Category: Cold War 2.0

Pride of Belarus: Baranovichi 61st Fighter Air Base [GEOINT]

The 61st Fighter Air Base in Baranovichi is Belarus’ most westwardly and strategic military airfield. Using open-source GEOINT we identified an array of fighter jets and air defense capabilities at…

The 61st Fighter Air Base in Baranovichi is Belarus’ most westwardly and strategic military airfield. Using open-source GEOINT we identified an array of fighter jets and air defense capabilities at Baranovichi air base (AB) that helped us understand the intentions and capabilities of the Belarusian Air Force and Air Defence Forces (BAFADF). Baranovichi AB is also central to Belarusian-Russian military cooperation and bears significance to Lukashenko’s grip on power, as the recent hijacking of flight FR4879 showed. 


BARANOVICHI AIR BASE’S STRATEGIC POSITION AND ROLE: “Мы небо мирное храним (We keep the sky peaceful):”

Two kilometers south of Baranovichi, a city in the Brest region, lies Baranovichi air base (AB). Built by the Soviets in the 1940s, Baranovichi AB was expanded significantly throughout the Cold War to house large numbers of fighter jets and bombers. However, the airfield has remained relatively unchanged since the newly independent Republic of Belarus assumed control in 1991. Only minor renovations and hardware upgrades took place over the last ten years. 

The Belarusian Air Force and Air Defence Forces’ (BAFADF) designation for Baranovichi airfield is the 61st Fighter AB. While the BAFADF uses the base for predominantly deploying fighter jets, guarded by surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, Baranovichi AB offers significant aircraft repair capabilities through the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant. The air base is currently under the command of Belarusian Colonel Yuri Pyzhik, according to InformNapalm. 

GEOINT: Overview of Baranovichi AB based on Maxar Technologies imagery from 4 October 2020.

In recent years the Lukashenko regime has been more vocal in pushing the narrative of Western aggression against Belarus. The country’s most recent military policy statement, the Defence Plan for 2020-2024, even underscores the prevention of external military aggression against Belarus. With Lukashenko calling for Russia to deploy planes to Belarus, the 61st Fighter Air Base will be of growing interest to NATO. 

Nearly 140km from NATO member Poland (and 110 km from Lithuania), Baranovichi AB is on similar longitude lines as Kaliningrad exclave – Russia’s westernmost territory. The combination of Baranovichi and Kaliningrad provides a two-pronged forward front from where Belarus and its ally, Russia, could launch joint airstrikes deep into the Europan theater in case of conflict with NATO. 

Baranovichi AB and Russia’s Kaliningrad oblast relative to Europe

Baranovichi AB became famous due to the recent hijacking of Riyan Air flight FR4879 and the subsequent apprehension of a journalist in late May 2021. The Belarussian MiG-29 that shadowed the Riyan Air flight and forcefully diverted it to Minsk scrambled from Baranovichi AB. Besides external posturing, it is clear that the Lukashenko regime will not hesitate to use the BAFADF – aircraft and air bases – for domestic state control.

Given the importance of the 61st Fighter Air Base, an assessment of the base is vital in understanding Belorusian military capabilities. 

FIGHTER CAPABILITIES

Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) analysis of aircraft and other hardware in Baranovichi AB is based on Maxar Technologies imagery from 2020 accessed via Google Earth Pro. 

Sukhoi SU-30SMs

The BAFADF’s most advanced jet identified at the 61st fighter air base, and in its entire fighter fleet, is the Sukhoi SU-30SM (AFIC/NATO reporting name: Flanker-C). This significantly upgraded variant of the SU-30 offers enhanced radar, weapons capabilities, and communication systems. Fitted with modern N011M Bars radar equipment with a significant detection range of 400km and similarly offering in-air radar jamming capabilities, they are a formidable foe to NATO forces. They are a well-rounded jet suited to both air-to-air combat as well as air-to-surface strikes. Moreover, their range of 1,500km and 3.5hr refuel time poses a threat deep into NATO territory. 

Two pairs of Su-30SMs and MiG-29s in “parking area 3”

Two new navy and blue camouflage SU-30SMs are visible on the west side of the complex. Belarus has ordered a dozen of these advanced fighter jets from Russia.  Four Su-30SMs are currently in service with the BAFADF with eight to be delivered in the near future. 

MiG-29s

The MiG-29 (Fulcrum) comprises the backbone of the BAFADF’s fighter jet deployment. The MiG-29s maneuverability and predominantly air defensive capabilities emphasize 61st Fighter Air Base’s strategic defensive position in western Belarus. Unsurprisingly, the MiG-29 was Colonel Pyzhik’s and Lukashenko’s fighter jet of choice to scramble and intercept flight FR4978 in May 2021. 

Sukhoi SU-24Ms

Four decommissioned Sukhoi SU-24Ms (NATO reporting name: Fencer) sit in the western parking area. These provide air to surface attack capabilities firing a range of missiles which include the powerful Kh-29. 

“Parking Area 1” hosts an assortment of aircraft including Su-27s, Su-24s and MiG-29s

Belarus retired the SU-24Ms, but as Bellingcat reported in 2015, they are likely to be upgraded or sold. Due to their retirement, the Baranovichi Air Base lacks powerful air to surface missile capabilities and is primarily a fighter base.    

Sukhoi SU-27s

Multiple Sukhoi SU-27s (NATO reporting name: Flanker) can be identified in the 61st Fighter Air Base, despite their being retired in 2013 due to high operational costs. It can be estimated that these fighter jets will be upgraded and sold to other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) through the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant (558th ARP) situated just north of the 61st Fighter Air Base. 

Su-27s at “parking area 2”

558th Aircraft Repair Factory  

The 558th ARP sits north of the airstrip, connected to the broader airfield complex. The plant offers a wide spectrum of services from repairs to the complete overhauling and modernisation of a range of aircraft from Sukhoi’s SU-22s and SU-30s to attack helicopters and AN-2 aircraft.

photo credits: 558th Aircraft Repair Factory

The 558th ARP is critical for the maintenance and repair of Belarusian military aircraft. The plant is also of significant international importance in promoting relations with its CIS allies and has provided numerous overhauls to the air forces of Angola to Syria and Russia, highlighting the international scope of the airbase. Its status of providing quality-assured overhauls develops not just its military reputation but also its technical reputation abroad. 

AIR DEFENCE CAPABILITIES

GEOINT suggests that Baranovichi AB mainly hosts early warning radars and short-range SAM systems. Several S-300 systems deployed elsewhere in Belarus provide overlapping, long-range coverage of Baranovichi AB. 

Early Warning Radars 

Multiple radar installations are deployed across the base, including the mobile, 3-D, jamming-proof Protivnik-GE. This radar provides telemetry for fighter jets and can network with nearby SAM systems and other integrated air defense (IADS) assets.  

Protivnik-GE radar at Baranovichi AB

The Belarusian-made Vostok-D 2-D early warning radar system, present on the base, provides long-range detection capabilities. Operating in the very-high frequency (VHF) band, Vostok-D can theoretically detect low observable aircraft.

Vostok-D radar at Baranovichi AB, easily identifiable thanks to the crisp shadow

A Sopka-2 air route surveillance can also identified at Baranovichi AB.

Sopka-2 radar at Baranovichi AB (special thanks to Rochan Consulting for helping us identify the radar)

Multiple automated control systems augment and integrate the aforementioned radars, assuring coordination between the air defense assets. 

Surface to Air Missile (SAM) Capabilities

A SAM storage facility is visible north of the airfield. On the apron adjacent to the facility, there is a Belarusian Buk-M3B3K air defence system (SA-17 Grizzly). We can identify the Buk’s Transporter Erector Launcher and Radar (TELAR) by its protruding radar. The Buk-M3B3K offers a maximum range and altitude of fire of 70km and 25km, respectively.     

Buk-M3B3K SAM systems on display near Baranovichi AB

A Russian official has stated that Russia looks to strengthen Belarus’ SAM defence systems through upgrading the S-300 systems and supplying Belarus with one of the most advanced air defence systems in production, the S-400. Such a move will embolden defences against perceived NATO build-up and demonstrate increased defensive intentions.

If transferred successfully, the S-400 system is likely to be deployed near Baranovichi. 

BARANOVICHI AB IN BELARUSIAN-RUSSIAN RELATIONS

Belarus’ neutrality stated in its 1995 military doctrine has long but dissipated as its external security has become increasingly dependent on Russia and The Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Belarus and Russia have integrated their air defence networks while the BAFADF trains in Russian Air Force training centers. 

