Category: Cold War 2.0

Ukraine and Russia Exchange Prisoners

Ukraine and Russia have exchanged 70 prisoners in the biggest prisoner swap since the outbreak of the war in Eastern Ukraine. Among the Ukrainians were 24 sailors who had been…

Ukraine and Russia have exchanged 70 prisoners in the biggest prisoner swap since the outbreak of the war in Eastern Ukraine. Among the Ukrainians were 24 sailors who had been captured by Russia during the Kerch Strait crisis, two activists, a journalist, and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. Oleg Sentsov had been sentenced to more than 20 years in prison on bogus terrorism charges for speaking against the Russian annexation of Crimea. The Ukrainian prisoners were greeted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and their families at Kyiv Boryspil airport. 

While Moscow has not confirmed the names of the Russian prisoners, one of them is known to be Volodymyr Tsemakh, a separatist commander linked to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014. The Netherlands have expressed disappointment over Tsemakh’s release. The Russian prisoners arrived at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport without festivities and were immediately bussed to a medical facility. 

This major prisoner exchange is viewed as a step towards a peaceful conflict resolution, as Ukraine and Russia were able to find an agreement. The Normandy Four framework (France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia) is planning a new meeting to discuss the conflict in Donbas and Luhansk. 

 

COMMENTARY: IS THE EXCHANGE A GAME CHANGER? 

In spite of numerous failed ceasefire negotiations and the two unimplemented Minsk agreements, Ukraine’s troubled regions remain highly volatile. The Russian Armed Forces continue to deploy troops and to enhance the capabilities of their local proxy forces. The Normandy Four is a toothless tiger as France and Germany have time and again demonstrated their soft stance and lack of leverage towards Russia. 

If anything has helped Ukraine’s position, it was the lethal aid from the United States, which included the tank-busting Javelin missile. The influx of armor-piercing missiles for Ukraine’s infantry has raised the costs of a renewed Separatist motorized or armored assault. The conflict in Eastern Ukraine will likely remain frozen for the foreseeable future.

Photo @ Gleb Garanich/Reuters

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RADIOACTIVE HAZARD

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

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

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

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

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

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


by HARM

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


by HARM and Gecko

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

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

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


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

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

Screenshot of “Global Powers” Reddit thread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Gecko

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Russia Simulates Air Attack on Norwegian Radar

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

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

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

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

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

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


By HARM and Gecko

The cover photo is an original rendering 

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

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

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

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

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

Digital Globe image analysis via T-Intelligence

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

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

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

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


By HARM and Gecko

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

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Airborne ISR over Transnistria Monitors Russian Drills

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

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

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

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

ASSESSMENT

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


By HARM and Gecko

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

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USAF F-22A Raptors Could Ground Venezuela’s Su-30MK2s and Establish No-Fly Zone

The following analysis is neither news nor a forecast, but a purely hypothetical assessment. (a) If the situation in Venezuela escalates and Russia moves forward with its plans to establish…

The following analysis is neither news nor a forecast, but a purely hypothetical assessment.


(a) If the situation in Venezuela escalates and Russia moves forward with its plans to establish a strategic bomber presence in the Caribbeans, it is not out of the question that the United States will step up its opposition to the Maduro government. The Trump administration, alongside the European Union and the large majority of Latin American states, already provide political support to the Juan Guaidó interim presidency. Currently, the rift between factions of Venezuela’s armed forces and the Maduro government are growing. Suspicious of his own security forces, Maduro reportedly hired Russian private contractors to provide additional VIP protection.  Should the conflict turn into a civil war, the United States will likely support neighbouring allied countries such as Columbia. While National Security Advisor John Bolton is suggesting the idea of deploying 5,000 troops to Columbia, it is unlikely that such a plan is anything more than a psychological operation against Maduro and the Kremlin.

(b) Overall, it is unlikely that the Trump administration will venture into regime change operations. Any hypothetical U.S.-led military engagement against the Venezuelan regime will likely be limited, as seen in the previous strikes against the Syrian government’s Shayrat airfield and chemical weapons sites. The most likely of the unlikely military engagements will be an air interdiction operation, aimed at reducing the government’s capability of inflicting mass-casualties on opposition targets. Also known as a No-Fly Zone (NFZ), the U.S. could ground the Venezuelan Air Force’s (VAF) aircrafts and suppress its air defences.

(c) The United States has never conducted air interdiction missions in an environment contested by fourth generation aircraft and advanced anti-access surface-to-air missile (SAMs) systems such as Venezuela’s Su-30MK2 and S-300VM SAM system respectively. While sidelined in the last NFZ operation in Libya, the F-22A could however take a control role in such a hypothetical engagement.


