issa COP on 24 February 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36.3854, 38.87328

Type: COP

Built: January 2017

Purpose: Multi-purpose Mission Support Site (MSM)

Infrastructure: The pre-existing site, a 400 square meter walled courtyard with a large two-story building, likely served an administrative role for nearby grain silos. After liberating the area from ISIS, the Coalition expanded the infrastructure in terms of size and structures. The CJTF-OIR has built around five large buildings/warehouses, several barracks tents, and a plethora of prefabricated one-story structures. A second walled site, primarily used for parking lorries and storing shipping containers, was built west of the dirt road. The outpost also includes five houses with courtyards southwest of the parking lot. A wider security perimeter was built to secure the entire area. The location is ideal to defend Ain Issa from attacks from the southeast. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF-OIR in November 2019. Under SDF control since then. 


AIN ISSA LB 

Ain Issa LB on 14 October 2018 via CNES/ Airbus

Coordinates: 36°25’49.5″N 38°47’07.9″E

Type: Logistics base (LB)

Built: February 2018

Purpose: Host and dispatch logistics along the line-of-communications to in-teather mission support sites and other facilities such as the nearby IDP camp near Ain Issa. 

Infrastructure: Previous to ISIS and the Coalition occupation, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) used the site for training. The Coalition took advantage of the semi-prepared land and established a large logistics base (LB). The LB consists of three clusters of buildings (at least 10 buildings each), traversed by a dirt road leading to a large asphalt pen. The latter was intended to host military and logistics vehicles, but also helicopters if necessary. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF-OIR in November 2019. Currently under SDF control. 


The first objective of phase one, neutralizing ISIS defenses south of the M4 highway, was achieved on 16 November 2016, when the SDF liberated a terrorist stronghold in the village of Tel Salman. With the preparations for the second phase of the operation underway, the CJTF-OIR went to work and built a major fire base near Tel Salman. 

TEL SALMAN FB

Tel Salman FB on 24 February 2018 via CNES/ Airbus and Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°15’37.3″N 38°55’44.6″E

Type: Fire base (FB)

Built: March 2017

Purpose: Fire support 

Infrastructure: The FB was initially an empty plain with a 1 km-long runway. The base was constructed around the runway in record time to forward deploy fire support assets in support of the siege of Raqqa, namely the M142 HIMARS multiple rocket launcher system (MRLS), mortars and howitzers. Multiple layers of sandbags and dirt walls separate the small housing units from ammunition depots and the many artillery firing positions on the FB’s ground. The base also dispatched field artillery units to the frontline. 

Status: Abandoned by the CJTF in November 2019. Under Russian or pro-government control since December 2019. 


The second phase of the offensive targeted Raqqa’s western countryside, aiming to cut ISIS’ lines-of-communications to Aleppo province and further reduce the group’s territory. This phase was concluded when the SDF reached the outskirts of Tabqa in mid-January 2017. As the advance brought the SDF 30 km west of Raqqa, the CJTF-OIR established forward logistics bases and more artillery nests close to the frontline. 

BIRSAN LB

Birsan LB on 4 April 2018 via CNES/ Airbus

Coordinates: 35°59’03.0″N 38°35’31.0″E

Type: LB (forward in-theater)

Built: 3 June 2017 

Purpose: Support the CJTF-OIR and SDF ground offensive against ISIS in Raqqa city. 

Infrastructure: The position was established shortly after Bîrsan (also known as Bir Sana/Ber Viya), a Kurdish village, was liberated from ISIS on 3 January 2017. Dirt revetments were built to define the site’s layout and to serve as a fortification layer. The pre-existing eight houses were re-purposed. The existing infrastructure was augmented with several new structures, including a 100 square meters warehouse, to extend site storage capacity. Some areas were kept clear of structures to store large shipping containers and other logistics crates and to provide a parking space for M114 Humvees, MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles, NSTVs (Non-Standard Tactical Vehicles), and other military vehicles. The dirt road that connects the site to the main road is secured by a checkpoint and anti-VBIED (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) obstacles. 

Status: Under SDF control. 

During phase three in March 2017, which isolated Raqqa city from its western and eastern extremities, the Coalition launched an airborne operation that dropped SDF fighters and U.S. Army Special Forces deep behind enemy lines. After a few days of fighting, the CJTF-OIR captured the so-called “Tabqa triangle”: The city, the dam and the airfield. The latter was a Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) base that had housed the 12th Attack Squadron and the 24th Helicopter Brigade until it was seized by ISIS in August 2014. 


TABQA AIR BASE

Tabqa AB on 5 April 2017 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 35°45’21.7″N 38°34’25.9″E

Type: Air Base (AB)

Built: seized by CJTF-OIR on 26 March 2017 

Purposed: Rotary-wing aircraft FARP (minimal use)

Infrastructure: The AB has been rendered inoperable by successive bombing campaigns against ISIS, first by the SyAAF and then by the CJTF-OIR. The vast majority of buildings and structures have either collapsed or are in an advanced state of degradation. No significant reparations (if any) have been observed on the AB since the Coalition seized it. The high repair costs and immediate proximity to enemy territory (ISIS and SAA) were likely the main reasons why the Coalition did not invest in the AB. However, it was likely used as a Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) for attack helicopters, while on close air support (CAS) duty over Raqqa. 

Status: Re-occupied by the SAA in November 2019. 