As Lukashenko’s regime further isolates itself from the rest of Europe, it has increasingly come into Russia’s fold. Political and domestic instability has put the nation in a similar position as Ukraine in 2014, yet Lukashenko’s grip on power remains. The 61st Fighter Air Base will become a shared strategic asset between Belarus and Russia, particularly as military cooperation intensifies. 

Joint combat training between Belarus and Russia is of top priority to their bilateral security cooperation. In 2021, there has been a record number of joint military exercises. With this year’s Zapad exercise, a mainstay of the Russian-Belarussian defence partnership, already underway, Russian troops have begun arriving in Belarus

Given the scale of these exercises and the exacerbated political context of the last four years, Russia may keep troops and aircraft permanently on Belarussian soil in an effort to provide a new front in the war with Ukraine and increase pressure on Europe. 

Although analysts highlight these concerns frequently, the Kremlin realizes the precarious position Lukashenko finds himself in and may exploit Berlarus’ ongoing political instability to its advantage.


by Adam Campbell

This assessment was made using Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) techniques and resources. Visit Knowmad OSINT to learn more about our online OSINT training. 

Update 25 August 2021 – re-assessment of radar dome and correctly identification as Sopka-2; correction of number of Su-30SMs fighters in Belarus’ inventory and delivery plan (thanks to Rochan Consulting for identifying and and helping us to solve the issues). 

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Operation Ditroite: The HMS Defender Incident Explained

Last week, the Black Sea became the latest theatre upon which tensions flared between the United Kingdom and Russia. On June 23, the British Royal Navy’s Type-45 HMS Defender entered…

Last week, the Black Sea became the latest theatre upon which tensions flared between the United Kingdom and Russia. On June 23, the British Royal Navy’s Type-45 HMS Defender entered contested waters off the Crimean Peninsula while sailing from Odessa (Ukraine) to Batumi (Georgia). As expected, Russia reacted aggressively, sending fighter jets and warships to taunt the Defender

Unpicking these events proved difficult at first, given inconsistent reports from both the Russian and British militaries. However, nearly one week on, the fog of uncertainty has somewhat lifted, and the discovery of classified Ministry of Defence (MoD) documents at a bus stop in Kent (England) on June 27 has established a broader picture. The incident is part of a geopolitical contest in the region that has simmered for weeks.  


Russia opened with a bang. On June 23, Russian media reported that the HMS Defender had entered Russian-controlled waters, and Russian forces had subsequently fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the destroyer’s pathway. Initially, many media outlets speculated that Russia was making baseless accusations and blowing events out of proportion.   

The MoD downplayed the severity of the events. According to the MoD, the HMS Defender was “conducting innocent passage” and was not the target of Russia’s warning shots. The MoD’s rather bland coverage of events was at odds with reports from BBC Defence correspondent Johnathan Beale, who was on the Defender during the incident. According to Beale, the crew of the Defender took battle stations as Russian warships shadowed the British vessel and issued threats. BBC audio provides evidence that jets could clearly be heard overhead. Beale also mentions artillery shots from afar.

The HMS Defender entered Russian-claimed waters by two nautical miles and was prepared for some degree of confrontation. However, the Royal Navy transited the area using an internationally recognized shipping lane. The international community does not recognize Russia’s claim over Crimea or the adjacent waters. De jure, Crimean waters still belong to Ukraine. 

The incident was a tester for how Russia would react to a NATO sail through. The MoD’s classified documents left behind a bus stop in Kent (England) corroborate this assessment. The papers highlight route options for the HMS Defender and estimate Russian reactions to the proposed routes. The timing of the (literal) unearthing of these documents in the face of Russian rhetoric points to a likely composed leak to set out the motivations behind the Defender’s movements. Without officially setting the record straight, the MoD has proven a point.

Classified map of shows HMS Defender’s route options from Odessa to Batumi (source: BBC News)

The HMS Defender’s controversial voyage aimed to strengthen the British-Ukrainian alliance. In plotting a course through what it, and most of the world, deems internationally recognized Ukrainian waters, London rejects Russia’s claims over Crimea. Incidentally, on the day of the skirmish, the UK issued a press release stating that the UK and Ukraine have signed an accord to boost Ukrainian naval capabilities. Part of the agreement is the commitment to building a naval base in the Black Sea, which will serve as the primary base for Ukraine’s fleet.

Moscow was probably aware of the Defender’s plans to sail through Russian-claimed waters and responded with a disinformation campaign. Before the incident, on June 18, Russia falsified the tracking data of the Defender and another NATO warship. The ‘spoofed’ automatic identification system (AIS) data put the ships within two nautical miles of Sevastopol. However, port camera footage confirmed that both warships were still docked in Odessa. 

 

Russia pulled an identical move on another ship, the USS Ross, on June 29. Spoofed AIS data falsely showed that the USS Ross was nearing Crimea, when in fact, the American vessel was also still ported in Odessa. 

The incident was a preamble to the Sea Breeze 21 multinational exercise this week.  Led by the US and Ukraine and encompassing 30 other states, this year’s edition is the largest in the history of Sea Breeze. Not long after Sea Breeze 21 kicked off, the Netherlands’ MoD reported that Russian jets had harassed the Dutch HNLMS Evertsen frigate in international waters. Russia will very likely continue to rattle the sabers in protest of the multinational drill. 

Further escalations between the UK and Russia in the Black Sea have to be expected. British-Russian relations are at a low due to the Novichok poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury in 2018. As the UK is redefining its role in the post-Brexit world, London is eager to project itself as a solid military force supporting Ukraine. Furthermore, the recent events underscore that the UK is willing to dabble in the evolving ‘grey zone’ of information warfareBy downplaying the events of June 23 and then setting the record straight through the “loss” of classified documents, London plays fast and loose with the truth akin to, but not as versed as the dis/information warriors in Moscow. 


by Adam Campbell 

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Foxhounds Know How to Killjoy: Russian MiG-31s Armed with Kinzhal Missiles Arrive in Syria

Six years after the large-scale operational debut in Syria, Russia continues to pour advanced capabilities and expand its military infrastructure in the war-torn country. Last week, Russia deployed MiG-31K interceptors,…

Six years after the large-scale operational debut in Syria, Russia continues to pour advanced capabilities and expand its military infrastructure in the war-torn country. Last week, Russia deployed MiG-31K interceptors, Tu-22M3 bombers, and other aircraft for a combined exercise with the Russian Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean. While Russia’s naval-air exercise coincides with British carrier operations in the region, the main question is whether the MiG-31s and Tu-22M3 bombers will make Syria their second home.


FOXHOUNDS KNOW HOW TO KILLJOY

On 25 June 2021, the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) deployed two MiG-31 supersonic interceptors (AFIC/NATO Reporting name: Foxhound) to Khmeimim air base, Syria. As announced by Russian media, the two MiG-31 are of the “K” variant. 

 

MiG-31Ks are modified to carry the gargantuan Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM). One video released by the Russian Defense Ministry shows a MiG-31K taking off from Khmeimim AB armed with a Kinzhal on its centerline pylon, confirming the missile’s presence in Syria. 

Screengrab from Zvezda TV video showing Russian MiG-31K taking off from khmeimim AB armed with Kinzhal missile (Killjoy)

The Kinzhal ALBM missile (Killjoy*) is one of the six “invincible” strategic weapons Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled in 2018. Russian officials allege that the Kinzhal can sustain speeds over Mach 10 and strike targets 1,200 km away. 

For both the MiG-31s and Kinzhal missiles, the trip to Syria marks their first foreign deployment. 

BACKFIRES ARE BACK

Three Tu-22M3 (Backfire-C) long-range bombers, a Tu-142MK (Bear-F), and an Il-38 (May) maritime patrol and submarine-hunting aircraft have joined the pair of MiG-31s in Syria. 

The Tu-22M3 bombers first appeared a month ago and are now on their second visit to Latakia. Videos released by Zvezda TV show the Backfire bombers taxiing on the runway armed with Kh-22 anti-ship cruise missiles (AS-4 Kitchen). The anti-ship ordnance is in line with the supposed purpose of this deployment, the upcoming Russian air-naval drills in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

AIR-NAVAL EXERCISES UNDERWAY

Two frigates (Admiral Essen and Admiral Makarov), two submarines (Stary Oskol and Rostov-on-Don), and the Moskva missile cruiser will also partake in the joint air-naval exercise off the Syrian coast. Russian officials describe the drills as “combat training tasks to ensure the security of the Khmeimim airbase and the logistics center of the Russian Navy Tartus.” 