The Su-30MK2/ Flanker-C Threat

1. While overall modest, the Venezuelan Air Force (VAF) is regionally superior in terms of aircraft and air defense systems. The VAF’s combat aircraft inventory is particularly interesting, as it sports a combination of 20 mostly “canabilized” and unoperational F-16 Fighting Falcons A/B and 23 fourth generation “plus” Russian Sukhoi Su-30MK2 (NATO Reporting name: Flanker-C).

Four Su-30Mk2 VAF formation via Sergio j. Padrón (One Big Photo)

2. Like the Su-33 (Flanker-D) and Su-35 (Flanker-E), the Su-30MK2 Flanker-C is an evolution of the Su-27 family (Flanker-A/B). This variant was designed in particular to outmatch its American counterpart, the F-15 Eagle, in air superiority battles. While the United States stopped investing in the F-15 family (except for export) when transitioning to the F-22A Raptor as the nation’s air superiority aircraft, the Russians continued to enhance the Flanker-family. The limited number of Flanker-C aircraft in the VAF’s inventory will likely be a strong incentive for the U.S. to deploy the F-22A for air-to-air combat, at least in addition to the more equal F-15 or F-18 aircraft.

3. As in all fighter jet comparisons, there is much controversy about the balance of power between the F-22A and Russia’s Flanker-family. While the F-22A very low-observable (VLO) classified radar-cross section (RCS), supercruise speed and standoff sensors render it superior, some estimates claim that the Flanker-C/D/E is closing the gap in terms of avionics, maneuverability and armament.

4. In a hypothetical air combat maneuver (ACM) or dogfight, the F-22A Raptor could detect the Flanker-C using the APG-77, a long-range (160 to 250 km) low-probability of intercept radar, and engage it with standoff munition from beyond-visual range (BVR) without being detected. This is called the first look, first shot, first kill doctrine and its central to the F-22A engagement tactic.

5. The Flanker-C’s own passive-electronic scanner array (PESA) radar, called N-001 VEP, was developed for the Flanker-A in the 1980s to outperform the USAF’s F-15E Strike Eagle’s onboard sensor. Even with upgrades, the Flanker-C’s detection capabilities are vastly inferior to fifth generation sensors and obsolete against VLO RCS foes. Currently, the only Russian-made radar that can pose a threat to the F-22 is the IRBIS-E, an active-electronic scanner array (AESA) developed for the Flanker-E. The IRBIS-E is capable of detecting normal airborne targets at a distance of 300 km.  The F-22’s VLO RCS, while classified, is believed to be between 0.0001 and 0.0003 square meters, with the frontal aspect performing better. Within these parameters, it is estimated that the IRBIS-E could detect the F-22A at a distance of 50 to 90 km.

6. Should the F-22 be drawn into a small- or medium-range fight or acquire a horizontal ACM pattern, the Flanker-C becomes a challenging adversary. In visual range direct engagement, the F-22A major weakness is its smaller number of electronic warfare (EW) vulnerable air-to-air missiles that it can carry in comparison to the Flanker-C. However, the inclusion of the AIM-120 AMRAAM blocks C-D allows for a 120 to 160 km operational range with increased EW resilience. While the F-22’s VLO-nature mandates a limited and concealed payload, the jet can compensate the limited munnition number by participating in a combined strike force with the “missile truck” F-15 or other aircraft (tasked with targeting the VAF’s F-16s), even relaying targeting data via data link.

An F-22 flies over Andrews Air Force Base in 2008

7. The VAF lacks BVR standoff munition equivalent to the AIM-120 AMRAAM block C/D as well as the training and combat experience of American and Russian pilots. Furthermore, such direct comparisons are ineffective when applied to real combat scenarios. In a NFZ operation, the F-22A Raptors will likely be supported by AWACS, Electronic Attack (EA) aircraft and naval assets. At the same time, the VAF will seek to draw the ACM in the engagement range of its SAM batteries.  However, as the F-22As ACM tactics rely on standoff BVR combat, the air superiority jet will avoid medium-range fights at all costs and even disengage when necessary. In a 2017 joint aviation exercise, the F-22A exercised ACM against Malaysian Royal Air Force Su-30MKK (Flanker-G).

8. Besides ACM, a hypothetical U.S. NFZ over Venezuela would also involve massive ship- and air-launched cruise missile attacks on the VAF’s airfields and logistics (fuel storage, hangers, etc.). This would reduce the number of fighter jets that the Venezuelans could get airborne in the first place. However, that would bring surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems into the equation.


Confronting the S-300VM/ SA-23?

