Tag: A2/AD

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…

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 regime as well as the nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) programs. The protection of major population centers represents a secondary concern. Given the escalating tensions with Israel, the United States and the Gulf states, Iran will likely increase the readiness of its AD in the immediate future.  


OPERATIONAL DOCTRINE

2. The responsibility for the Iranian AD is shared between the Khatham al-Anbia Air Defense Base of the regular Iranian Armed Forces (Artesh) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Forces (IRGC-AF). The rivalry between Artesh and IRGC, alongside shortfalls in C4 infrastructure, prevents Iran from developing a truly integrated AD system.

3. Iran’s AD doctrine recognizes the asymmetric superiority of adversarial striking capabilities. The Artesh and IRGC-AF therefore deploy a minimal AD regime, which aims at SAM survivability on the first day of war, and seek alternative AD measures. The alternative tactics focus on detecting, jamming and intercepting hostile targets through passive aerial detection radars, electronic warfare means and air assets tasked with countering enemy ordinance.

4. In the medium to long term, the introduction of new, indigenously produced SAMs and radars will shift the Iranian AD doctrine back towards traditional assets. The growing availability of modern and domestically sustainable systems will allow Iran to gradually decommission outdated SAMs or provide combined saturated coverage over key areas.

5. The indigenous SAMs show both original features and marks of reverse engineering from Russian, Chinese and U.S. systems. Their effectiveness is difficult to assess due to operations security and lack of combat testing.


CAPABILITIES AND DEPLOYMENTS

6. The limited SAM inventory and the large Iranian territory mandate an austere deployment regime. Only Tehran and central Iran are comprehensively covered due to the presence of nuclear/ICBM sites and governmental institutions. Southern, western and northern Iran are partially sealed, while the eastern part of the country is almost entirely uncovered.

Overview map of the Iranian SAM deployment and systems

7. The Iranian geography significantly interferes with AD radar coverage. As 60 percent of Iran’s terrain has an elevation of over 1,800 meters, low-altitude radars are blocked in large segments. The Zagros-Alborz mountain ring (2000-5000 m elevation) in particular obstructs aerial detection radars based on the central Iranian plateau. Despite its geographical challenges, Iran has made little progress in procuring or modernizing aircraft (airborne early warning and control systems/AWACS) that could alleviate these blind spots.

8. We estimate that open-source IMINT findings account for approximately 40 to 50 percent of operational Iranian SAMs, including those garrisoned.


Tehran

9. The capital is Iran’s best defended area. Tehran’s AD network protects various nuclear and ICBM locations, including research and development facilities, storage sites and launch silos. Iran’s political bodies, military command centers and major bases are also located in the capital.

SAM deployments and key sites in Tehran

10. Tehran’s Area Air Defense (AAD) is formed by three layers of long-range SAMs: Two S-300PMU2 Favorites and one S-200VE Vega. The S-300PMU2s specialize in tracking small radar-cross section (RCS) objects such as cruise missiles, fighter jets and small-range ballistic missiles. The S-200 Vega is proficient at longer-ranges and higher-altitudes, but reliable only against large RCS objects such as AWACS, electronic intelligence (ELINT) and intelligence, surveillance & reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, and heavy lifters.

11. An abundance of legacy and newly produced short-/medium-range systems provide saturated Point Air Defense (PAD). Four legacy MIM-23 Hawks and one HQ-2 (Chinese version of the S-75) with minimal domestic upgrades form the weaker links in the PAD chain. Two indigenous Talash systems, armed with Sayyad-2 missiles (“Hunter-2” in Farsi), and one Ra’ad system (Buk imitation) strengthen Teheran’s PAD capabilities.

Sayyad-2/ Talash site in southern Tehran

12. Iran has invested massively to make the Sayyad the jack-of-all-trades missile for its indigenous SAM systems. The Sayyad-2 medium-range SAMs are versatile, cross-platform compatible, and domestically produced. The missiles are based on the U.S. RIM-66 naval SAM and can be fired from the Talash, the S-200, and other launchers. The long-range Sayyad 3 and the forthcoming Sayyad 4, which are based on the S-300’s 48N6E/2 SAM, will arm Iran’s Bavar 373 system.