 

Russian NOTAMs relative to HMS Queen Elizabeth in the East Med (T-Intelligence map using data from ICAO)

Russia’s exercise occurs amid the entrance of the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group in the Eastern Mediterranean. HMS Queen Elizabeth is in the region to support the United Kingdom’s counter-ISIS mission, namely Operation Shader.

Even though Moscow has likely planned the exercise in advance, Russia suggests that the maneuvers respond to the HMS Queen Elizabeth. The Russian military may have expanded the scope of the training after learning about the British carrier group’s visit (e.g., redeployment of bombers back to Khmeimim AB, as the War Zone first suggested). 

At the time of the writing, HMS Queen Elizabeth is operating off the Cypriot coast. With the Russian exercises underway, some interaction has already taken place between the two adversaries. RuAF aircraft used the British carrier as mock target practice, while a RAF F-35B armed with anti-ship missiles buzzed the Russian frigate Admiral Makarov. 

SECOND HOME?

While Russia’s naval-air exercise coincides and is potentially linked with the British carrier operations in the region, the main question is whether the MiG-31s and Tu-2MM3 bombers will make Syria their second home. 

In late 2020, the War Zone broke the news that Russia is expanding the runway at Khmeimim air base, “which could help accommodate heavy airlifters carrying more cargo or other large aircraft, including possibly bombers.” The War Zone’s assessment proved to be true. Backfire bombers have visited Khmeimim AB twice in one month. The runway extensions also allow for Foxhounds to operate from the air base. 

Using Sentinel 2 imagery we can see that the first clear signs of runway works appeared in July 2020. The construction advanced slowly throughout the year with another major change being visible in late 2020. The runway extensions seem to have only been finalized in early summer 2021. 

As the screenshots bellow show, Russia extended the runway’s northern end by approximately 170 meters and southern end by 130 meters. 

Planet Explorer screengrabs show measurements of Russia’s runway extensions on 29 June 2021

ENHANCED AIR PATROL

The runway extensions indicate that Russia foresees a starring role for Foxhounds, Backfires, and other large aircraft for Moscow’s future regional designs. Capable of supersonic speed and designed to intercept hostile aircraft, the MiG-31 Foxhound will undoubtedly improve Russia’s air policing capabilities. One video already shows a MiG-31, alongside Su-35 (Flanker-E), on combat air patrol in western Syria.

Armed with the notorious Kinzhal missile, the MiG-31 can also be a potent ship-killer, including against carriers, and a prompt nuclear delivery platform covering NATO’s southeastern flank. 

REVIVING THE MIG-31 SALE TO SYRIA? 

One low-probability, high-impact scenario worth considering is that Russia could use the MiG-31 deployment to revive the Syrian regime’s interest in the aircraft.

In 2007, the Russian press announced that Moscow planned to sell five MiG-31Es to the Syrian Arab Air Force. Iran was reportedly financing the purchase as a back-door deal. However, in 2009 the deal fell throughreportedly due to a Russian-Israeli quid pro quo arrangement. Israel was to provide UAV technology in exchange for Moscow halting the MiG-31 sale to Syria. 

It is no secret that Moscow has instrumentalized its intervention in Syria to advertise its military equipment. While the Syrian regime’s economy is in disarray and the SyAAF can barely service the existing fleet, Moscow could provide financial assistance in the form of credit. If Moscow and Damascus are serious about rebuilding the Syrian military, a MiG-31 interceptor could be the way forward to deter Israeli air raids and allow the SyAAF to police its airspace. 

PACKING A BIGGER PUNCH

The reason for the Backfire deployment is more straightforward. Like MiG-31s, Backfires are nuclear-capable. In addition, Backfires can carry an assortment of ship-killing missiles. Their primary role will likely be air strikes against Syrian opposition groups. With a payload of 24,000 kg, Backfires can rain down dozens of bombs within one run, increasing Russia’s operational efficiency. In contrast, the RuAF has relied on Su-34 and Su-24 fighter-bombers (both have 8,000 kg payload), or even multirole aircraft, to deliver air-to-ground attacks. 

It is increasingly likely that Foxhounds and Backfires will make regular guest appearances in the Syrian theater and possibly make Khmeimim AB their second home. 


*Thanks to a 2020 Norwegian Intelligence report quoted by the Barents Observer, we know that the AFIC/NATO codename for Kinzhal is “Killjoy.”

by HARM

editing by Gecko

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“Do Not Enter:” Using OSINT to Monitor Russia’s Wargames in the Black Sea

Russia has concentrated warships from all fleets, except the Pacific fleet, in the Black Sea for joint drills. While not unprecedented, it is rare to see such a show of…

Russia has concentrated warships from all fleets, except the Pacific fleet, in the Black Sea for joint drills. While not unprecedented, it is rare to see such a show of force.

The cross-theater deployments and large-scale exercises bear the hallmarks of a maritime build-up intended to intimidate Ukraine and deter NATO activities in the Black Sea.

This report showcases the Russian assets and maneuvers and analyzes how these actions are shaping the Black Sea theater of operations.


OBJECTIVE FEAR

Russia’s maritime build-up in the Black Sea has two aims:

  • intimidate Ukraine;
  • deter and complicate NATO activity in the Black Sea.

CROSS-THEATER DEPLOYMENTS

Russian naval task forces from the Caspian, Baltic and Northern Fleets have joined the Black Sea Fleet for exercises near Crimea.  

Caspian Flotilla: Around 15 vessels of the Capsian Flotilla, namely gunboats and landing crafts, entered the Black Sea on 16 April. 

Assets identified: 

  • 6x Project 11770 landing crafts (no. 721, 722, 723, 724, 725, 726) – NATO/AFIC reporting name: Serna-class.
  • 3x Project 1204 artillery gunboats (no. 042, 044, 045) – NATO/AFIC reporting name: Shmel-class.
  • 1x Project 16611 small hydrographic survey vessel (no. 01817).

The deployment was announced on 8 April but in a smaller number. The ships set sail on 11 April, with social media photos documenting their passage through the Don-Volga channel. Footage dated 16 and 17 April shows some of the Caspian task force vessels transiting the Kerch Strait that links the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea. 

OSINT map shows sail path of the Caspian task force (T-Intelligence 2021)

Baltic and Northern Fleets: Both fleets deployed Project 775, or Ropucha-class, landing ships to the Black Sea. Capable of carrying over 450 tones of hardware, primarily tanks or other vehicles, the Ropucha was purpose-built for beach landings. As a versatile hauling platform, the Ropucha has been Russia’s maritime logistical workhorse to deploy and support forces in Syria. 

Shispotters documented their northbound pass through the Bosphorus strait on 17 April.

Baltic Sea assets:

  • 2x Project 775 landing craft ( Kaliningrad no.102 & Korolev no.130) 

Northern Fleet assets: 

  • 2x Project 775 landing craft ( Kondopoga 027 & Alexander Otrakovsky 031) – NATO reporting name: Ropucha-class

The maritime build-up augments Russia’s land maneuvers near Ukraine’s border that have been ongoing for the past month. 

In addition to land and naval movements, Russia has also redeployed over 50 aircraft to Crimea. Ukraine estimates that Russia is now garrisoning nearly 110,000 troops near the Ukrainian border. 

MANEUVERS: COASTAL DEFENSE, AMPHIBIOUS ASSAULT

Russian forces in Crimea will hold a myriad of land, air, and naval exercises until 1 May. Some are already underway, while others will commence this week. 

The Russian drills have so far simulated the defense of Crimea and amphibious assaults of the enemy littoral – undoubtedly a message to Ukraine. Exercises involving marine and amphibious assaults are expected to continue. For example, in the next stage of a multi-phase campaign, Russian marines “will deliver artillery fire against a notional enemy’s coastal targets that will precede a seaborne assault on the shore.”

The satellite imagery below likely shows a Russian naval formation conducting a military exercise off the Crimean coast and near the Kerch Strait. Dated 19 April, the imagery was captured by the Sentinel-1’s synthetic aperture radar, a sensor that allows us to see through cloud cover.  The exercise area is covered by a notice to mariners (NOMAR) that Russia issued a few days ago. 

Sentinel-1 SAR satellite shows large and organized naval formation in a known Russian training area (T-Intelligence 2021)

The timelapse below shows the build-up of military hardware and logistics at the Opuk firing range. High-resolution imagery obtained by Der Spiegel provides a closer look at the staging ground.

