What We Learned From Israel’s Latest Airstrike Spree in Syria

Over the past eight years, The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has conducted over 300 “unclaimed” airstrikes against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and its axis of transnational Shiite militias (the…

Evacuation “Shattered Glass”: The US/ Coalition Bases in Syria [Part 1]

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

Is Turkey Sending Syrian Rebels to Libya?

Mounting evidence shows that Turkey is deploying “Syrian National Army” (SNA) militiamen to Libya by using commercial airlines. In December 2019, major media outlets broke the news that Ankara plans…

Iran Used Cruise Missiles, Suicide Drones in Saudi Attack

During a press briefing in Riyadh, the Saudi Defense Ministry revealed wreckage recovered after the air attack on the petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. The physical evidence suggests that…

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…

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

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

Syrian S-300 Ready to Use?

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

IS-K Diverted from Nangarhar Province, Takes Korengal Valley from Taliban (COIN/OPS-BRIEF)

As key IS-K territories are under pressure by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the rival Taliban, the group is seeking to capture new high-ground sanctuaries on…

The Ayatollah’s Shield: SAM Deployments and Capabilities of the Iranian Air Defenses (IMINT)

1. Over the last years, Iran has visibly improved its air defense (AD) systems by phasing in modern indigenous surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. The Iranian SAM deployments primarily safeguard the…

Why Romania’s Defense Procurement Matters for NATO (and Should Worry Russia)

In 2017, Romania initiated a visionary defence procurement program that will reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank and make the Romanian military a leading force in the Black Sea by the early 2020s….

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

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

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

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

COSMOS 2542 AND 2543 

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

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

UNUSUAL ORBITAL ACTIVITY

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

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

DIRECT/ SOFT KILL PRACTICE?

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

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

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

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



No Comments on Russian, American Satellites Play Cat-and-Mouse in Space

Evacuation “Shattered Glass”: The US/ Coalition Bases in Syria [Part 1]

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

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


THE MISSION

The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) led by the United States (U.S.) has built around 20 major military sites in northern and eastern Syria since the fight against ISIS began in 2014. This includes semi-prepared landing zones (LZs), forward operating bases (FOBs), fire bases (FBs), and combat outposts (COPs).  The installations have housed military personnel, received and administered frontline logistics, provided medical facilities, and were used to mount and execute combat operations. The military infrastructure was key in supporting three main operational objectives: 

  • Combat operations against ISIS
  • Capacity building for local partner forces
  • Deterring attacks from adversarial forces

At the apogee of the campaign against ISIS in 2018, around 2,000 CJTF-OIR multinational forces were stationed in Syria, consisting of SOF (special operations forces), SF (special forces), JTAC (joint-terminal attack controllers), logisticians, engineers, airfield support personnel and clandestine servicemembers. Their numbers began to decrease after the defeat of ISIS’ physical caliphate in early 2019 (read more about the battle of Baghuz here). In October 2019, President Donald J. Trump ordered the U.S. troops, which account for the bulk of CJTF-OIR forces in Syria, to leave the country. 

What should have been an orderly and gradual withdrawal turned into an emergency evacuation, when Turkey announced a military offensive in northern Syria. Operation “Peace Spring” was a unilateral and poorly coordinated move that threatened CJTF-OIR personnel and bases. U.S. forces were forced to retreat from northern Syria, particularly from Aleppo and Raqqa provinces. The United Kingdom, France and other in-theater CJTF-OIR partners also withdrew their troops. The retreating Coalition forces had no time to dismantle or destroy their bases. As videos would later show, they left behind furniture, personal items, provisions, and occasionally “easter eggs” for the new occupants. Russian soldiers have since taken over the abandoned Coalition bases. 

Around 500 CJTF-OIR forces – mainly U.S. troops – continue to operate in eastern Syria, where they are tasked with securing the local energy infrastructure against ISIS resurgents. The forces are stationed in the Mid-Euphrates River Valley and near the Syrian-Iraqi border. 


ALEPPO PROVINCE (WEST OF EUPHRATES) 

The CJTF-OIR made its operational debut in Syria during the siege of Kobani (northeastern Aleppo province) in 2014. After partnering up with the Kurdish YPG militia and select Arab Sunni groups, the CJTF-OIR liberated the Upper Euphrates Valley and northern Raqqa province, where the Coalition established its first military bases.

MISTENUR HILL (KOBANI) FOB

Mistenur Hill FOB on November 25, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°52’31.4″N 38°21’50.4″E

Type: FOB

Built: Between late 2014 and early 2016

Purpose: Secure Kobani from the south and forward deploy SOF elements on Syrian soil.

Infrastructure: The FOB was built from scratch next to a radio antenna site in Kobani’s southern hills. CJTF-OIR forces have erected a central two-story building surrounded by several small structures. A tall, thick concrete wall serves as the compound’s external fortification layer. Observation towers overlook the perimeter in all cardinal directions. Unconfirmed information suggests that the FOB started as a joint French-U.S. SOF garrison. 

Note: During Turkey’s Operation PEACE SPRING, FOB Mistenur hill came under ‘danger close’ artillery shelling from across the border (read more about the incident here). 

Status: Evacuated. 


KOBANI LANDING ZONE (KLZ) 

Kobani Landing Zone (KLZ) on January 6, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°39’00.7″N 38°18’12.4″E

Type: LZ

Built: March to September 2016

Purpose: Enable heavy airlift operations and serve as close air support (CAS) staging area. 

Infrastructure: U.S. Air Force engineers have built the semi-prepared airfield from scratch near the village of Sarrin. The 2,000-meter long dirt runway received America’s largest heavy lifters (C-5 and C-17) that brought the bulk of logistics required for CJTF-OIR’s operations, including vehicles, munnition, construction materials, and other equipment. The U.S. has also built a large campground (more than 50 tents, warehouses, and depots), which provided housing facilities for personnel and logistics. Landing pads, reinforced revetments and a few hangars were added to station rotary-wing aircraft. 

Note: KLZ was the last CJTF-OIR facility to be vacated in Aleppo province. It stayed open until the last vehicles and personnel had evacuated from Aleppo province. 

Status: Evacuated. Under Russian control since November 15, 2019. 


LAFARGE CEMENT FACTORY (LFC)-HQ 

LaFarge Cement (LFC) Factory on September 1, 2016 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates:36°32’43.7″N 38°35’15.7″E

Type: HQ

Built: 2010 (by LaFarge)/ occupied since 2015 

Purpose: Command and Control (C2) of in-theater counter-ISIS operations. 

Infrastructure: The cement factory, which was originally built by the French company LaFarge, was repurposed as the CJTF-OIR’s Syrian-headquarters and C2 center. The pre-existing buildings also served as barracks and logistics depot. The site’s large and wide parking facilities were used to store vehicles and helicopters. 

Note: The factory survived the war and continued to produce cement under ISIS occupation thanks to the protection taxes that the company paid to local armed groups including ISIS. LFC officials admitted to this practice in 2017, after French prosecutors charged the company’s former CEO with terrorism financing. French officials intervened on behalf of the company to stop the U.S. from bombing the factory in 2014.  The CJTF-OIR evacuated LFC on October 16, 2019, after the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) advanced to the M4 highway and came dangerously close to the facility. To sanitize the area and destroy the material left behind, two USAF F-15E jets bombed LFC.

Status: Evacuated. Likely under SDF control. 