The Heartland

13. SAM coverage in the Iranian Heartland (Isfahan province) is multi-layered and saturated. The AD bubbles protect some of Iran’s major population centers such as Qom, Isfahan and Natanz. The area also hosts key nuclear and ICBM sites, including an uranium production facility near Natanz as well as a uranium conversion center and ICBM-launch silos near Isfahan. An extensive network of bunkers traverses the hills and mountains around the two cities.

SAM deployments and key sites in the Heartland

14. Isfahan’s AAD double-layer consists of one S-300PMU2 and one S-200VE system, based close to Isfahan International Airport. Three MIM-23 Hawks and one Sayyad-2 capable Talash system provide PAD. The PAD assets are scattered to create overlapping coverage for the long-range SAMs and nuclear/ICBM sites.

S-200VE site in Isfahan, Iran. The site is located 380 meters north of the local S-300PMU2

15. The Natanz area is covered by the long-range SAMs based in Isfahan and Tehran. The area hosts only mid-, short- and very-short-range assets with limited engagement envelopes, which suggests a focus on countering saturation missile attacks.  Two HQ-2s, two 2K12 Kub and three Tor-M1E form the local AD bubble. The highly mobile Kub and Tor can be scattered easily and used for shoot-and-scoot tactics. We have identified at least 12 empty AD sites in the area that could host indigenous SAMs in the future.


Southern Seaboard  

16. The Southern Seaboard has a modest SAM coverage, which is currently transitioning to newer assets. The PAD-exclusive extremities and the SAM-free gap between Bushehr and Bandar Abbas are among the most vulnerable sections of the Iranian airspace.

SAM deployments and key sites on the Southern Seaboard

17. The Southern Seaboard is a strategically vital region due to the proximity of adversarial territories and international trade routes. Iranian SAMs are deployed to secure the southern airspace and to monitor the Persian/Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

18. The IRGC Navy (IRGC-N) is responsible for the Gulf, while the regular Iranian  Navy (IRIN) is tasked with protecting the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean. The operational headquarters and nearly 90 percent of IRGC-N/IRIN bases are located on the Southern Seaboard (Khuzestan, Bushehr, Hormozgan and Baluchestan provinces). Tactical air bases (TABs), vital oilfields, and a nuclear power plant are also situated near the coast.

SAM deployments and key sites on the the Persian/ Arabian Gulf coast

19. The Persian/Arabian Gulf is the only part of the Southern Seaboard that is adequately covered. Bushehr hosts a double long-range AAD layer. One rail-based S-200 Vega and one new S-300PMU2 (replacing a MIM-23 retired in May 2017), are positioned on the grounds of TAB 6 (Bushehr International Airport).

S-300PMU2 site near Bushehr International Airport, Iran. The SAM system replaced a decommissioned Hawk-23 MIM in May 2017

20. An outdated Hawk MIM-23 and a Talash system armed with Sayyad-2 missiles provide the PAD for the area. Besides naval bases, the saturated SAM deployments guard the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, which would likely figure high on adversaries’ target lists.

21. The Bushehr-based S-200 Vega also provides partial, but unreliable coverage (range edge) for Bandar Mahshahr. This renders the Mahshahr area open to air attack, as it has only one local PAD site (MIM-23 Hawk). However, at least three empty AD sites stand ready to host further SAM systems.

SAM deployments and key sites in the Strait of Hormuz

22. The Strait of Hormuz is moderately exposed.  The S-200VE deployed in Bandar Abbas leaves the area vulnerable to advanced fighter jets, low-observable cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The PAD layer consists of one Hawk MIM-23 and one Chinese HQ-2. While these systems focus on the low-altitude blindspot of the S-200, they are largely impotent in the face of maneuvering targets and powerful jamming.  

23. Abu Musa Island serves as a forward early warning post and staging point for special operations forces. Despite its strategic position near international shipping lines, the island lacks major military installations. The local MIM-23 Hawk site is a folder cannon, aimed at increasing the survivability of more important assets such as radars and missiles launchers on the mainland. An unknown number of naval SAMs carried by IRGC-N vessels provide additional AD in the Strait of Hormuz. The IRGC-N is scheduled to receive the latest naval version of the Sayyad in the near future.