Update: Monitoring the waters off Opuk, we have observed another spike in maritime activity on 21 April. The SAR imagery shows new Russian naval manoeuvres that are consistent with a coastal assault. With the exception of one search and rescue vessel (MMSI: 273145123), none of the ships were broadcasting AIS. No activity has been noticed on the previous day (April 20). 

 

New Russian maritime drills spotted on satellite imagery on 21 April (T-Intelligence)

Using visual evidence published by Zvezda TV on 22 April, we were able to confirm that these vessels and movements are connected to Russia’s exercises.

RUSSIAN NO-FLY/NO-SAIL ZONE?

As it is standard procedure, Russia issued a series of notice to airmen (NOTAMs) and notice to mariners (NOMARs) ahead of its exercises, informing seafears and pilots of which areas they should avoid. 

Map of NOTAMs and NOTMARs issued by Russia in connection to its military exercises in the Black Sea (T-Intelligence 2021)

Most “danger areas” are in effect until the end of April. However, in the Kerch strait, Russia plans to suspend the right of passage of foreign warships and “other state ships” until 31 October (purple rectangle). Russia’s state agency later claimed that “the planned restrictions will not affect navigation in the Kerch Strait or its entry points.” 

Russia’s temporary air-naval restrictions will have severe ramifications for maritime traffic to and from the Ukrainian port cities in the Azov sea, such as the strategic city of Mariupol. Russia’s de facto blockade of the Kerch strait will also prevent the Ukrainian navy, primarily based in Odessa, from reaching Mariupol in the event of a crisis.

In addition, Russia aims to deter NATO countries from even considering a “freedom of navigation” operation through the strait or a port visit on Ukrainian coast in the sea of Azov. However, the alliance has never suggested that it is considering such missions. 

DENYING NATO ISR ADVANTAGE?

Another key effect of Russia’s excessively large NOTAMs and NOMARs is that it could deter or significantly limit NATO’s ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) missions on Russia’s exercises.

U.S. and British reconnaissance aircraft have been intensively monitoring eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia’s Black Sea for the past weeks. Drones and maritime patrol aircraft are surveilling Crimea’s coast daily up until 19 April, keeping a close watch on Russia’s build-up – read more about NATO’s ISR operations here.

Given the latest NOTAMs, NATO surveillance platforms could be targeted by Russian anti-air fire or electronic attacks. From a legal standpoint, Russia has no authority to restrict the regional airspace, as Crimea is still internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory and falls under the Kiyv flight information region (FIR). However, the Russian build-up displays a credible capability and threat. It remains to be seen if NATO ISR missions will continue, and if so, how. 

DETERRENCE TEST FOR NATO

The movement of extra-regional NATO vessels will also be indicative of whether Russia’s muscle-flexing and deterrence work. Two U.S. warships are currently on station in the Aegean Sea after President Biden abandoned plans to sail into the Black Sea, fearing that this move would provoke Russia. 

Despite Washington’s reluctance, London has instructed two Royal Navy warships, one Type 45 destroyer and one Type 23 anti-submarine frigate, to deploy to the Black Sea. It remains to be seen if London will go through with the plan in May and if the U.S. warships will continue to idle in Greek waters. 

One thing is certain, regional NATO countries and Ukraine would breathe easier knowing that advance British and American destroyers are in the Black Sea just in case Russia’s wargames turn out to be something else.  


by HARM

editing by Gecko

Update 23 April – added a new satellite image of Russian naval drills from 21 April and two explanatory paragraphs. 

Update 22 April – additional comments have been added on the paragraph about NOTAMs and NOMARs to clarify Russia’s perspective on its plans to limit navigation through the Kerch strait. 

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NATO ISR Planes Monitor Russian Military Build-Up

U.S. and British reconnaissance aircraft are intensively monitoring eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia’s Black Sea coast amid fears of a renewed Russian offensive. RUSSIA’S 2021 BEAR SCARE In the past…

U.S. and British reconnaissance aircraft are intensively monitoring eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia’s Black Sea coast amid fears of a renewed Russian offensive.

RUSSIA’S 2021 BEAR SCARE

In the past month, Russia has moved over 14,000 soldiers and a vast array of capabilities, including Iskander ballistic missiles,  tanks, howitzers, and thermobaric rocket launchers towards the Ukrainian border. Russia then launched thousands of snap exercises countrywide and established new field camps. One staging ground in Voronezh oblast, hosting over 400 military assets, has all the hallmarks of a logistics node that could support a line of communication into Ukraine. 

OSINT map aggregating and georeferencing videos of Russian military movements near Ukraine, as documented on social media between March 27-30 (T-Intelligence)

Russia’s recent troop movements have alarmed the international community that fears a reignition of the war in eastern Ukraine or, even worse, the opening of a new front from Crimea. 

Operating from international and Ukrainian airspace, U.S. and British drones and other specialized aircraft collect updated, real-time intelligence on Russia’s nefarious activities. Given the types of aircraft visible on openly available flight trackers, the two NATO members primarily collect imagery (IMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT). 

IMINT ON DEMAND: RQ-4 IS OUR “FORTE”

Operated by the United States Air Force (USAF), the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone is at the forefront of Washington’s ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) operations in the Black Sea region. Based in Naval Air Station Sigonella (Italy), the RQ-4 Global Hawk with registration number 11-2049, either callsign FORTE10 and FORTE11, conducts frequent flights over eastern Ukraine. 

USAF RQ-4 drone at Naval Air Station Sigonella (T-Intelligence/Maxar Technologies)

Th RQ-4 Global Hawk is a long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), meaning it has a 24 hour+ flight autonomy. Combined with hi-resolution cameras, the RQ-4 can provide a crystal-clear, live feed of Donetsk and Luhansk’s frontlines to decision-makers and commanders back at base. As seen in the screenshots attached, the RQ-4 loiters extensively and publicly over designated areas of interest. 

Example of flight path taken by a USAF RQ-4 drone on ISR mission (T-Intelligence/ FlightRadar24)

While FORTE10 was a daily visitor of the region even before the latest escalation, its recent activities are likely connected with Russia’s troop build-up. In the screenshot below (11 April), the RQ-4 (now FORTE 11) was orbiting over the Kherson-Mariupol area, north of Crimea, after completing multiple passes over the frontline in Donbas.

The drone’s flight path is unusual and suggests that U.S. commanders are seriously considering that Russia might open a new front in the war against Ukraine and seize the Crimean canal. 

The same RQ-4 drone (reg. no. 11-2049) using callsign FORTE 11 on 11 April while surveilling the area north of Crimea (source: @GDarkconrad)

Ukraine dammed the North Crimean Canal in 2014. As a result, the Russian-occupied Crimea lost nearly 90% of its fresh water supply, leaving it dry. While Moscow plans to solve this issue by re-routing four rivers into the Mezhgorny reservoir by 2024, many observers fear that Russia might use military action to seize the Crimean dam. 

Besides the “daily FORTE”, there various other NATO country platforms surveilling the Black Sea region.

POSEIDON IS WATCHING

Best known for its submarine-hunting capabilities, the U.S. Navy’s P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MAP) also packs a substantial ISR capability. Using its powerful APY-10 multi-mode synthetic aperture radar, the P-8A can detect, classify and track surfaced vessels. The P-8A Poseidon surveillance system also includes the MX-20 – a modular HD imaging system with large-aperture lenses for high magnification, laser-range finding, and laser illumination. 

USN P-8A Poseidon aircraft on the second ramp at Naval Air Station Sigonella (Italy) – T-Intelligence/Maxar Technologies via Google Maps

Besides IMINT, the P-8A can exploit emission from the electromagnetic spectrum. Thanks to its ALQ-240 Electronic Support Measure (ESM) suite, the P-8 can geo-locate and classify enemy radar emitters. On top of that, the P-8 can launch drones equipped with specialized sensors to detect submarines based on fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field.

This sensor fusion is invaluable to keep a watch on the Russian Navy’s activity around the Crimea peninsula and Krasnodar Krai. The Poseidon becomes an ever more relevant platform as Russia recently announced that it would deploy ten warships from the Caspian Sea into the Black Sea. 

OLD TIMERS LISTENING IN: P-3C ORION AND ARIES II

The Poseidon’s predecessor platform, the P-3 Orion, is the U.S.’s other platform tasked with monitoring Russia’s build-up from an air-naval perspective. A rare occurrence, the P-3 acts as a force multiplier for the U.S. ISR efforts.