ALEPPO PROVINCE (EAST OF THE EUPHRATES) 

Successive victories against ISIS east of the Euphrates allowed the Coalition and the SDF to expand operations in Manbij district, west of the river valley. Due to its large population and proximity to the Turkish border, Manbij was a key city for ISIS. The terrorist group used Manbij to plot attacks on European targets (e.g. Bataclan theater attack) and to receive foreign terrorist fighters transiting through Turkey. 



The SDF liberated Manbij in August 2016 with the intention to cleanse the entire area of ISIS. Alarmed by the SDF’s advance towards the Turkish border, Ankara mobilized its assets in the Syrian armed opposition and launched Operation “Euphrates Shield.” The Turkish offensive blocked the SDF’s advance westwards and threatened to capture Manbij. This forced the CJTF-OIR to change its posture in Aleppo province from post-ISIS stabilization operations to deterring a Turkish-backed attack.  To this end, the U.S. installed a multi-layer security perimeter around Manbij city: Two combat outposts (COPs) west and north of Manbij, armed checkpoints, and air-land patrols. 

WEST MANBIJ COP

Manbij COP West on March 23, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°29’42.9″N 37°49’32.1″E

Type: COP

Built: May 2017 (expansion started) 

Purpose: Post-ISIS stabilization operations,  monitor and de-conflict the M4 highway that links Manbij to Arimah (under Syrian-Russian control) and al-Bab (under Turkish-SNA control). 

Infrastructure: The CJTF-OIR has enhanced a pre-existing “T-shaped” compound that encompassed three buildings and two large transmission antenna towers. The Coalition erected around 20 tents and halls in the compound and sectioned the site with multiple sandbag layers. A 300-meter-long driveway with anti-VBIED barriers at both ends links the compound to the motorway. The COP was continuously expanded throughout 2019, until U.S. forces received the order to withdraw. 

Status: Evacuated. Under Russian and/or Manbij Military Council (MMC) control since October 15, 2019.


NORTH MANBIJ COP

Manbij COP North on September 1, 2018 via Maxar Technologies

Coordinates: 36°36’40.0″N 37°55’39.8″E

Type: COP

Built: March to November 2018

Purpose: Monitor and de-conflict the Sajur River Valley (SRV) and the North-South access points to Manbij city. 

Infrastructure: The COP was built from scratch near the village of Dadat. Within just several months, the camp was visibly consolidated and sectioned in multiple areas with sandbag layers. The living quarters (sleeping tents, chow hall) and operations center in the middle, armory in the second layer, and multiple fortified combat positions were established in all cardinal directions. Annex sites were established south and west of the road. The COP continued to expand throughout 2019, until the evacuation. 

Status: Evacuated. Under Russian and/or Manbij Military Council (MMC) control since October 15, 2019. 

All diplomatic and military efforts (e.g. “Manbij Roadmap”, combined-joint patrols) failed to de-escalate the dispute between Turkey and the U.S. over Manbij. The risk of “blue-on-blue” incidents remained high until the last Coalition forces left the area. 

In the aftermath of the withdrawal, the SDF’s Manbij Military Council (MMC) struck a deal with pro-government forces to secure the Manbij pocket. While the city remains under the MMC’s exclusive control, the Russian military police and the Syrian Arab Army are now patrolling the Sajur River Valley and the M4 highway. Negotiations about the fate of Manbij are still underway between Qamishli and Damascus.


by HARM and Gecko

The second part will feature the CJTF-OIR installations in Raqqa Province.  

No Comments on Evacuation “Shattered Glass”: The US/ Coalition Bases in Syria [Part 1]

Is Turkey Sending Syrian Rebels to Libya?

Mounting evidence shows that Turkey is deploying “Syrian National Army” (SNA) militiamen to Libya by using commercial airlines. In December 2019, major media outlets broke the news that Ankara plans…

Mounting evidence shows that Turkey is deploying “Syrian National Army” (SNA) militiamen to Libya by using commercial airlines. In December 2019, major media outlets broke the news that Ankara plans to send SNA militants to reinforce the “Government of National Accord” (GNA). Since then, there has been a growing number of indicators and reports that confirm the deployment. In addition to the SNA personnel, Turkey is also in the process of dispatching regular troops to Libya.

BACKGROUND: THE LIBYAN CIVIL WAR

Since the overthrow of dictator Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has been experiencing a civil war between the GNA, which is recognized by the United Nations (UN), and the self-styled “Libyan National Army” led by renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar. The GNA currently controls less than 20 percent of Libya, but its territory includes the capital Tripoli and the densely populated Tripolitania region. The GNA’s armed forces consist of Islamist militias linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. They are backed by Turkey, Qatar and Italy. 

Led by Gen. Haftar, the LNA is a hotpotch of Arab nationalists (including some Qaddafi loyalists), foreign paramilitary units (e.g. Russian, Sudanese, Chiadian), Madkhali salafists and tribal militias based in Eastern Libya. The LNA receives political and military support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Jordan, Russia and France. The LNA controls the vast majority of Libya’s territory, including the oil-rich southern and central regions. 



Despite the international arms embargo, which bans all weapons transfers to Libya (UN Resolution 1973), the GNA and LNA have received an abundance of military capabilities from foreign backers, including aircraft and air defense batteries.

Thanks to the wholesale influx of sophisticated military hardware from its supporters, the LNA is currently the most capable fighting force on the battlefield:

  • The UAE deployed Chinese-made “Wing Loong II” UCAVs, Pantsir S-1 (NATO Reporting name: SA-22 “Greyhound”) and MIM-23 HAWK air defense systems as well as support personnel (e.g. missileers, UCAV and radio-electronic operators). 
  • Jordan and Egypt provide armored vehicles and spare parts for the legacy MiG and Sukhoi aircraft that the LNA has inherited from Qaddafi’s regime. The Egyptian Air Force donated five MiG-21MFs (NATO Reporting name: “Fishbed-J”) to the LNA’s air wing.
  • Russia provides political support and has sent hundreds of Wagner contractors and a Pantsir S-1 air defense systems (NATO Reporting name: SA-17 “Greyhound”) to reinforce Gen. Haftar’s camp. 

France is secretly supporting Gen. Haftar. Beyond the provision of several US-made Javelin anti-tank missiles, the extent of French support is nevertheless unclear.

COMPILATION: Advanced foreign weaponry in service or support of the LNA

On the GNA side, Turkey provides the bulk of military equipment. Ankara has been supplying the GNA with infantry fighting vehicles (e.g. Kipri 8×8), unmanned aerial combat vehicles/UCAV (e.g. Bayraktar-2TB), small arms and ammunition for years. Turkey’s “partner-in-crime” and fellow Muslim Brotherhood supporter Qatar provides the bulk of finances that keep the GNA functioning, including the salaries of most militias. Italy is also providing direct support to the GNA in the form of medical assistance, diplomatic outreach, and intelligence. 

THE LNA GAINS THE UPPER HAND

In early 2019, Gen. Haftar announced Operation “FLOOD OF DIGNITY” with the objective to capture western Libya and eventually Tripoli. After successive victories, the LNA reached Tripoli’s suburbs by mid-April 2019. In Ghuryan and southern Tripoli, the LNA encountered a stiff GNA defense augmented by Turkish UCAVs. With the ground advancement blocked, the LNA focused on aerial warfare and targeted GNA airfields that support UCAV operations. However, due to its prolonged forward deployment, the LNA’s supply lines became overstretched and therefore untenable for offensive operations. Gen. Haftar was forced to de facto halt the offensive until the LNA  air wing neutralizes the enemy’s aerial capabilities.

Operation “Flood of Dignity” (operational map) by Rr016

INCREASED TURKISH MILITARY ASSISTANCE TO TRIPOLI

As Gen. Hafar’s forces were threatening to gain the upper hand in the civil war, Turkey has found that only direct intervention can save the GNA from collapse. 