24. A recently deployed MIM-23 Hawk in Chabahar is the only SAM system on the coast of the Gulf of Oman. As Chabahar is undergoing multi-billion-dollar investment and is on route to become Iran’s key deep-water port, the city will likely be one of the first recipients of the Sayyad 3 or 4 SAMs. The area hosts two major IRGC-N/IRIN bases and serves as a gateway to both the Strait of Hormuz and the eastern Iranian airspace.


The West

25. Iran’s western flank is poorly defended, even though the region, which hosts several TABs and nuclear/ICBM facilities, is in the immediate proximity of the U.S. military bases in Iraq and Kuwait. 

SAM deployments and key sites in the West

26. An S-200VE based in TAB 3 (Hamdan Airport) provides AAD over Hamadan, Kermanshah and Kurdistan provinces. Iran’s long-range Fa’ath 14 radar near TAB3 is within coverage, but lacks a PAD layer. The IR-40 nuclear reactor and the uranium enrichment facility near Arak are guarded by an AAD overlay of the Hamadan- and Tehran-based S-200 SAM systems. Two MIM-23 Hawks, stationed in the vicinity of the nuclear sites, provide an additional, yet limited layer of PAD.

MIM-23 site overlooking the IR-40 reactor in Hamadan, Iran

27. The Tabriz area in the Northwest completely lacks long-range SAM coverage. Critical military locations depend on one MIM-23 Hawk and one 2K12 Kub for PAD. The patchy AD coverage is puzzling, given the unique geo-strategic position of northwestern Iran. The underground ICBM launch complex near Tabriz potentially brings parts of Europe within striking range for Iranian Shahab missiles.

28. The southwestern airspace is even more vulnerable. The only SAM deployment in the area, a MIM-23 Hawk, is located on the ground of TAB 4 (Dezful Airport). Several empty AD revetments are scattered throughout the region.


The East

29. Iran’s eastern airspace almost entirely unprotected. Over 760,000 square kilometers  (40% of Iran’s territorial surface), including Iran’s second most populated city Mashhad, completely lack AAD. One MIM-23 Hawk provides weak PAD for TAB 14 (Mashhad International Airport) and an ICBM launch complex near Mashhad. 

SAM deployments and key sites in the East

30. The AD strategy for the East relies on alternative tactics. Early-warning and over-the-horizon radars (e.g. the Nazir radar with a 800 km coverage) detect and identify targets. Threat interception is carried out by outdated fixed-wing aircraft armed with air-to-air missiles, which are permanently held at high readiness. The AD strategy for the East also incorporates the use of electronic warfare (EW) assets. Iran’s EW has proven to be moderately efficient against U.S. UAVs in the past.

31. We asses the Iran will deploy one or two long-range SAMs in the East at the earliest possible date.  AAD is necessary to mitigate the risk of aircraft penetration and to protect Tehran and the Heartland from attacks with standoff-range low-observable ordinance. The deployment of U.S. F-35s in Kandahar Airbase (Afghanistan) and on amphibious carriers in the Persian/Arabian Gulf mandates Iran to expedite AD enhancements in the region.


by HARM and Gecko

Our IMINT analysis is based on openly available satellite data (Image Landsat/Copernicus).

The Sayyad-2 SAM engagement range varies between 60 and 76 km, depending on missile type.

IMINT can potentially confuse the MIM-23 Hawk with the Mersad, Iran’s domestic copy-cat.  Mersad’s Shlamche and Shahin SAMs have a 5-10 km shorter range than the MIM-23. An improved variant has a claimed range of 56 km. The engagement range of all pink color-coded AD rings can therefore vary from 40 to 56 km.

Previous assessments on Iranian SAM deployments have been conducted by Sean O’Connor in 2010 and Iran-GEOINT blog in 2017.

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

1. In 2017, Romania announced 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…

1. In 2017, Romania announced 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. The $11.6 billion shopping list includes top-of-the-line products such as Raytheon’s latest Patriot air defense system. The assets are specifically tailored to counter the Russian threat in the Black Sea – namely Russia’s naval supremacy, anti-access area denial (A2/AD) capabilities and theater ballistic missiles (TBM) deployed in Crimea.   

2. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 has shaken the Black Sea region from its century-long geopolitical slumber. Moscow’s military build-up in Crimea – only 400 km from the Romanian coast – has transformed the Black Sea into a substantial missile engagement and interdiction zone, placing the region at the very top of NATO’s agenda.