We have observed two P-3 variants operating in the area: the P-3C Orion and the EP-3E ARIES. While the Orion is an old airframe, it can still pull its weight in maritime intelligence collection and fulfil SIGINT duties. 

Photo of the ARIES II aircraft (reg. no. 161410) conducting Black Sea missions (copyright: Levery)

The other variant observed is an evolution and conversion of the Orion, known as the EP-3E ARIES II (Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronic System II). Operated by a crew of 22+ specialists, ARIES II provides near real-time tactical SIGINT and full-motion video intelligence to commanders. ARIES can also intercept human communications (Communication Intelligence/ COMINT) and exploit a wide range of electronic emissions from deep within enemy territory. 

Plus, the EP-3E ARIES flight crew also brought some humor into the mix. During a flight around Crimea on 10 April, an ARIES II appeared on flight trackers with the callsign “AK47,” and claimed to be an “AirAsia” flight. 

ARIES II aircraft (callsign AK47, reg. no. 161410) from Souda Bay Naval Air Station on Black Sea mission on 12 April (T-Intelligence/ FlightRadar24)

ELECTRONIC STALKERS: RC-135W RIVET JOINT FLIGHTS

The last but not least platform active in the area is the Royal Air Force’s RC-135W Rivet Joint, operated by the 51st Squadron from RAF Waddington. The RC-135W is an Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft that can monitor radars, communications, and other signals emitted by the Russian units in Crimea. 

ELINT aircraft are particularly good at mapping out the enemy’s Electronic Order of Battle (EOB). EOB typically includes the identity, capability, operating details, and location of enemy threat emitters and their role within an integrated air defense network.

Compilation of RC-135W Rivet Joint missions near Crimea (T-Intelligence/ FlightRadar24)

RC-135W aircraft have started regularly operating in the Black Sea in late February/early March. This is likely when the first signs of Russian troop movements became apparent to the American and British intelligence community. Two RC-135W aircraft (reg. ZZ666 and ZZ664) conducted the recon runs using at least four different callsigns – RRR7227, RRR7238, RRR7239 and RRR7240. 

ISR PARTIES

Many of the aircraft listed have also operated simultaneously in the Black Sea theater. The tweet attached shows the airspace over the Black Sea on 6 April. 

An RQ-4 UAV was completing its second orbit over Severomonsk, while the RAF’s RC-135W was active near the Kerch Strait. Outbound from Sigonella, a P-8A Poseidon was on its way to join to ISR party. 

Another mentionable ISR party took place on 14 April and featured a different assembly of allied aircraft. A U.S. EP-3E Aries II from Souda Bay (reg. no. 16140) scanned Crimea’s southern coast for signals and other emissions. Further down south, a Turkish Navy ATR C-72-600 aircraft was patrolling the Black Sea’s midsection, making a rare appearance on flight trackers. The “no callsign” aircraft is the US Navy’s P-8A Poseidon (outbound from Sigonella) on its way for another mission over the Black Sea. 

14 April: Aries II SIGINT plane (USN, not USAF as shown on flight radar), C-72-600 maritime patrol aircraft (Turkish Navy), P-8A Poseidon and a RQ-4 Global Hawk drone (NATO – not pictured) are active over the Black Sea in a joint ISR mission (T-Intelligence/FlightRadar24)

One of NATO’s few independently-operated RQ-4 Global Hawks was was also active in the region. However, the drone deactivated its transponder before we had the chance to screenshot it.

PREVENTING SURPRISES

ISR platforms such as those observed on flight trackers enable commanders and decision-makers to “see and hear” what the Russian military is preparing near Ukraine. These missions are critical to ensure that NATO will not be caught by surprise should Russia mount a new sneak attack.

While Russia’s build-up is at 2014-2015 levels and poses a credible threat, there is still no clear indication that Moscow intends to launch a new offensive in Ukraine. 

T-Intelligence will continue to monitor the situation. 


by HARM

This article has been updated on 14 April to include a new image of an ISR “party” and a paragraph explaining it. 

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Satellite Imagery shows Russian Military Staging Ground near Ukraine

Geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) shows a Russian military staging ground in Voronezh oblast. The newly discovered site has the hallmarks of a logistics node that could sustain a line of communication…

Geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) shows a Russian military staging ground in Voronezh oblast. The newly discovered site has the hallmarks of a logistics node that could sustain a line of communication to the Ukrainian border. 

A Conflict Intelligence Team (CITEAM) investigation revealed that many of the Russian military columns tracked by the OSINT community, including T-Intelligence, for the past days, have reached their destination. CITEAM’s study points to a rural location near Pogonovo training center, south of Voronezh city

Armed with this information, we pulled 3m/px satellite imagery of the site. Temporal analysis (2 April vs. 6 April) indicates a dramatic increase in vehicle activity and infrastructure on 6 April 2021. 

2 April vs. 6 April 2021: a countryside location south of Voronezh city becomes a staging ground for Russia’s recent troop build-up. (T-Intelligence)

High-resolution satellite imagery obtained by the New York Times provides a detailed look into the staging ground.    

Approximately 400 vehicles are visible on the satellite imagery. Armored personnel carriers make up the bulk of the forces amassed at the staging ground. Heavy artillery, including 2S19 Msta-S self-propelled howitzers and TOS-1 Thermobaric rocket launchers, is also present in large numbers. 

The military has also established semi-permanent living facilities such as barracks and field hospitals. With constructions visibly ongoing, the staging ground is expected to grow.

Ukraine’s Kharkiv and Samy regions are five hours away from the staging ground, significantly closer than Luhansk (under separatist/Russian control). 

If the staging ground is to support a conventional offensive in Ukraine, it will likely serve as a near-theater logistics node, facilitating the flow of assets further down the line of communication. It is possible that other, smaller nodes are already being established and serviced closer to the border.

Despite the recent findings, there is still no indication that a new Russian attack is imminent. 


by HARM

See our previous situation reports on Russia’s latest troop movements (April 2; April 7)

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Russia’s Military Build-Up near Ukraine (II): Troops from Siberia, Snap Drills in Crimea, and More Convoys

The Russian Federation’s military build-up near Ukraine is expanding, drawing forces from the Central Military District and escalating as thousands of snap exercises take place throughout the country.  Social media…

The Russian Federation’s military build-up near Ukraine is expanding, drawing forces from the Central Military District and escalating as thousands of snap exercises take place throughout the country. 

Social media users have continued to capture scores of rail flatbeds hauling main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, rocket launchers, fuel trucks, and even air defenses. 

Sequel to our initial report, here is T-Intell’s breakdown of the most noteworthy open-source information from 2-7 April 2021:


1. Probably the most noteworthy development is the deployment of units from the Central Military District (CMD) towards the Ukrainian border. Russia typically moves and parades units from the Southern Military District and Western Military District if it wants to “bear scare” Ukraine and the West. 

However, this week, Conflict Intelligence Team (CITEAM) observed BMPs, MLRS, and other vehicles moving west from Yurga and Novosibirsk (Siberia) on railways. 

Many vehicles’ license plates, which indicate the unit’s origin, have been partially covered to preserve some degree of operations security during the cross-theatre movement. 

It is unusual for CMD units to deploy so far from “home” except for strategic exercises. This development sets the recent troop build-up apart from past “bear scares.” 

2. Russia ordered all of its forces to conduct readiness inspections. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, a total of 4048 exercises of various scales will take place during April, including 812 bilateral exercises, at 101 training grounds and 520 facilities of the training and material base. Checks will take place in all military districts, and all types and branches of troops will take part in them.

One such snap exercise took place in Opuk training range, Crimean peninsula. Over 200 troops from the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade (Black Sea Fleet) simulated an operation to capture a beachhead. Ground forces assaulted enemy positions using BTR-82s armored personnel carriers and Mi-8AM and Ka-27 helicopters. 

3. Enter the battle-hardened “Pskov paratroopers.” Train markings seen in a TikTok video suggest that Russia has instructed one of its most experienced units, the 104th Guards Air Assault Regiment, to join the build-up – CITEAM has found. Based in Cheryokva and part of the 76th Guard Air Assault Division, the 104th is a unit known for having fought and sustained heavy casualties in Eastern Ukraine. The forward-positioning of this echelon adds further credibility to Russia’s build-up. 

4. Advanced air defenses spotted on flatbed railcars, ready for deployment. A video shows a Pantsir S-1 (AFIC/NATO reporting name: SA-22 Greyhound) and numerous S-300 tractor erector launchers (SA-20B Gargoyle) without their missile tubes in an unidentified railway terminal – reportedly Voronezh. This deployment was probably connected with the snap air defense exercise in the Ashuluk training range on 6 April.