Turkish President Erdogan and GNA Prime Minister al-Sarraj signed two memorandums of economic and military cooperation in late November 2019. Based on these agreements, the GNA submitted a formal request for Turkish military assistance in the form of air, land and maritime forces. President Erdogan ratified the request for assistance and ordered the Turkish Joint Chiefs of Staff to draft deployment plans. 

By the time the Turkish Parliament approved the military mission on January 5, 2020, President Erdogan revealed that Turkish troops are already in Libya in a non-combatant capacity and that “other units” will fight on the battlefield. By “other units’, President Erdogan is believed to hint at Syrian militamen.



REPORTS OF SNA DEPLOYMENT TO LIBYA

Quoting senior Turkish and Libyan sources, Bloomberg was the first outlet to report that Ankara will send SNA groups to reinforce the GNA. In January 2020, The Guardian confirmed the presence of around 2,000 SNA militants in Libya and recorded that their numbers are expected to grow to 5,000 over the next weeks. SNA fighters had signed six-month contracts directly with the GNA, rather than with the Turkish military, The Guardian’s sources say. The Syrian rebels will earn $2,000 (£1,500) a month – a vast sum compared to the 450-550 Turkish lira (£52-£72) they earn in Syria. All fighters have been promised Turkish passports, medical care and repatriation to Syria in case of death. 

These reports are consistent with the claims of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which estimates that 300 Syrian rebels are already in Libya. 

The Sultan Murad Division, Suqour al-Sham Brigade, Faylaq al-Sham, Sham Legion and Mutasim Division are the SNA groups headlining the Libyan deployment. These groups, which are dominated by Syrian Turkmens, have spearheaded all of Turkey’s previous offensives in northern Syria. The U.S. government and Amnesty International have accused some of these groups of war crimes against Kurdish civilians during Operation “OLIVE BRANCH” and Operation “PEACE SPRING”. 


VISUAL EVIDENCE OF SNA PRESENCE

Besides media reports, two phone-recorded videos of military-age males (MAMs) with Syrian accents, claiming to be in Libya to fight against Haftar, provide visual evidence.

Geolocation of the video allegedly showing SNA fighters in Libya

We managed to geolocate the footage, assuming that it was shot in very close proximity of the second video that surfaced on social media, which was geolocated by @S_Corsto in southern Tripoli.

While this confirms the videos’ geographical location is indeed the GNA-held Tripoli, we cannot vouch for the authenticity of the MAMs’ claims or that they are SNA fighters. 

Another piece of hard evidence is a “selfie” taken by a group of five MAMs in front of a fixed-wing cargo aircraft (identified as an Airbus Atlas-400M), supposedly on their way to Libya. Judging by the color scheme and visual elements, the Airbus A400M belongs to the Turkish Air Force. This adds credibility to reports that the Turkish Air Force, together with civilian Libyan airlines, is transporting SNA forces to Libya.

A group of unidentified MAMs pose in front of a Turkish Air Force Airbus A400M

UPDATE January 18, 2019: A video that emerged on social media allegedly shows dozens of Syrian rebels on board an Airbus 320 operated by the Tripoli-based “Afriqiyah Airways.”

TURKISH-LIBYA AIR-BRIDGE

Evidence of the Turkish “air-bridge” to Libya started to surface on social media in late December 2019. It involves the Turkish Air Force and a few Libyan commercial airliners. 

At the beginning, SNA fighters are bused from northern Aleppo province to Gaziantep, a major city in southeastern Turkey. From Gaziantep, the Turkish Air Force flies SNA militiamen into Istanbul by the Turkish Air Force, using Airbus Atlas-400M fix-wing cargo aircraft. For example, call signs “ESEN 01”, “ESEN 02”, “ESEN 03” and “ESEN 04” have been regularly spotted between Gaziantepe and Istanbul, since the air bridge reportedly started on December 27, 2019. As military flights, their ADS-B/Mode-S information, namely origin, destination and flight history, are hidden or incomplete. 

After arriving in Istanbul at Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) or Ataturk International (IST), the SNA militiamen board “friendly” Libyan civilian airliners that regularly fly to the two GNA-held airports in Libya, Tripoli Mitiga International Airport (MJI) and Misrata Airport (MAR). In particular, one “Libyan Airlines” Airbus A330-202 fixed-wing aircraft (registration number 5A-LAT/ LIMA-ALPHA-TANGO) is believed to be spearheading the covert airlift operation. In addition, one Libyan Wings Airbus 319-112 (registration no, “52-WLC”) and another Boeing 737-8GK (registration no, “5A-DMG”) operated by Buraq Air are believed to be involved. 

While all three aircraft are regular operators of Turkish and Libyan destinations, only the Libyan Airlines’ 5A-LAT is of particular interest due to its nefarious flight pattern that is consistent with counter-surveillance measures:

  • LOW PROFILE: 5A-LAT has almost exclusively chartered Istanbul-MJI/ MAR flights for the past months. As a regular operator of this route, 5A-LAT should be the aircraft that attracts the least attention for illicit airlift operations between Turkey and Libya.

SAMPLE: Recent flight history of the Libyan Airways aircraft with registration number 5A-LAT

  • DECEIVE AND COMPLICATE: 5A-LAT has frequently spoofed its ADS-B data to name Tripoli (MJI) as a destination, when it actually landed at Misrata/ MAR.

SAMPLE: 5A-LAT descends for landing at MAR despite filing MJI as its destination, on January 8, 2020

In some instances, the aircraft even took off from Istanbul without transmitting any official destination. The technique is used to deceive and complicate adversarial intelligence collection efforts. 

SAMPLE: 5A-LAT leaves IST without a transmitting a destination on January 9, 2020

  • DENY: 5A-LAT has almost always disabled its ADS-B transponder, when it entered Libyan airspace en route to MJI or MAR. In some instances, the aircraft also deactivated its transponder during its departure from Libya or Turkey, despite having stated its destination. We assess that this is not a deceptive act, but a security measure, when transiting Greek and Egyptian flight information regions (FIRs) or when in range of the LNA’s aerial systems. With foreign assistance, the LNA has conducted air strikes against GNA-held airports, which destroyed aircraft and infrastructure, in the past. Due to their ability to carry military equipment, weapons or fighters, cargo planes are high-value targets on the Libyan battlefield.

SAMPLE: 5A-LAT reactivates its transponder after clearing out of Greek and Egyptian FIRs, only to “go dark” again before landing in MJI, on January 15, 2020.

The Boeing 747-412 with registration number ER-BBJ is another aircraft of interest for the Turkish-Libyan airbridge. The ER-BBJ is operated by the Moldovian company “AeroTransCargo” and is exclusively used for cargo deliveries. AeroTransCargo’s sub-company “Airstok” has managerial links with a Libyan charter Global Aviation Services Group (GASG), which was reported by the United Nations for smuggling pistols to Tripoli (MJI) in 2017. According to C4ADS, at least four AeroTransCargo aircraft – registration numbers ER-JAI, ER-BBJ, ER-BAJ, and ER-BAM – traveled between Turkey and MJI under GASG call signs between April 19, 2017 and May 5, 2019. 

The ER-BBJ made at least 5 flights from Istanbul (SAW) to MJI in December alone. 

SAMPLE: ER-BBJ disabled its transponder while passing through Greek airspace and FIR, and before entering Libyan airspace, on December 15, 2019.