3. The Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) and Russian Navy (RuN) currently operate more than 15 naval and air bases in Crimea. The port of Sevastopol hosts the RuN’s 30,000 men strong Black Sea Fleet (BSF), which is responsible for operations in the Black Sea, Azov Sea and the Mediterranean.

4. Concerned about the mounting Russian presence at its doorstep, Romania has welcomed a number of strategic U.S. and NATO military installations on its soil. Over the past years, Bucharest has reliably allocated 2% of its GDP to defense in order to boost its naval warfare, missile strike and air defense capabilities. In all three areas, the Romanian Ministry of National Defense (MoND) has made significant progress.  

 VISUAL COMPARISON: Drag the bar left to see how Romania's defense procurement will change the regional air defense and artillery outlook

SEA COMMAND

5. Russia strives to establish naval supremacy in the Black Sea. The BSF currently consists of 47 warships and seven submarines, most of which are stationed in the strategic city-port of Sevastopol and the Novorossiysk auxiliary naval air base. While the fleet is largely outdated, around 18 new or modernized warships are expected to join the BSF by 2020.

6. Even in its current state, the Russian BSF holds strike superiority in both surface and subsurface naval warfare. All major vessels stationed in Crimea are equipped with standoff range anti-ship missiles (ASM) and anti-submarine weapons (ASW). The naval assets are supported by land-based (road-mobile, naval infantry and coastal batteries) and airborne (mostly Mi-14, Mi-24 and Su-30) ASM/ASW units. The large number and variety of surface and subsurface missiles pose an acute threat to NATO and the neighboring countries.

7. Consequently, Romania promised to prioritize naval defence procurement. The Romanian Navy’s (RoN) surface warfare capabilities will be enhanced by the acquisition of four multi-purpose corvettes, worth $2 billion, and an unspecified number of naval strike missile (NSM) coastal defense batteries. Two existing Type-22 corvettes,  the Regele Ferdinand and Regina Maria, will be modernized in the course of the same program. The corvettes are scheduled for commission between 2021 and 2023.

8. The missile type deployed on the new assets will be a decisive factor for the success of the surface warfare program. Given the BSF’s mass proliferation of supersonic anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles (such as the Kalibr), the RoN has to arm its corvettes with adequate shipbourne interceptors and high-frequency surface wave radars. As Raytheon’s RIM-62 Evolved SeaSparrow is designed to counter supersonic manuveuring anti-ship missiles, it would be an obvious choice for the Romanian corvettes.

9. While the corvettes will be an important addition on the surface, the RoN remains critically under-equipped for subsurface warfare in the short to medium term. The MoND’s ambitious submarine program aims to build three submarines and modernize the only existing one, the Kilo-class Delfinul, which is currently used for training. However, the lack of financial resources and technological know-how render it highly unlikely that Romania will commence with the submarine program before 2026.

10. The RoN’s seabourn (surface and subsurface) capabilities will be augmented by the Romanian Air Force (RoAF), which is responsible for policing the maritime airspace. In the past years, the Romanian maritime airspace has been repeatedly violated by the Russian Aerospace Force (RuAF) - especially when the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet and NATO’s Maritime Standing Group 1 and 2 conduct semi-permanent sea patrols in the region and dock in Romanian ports.

11. Currently, Romania’s airspace is protected by a NATO air policing mission. In order to strengthen its own air policing capabilities, Romania has purchased twelve F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Portuguese Air Force. The F-16s are expected to become operational in the beginning of next year. The acquisition of another batch of 36 F-16s A/B is scheduled for 2019.

12. While the F-16 A/B is a good choice for basic mission profiles such as air policing and ground attack, it does not sufficiently threaten Russia’s Anti-Access/ Area Denial (A2AD) zone in Crimea. The RoAF would have required fourth generation fighter jets or the latest block versions of the Fighting Falcon, capable of carrying anti-radiation missiles (ARM) and standoff air-launched cruise missiles, in order to credibly challenge the Russian air defenses.