9. Venezuela has the most the most robust air defense in the region. The Comprehensive Aerospace Defense Command (Commando de Defense Aerospatial Integral/ CODAI) tasked with defending Venezuela’s airspace, is directly subordinated to the Operational Strategic Command of the Ministry of Defense.  The mentionable assets operated by CODAI are three long-range S-300VM (SA-23 Gladiator) SAM systems used for area air defense (AAD) and several mid-range Buk M-2 (SA-17 Grizzly) for point air defense (PAD). Most assets are deployed to provide overlapping and saturated coverage over key governmental and military sites in Caracas.

Venezuela’s S-300VM (SA-23) via Defesanet

10. The SA-23 is a capable anti-access asset, threatening ballistic missiles, fighter jets, heavy lifters and even unmanned aerial vehicles. U.S. AWACS, AEW and ISR platforms would be at the highest risk, even at the SAM’s 200-350 km range edge. The U.S. operates its own S-300, acquired in the 1990s from Belarus that it uses for defense research and development purposes and for pilots to test ways to defeat the system. Likewise, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has likely acquired critical intelligence on how the system functions from allied S-300 operators such as Slovakia, Greece and Bulgaria, and Ukraine.

11. Theoretically, a F-22A or F-35B can enter a S-300 denied airspace and strike the battery or guide external-launched standoff and loitering munition to the target. Such a penetration would require a terrain hugging flight path, massive electronic attack support from airborne platforms, such as the E/A-8 Growlers, and a small payload for the F-22/F-35.  

12. The VAF uses the highly-mobile self-propelled Buk M-2/SA-17 SAM to counter air-breathing threats. As the SA-23’s long-range high-altitude coverage would push aircraft to fly low and use terrain to hide from radars, the Buk M-2 would have a greater opportunity to intercept missile attacks. Some analysts estimate that the SA-17 is performing better than the Pantsir S-1 (SA-20 Greyhound).

13. CODAI also operates SA-2 and SA-3 SAMs. However, NATO does not consider these systems as anti-access capabilities, given how inefficient they are in the face of current technology. On the other hand, CODAI is equipped with approximately 5,000 Russian-made Igla-S (SA-24) man-portable air defense missile systems (MANPADS). The shoulder-fired SAM is quickly deployable, difficult to track and poses a great threat to low altitude penetrations. 

14. Should the unlikely NFZ operation also contain a suppression/ destruction of enemy air defense (S/DEAD) element, the U.S. would likely conduct multi-platform air-naval saturation strikes, which would overwhelm the CODAI’s SAMs and subsequent radars. As seen in recent SEAD engagements, air defense unit cannot maintain a 24/7 high readiness. SAM systems can be caught off guard, the personnel can be unprepared or give in to psychological pressure. Overall, Venezuela will not be able to protect its airspace if the United States takes out its Flanker-Cs. Follow-up S/DEAD sorties might not even be needed.

15. In past NFZ operations, adversaries regularly complied to the new operational environment after the “first day of war”. The defenders chose to ground their aircraft and switch the SAM radars off to increase survivability of their armed forces, when attacking forces were reported in the area. In other engagements, such as the air campaigns in Yugoslavia and Vietnam, defending SAM personnel caused tactical surprises. While we cannot estimate how a hypothetical NFZ operation in Venezuela will turn out, it would certainly be the most contested airspace that U.S. forces experienced in the past decades.

UPDATE 24.2.2018

16. This analysis has been updated with an OSINT-based imagery intelligence map showcasing the known SA-23/S-300VM deployments at Manuel Rios air base (AB) and the Brazil-Guyana border. Several Flankers have been forward deployed from Luise del Valle Garcia AB (near Barcelona) to Caracas. Not all SA-23 tractor erector launchers (TELs) are concentrated in the pint-pointed positions. While impossible to verify at this point, a third SA-23 system is rumored to be deployed in an AB north of Caracas. 

VAF’s ABs and SA-23 sites via T-Intelligence


By HARM

Editing by Gecko

This analysis is neither news nor a forecast, but a purely hypothetical assessment.  

VAF’s official name is the Venezuelan National Bolivarian Military Aviation (VNBMA).

VAF placed an order for 12 more Su-30MK2 from Russia, rising the overall inventory number to 35, however a delivery or initial operational capability date has not been estimated or announced.

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Russian Mercenaries Land in Venezuela to Protect Maduro: A Wagner Job?

According to an exclusive report by Reuters, a group of up to 400 Russian private contractors arrived in Venezuela last week. The mercenaries will provide protection for President Nicolas Maduro,…

According to an exclusive report by Reuters, a group of up to 400 Russian private contractors arrived in Venezuela last week. The mercenaries will provide protection for President Nicolas Maduro, who fears opposition sympathizers in his own security forces. Reuters claims that the contractors are employees of the infamous private military company (PMC) “Wagner group.” There are speculations that Wagner contractors active the Central African Republic and Sudan were airlifted on an Il-96-300 flight of Russia’s Special Flight Detachment from Dakar (Senegal) via Paraguay and Cuba.   