During its flight, the aircraft used the same counter-surveillance techniques as 5A-LAT, deactivating its transponder (Mode-S in the ER-BBJ’s case) when nearing Egyptian/Greek FIRs and while approaching Libya. The ER-BBJ deliveries were sometimes succeeded by increased military activity between the GNA and LNA.  However, AeroTransCargo firmly denies allegations that it is smuggling weapon systems into Libya. 


ROLE OF SNA, TURKISH INTENTIONS UNCLEAR

The introduction of SNA groups reflects a quantitative increase in Ankara’s commitment to  Tripoli and their mutual economic interests. The move is designed to reverse the setback that GNA forces suffered in 2019, by injecting several thousand battle-hardened fighters in the GNA’s ranks. Depending on the exact troop number, the influx of several hundreds to thousands of Syrian rebels will have a minimal to moderate impact on the battlefield. Ankara hopes that the new contingent will break the deadlock in southern Tripoli and Guryanh and push Haftar’s offensive back. 

Besides acting as “canon fodder,” the SNA could serve in external security roles, guarding Turkish military garrisons and forces in Libya. Notoriously undisciplined and poorly trained, the SNA fighters are however unlikely to be tasked with training and advising missions, which will be exclusively performed by regular Turkish troops. 

The status and timetable of the SNA deployment remains unclear and very fluid. Turkey has likely calculated that the increased military support to the GNA will force Gen. Haftar to sign a ceasefire. It is likely that Ankara’s latest threats were exclusively aimed at pressuring the LNA to halt its operations against Tripoli and that President Erdogan did not seriously plan to conduct a prolonged military campaign in Libya.

No Comments on Is Turkey Sending Syrian Rebels to Libya?

Iranian SA-15 SAM Downed Flight PS752 over Tehran, Intelligence Shows (CONFIRMED)

UPDATE: The Iranian government has admitted that its armed forces are responsible for the downing of the Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing 737 (flight PS75). Tehran added that the shoot-down was a…

UPDATE: The Iranian government has admitted that its armed forces are responsible for the downing of the Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing 737 (flight PS75). Tehran added that the shoot-down was a mistake caused by “human error.”

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) shot down flight PS752 over Tehran, intelligence suggests. Based on SIGINT data collected by US agencies, the U.S., British, Canadian and Iraqi governments were able to confirm what the OSINT circle has been theorizing for the past days:


  • A Russian-made Tor M-1/2 SAM system (NATO Reporting name: SA-15 “Gauntlet”) downed the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 shortly after the aircraft took off from Tehran – Imam Khomeini International Airport at 6.12 AM (local time) on Jan. 8, 2020. All 176 passengers died. The shoot-down was probably unintentional, but the theory of deliberate action cannot be excluded.

Iranian Tor-M1/2 (SA-15)

  • The IRGC-Aerospace Force (AF) fields numerous Tor M-1/2s for point air defense of sensitive facilities and long-range SAMs.
  • The aviation incident occurred five hours after the IRGC-AF launched a missile barrage at Iraqi installations hosting Coalition/ U.S. forces. It is very likely that the IRGC mistook/misidentified the PS752 for a US aircraft especially as Iran was tensely expecting an American retaliation for the earlier attack in Iraq.

HARD EVIDENCE:
  • Two photos showing the debris of a Tor M1/2’s (SA-15) surface-to- air missile (SAM) proximity fuse/”seeker” close to the crash site. Visual forensics certify the resemblance between the debris and the seeker section of a SA-15 SAM.

Debris of SA-15 SAM near PS752 crash site via T-Intelligence

  • A video showing an aerial detonation in the immediate proximity of flight PS752 while airborne. The “contact” is consistent with SAM interceptions.

*This is likely the second SAM launched (per “2-for-1” SAM engagement doctrine/ two missiles fired for one target). The explosion caused by the first SAM probably attracted everyone’s attention, hence why people started filming and caught the second SAM on tape. 

SOFT EVIDENCE:
  • Aircraft crash site is close to a known Tor M-1/2 deployment (within kinematic range).
  • As opposed to the Iranian position, the Boeing 737-aircraft did not attempt to return to the airport. The pilots instantly lost communications with the tower and did not send an SOS signal. Flight path post-contact rather suggests the loss of flight control mechanics than a return-to-base.



THE CLASSIFIED INTELLIGENCE
  • Three intelligence sources (two US and one Iraqi) told major news outlets that the U.S. Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites picked up radio-emission spikes, indicating radar activity, and detected two surface-to-air missile (SAM) launches shortly before the plane crashed. The U.S. CIA, NGA and DIA aero-space assets were virtually certain focused on Iran to gather early-warning and telemetry data on possible missile launches.
OFFICIAL RECORD
  • Iranian officials blamed the accident on a technical malfunction such as a critical engine failure and dismissed the theory that its missiles brought the plane done. However, Iranian officials said they will not provide the plane’s “block box” to the other countries involved in the investigation. The head of Iran’s Civil Aviation claimed that the plane would have “dropped” from the sky if hit by a missile, while video evidence shows the aircraft ablaze and descending before exploding.
  • However, THAT IS INCORRECT. Point air defense systems such as Tor M-1/2 use proximity fuze, designed to detonate the SAM when entering the target’s “kill-zone”, which increases interception chances, instead of a hit-to-kill kinematic solution (as other SAM systems use). Once detonated, the SAM’s warhead inflicts structural damage with the intent to destroy the target.

  • This is consistent with the PS752’s last minutes – ablaze, instantly losing control and radio-contact – before exploding. In addition, the PS752’s 8,000 feet altitude was within the Tor M-1/s’s engagement envelope.

European security officials agree with the US assessment. The Canadian government has already amended its official political position to include the latest US-supplied intelligence.

No Comments on Iranian SA-15 SAM Downed Flight PS752 over Tehran, Intelligence Shows (CONFIRMED)

The US Finally Retaliated against Iranian Proxies. Now what?

The American air strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), one of the strongest Iraqi Shiite militias, on 29 December are a “game-changer.” The strikes prove that the United States is finally…

The American air strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), one of the strongest Iraqi Shiite militias, on 29 December are a “game-changer.” The strikes prove that the United States is finally willing to retaliate militarily against Iran’s covert aggression. While the kinetic retribution will instate some degree of deterrence, Washington will likely remain passive towards Iranian activities in Iraq. In response to the air strikes, Iran could provide its Iraqi partners, such as KH, with air defense assets. 


FAILURE TO RETALIATE ENCOURAGED IRANIAN ATTACKS

Ever since he took office, U.S. President Donald Trump refrained from using force to retaliate against Iranian attacks. The President long believed that crippling economic sanctions are enough to bring the Mullahs to the negotiating table, while military options will only pull the U.S. further into the Middle Eastern quagmire/spiral of unwinnable and open-ended conflicts. Absent red lines and a credible deterrence, Iran was free to attack U.S. interests or allies –  as long as Tehran could cover its tracks. The September air raid on the Saudi Aramco petrochemical facilities, for example, proved how much damage Tehran can cause, while remaining unpunished. 


THE PMUs, AN ARMY OF “SPECIAL GROUPS”

After the Aramco attack, Iran moved to the next and most important point on its target list: Coalition facilities in Iraq. Through its ideological vanguard, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and its coalition of Shiite militias, the Islamic Republic in Tehran sought to render Iraq an inhospitable location for the Coalition. Those militias – referred to by the CIA as “Special Groups” (SGs) – provide the bulk force and command structure of the 100,000-men strong Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in Iraq. The PMUs are a coalition of militias established or reactivated by a 2014 fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani that calls on Shiites to fight ISIS. 