ANTI-ACCESS/ AREA DENIAL (A2AD)

13. The Russian forces in Crimea are safeguarded by a robust, multi-layered and augmented network of integrated area and point air defenses. Three Russian divisions in Crimea operate the S-400 Triumf, the latest Russian SAM technology. The S-400 Triumf creates an impenetrable area air defense (AAD) cover, capable of parrying airborne assets, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles in a 400 km radius. Furthermore, numerous S-300 SAM systems are scattered throughout the region, providing  an additional AAD layer. A very high, but unknown number of Pantsir S-1s, BUKs (Sa-11), Oka (Gecko) and anti aircraft artillery (AAA) provide point air defense (PAD) for military installations, artillery batteries and SAM sites.

14. The ground-based air defenses in Crimea are supported by a layer of electronic warfare (EW) and EW-countermeasure (EWCM) systems. The Russian tip-of-the-spear EW capability is the Krasukha 2/4, which is able to jam communications, low earth orbit spy satellites, missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). As EWCM, the Russians have installed radars that provide frequency diversity across the Crimean peninsula and interlink with the AAD and PAD layers.

15. A Podsolnukh over-the-horizon radar stationed on Crimea’s Southwestern coast furthermore provides early warning data, reaching as far as the Bosphorus. Supported by airborne and seaborne radars, the BSF can thus detect and - in case of war - rapidly engage adversaries entering the Black Sea.

16. In response to Russia’s A2/AD zone, Romania saw it necessary to acquire a long-range rocket artillery system capable of contesting Russian air defenses in Crimea. In order to pose a credible threat, the artillery system has to be battle-proven, technologically superior to its competitors and able to fire smart and cluster munition with a range of 400 km. As the U.S. High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) ticks all these boxes, Romania has placed a $1.5 billion order for 54 HIMARS and ammunition.

17. The HIMARS is the Pentagon’s long-range artillery of choice in the hottest conflicts. The system is currently stationed near the 38th parallel (South Korea) and the al-Tanf garrison (Syria) and is used to engage ISIS and Taliban targets in Syria and Afghanistan. After receiving its HIMARS batteries in 2019, Romania will be the first European operator of the system. The coast-based Romanian Marines Regiment will likely receive most of the HIMARS batteries, bringing the Western coast of Crimea within range.

THEATER BALLISTIC MISSILE (TBM) THREAT

18. According to NATO, Russia has moved the Iskander-M nuclear-capable mobile ballistic missile system to Crimea. Two videos, which surfaced on social media in 2016, show that at least five MZKT-79306 Iskander launcher trucks and support vehicles are present in Crimea. The domestic version of the Iskander-M has a maximum range of 450 km. The system is able to bypass enemy air defense systems by releasing decoy clusters at 30G speed in the terminal phase. The agile and evasive artillery system is considered to be the most dangerous theater ballistic missile (TBM) in Russia’s arsenal.

19. With its range of 450km, the Iskander-M directly threatens Southeastern Romania, where a number of high-value U.S., NATO, and Romanian military and command structures are located:

  • The NATO Force Integration Unit (NFIU) for the NATO Response Force  - Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (NRF-VJTF) in Bucharest;
  • The U.S. operated Mihail Kogalniceanu air base and the Babadag, Capu Midia and Smardan training ranges;
  • The RoAF’s 86th air base in Borcea - a NATO-interoperable airfield that hosts Romania’s F-16 squadron;
  • The RoN’s command headquarters for river boat patrol (Tulcea, Braila), the corvette squadron (Mangalia) and the frigate flotilla (Constanta).

20. To counter the Russian missile-threat, Romania has ordered seven MIM-104 Patriot 3 (PAC-3) long-range SAM systems manufactured by Raytheon. The PAC-3 is the latest configuration of the Patriot system. The PAC-3 updates are based on more than 20 years of U.S. battlefield experience and feedback from 13 foreign customers. The $3.9 billion order will be delivered to the Romanian Land Forces and the RoN in 2019.

21. The PAC-3 is highly efficient against evasive and fast-moving TBMs such as the Iskander-M and the Kalibr (in all versions). The PAC-3 batteries fire rockets equipped with Missile Segment Enhancements (MSE) to intercept and destroy enemy TBMs in their terminal phase. The MSE increases velocity, extends the flight range by 50% and has a lethality enhancer warhead to guarantee hit-to-kill performance. For now, Romania has ordered 165 MSEs for the newly acquired PAC-3 batteries.