Video frame collage showing Pantsir and S-300 systems

5. Russia continues to amass a diverse and increasingly credible posture. The hardware spotted on the move in the past three days include (but are not limited to): 

  • T-90 main battle tanks (moving from Makhachkala to Crimea); 
  • T-72 main battle tanks and BMP-3 infantry fight vehicles (Kropotkin train station, Krasnodar); 
  • 2S4 Tyulpan 240mm self-propelled mortar system (Krasnodar)
  • Tunguska anti-air artillery (on the move M1 highway); 
  • MT-LB armored personnel carriers (Voronezh region);
  • Towed howitzer, likely 2A65 Msta-B (Klintsy, Bryansk region);
  • 2S23 self-propelled artillery, 
  • TOS-1 thermobaric rocket launchers (Voronezh region).

6. Despite multiple social media claims, large-scale fighting has not reignited in Donbas. However, there has been a spike in ceasefire violations. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SSM) recorded 1,424 ceasefire violations in the Donetsk region between 2-5 April. In the previous reporting period (2-3 April), the mission recorded 594 ceasefire violations. In Luhansk, the SMM recorded 126 ceasefire violations, a slight decrease from the 427 violations noticed in the previous reporting cycle. 

Visualisation of ceasefire violations in Eastern Ukraine © OSCE SSM

In addition, the SSM also noted the disappearance of seven multiple launch rocket systems (BM-21 Grad, 122mm) and five towed howitzers (2A65 Msta-B, 152mm) from a warehouse in the non-government-controlled Luhansk region on 1 April 2021. The report specifically mentions that this is the first time these heavy weapons have disappeared. 

7. The Russian-backed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) has announced military conscription for citizens born 1994 – 2003. Signed on 25 March, the DPR plans to implement the draft between 1 April 2021 and 5 July 2022. Despite the symbolic timing, DPR only expects to mobilize around 200 conscripts. Conscription campaigns are likely to continue and, in time, increase in scope.  

PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENT

What initially seemed like another annual “bear scare” – Russia’s typical postures ahead of negotiations – has now turned into a credible threat for a renewed offensive against Ukraine. This reading is based on logistical and military indicators that measure capability for an invasion, not the intention – which is political. 

Russia’s intentions remain unclear, and our confidence levels for large-scale conventional operations against Ukraine are low to moderate. We maintain our assessment that Russia aims to posture and intimidate. However, given the forces’ heightened readiness and hardware deployed, this can change at any moment. 


by HARM

special credits to @GirkinGirkin for aggregating a vast amount of media material from Russian-language accounts

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Russia’s Massive Troop Movements near Ukraine: Another “Bear Scare”?

Videos on social media show a massive Russian military deployment near the Ukrainian border in the past 72 hours. Main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, rocket…

Videos on social media show a massive Russian military deployment near the Ukrainian border in the past 72 hours.

Main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, rocket launch systems, logistics trucks, and amphibious trailers (bridge-layers) have poured into occupied Crimea, Krasnodar Krai, and Rostov oblast.

OSINT map aggregating and georeferencing videos of Russian military movements near Ukraine, as documented on social media between March 27-30 (T-Intell)

The troop movements are so big that Russian agricultural machinery manufacturers and farmers have complained to the government that they cannot move their equipment ahead of the harvest season because the military requisitioned all of the flatbed railcars. 

While the recent movements are out of the ordinary, they are not unprecedented. Russia has periodically launched large-scale snap deployments in an attempt to “bear scare” before upcoming negotiations or to test its adversaries ever since it invaded Ukraine in 2014. 

HYPOTHESES FOR THE RECENT SITUATION:

1.Tit-for-tat for Ukraine’s moderate troop surge near Donbas and Luhansk in early March (following an increased number of ceasefire violations by Russia in Donbas).

In early March, a string of videos and images surfaced on social media, reportedly showing Ukrainian military hardware, T-64 tanks, APCs, and other vehicles, moving by train towards the war-torn Donbas. 

While most of the footage remained unverified, the vast majority of the media material was genuine (not recycled from other build-ups), and a small amount could even be authenticated. For example, the images below show Ukrainian military vehicles on flatbed railcars in the Dnepropetrovsk train station. 

Geolocation of images showing Ukrainian military vehicles in Dnipro train station

The deployments followed an uptick in ceasefire violations that resulted in Ukrainian soldiers’ death and increased sightings of advanced Russian weaponry in the Donbas. 

Russia’s latest saber-rattling is likely a direct response to the presumed Ukrainian reinforcements in the east. 

2.Posturing for ceasefire negotiations.  

This is a strong candidate theory considering that talks between the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, OSCE) on Ukraine to extend the ceasefire monitoring mission beyond April 1st, have nearly failed. However, the OSCE managed to extend the mandate for another year in the final hours of March 31st. 

3.Preparations for a renewed offensive against Ukraine.

The hardware type deployed and deployment locations are consistent with preparations for a multi-front assault on eastern Ukraine. Russian forces could escalate violence in Donbas while simultaneously assaulting Mariupol from Crimea to finish off the land-bridge linking Donbas with the occupied peninsula. 

Russia’s movements have certainly stirred international anxiety, and NATO seems to be taking the risk seriously. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Milley had a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Gerasimov, discussing the recent troop build-up on March 31st. The U.S. European Command has reclassified Ukraine’s risk status from “possible crisis” to “potential imminent crisis.”  

There has also been a spike in aerial intelligence collection sorties off the Crimean coast. A British Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) aircraft and American drones are among the platforms that “glued their eyes” on Russia’s military manoeuvres. 

While a renewed invasion is the most impactful scenario, it is also the most unlikely at this point in time. 

PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENT

Apart from the mentioned hypotheses, there could be a myriad of other reasons that contribute to the latest actions, such as the relocation of 56th Airborne brigade from Kamyshin to Feodosia, unannounced military exercises, or extended deployments post-drills. 

The recent movements are likely just another “bear scare,” however, one should never rule out the possibility of a renewed Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine. Ultimately, this is a fluid and volatile situation that can escalate or cool down at any moment. Prudent caution is advised. 


by HARM

ALERT: Read our second part report on Russia’s build-near near Ukraine’s border, here, encompassing the latest developments between 1-7 April. 

This article is an extended version of the situation report that we shared on Facebook on 1 April 2021.

Update [2 April 2021, 1700z – CET] to include tweet of flight tracker showing P-8 Poseidon patrolling near Kerch strait.

Update [7 April 2021 1700z – CET] to include link to our second report on the issue. 

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Echoes of the Cold War: Why “Bears” Like the G.I.U.K. Gap

Russian military activity in the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap has increased exponentially in the past years. Launched from the Northern Fleet “bastion,” submarine-hunting, anti-surface, and maritime surveillance missions are at the…

Russian military activity in the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap has increased exponentially in the past years. Launched from the Northern Fleet “bastion,” submarine-hunting, anti-surface, and maritime surveillance missions are at the forefront of Russia’s sorties in the GIUK. These operations often come close to Norwegian, Icelandic, and British airspace, forcing NATO to scramble interceptors and shadow the visiting aircraft. With Russia’s newfound interest in the Cold War-era flashpoint, NATO is gearing up to level the playing field. 


I. RUSSIAN AIRCRAFT SHADOW NATO AIRSPACE

1.The Russian aircraft launch from air bases in the Kola Peninsula and travel south through the Barents and Norwegian Seas. During their forays, they regularly pass through NATO flight information regions (FIRs) without broadcasting their position or communicating with civil authorities. The Norwegian, Icelandic, and British FIRs have seen the most “visitors.”

Map shows OSINT observations of Russian aircraft transits through NATO areas of interests and main QRA launch points

2.Airspace around the world is divided into Flight Information Regions (FIRs). Each FIR is managed by a controlling authority, which is responsible for ensuring that air traffic is deconflicted and safe. 

SCRAMBLE, SCRAMBLE, SCRAMBLE

3.Because of the flight path, the Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) is the first to detect and respond to Russian flybys. The RNoAF regularly scrambles F-16s and, more recently, F-35A stealth fighters from Bodø and Ørland to monitor and conduct visual identification of the visiting formations. As the Russians proceed southwards, the RNoAF hands the interception duties to other NATO forces.