COMPILATION of Iraqi Tier One SGs and their leaders. ANNEX shows groups of interest that patrol the Syrian-Iraqi border on behalf of the IRGC.

The strongest and largest SGs are KH, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), the Badr Organization (BO), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HHN) and Kata’ib Imam Ali (KIA). Their leaders are open about their close relationship with Iran and many have even served under IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasim Soleimani in the Iran-Iraq War. These groups and their predecessors are responsible for thousands of American casualties during the Iraqi war and are the culprit behind the hundreds of rocket attacks on Coalition bases in the past year. 

The SGs share ideological and strategic objectives with their Iranian allies: 

(1) to evict Coalition forces from Iraq (if necessary by force);

(2) to establish a Komeinist regime in Baghdad;

(3) to export the Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East;

(4) to destroy Israel. 


STEP ONE: EJECT THE COALITION FROM IRAQ

The Coalition (“Operation Inherent Resolve”; OIR), was formed by the U.S. to combat ISIS at the invitation of the Iraqi government in 2014. The Coalition gathered more than 40 international members to conduct airstrikes against ISIS and provide training and advice to the Iraqi Security Force (ISF). The Coalition and the IRGC-backed SGs both fought against ISIS and, despite their differences, even coordinated at times. However, with the threat of ISIS physical caliphate removed, Iraqi SGs resumed their campaign to force U.S. and Coalition forces out of Iraq. 

In 2019, the SGs began targeting Coalition installations in Iraq with rocket salvos. While the fire was mostly indirect and ineffective, it occasionally injured Coalition forces and killed Iraqis serving in the ISF. The rocket attacks targeted everything from airfields, government facilities, civilian sites to training camps. Left unpunished, the attacks escalated and multiplied in the second half of the year. Only when a 30+ rocket salvo fell on the K-1 air base near Kirkuk on 27 December 2019, leaving one American dead and others severely wounded, the IRGC and its partner forces crossed a “red-line.”


K-1 ATTACKS PROMPTS COALITION TO RETALIATE

The attack on K-1 air base prompted the United States to seek retribution, which came in the form of a F-15E “strike package” from Jordan. The American jets prosecuted five sites used by Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), two in Syria and three in Iraq. The target list was carefully picked to strike the IRGC where it hurts the most, namely the land line-of-communication (LOC) linking Iran with its allies in Syria and Lebanon.

All KH targets that were prosecuted by the F-15s are located in the immediate vicinity of the Al Abukamal and al-Qa’im crossings on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Control over these locations is vital for the IRGC to maintain its LOC open. Iran’s expansive transnational logistical operation requires regional warehouses and assets in place to facilitate the free flow of cargo. With the destruction of KH’s headquarters (HQ) and ammunition caches, Iran’s LOC took tactical – albeit only temporary – damage. 

South of Al Abukamal, the IRGC, KH and other groups jointly operate one of the largest Iranian-financed military installations abroad. The compound is known as “Imam Ali” and serves as a major logistics node for the military capabilities flowing on the land-bridge. The compound hosts several ammunition depots, barracks and – according to ImageSatIntel – is undergoing construction to shelter an underground tunnel network. Despite multiple Israeli Air Force covert raids, Imam Ali garrison continues to expand and distribute military capabilities to Iraqi SGs operating in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

Sunday’s air strikes demonstrate that the US is willing to prosecute Iraqi SGs if they kill U.S. personnel in Iraq. However, this experience will likely prompt the SGs to expedite their effort to establish an air wing under Iranian supervision. 


AIR FORCE FOR THE PMUs

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the KH leader and PMU deputy commander, issued an order to establish an air force for the PMU on 4 September 4 2019. The air wing will be headed by Salah Mahdi Hantoush. Iraqi Prime-Minister Abel Abdul Mahdi rejected the idea, fearing that the PMU will further develop as a parallel armed force, similar to the duality of  IRGC and regular Iranian Armed Forces. Muhandis nevertheless defended his proposal, pointing to Israeli Air Force (IAF) attacks against several KH camps on Iraqi territory. Pressured by the PMUs, the Iraqi government imposed stricter airspace regulations that require “all Iraqi and non-Iraqi partners” (including the OIR-Coalition) to seek approval from the Iraqi command before flying in Iraqi airspace.

Despite the strong rhetoric from Baghdad, the PMUs perceive the Iraqi government as unable or unwilling to protect them from external attacks. The core SGs in the PMU also see the Iraqi government as an existential threat, as Baghdad seeks to integrate them into the Armed Forces. This would mean that SGs such as KH, BO and other groups need to disband their political wings and assimilate into the ISF. Despite paying lip service to the process, the big SGs are unlikely to give up their political power or their military autonomy. 



The IRGC is expected to meet al-Muhandis’ wish and aid the PMUs in forming an air force. First, the IRGC will likely supply them with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that will provide a degree of defense against air attacks. The IRGC-Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF) are likely to provide the PMUs with the “Khordad the 3rd” (Buk M-2 rip-off), “Mersad” (MIM-23 Hawk copy) and “Sayyad-2” SAM systems. The IRGC-AF could also arm their Iraqi counterparts with expandable unmanned aerial vehicles (X-UAVs) and cruise missiles, similar to those used in the Aramco attacks. [MORE ABOUT IRANIAN-PRODUCED SAM SYSTEMS]

The deployment of such systems in Iraq would significantly interfere with Coalition air operations in Iraq. Coalition aircraft would be subjected to a SAM threat, especially in the border areas, making even the most routine operations such as ISR more difficult. Attacks against Iraqi SGs will be rendered more complicated, as the Coalition will need to use more sophisticated weaponry and assets and always be ready to shift from ground attack to Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD). 

Restricting the airspace is another step in making Iraq an increasingly inhospitable place for the Coalition, which could eventually led to a withdrawal of forces from the country.


TARGET: US EMBASSY BAGHDAD

Thousands of Hizbollah supporters have breached the GREEN ZONE and are trying to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. BO leader, Hadi al-Amiri and AAH leader, Qais al-Khazali are present in the crowd. The situation is ONGOING.


By HARM

No Comments on The US Finally Retaliated against Iranian Proxies. Now what?

CIA Declassifies Records About the Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has released samples from over 100 National Intelligence Daily (NID) articles about the Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe (CCEE) between February 1989 and March…

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has released samples from over 100 National Intelligence Daily (NID) articles about the Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe (CCEE) between February 1989 and March 1990. The collection represents much of the Agency’s short-term analysis of events unfolding in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), as popular opposition to Soviet misrule erupted and quickly surpassed anything the Communist regimes were prepared to understand or to which they could respond. The material also represents a major source of information and insight for US policymakers into what was happening in these countries, where they were heading, and which implications the collapse of Communist rule in Europe and the beginnings of the breakup of the Soviet Union had for Europe and the United States.

The CCEE refers to a series of demonstrations and revolutions that ended the Soviet-imposed Communist rule in Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Romania, and paved the way for the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. The CCEE also marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War between the Western liberal democracies and the Soviet Union and its satellites (Warsaw Pact). 

The newly declassified intelligence demonstrates the accuracy of the Agency’s collection and analysis of the events unfolding in the padlocked CEE states. Despite the large volume of materials released, this is only a fraction of the CIA’s reporting on the CCEE. 

After going through the more than 100 documents, we can draw the following conclusions: 

  • Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) collected by the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) was the backbone of the NDIs. 
  • The developments in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania drew extra attention from Washington due to their specific geopolitical importance.
  • East Germany was the main “frontline” between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and a particular issue of concern for West Germany, a key US ally in the region. If the Communist regime in Berlin was to fall, the Agency was confident that re-unification with Bonn was a strong possibility.