22. The PAC-3 uses a passive AN/MPQ-65 radar, which is difficult to target for enemy anti-radiation missiles (ARM). The AN/MPQ-65 radar can track over 100 targets at high-altitude, without emitting signals that radar-homing missiles can lock on. This capability potentially discourages adversarial Suppression/ Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (S/DEAD) sorties.

23. The PAC-3 batteries will form an area air defense (AAD) barrier over Southeastern Romania, which will cover the highly populated and strategically important region. The PAC-3 AADs will receive short and medium-range point-area defense (PDA) from Romania’s existing SAMs and anti-aircraft artillery such as the MIM-23 Hawk and Soviet-made assets. Ultimately, the Romanian AAD and PAD bubbles will be linked with the U.S.-operated Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system. Together, the systems will provide a reliable, multi-layered, and integrated air defense network for NATO’s Eastern flank.

24. In summary, Romania’s recent defense acquisitions create an air interdiction bubble, augmented by deep strike artillery systems capable of reaching Crimea. Naval warfare enhancements and air force assets further strengthen Romania’s growing military role in the Black Sea and pose a credible deterrent against potential Russian aggressions.


by HARM and Gecko

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New Tide in the Eastern Mediterranean: Radiography of Russia’s Permanent Military Build-up on the Syrian Coast

Strategic Analysis (20 min read) – The Syrian quagmire is nearing the end. The Assad regime is quasi-victorious with more than half of the national territory regained and over 75%…

Strategic Analysis (20 min read) – The Syrian quagmire is nearing the end. The Assad regime is quasi-victorious with more than half of the national territory regained and over 75% of the Syrian population under its control. The Opposition forces are utterly degraded and boxed into a few isolated patches of land in the western parts of Syria. The Russian Armed Forces as the Iranian-backed Shi’a paramilitary groups have played a key role in this effort. The military intervention launched in 2015 was mostly motivated by long-term strategic goals that seek to undermine NATO’s southern flank and push forward the agenda of resurgence. Inherently, the Russian Federation will maintain a permanent military presence in the Mediterranean Sea and the Levant amid the end of the Syrian Civil War. The Latakia Air field will continue to host dozens of fighter jets and bombers, while the Naval Facility of Tartus will be enhanced to form a Mediterranean Fleet consisting of a nuclear submarine and 11 warships. Guarded by the S-400 system, the Russian military-assets on the Syrian coastline form a new Anti-Access Area Denial Zone (A2AD). The strategic ramifications of these actions are to vanguard the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, challenge NATO’s freedom of maneuver on its southern flank and enhance Russia’s geopolitical posture and security needs throughout the region and the world.

(Electronic references are embedded in text via hyperlink)

Little Green Men in Syria: Context, Origins and Developments:

The Russia State Duma authorized in mid-2015 the deployment of troops in Syria. The Regime of Bashar al-Assad submitted an official request to Moscow for military support. Weakened by defections and casualties, the largely conscripted and weary Syrian Arab Army (SAA) was close to collapse. This would have been catastrophic to Russia’s long-term strategic plans and shorter-term goals.

The military intervention to support the Assad regime and decisively aid the Loyalist war effort was motivated by several factors:

Grand Strategy of Resurgence. Vladimir Putin continues to see the relationship with the West as a zero-sum game, that can be leveraged to assert the strategy of reviving the Soviet-era influence and posture. The West had little-to-no appetite for a new intervention in a Middle Eastern quagmire, however, Russia still tried to deny Syria for the U.S. or the Sunni-block (aligned with the West). In the process, the Kremlin sought to use Syria to establish an active operational presence in the Middle East. This required the construction or enhancement of military installations (ex: Latakia Air Field & Tartous Naval Facility), the deployment of significant troop numbers and advanced hardware (ex: S-400, Iskander). On one hand, the establishment of such a persistent active force also provided Moscow with the opportunity to battle-test its troops and showcase new technology; essentially using the Syrian theater of War as both a battleground and a showroom. On the other hand, it allowed Russia to transform its initial “expeditionary” posture into a permanent-strategic one. This resulted in the creation of a new Anti-Access Denial Area (A2/AD) and laid the foundation for a future Mediterranean Fleet, targeting NATO and the U.S. The confrontation with the West remains an influential mindset in contemporary Russian strategic culture and planning.