4.The British Royal Air Force (RAF) scramble interceptors from RAF Lossiemouth, the air base responsible for defending the UK’s northern airspace. Lossiemouth’s Eurofighter Typhoons are on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), which means they are ready to respond to any threat, at any moment – 24/7. T-Intelligence has frequently reported on RAF’s Lossiemouth successful interceptions of Russian aircraft in the past three years.  

5.In many instances, Russian transited FIR corridors used by civilian airliners to enter and depart British airspace. In at least one situation, the British air traffic control (ATC) had to divert commercial flights to mitigate collision risk with the “incognito” Russian aerial formation. 

6.NATO aircraft serving in the Icelandic Air Policing mission (Iceland does not have an air force) have also intercepted Russian aircraft. NATO QRA aircraft have frequently encountered Tu-142 maritime patrol aircraft, Bear F and J versions, and MiG-31s. 

7.The Combined Air Operations Center (COAC) from Uedem, Germany, coordinates NATO interceptions in the GIUK. The COAC also deploys E-3 Sentry aircraft from Geilenkirchen (Germany) to provide air control and battlespace awareness. COAC-Uedem serves under the Allied Air Command (AIRCOM), which is NATO’s core headquarters responsible for air operations.

“THIS IS ̶N̶O̶T̶ A DRILL”

8.Russian aerial formations in the GIUK typically consist of Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) Tu-160 Blackjack bombers and Russian Navy (RuN) maritime patrol aircraft, namely Tu-142 variants. On some occasions, we noted RuAF-RuN composite formations of Blackjacks, Bear-F s (anti-submarine & maritime patrol), or Bear-Js (airframe designed to communicate with submarines). MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors have sometimes, although seldom, escorted the Bears.

Compilation: NATO QRA aircraft intercepting Russian aircraft over the GIUK (T-Intell)

9.Judging by the airframe composition, the Russians primarily conduct anti-submarine warfare (ASW) exercises in the GIUK. ASW is the art of detecting, denying, and engaging enemy submarines. Airframes like the Bear Fs can drop buoys that survey the seas for submarines. Once detected, Bear Fs can transmit the targeting data to Russian submarines via Bear-J communication relay. The kill-chain also works vice-versa, with submarines indicating the enemy positions to Bear-Js that, in turn, relay them to surface ships and aircraft. Alternatively, Bear-Fs can be armed with anti-ship missiles and anti-submarine torpedoes, being able to prosecute enemy vessels without assistance. However, the latter option is less likely as the Russian Navy, as its Soviet predecessor, emphasizes the concept of combined forces – coordinated operations among surface, subsurface and aerial assets. 

10.The presence of Blackjacks, which can carry and launch up to 12 cruise missiles, indicates that the Russians are also rehearsing anti-surface warfare (ASuW). This means that NATO bases in Norway, the UK, and Iceland and ports and vessels are on the mock-kill list. These objectives are essential for NATO’s Transatlantic sea lines of communications (SLOCs) – the strategic corridor linking North America to Europe.

11.Besides rehearsing specific mission profiles, Russian flybys in NATO flight information regions (FIRs) test the readiness, disposition, response time, and interception tactics of NATO QRA bases in the GIUK – RAF Lossiemouth (UK), Keflavik (Iceland), and Bodø and Ørland (Norway). While seemingly generic, this kind of intelligence is critical for any air force that wants to stay prepared for wartime operations.

12.To understand why the Russian military is conducting these flights – and, likely, covert sails – through the GIUK, we must examine the region’s importance to Russia’s overall naval strategy and disposition.


II.THE GIUK GAP: WHY IT MATTERS TO RUSSIA

13.The GIUK gap is a series of strategic routes between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. The GIUK connects the North Atlantic to the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea – which is why it matters to Russia. 

14. From a geographical perspective, the GIUK is a two-way street. While historically the Gap has favoured the defenders of the North Atlantic, forces moving towards the Norwegian Sea must also funnel through these waterways. 

NORTHERN FLEET

15.The Barents Sea hosts the crown jewel of the Russian Navy – the Northern Fleet. Nowadays, the Northern Fleet is a flotilla in name only. In 2014, the Fleet became an autonomous command, known as Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command. Since 31 January 2021, the Northern Fleet is a military district, the highest military-territorial division of the Russian Federation. The Northern Fleet Military District (NFMD) commands airbases, harbors, nuclear storage sites, and shipyards sprawling from the Kola Peninsula to the Arkhangelsk Oblast and Arctic archipelago. 

 

16.The importance of the NFMD stems primarily from its submarine force. More specifically, the Russian nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs in the US Navy terminology), which continue to stir anxiety on both sides of the Atlantic. 

17.At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence assessed that the Soviet Northern Fleet would cut NATO’s Transatlantic sea lines of communication (SLOC) in case of war. But as open-source intelligence from the CNA later found, counter-SLOC was a low-priority mission for the Soviets, or it became so in the 1980s. The introductory comments from this declassified CIA report captures the growing realization among the U.S. intelligence community that “sea denial operations in the North Atlantic are not a high priority item for the Soviet naval efforts” (Director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner in 1978).

Russian SSBNs in 2021 (T-Intelligence compilation using Google Earth imagery)

WITHHOLDING STRATEGY AND BASTION DEFENSE

18.Instead of staging a battle for the Atlantic, the Soviets were primarily concerned with defending the Northern Fleet’s SSBNs. Capable of launching long-range nuclear attacks, the SSBN fleet was to be preserved as a second-strike capability following a limited nuclear exchange. This came to be known as the “withholding strategy” or the “pro-SSBN” mission.

19.To enhance SSBN survivability, the Soviets designed a multi-layered and all-domain concept known to the US intelligence community as Close Abroad Bastion (CAB), or simply “bastion.” Bastions were intended to prevent NATO submarines from infiltrating the SSBN area of operations such as the Bering Sea or the Arctic Ocean, where Soviet submarines would hide underneath the polar ice caps, and surface when needed to fire. As periodically demonstrated, Russia’s submarines are still able to surface from under the thick arctic ice.

(The video below shows a Russian submarine ice exercise that took place near Alexandra island, in the Franz Joseph archipelago on 26 March 2021).


 

20.The bastion concept called for the wholesale mining of the sea approaches, hunting enemy submarines with a combination of ASW aircraft, attack submarines, and warships, and lining up friendly shores with coastal defense batteries.  

21.The Soviets established two bastions, one in the Sea of Okotoks (Soviet Pacific Fleet) and another in the Barents Sea (Soviet Northern Fleet). In 1988, the U.S. Navy intelligence estimated that only 25% of the Northern Fleet would not have been dedicated to the pro-SSBN mission in case of war (see page 53).

RUSI Graphic shows estimated Russian bastion area in the Northern Fleet Military District

22.In response to the bastion strategy, the U.S. Navy launched a series of operations to infiltrate Soviet bastions and keep tabs on the Northern Fleet’s submarines around the clock. On 20 March 1993, an American submarine and a Russian SSBN collided off the Kola peninsula, underscoring just how easy it was for the U.S. Navy to infiltrate Russia’s bastions. The international incident forced both the U.S. and Russia to rekindle their submarine “cat-and-mouse” tactics.

23.Nowdays, the Russian Navy is no more than a shadow of its Soviet predecessor. In 1990, the Red Fleet had approximately 600 ships, of which 59 SSBNs. In 2015, the Russian Navy only operated around 170 boats – 13 of which were SSBNs. The number of SSBNs is down to 10 in 2021.

24. After decades of declining capabilities, Russia’s submarine force is now poised to grow and evolve for the first time. As part of a master plan to overhaul the Navy’s underwater capabilities, Russia is developing six submarine classes simultaneously: Borei-II (SSBN), Bolgorod (strategic), Khabarovsk (cruise missile), Yasen-M, Lada, and Improved Kilo. 

25.At the center of the Navy’s modernization program is the Poseidon weapon (AFIC/NATO Reporting name: Kanyon) – a nuclear-tipped, autonomous torpedo with unlimited range. Naval warfare expert H.I. Sutton describes Poseidon as a “second-strike doomsday weapon to literally go under missile defenses.” Alongside Bulava, a modern submarine-launched intercontinental-ballistic missile (ICBM), the Poseidon will spearhead a new generation of Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD).

26.As the vast majority of these new toys will be in service with the NFMD, Russia has started paying more attention to the GIUK. Russia must closely surveil the GIUK Gap to mitigate and deny enemy infiltrations. This explains the periodic NATO interceptions of Russian maritime patrol and ASW aircraft in this area.