Germans stand on top of the Wall in front of Brandenburg Gate in the days before it was torn down.

  • In Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, which experienced the mildest revolutions, over 135,000 Soviet Army troops were stationed. The withdrawal of Soviet forces from CEE would have significantly altered the balance of power in Europe in NATO’s favor. The three countries were also the fastest to enact unprecedented constitutional amendments and legislation in support of economic reform. 
  • Despite being affected by the domino effect of anti-Communist uprisings, Romania was seen as the Bloc’s last holdout due to the Ceausescu regime’s violent crackdown on protests. Not only was the Ceausescu regime strongly entrenched, but it also sought external support from other rogue regimes – particularly North Korea, Iran and Libya – to escape international isolation. Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country whose citizens overthrew the Communist regime violently. 
  • The CIA did not only extensively cover the Romanian revolution, but it also issued periodic situation reports and net estimates. One of the many valid assessments of the Agency analysts was that sustained violence against demonstrators would result in an alliance between the Romanian Armed Forces and disgruntled Communist officials (such as Ceausescu’s successor, Ion Iliescu, who was identified as a potential supporter in the CIA analyses) against Ceausescu and his family. 

December 1989: Thousands of Romanians rallied in front the the Communist Party’s politburo in Bucharest.

  • The Western Balkans were sparsely featured in the NDI dump. However, the risk of prolonged conflict as an effect of the CCEE was judged to be the highest in this region. The CIA feared that Albania would become a “second Romania” due to the regime’s opposition to change, while Yugoslavia was believed to be on the brink of collapse, leaving behind a mosaic of inter-ethnic armored conflicts. 
  • The CIA was confident that the Kremlin, paralized and weak, would not risk everything by launching punitive actions to suppress the revolutions that were overthrowing its “satellite” regimes in the Warsaw Pact. One analysis even observed how Lithuanian and Baltic nationalists were capitalizing on the Kremlin’s weakness by “pushing towards de facto independence, as a prelude for outright separation”.
  • The CIA was concerned that expectations among CEE populations were dangerously high. In the Special Analysis “Long Road Ahead to Economic Well-Being”, the Agency argued that the benefits of economic transition from a command economy to a free market system was a long-term game with few immediate positive effects. The Agency certainly remained open to the possibility that disenfranchised workers could stage counter-revolutions. 
No Comments on CIA Declassifies Records About the Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe

U.S. Aircraft Carrier Transits Strait of Hormuz After Months of Loitering in Open Waters

After nearly six months of staying in open waters, the “Abraham Lincoln” Carrier Strike Group (CSG) completed a scheduled transit through the Strait of Hormuz (SH) into the Persian Gulf…

After nearly six months of staying in open waters, the “Abraham Lincoln” Carrier Strike Group (CSG) completed a scheduled transit through the Strait of Hormuz (SH) into the Persian Gulf on November 19. Carrier Air Wing Seven (encompassing over 30 F/A-18E/F SuperHornets), the guided-missile cruiser Leyte Gulf, and guided-missile destroyers Bainbridge, Mason, and Nitze are assigned to the strike group. 

This was the first SH transit for the Nimitz-class USS “Abraham Lincoln” (CVN-72) ever since it was hurried to the Middle East in May 5, 2019, in response to undisclosed intelligence warning of an imminent Iranian attack. However, after decades of American aircraft carriers sailing through the SH, the U.S. Navy made the decision to keep the CVN-72 in open waters for security reasons. Satellite imagery showed the CVN-72 loitering in a “tight operational box” in the North Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and occasionally conducting port calls at Duqm, Oman for the past five months. 


The Iranian militaries regularly rehearse asymmetric tactics to trap and sink U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf in case of conflict. Aircraft carriers are particularly vulnerable when passing through the SH, which is 30 km at its narrowest. The recent decision to forward deploy CVN-72 into the enclosed Gulf could indicate that the threat posed by Iran decreased to an acceptable level for transiting the strait.

THE IRANIAN THREAT

The intelligence alerting to an imminent Iranian threat proved valid as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) staged numerous – convert and overt – attacks and provocations against commercial vessels and Western navies transiting the local waterways and even raided petrochemical facilities onshore: 

  • On June 13, 2019, The Panama-flagged “KOKUKA COURAGEOUS” (KG) and the Marshall Islands-flagged “FRONT ALTAIR” (FA) were attacked with seaborne ordnance (limpet mines or anti-ship missiles) by an unconfirmed aggressor in the Strait of Hormuz (SH). The US Navy has since released a video, filmed by a P-8 maritime security aircraft, which allegedly shows an Iranian naval unit removing an unexploded limpet charge from the KG’s hull, likely in an attempt to destroy evidence. 

  • The covert attack on KG and FA took place nearly a month after four commercial vessels (two Saudi Arabian tankers, one Norwegian tanker, and an Emirati bunkering ship) were damaged using limpet mines in the Emirati port of Fujairah (Gulf of Oman). Both operations are believed to have been conducted by the IRGC-Navy’s special operations forces known as the “Sepah” specialized in underwater demolition, sabotage, search & destroy and unconventional operations – a loose equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s DEVGRU (or “SEALs”). 
  • On June 20, 2019, the IRGC-Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF) downed a U.S. Global Hawk BAMS-D unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) near the SH using a “3rd Khordad” surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. Tehran accused the U.S. of violating its airspace while Washington claimed that it remained in international airspace. The Department of Defense drafted plans for retaliation against Iran’s coastal aerial defense systems and radars but the operation was later aborted by President Trump. The attack was a major milestone for Tehran. The IRGC proved that it can attack the U.S. and get away with it while also validating its indigenous defense technologies. 

  • On July 18, 2019, the USS Boxer downed an IRGC-AF UAV that closed within a threatening range, as the amphibious ship was transiting through the SH. The Marines on board the Boxer neutralized the threat through a “soft kill” approach (i.e. electronic attack) using the Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS). The day before, a U.S. Seahawk helicopter chased away an Iranian Navy Bell 212 helicopter that approached the Boxer shortly after it entered the SH. 
  • On July 20, 2019 the IRGC-Navy seized the British-flagged STENA IMPERO (SI) through an air-naval assault on the commercial ship near the SH. Tehran justified the operation as “tit-for-tat” after the British Royal Marines seized an Iranian-owned Panemese-flagged very large crude carrier (VLCC) vessel (“GRACE-1”) in Gibraltar found to be in breach of European Union (E.U.) oil embargo against the Syrian regime. Gibraltar authorities released the vessel (renamed as “ADRIAN DARYA-1”) in good faith on August 15, after receiving assurances from Tehran that it will not sell oil to Syria. However, DARYA-1 sailed to the Syrian coastline, where satellite imagery showed it unload oil via ship-to-ship (STS) transfer. Iran was late to reciprocate and only released the SI on September 27, 2019. 

  • On September 15, 2019, the Saudi Aramco petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were the subject of a low-observable and clandestine air attack involving nearly 20 expandable-UAVs and cruise missiles. In comparison to the countless other missile attacks mounted by the IRGC’s Yemenite partner force, “Ansar Allah” (Houthi) on Saudi/ Emirati oil facilities in the past, the September 15 raid was conducted directly by IRGC elements, and likely from Iranian territory. 

TF-IMSC

The growing asymmetric maritime threat posed by Iran prompted Washington to establish a multinational operational task force that would police the Middle Eastern seas and ensure the freedom of navigation in the region. The Task Force (TF) is known as the “International Maritime Security Construct” (IMSC) and encompasses the United Kingdom, Australia, the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, besides the U.S. TF-IMSC is headquartered with the U.S. Fifth Fleet command center in Manila, Bahrain. 