The fourth phase, which targeted the rural belt around Raqqa city, took nearly three months to complete. The fifth phase and subsequent battle for Raqqa took place between 6 June and 17 October 2017, ending with a costly victory for the SDF. The vast majority of the city was leveled by airstrikes, artillery fire, and IEDs, while thousands of ISIS fighters evacuated to the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) under a secret deal with the SDF. We documented the fight in a daily journal, which you can find here (volume 1) and here (volume 2). 


OBSERVATION POSTS 

In November 2018, in response to Ankara’s threats of invasion, the CJTF-OIR established at least three observation posts (OPs) on the Turkish border. Manned by less than 50 U.S. Special Forces (SFs), the aim of the OPs was to alleviate Turkey’s security concerns over cross-border weapons smuggling between the YPG (the SDF’s main fighting force) and Turkish PKK cells. The U.S. and Turkey also conducted joint patrols on both sides of the border and exchanged intelligence as part of a “security mechanism” deal to de-conflict northern Raqqa province. 

Observation posts: Tel Musa (upper left), Tel Abyad (lower left) and Tel Arqam (right)

However, as in the case of the Manbij de-confliction agreements, the border “security mechanism” failed to satisfy Turkey’s security needs. In anticipation of Turkey’s air-ground assault on the Tel Abyad- Ras al Ayn (Serekaniye) axis, the U.S. SFs withdrew from their border outposts on 8 October 2019. The forces were repositioned south of the M4 highway, which would become the boundary of Ankara’s Operation “Peace Spring.”


by HARM and Gecko 

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U.S. Navy Intercepts Iranian Weapons Shipment to Yemen

The U.S. Navy interdicted an illicit shipment of advanced Iranian-made weapons and weapon components headed for Yemen in the Arabian Sea, on February 9, 2020. The discovery was made by…

The U.S. Navy interdicted an illicit shipment of advanced Iranian-made weapons and weapon components headed for Yemen in the Arabian Sea, on February 9, 2020. The discovery was made by the crew of USS Normandy (CG 60), a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser. The CG 60 launched a search party that boarded the stateless dhow and found a cache of weapons. The maritime security operation was conducted under international law.

The weapons seized from the dhow consist of:

  • 150 “Dehlavieh” missiles, which are the Iranian version of the Russian-made “Kornet” anti-tank missiles;
  • Three unidentified Iranian-made surface-to-air missiles;
  • Thermal imaging scopes;
  • Components of manned and unmanned aerial systems and surface vessels;
  • Munition;
  • Other weapon parts. 

Many of these weapons systems are identical to the advanced weapons and weapon components seized by the guided-missile destroyer USS Forrest Sherman (DDG 98) in the Arabian Sea on Nov. 25, 2019. Those weapons were determined to be of Iranian origin and assessed to be destined for the “Ansar Allah” militia (the Houthis) in Yemen, which would be in violation of a UN Security Council Resolution 2216 that prohibits the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of weapons to the Houthis. The same resolution encourages all states to inspect the sea and air cargo to Yemen.

The seized weapons are in U.S. custody awaiting final disposition. The assessment of the material will be an interagency and international effort. International partner nations and organizations have also been invited to inspect the cache.

IRANIAN WEAPONS SMUGGLING OPERATION IN YEMEN

Since the Yemeni civil war began in 2015, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ external operations branch, the Quds Force (IRGC-QF), has illegally transferred large quantities of weapons to Houthi rebels. Tehran’s giveaways include Borkan ballistic missiles (derivative of Iran’s “Qi’am”), “Quds” cruise missiles (derivative of Iran’s “Ya-Ali”), the Iranian-made Sayyad 2-C surface-to-air missile, expandable-unmanned aerial vehicles and thousands of assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and rockets. Iran uses small, low-visibility and elusive vessels, such as fishing boats and dhows, to freight weapons into Yemen. Sometimes the small vessels use ship-to-ship transfers to move or distribute cargo along the way. The U.S. Navy has periodically intercepted illicit weapons shipments in the Arabian Sea. However, the number of weapons interdicted represents a tiny fraction of the overall illicit seaborne cargo outbound from Iran. 

The Houthi has used these capabilities to attack petrochemical facilities, military installations and urban centers deep inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates in the past years. The Houthis also attacked oil tankers transiting the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the Red Sea. Similar to the “Hezbollah model”, the Iranian support for Houthi has transformed the irregular militia into a hybrid force armed with advanced weaponry. A strong Houthi enables Iran to attack targets deep in the KSA and the Red Sea and to open a second front in case of a direct conflict with Riyadh. 

Waging war on the KSA is only one of Iran’s two strategic interests in Yemen. As part of its maritime strategy, Iran aims to control the two main checkpoints vital for international maritime shipping. Iran already controls the main one, the Hormuz strait, due to its territorial boundaries. But control over the second one, the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, requires ashore dominance in Yemen. However, the Houthi only control Yemen’s western seaboard. An intervention by the UAE in 2015 managed to deny the Houthi and al-Qa’ida control over Yemen’s main ports in the south, Aden and Mukalla. 

Iran proved that it is willing to go beyond rhetoric in 2019 when the IRGC covertly attacked the Emirati port of Fujairah, oil refineries in KSA, and oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, causing chaos on the oil market and temporarily disrupting international sea trade. 

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