Technical details of Poseidon/Status-6 were likely deliberately leaked on state TV before President Putin could announce the new weapon

28.Russia also prepares to contest the GIUK in case of war. Therefore, Russia’s assertive behavior in the GIUK can be interpreted as a form of active forward-defense of the bastion concept, which inevitably entails anti-surface warfare against British, Norwegian, and American forces. 

29. Another reason for Russia to consider forward-defense in the GIUK is the threat posed by NATO stand-off weaponry. For example, a Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile can be fired from 1,600 km away (Block IV), meaning that Russian forces must intercept enemy launch platforms earlier and at a greater range. 

30.Besides its role for forward defense, the GIUK gap remains a strategic chokepoint for Russia to move warships into the North Atlantic. As outlined in its 2015 maritime strategy, the Russian Navy must ensure the “free access of the Russian fleet to the Atlantic.”

31.Russia’s interests beyond the GIUK gap stretch from overseas combat operations and joint drills to seabed warfare (attacking underwater internet cables) and intelligence collection on American submarines. 


III. NATO COUNTERMEASURES: BACK TO THE FUTURE

32.As Russia’s activities in the High North increased, the Bastion concept, the SSBN threat, and the GIUK dilemma re-emerged on NATO’s agenda. The Alliance and member states have undertaken a series of measures to curtail Russia’s revanchist designs in the GIUK gap and the Arctic.

NATO LEVEL MEASURES:

  • Establishment of a new NATO headquarters, called the Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Virginia, in 2020. The new HQ will help NATO navies from both sides of the pond better coordinate operations in the Atlantic.
  • Icelandic Air Policing (IAP) upgraded to QRA. Lacking an air force and witnessing various airspace intrusions from the Russian Air Force, Iceland requested NATO assistance in 2006. NATO established an Icelandic air policing mission in 2008. In 2014, IAP was put on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), increasing the readiness and requirements for air policing in response to the increased Russian activity.
  • Increased integration under the Allied Air Command (AIRCOM). AIRCOM is NATO’s core headquarters responsible for air operations. Operating under AIRCOM, the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) from Uedem, Germany, commands NATO’s Air Policing missions in the North on a tactical level. Thanks to COAC, multinational air policing in the GIUK gap is conducted more effectively and in an integrated matter. 
  • Increase and expansion of joint military exercise in the High North. The most notable joint drill was Trident Juncture 2018 (TRJE18), organized in Norway. Encompassing over 50,000 troops from 31 member states and partners, TRJE18 was NATO’s biggest exercise since 2002. The GIUK featured heavily on the exercise agenda. In response, Russia launched electronic attacks on Norway and Finland, jamming GPS and disturbing civilian air traffic in the High North.  

STATE-LEVEL MEASURES:

  • Budgetary increases enabled many member states to implement ambitious procurement plans that impact the GIUK region. For example, the UK is in the process of acquiring no less than nine P-8 Poseidon “submarine-hunting” aircraft. Five of which are already in service with RAF Lossiemouth. Norway (like the UK) has already purchased a bulk of F-35 stealth fighters and builds new warships and submarines. 
  • The US Navy is re-establishing the 2nd Fleet that patrolled the Atlantic Ocean in the Cold War. The 2nd Fleet was terminated in 2011 in a move to save costs. 
  • The US military has undertaken various measures to enhance its ability to respond faster to potential flashpoints in the High North. At the center of these measures is Norway, where U.S. Marines train annually for arctic warfare, and American vessels (including submarines) conduct port visits.

  • Most recently, the US Air Force has deployed B-1b bombers to Norway for the first time. Until now, most US operations in the Arctic military were staged out of the UK. In addition, the local press reported that Norway is considering leasing its naval base near Olavsvern (Norway’s far north) for use by American submarines. 

OUTLOOK

Russian flights and sails through the GIUK will persist as a form of forward-defense of its Barents Sea bastion. Russia must also maintain a foothold in the NATO-dominated waters around the UK and Iceland to secure access into the North Atlantic for peacetime and combat operations, unconventional warfare, and other objectives.

NATO’s response so far has been adequate to Russia’s resurgence. However, the Alliance must take further measures, especially strengthening ASW capabilities, to effectively counter Russia’s increasingly sophisticated submarine forces. 

The age of anti-submarine warfare in the High North is back.


by HARM

This strategic analysis was enabled by Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT). Now you can learn OSINT too! Head over to Knowmad OSINT and check out our training offer.

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Russian Pipe-Layer Resumes Work on Nord Stream 2

The Russian-flagged “Fortuna” pipe-laying vessel has resumed work on the controversial “Nord Stream 2” pipeline on January 24. AIS trackers show Fortuna anchored 27 km south of Bornholm island (Denmark),…

The Russian-flagged “Fortuna” pipe-laying vessel has resumed work on the controversial “Nord Stream 2” pipeline on January 24. AIS trackers show Fortuna anchored 27 km south of Bornholm island (Denmark), where gaps remain in the 94%-completed pipeline. 

Overview of Fortuna’s location

Owned by “KVT-RUS,” a Russian company, Fortuna has been recently sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury over its involvement in the Nord Stream 2 project. Any company that does business with Fortuna or its owner, whether a port that provides servicing or an insurer, risks losing access to the U.S. financial system

Thanks to Sentinel-1’s synthetic aperture radar, we can see the ship formation through cloud cover and confirm Fortuna’s location. Dated January 24, the low-res imagery shows Fortuna positioned for pipe-laying operations and assisted by tugs, and other support vessels. 

Sentinel-1 SAR shows Fortuna initiating pipe-laying operations

Fortuna left the German port of Rostock after Danish authorities cleared further constructions on Nord Stream 2 on January 15. Berlin has also greenlighted work on the pipeline in German waters. 

UNSTOPPABLE

It seems that the Nord Stream 2 will go ahead despite bipartisan U.S. sanctions, criticism from Eastern European states, and even a recent resolution passed by the European Parliament that urges Brussels to halt the project. While opposition to the project grew in Germany following Navalny’s poisoning and arrest, Chancellor Merkel remains steadfast.  

The German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpomman even plans to establish an “expandable” foundation to shield the companies involved in Nord Stream 2. The German foundation “for environmental protection” will absorb the heat of U.S. sanctions such as freezing assets, as it does not have commercial plans beyond the pipeline. As a result, the real stakeholders will be unharmed – at least in theory. This operation’s success will largely depend on the Biden administration’s willingness to sanction Germany over Nord Stream 2. 

KEY BACKGROUND

What is Nord Stream 2?

Nord Stream 2 is a submarine pipeline that will carry natural gas from Siberia to a terminal on Germany’s Baltic sea coast. Russian energy giant Gazprom owns 50% of the pipeline. Royal Dutch Shell, Uniper SE, Engie SA, and Wintershall AG hold the rest. Nord Stream 2 is 1,200 km long and will double the throughput of Nord Stream 1.  

Nord Stream 2 map (source: Gazprom)

Why did work on Nord Stream 2 stop?

U.S. sanctions temporarily froze the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. In December 2019, the Swiss company “Allseas” suspended pipe-laying operations after it came in the crosshairs of U.S. departments of State and Treasury. Since then, the Nord Stream 2 consortium has scrambled to devise countermeasures against U.S. sanctions, and searched for a new pipe-laying vessel. 

The consortium contracted Fortuna and the Gazprom-owned Akademik Cherskiy” to complete the job. T-Intelligence wrote about Akademik Cherskiy’s entrance into the Baltic Sea in March 2020, after a nine-month voyage from Russia’s far east. The pipe-layer is currently docked in Wismar, Germany. 

Why is Nord Stream 2 a problem?

  • The project strengthens Russia’s grip on European energy. Nord Stream 2 goes against NATO’s and the European Union’s energy security policies that call for diversifying suppliers so that 30 or 27 nations are not at the mercy of one supplier. As the dominant force on Europe’s energy market, Russia has a long history of using gas exports as a tool of coercion. Gas is also a significant component of the Kremlin’s broader “hybrid warfare” strategy that aims to expand its influence using means other than military. 
  • It undermines Transatlantic unity. A highly divisive topic, Nord Stream 2 exacerbated existing rifts between the U.S (supported by Eastern European states) and NATO’s European core, led by Germany. 
  • It weakens Eastern Europe. Nord Stream 2 will reduce Russia’s dependence on Ukraine and Poland to transport gas into Europe. This could open up eastern Europe to more strong-arm tactics, including further aggression against Ukraine. 

by IRT

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