While the TF-IMSC is likely in the lengthy process of joint force integration, the CVN-72 is expected to project power and deter attacks on commercial shipping until its substitute, the USS Harry S. Truman” (CVN-75)  enters the Fifth Fleet area of operations.

UPDATE: CVN-72 LEAVES THE PERSIAN GULF

No Comments on U.S. Aircraft Carrier Transits Strait of Hormuz After Months of Loitering in Open Waters

Taiwan Resumes F-16 Overhaul, Continues Procurement Program Despite Transition to Asymmetric Warfare Doctrine

The Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) will proceed to overhaul its 142 F-16 A/B multi-role fighter jets. The modernization program “Phoenix Rising” was repeatedly delayed due to a shortage…

The Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) will proceed to overhaul its 142 F-16 A/B multi-role fighter jets. The modernization program “Phoenix Rising” was repeatedly delayed due to a shortage in manpower at Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC). Defense Minister Yen Teh-fa said that the problem was solved, after the AIDC hired 200 additional employees for the F-16 purpose-built facility in Taichung. Around 142 F-16 A/Bs of the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) will be upgraded to the latest F-16 Block 70/72 or “Viper” (V) configuration. Announced in 2016, the $5.3 billion “Phoenix Rising” overhaul program is expected to be completed by 2022.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION APPROVES F-16V SALE TO ROC

In addition, the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) will also receive 66 brand-new F-16 V fighter jets as part of a historical arms sale, which was authorized by the Trump administration in August 2019. Afraid to damage relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which views the ROC as a rogue province, the Bush and Obama administrations had previously refused the sale of modern F-16 jets to Taiwan. 

The Block 70/72 or Viper variant combines capability upgrades that render the F-16 relevant in today’s competitive age, while maintaining the jet’s cost-efficiency. The features include Norhrop Grumman’s AN/APG-53 scalable agile beam radar, an active electronically scanned radar, a Raytheon-built mission computer, the “Link16” datalink, an advanced cockpit display, an enhanced electronic warfare suite, and the integration of newer weapons systems. Following the upgrades and acquisition, the RoCAF’s F-16s will be able to fire the AGM-154 Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW), the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), and the AIM-9X Sidewinder infrared-guided air-to-air missile (AAM). The ROC expects to jets to be delivered between 2023 and 2026.

F-16 outfitted with a DB-110 ISR pod (rendering via Collins Aerospace)

According to local media, Taiwanese legislator Lu Yu-ling told parliament that the RoCAF is looking to acquire the UTC Aerospace Systems MS-110 multispectral airborne reconnaissance pod, which is a derivative of the company’s DB-110 dual-band long-range oblique photography pod. The MS-110 will provide the RoCAF with the capability to collect advanced imagery intelligence (IMINT) from a standoff range of 80 nautical miles, thus offering early-warning on potential enemy build-ups across the Taiwanese strait. 

Daytime visible image scan at 11 nautical miles from a Royal Air Force Tornado aircraft (Unclassified Crown Copyright). At a heigh of 6 nautical miles, the MS-110 pod can photograph and scan an area of 200 nautical miles across the horizon.

 

INTEGRATING THE “VIPER” INTO TAIWAN’S “OVERALL DEFENSE CONCEPT” 

While “Phoenix Rising” and the large F-16V procurment will enhance Taiwan’s deterrence posture, it will not change the balance of power in the region. Despite significant foreign purchases and idigenous developments, Taiwan’s military capabilities do not measure up to the People’s Liberation Army-Air Force’s (PLAAF) inventory of over 1,500 aircraft and China’s growing navy. To address this issue, Taiwan has adopted a new military doctrine based on asymmetric warfare. 

The “Overall Defense Concept” (ODC) calls for the wholesale mining of the Taiwan strait and the ROC shores as well as for targeting advancing enemy forces with a barrage of anti-ship/coastal defense missiles and swarms of small and fast-moving boats. By imposing great costs on an amphibious assault through affordable means, Taiwan would be preserving its conventional capabilities for joint operations, once the United States Navy comes to its rescue. If they survive the PLA’s and PLAAF’s anticipated missile barrage on Taiwanese airfields, the RoCAF’s F-16s would play air defense and anti-surface roles in a projected conflict. 

The ODC is part of the “resolute defense, multi-layered deterrence” strategy introduced by the Tsai administration. Beijing pursues an increasingly hardline policy against Taiwan, since the Tsai administration is unwilling to abide to the “One China” policy. The PRC is actively seeking to restrict Taiwan’s participation in the international community and engages in political warfare, aimed at undermining democracy in Taipei.

No Comments on Taiwan Resumes F-16 Overhaul, Continues Procurement Program Despite Transition to Asymmetric Warfare Doctrine

A Week in Missile Tests: Russia, North Korea and the US

The Russian Federation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or “North Korea”) and the United States have each conducted major ballistic missile (BM) tests in the span of only…

The Russian Federation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or “North Korea”) and the United States have each conducted major ballistic missile (BM) tests in the span of only a few days between September 30 and October 2, 2019. 


RUSSIA: TOPOL-M/ SS-27 “SICKLE B”

The Russian Strategic Missile Forces test-launched a RT-2MP2 Topol-M (NATO reporting name: SS-27 “Sickle B”) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from a spaceport silo in Plesetsk on November 30, 2019. The ICBM landed 6000 km away in an undisclosed location on the Kamchatka peninsula. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the test fire confirmed the technical readiness of the Topol-M ICBM. 




Commissioned in 1997, the Topol-M is a three stage, solid fuel ICBM with a maximum operational range of 10,000 kilometers. Bearing similarity with the American Minuteman III ICBM, the Topol-M has a single, 500 kiloton-yield warhead. As a ground-launch system, the Topol can be fired from both reinforced missile silos and a mobile transporter erector launcher (i.e. MZKT-79221 “Universal” 8×8). 

Flight path of Topol-M/ SS-27 “Sickle-B” ICBM during the November, 30 2019 test (T-Intelligence)

Experts believe that the Topol-M has formidable evasive features that significantly increase the missile’s survivability against modern anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems. 

  • Short boost phase: Minimizes launch footprint and complicates early-warning threat acquisition. 
  • Flat ballistic trajectory: Complicates ABM interception. 
  • Maneuverable and enforced reentry vehicle (RV): Complicates ABM interception in terminal phase due to unpredictable attack path and renders the RV immune to radio, electromagnetic or physical disturbance. 
  • Countermeasures and decoys: Significant decrease in successful interception, as the vast majority of ABM system are unable to discriminate between targets. 

The Kremlin aims to augment its current nuclear ICBM capability through the phased deployment of the RS-24 “Yars” (referred to as the SS-27 Mod. B or SS-29), which contains multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) as opposed to the single-warhead Topol-M. The RS-24 is believed to be capable of a larger kilotone capacity and extended engagement range. 

In addition, Russia is developing a replacement for its obsolete R-36 ICBM, called the RS-28 Sarmat (NATO Reporting name: SS-X-30 Satan II). One “Satan II” ICBM is believed to be able to launch a combination of 10 to 15 MIRVs consisting of conventional nuclear warheads and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV), including the Avangard. 


DPRK: PUKUGUKSONG-3 

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) test-fired a previously unidentified submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) off Woffsan, on October 1, 2019. The SLBM was identified as the Pukuguksong-3 by the state-controlled media. 