However, there is reason to doubt that Wagner is behind the deployment. Why?

1.The Source: Reuters only named source is Yevgeny Shabayev, the head of a Russian veterans’ organizations with close ties to the PMC scene. While a facebook post by Shabayev confirms that Russian contractors deployed to Venezuela via Cuba, he does not mention Wagner (facebook post not available anymore, see the Defense Post). Instead, he states that a group of security professionals, who specialize in VIP protection and recently returned from Gabon, received the order to put together a task force. In an interview with the Russian outlet Lenta.ru published two days ago, Shabayev explicitly states that the contractors do not belong to the Wagner group.

2. Mission Profile: Wagner is not the PMC of choice for politically sensitive VIP-protection jobs like the Venezuela operation. As Wagner’s operations in Ukraine and Syria have attracted intense media attention, the company is increasingly sidelined for more discreet competitors such as the elusive PMC “Patriot,” which reportedly specializes in VIP-protection. To avoid media attention, Patriot hires well-paid specialists for short-term contracts and changes names and local subsidiaries frequently. Reports suggest that the Russian Ministry of Defense in particular prefers Patriot’s incognito operating style over Wagner’s growing notoriety. Shabayev’s description of the group assembled for Venezuela fits the Patriot model (ad-hoc, VIP-protection, security specialists connected to the Ministry of Defense) better than Wagner.   

3. The Reuter’s report has raised credibility questions. Yevgeny Shabayev is indeed a controversial figure, who has repeatedly sought media attention in the past month. His claim of 400 mercenaries in Venezuela is likely inflated. This does however not necessarily mean that the entire story is fabricated. Shabayev is currently the target of massive media campaign, spearheaded by the Federal News Agency (a pro-Kremlin outlet owned by Wagner-founder Prigozhin). Clearly, the Kremlin has a strong interest to discredit reports about Russian mercenaries as “fake news.”


by Gecko 

This article has been updated

Photo credit: Edilzon Gamez/Getty Images

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Immediate Measures to Protect Ukraine’s Navy: The Harpoon Solution

1. The Kerch blockade is a limited operation that advances Russian sea command objectives in Black Sea. The Ukrainian Navy, now contained to Odessa as the remaining major port, will…

1. The Kerch blockade is a limited operation that advances Russian sea command objectives in Black Sea. The Ukrainian Navy, now contained to Odessa as the remaining major port, will permanently lose the ability to operate in the Azov Sea. By further isolating the port of Mariupol, Russia is weakening Kyiv’s supply lines to Eastern Ukraine. While there is no immediate danger of a large-scale Russian land offensive, continued acts of maritime aggression have to be expected.

2. The Kerch blockade forces the Ukrainian Navy into a uniquely vulnerable position. Isolated in Odessa, the Ukrainian fleet could be annihilate by the Russian Navy and Aerospace Forces within days. Kyiv therefore requires a credible deterrent to prevent and counter further Russian attacks at sea. The Trump administration’s transfer of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Kyiv in April 2018, has already raised the stakes for Russia to intervene in Eastern Ukraine considerably. A similar solution is now needed for the navy.

3. A feasible short term solution to safe the Ukrainian Navy would be the acquisition of Boeing’s advanced anti-ship missile (ASM) Harpoon (Block II or above). The Harpoon belongs to the most advanced current generation of over-the-horizon ASM weapons. It can be launched from aircraft as well as surface and subsurface vessels. The Block II version has a range of 124 km, while the 2015 Block II Extended Range (ER) can engage targets in a 248 km radius thanks to its improved turbojet engine. The missiles travel with subsonic speed at sea-skimming altitude to avoid radar or infrared detection. The Harpoon’s 221 kg warhead is constructed to inflict terminal damage on enemy vessels. Both version are adequate given the expected engagement range in the Black Sea. One Block II missile has an estimated cost of over $1 million.

4. Ukraine’s total defense budget for 2018 runs to $600 million, which encompasses expenses for all branches of the armed forces as well as research and development programs. However, the U.S. Department of Defense’s budget has allocated up to $200 million to enhancing Ukraine’s defence capabilities, including coastal and maritime assets.  

5. The purchase of a small number of Hapoons is thus feasible and would have immediate effects. In the longer term, Kyiv should also strive to build or acquire multirol corvettes and operationalize the Ukrainian-made long-range ASM “Neptune.”

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