Pukuguksong-3 launched from a submerged platform or submarine courtesy of North Korea state media

According to the Republic of Korea’s (ROK or South Korea) Joint Chiefs of Staff, who constantly monitor DPRK missile tests, the Pukuguksong-3 flew about 450 km on an eastward trajectory and reached an apogee of 910 kilometers. The SLBM landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the East Sea. 

Flight path of DPRK’s Pukuguksong-3 SLBM during the October 1, 2019 test (T-Intelligence)

Earlier in July, the DPRK revealed that the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) is developing an another indigenous diesel-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSB) in addition to the existing Sinpo-class SSB (also known as “Gorae”-class) that was deployed in 2014. The new SSB appears to be a modified version of the Russian-made Project 663 submarine (NATO reporting name Romeo-class), with a significantly larger and wider sail to accommodate one solid-fuel Pukuguksong-3 SLBM. The new submarine is expected to enter service in the Sea of Japan soon, according to DPRK-owned media. 

Kim Jong-Un inspect DPRK’s newest ballistic missile submarine. In order to conceal technical details, North Korea censored blurred the upper side of the submarine.



Washington has been aware of this new North Korean submarine for more than a year, a senior US official told CNN. Despite the KPN’s recent development of new subsurface capabilities, Seoul assessed that the Pukuguksong-3 was test-fired from a submerged launching platform instead of a submarine. However, the successful testing of the Pukuguksong-3 and the constant advancements in SSB technology show that the DPRK is pursuing a credible (nuclear) second strike capability that is more elusive and difficult to track than land-based systems. While neither of KPN’s nuclear-capable submarines can threaten the US western seaboard, they would represent a force multiplier when it comes to overwhelming ROK, Japanese, and even American (in Guam) ABM defense systems. 


US: MINUTEMAN III

The U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command successfully test-fired a Minuteman III ICBM from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, at 1:13 AM, October 2, 2019. The Minuteman’s RV traveled 6,760 km to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. 

Despite the “chain” of missile tests by Russia and the DPRK, the US Air Force (USAF) clarified that the test launch was not in connection to “world events” or “regional tensions.” In fact, the USAF tests its Minuteman III arsenal once or twice every year to ensure that the ICBMs are functional to fulfill their role for nuclear deterrence. The recent test was planned and organized six months to a year in advance. 

Flight path of Minuteman III ICBM during the October 2, 2019 test

Ever since the early 1960s, the Minuteman family of missiles has served as the backbone component of US nuclear capability. Starting with 2014, the Minuteman III became the sole American land-based nuclear system. With a maximum range of 13,000 km, the Minuteman III can carry three RV with a combined payload of 350 kiloton. However, under the New START treaty, the US and Russia modified their ICBM arsenal to carry only one warhead per missile. 

The 50-years-old Minuteman III will continue to serve as America’s premier land-based nuclear capability until the mid-2030s, when the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (next-generation ICBM) will be deployed. 

 

No Comments on A Week in Missile Tests: Russia, North Korea and the US

Iran Used Cruise Missiles, Suicide Drones in Saudi Attack

During a press briefing in Riyadh, the Saudi Defense Ministry revealed wreckage recovered after the air attack on the petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. The physical evidence suggests that…

During a press briefing in Riyadh, the Saudi Defense Ministry revealed wreckage recovered after the air attack on the petrochemical facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. The physical evidence suggests that the weapons used in the attack were a mix of Iranian land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) and expendable unmanned aerial vehicles (XUAVs). According to the Defense Ministry, eighteen XUAVs struck the Abqaiq oil facility. Three LACMs malfunctioned and crashed in the Saudi desert en route to Abqaiq. The raid on Khurais oil field was conducted by four LACMs.


KINETIC PLATFORMS

LACM. The Saudis identified the LACMs as the Iranian-made “Ya-Ali.” With an estimated engagement range of 700 km, the Ya-Ali carries a 200 kg warhead. However, the majority of experts agree that the wreckage bears more similarity with the Iranian “Soumar” LACM or the “Quds-1”, a re-branded version of the Soumar operated by the Houthis. 


While all LACMs seem to have been inspired by the Russian-made Kh-55 Granat (NATO Reporting name: Kent), which was smuggled by the IRGC from Ukraine in 2001, the three missile-types differ in design and mechanical features. Compared to the Ya-Ali, the Quds-1’s rocket booster is smaller and its engine is not internally carried, but situated on the airframe. While similar at first sight, the Quds-1 and Soumar differ in size and airframe design (aft fuselage, stabilizers, exhaust, wings). The two missiles also use different engines. The Quds-1 is believed to be powered by the Czech-made TJ100 turbojet propeller or a replica of it. Both the Quds-1 and the Ya-Ali are believed to share the same 700 km operational range, roughly half of their larger Soumar “cousin.” 

Although operated by the Houthis, the Quds-1 is undeniably linked to Iran’s evolving family of LACMs. Analysts believe that Iran is secretly producing simplified knockoffs of its missile systems for exclusive use by its proxies. This allows the IRGC to equip its allies with high-end conventional capabilities, while maintaining political deniability. 

UAV. The Saudi Defense Ministry identified the loitering munition used in the Abqaiq attacks as “Iranian Delta Wave UAVs.” The IRGC-AF have been secretly working on a myriad of UAV programs for the past decade. While numerous operational and experimental airframes have been unveiled in private or semi-private events for government officials, there is sparse information regarding the Delta Wave XUAV. 

As per ARS Technica: “drone wreckage including one described as an Iranian Delta Wave UAV. The design resembles earlier delta-winged “kamikaze” drones built by Iran.” Vivian Nereim/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Analysts have found that the Delta Wave UAV is based on the IRGC’s “Toofan”, an expandable/ “suicide” UAV capable of 250 km/h top speed for one hour. However, the variants used in the Khurais and Abqaiq attack were smaller with potentially “stealthier” characteristics. 


DELIVERY AND EXECUTION

The relatively medium range of both the LACMs and XUAVs add extra credibility to American, Saudi, and  independent OSINT findings that the attack did not originate from Yemen, but from the north, with Iran’s southwestern province as the likeliest launching point. 

The kinetic solution as well as the flight path proved ideal to bypass Saudi air defenses. The Iranian weapons flew low (not higher than 200 meters) and slow, blending with ground clutter, which likely caused radar dopplers to filter them out. To support the attack, the IRGC-AF have certainly obtained actionable intelligence regarding the radio-electronic order of battle of the Royal Saudi Air Force in Abqaiq and Khurais and of US installations in Kuwait, using both human reportings and geospatial means. With Kuwait as the likely intermediate airspace, the IRGC gambled that local US air defenses were either inactive/idle or subject to disadvantageous rules of engagement (force protection only). 

Open-source commercial satellite imagery dating from June, 2019 shows that the AN/MPQ-53 sensor near Abqaiq was pointed towards the southwest. In addition, the IRGC-AF likely collected critical information on whether the point air defense installations such as the “Shahin” and “Oerlikon” (aided by Skyguard radars) near Abqaiq were active. 

Using a custom script in Sentinel-1 SAR multi-temporal imagery, OSINT analysts have found that none of the Saudi AN/MPQ-53/65 radars were active on Saturday (September 16, 2019). VH-VV polarization and ascending-descending orbit convergence show that only Bahraini, Qatari and Emirati PATRIOT systems and some (non-AN/MPQ-53/65 ) radars in Kuwait also were “online.” 


For more on the September 14 Air Attack on Saudi Arabia consult our preliminary attack path assessment and the initial after-action briefing.

No Comments on Iran Used Cruise Missiles, Suicide Drones in Saudi Attack

Type on the field below and hit Enter/Return to search