Russian soldiers doing target practice in the Mediterranean Sea from the Tartus port, Syria.

Domestic affairs. The internal context in 2015 was defined by the negative impact of the Western-sanctions imposed to Russia. The economy was  taking hits in trade, inflation was on the rise subsequent with the devaluation of the Ruble. The few opposition parties began capitalizing on the huge costs of the illegal annexation of Crimea. Putin’s popular perception spikes in the opinion polls when he confronts the West. Inherently, Syria was yet another opportunity for exactly that.

Historical heritage. Since 1971 when Bashar’s father, Hafeez al-Assad seized power in the government and the Ba’ath Party through a coupe d’état, Syria immediately became an accommodating ally for Russia. In 1971, the Syrian Government leased the port of Tartus to the Russian Navy, developing a naval maintenance facility to support incursions in the Mediterranean Sea against NATO. The single-party system ran at Damascus took inspiration from the Soviet Union and sought to remain affiliated with the satellite system of the Eastern bloc, and its military aid. Together with Nasser’s Egypt, Syria was Moscow’s backbone in the Middle East. The contemporary Syrian-Russian alliance has its roots in the Soviet-era foreign policy.

Geo-economics. Syria has remained the top buyer of Russian/Soviet-made weapons and military technology. This amounts to a considerable fraction of Moscow’s revenue from a strategic economic sector: weapons trade.

Energy Security. The energy potential is significant for a top player on the market such as Russia. Leaving aside the fertile lands of eastern and central Syria, Damascus promised to outsource the exploitation of off-shore gas deposits to Russian companies. These enterprises have already enlarged their market share in the region due access to northern Iraqi oil & gas deposits, and could potentially link their assets into a robust energy network in the Middle East. This will allow Russia to further control production, transportation hubs and deepen its monopoly of supply to the European market.

National Security and Counter-terrorism. Attempting to draw thousands of extra-national Muslims into their ranks and aid their respective cause, several groups emphasized the Islamic component of the war and called for a mobilization of the Ummah. The main beneficiary were the Salafist groups affiliated with al-Qai’da:  Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/ HTS) and the splinter group, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (Da’esh/ ISIS). Spearheaded in Syrian and Iraq,  the Global Jihad 2.0 promised by ISIS emerged as a major threat for the West and the entire world. This renewed menace promised deadly attacks overseas and mass-radicalization and recruitment of Western-born Muslims; and not only.

According to Vladimir Putin, 5,000-7,000 people from Russia and Central Asia are fighting on the side of ISIS. A study by the International Center for International Security found that half of those originated directly from Russia, while the rest were recruited through Russian jihadi networks. Another investigation, this time done by Reuters found that the Russian authorities softened the fight against domestic Islamic militants, allowing some to leave for Syria.  According to the Syrian Opposition, Chechens are the second-largest ethnic group fighting Assad. It is assumed that thousands also joined the al-Qa’ida (AQ) affiliated groups in Syria as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) due to the historical ties it had with the self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate. The previously mentioned group is the largest jihadi movement active in Chechnya and Dagestan. The front encompasses many factions that have later switched their allegiance to ISIS.

Beyond all doubt, Russia has a major terror problem. This will only amplify if the jihadist propaganda outreach is efficient, and when/ if battle-tested fighters return to their home country to plot attacks and enhance local insurgencies. In this regard, the military intervention of 2015 was largely branded as an anti-ISIS operation. However, studies as the ones conducted by the Institute for the Study of War have proven that “the Russian air campaign in Syria appears to be largely focused on supporting the Syrian regime and its fight against the Syrian opposition, rather than combatting ISIS.” This observation is also backed by a Reuters analysis showing that 80 percent of Russia’s declared targets in the first months of intervention in 2015 have been in areas not held by Da’esh. These studies are also enforced by own data analysis based on official and reported air strikes and their location. Undoubtedly, a significant portion of the Opposition is represented by AQ-affiliated jihadi groups of which termination is beneficial. However, this does not take from the fact that the campaign was miss-advertised and has systemically ignored ISIS (the recruiter of thousands of Russian citizens) until the 2017 Astana Accords that brokered a cease-fire with the Opposition groups. Nor does it excuse that Russian air strikes also targeted vetted and legitimate Opposition groups that disavowed or fought their radical peers.

Legitimate and factual as the counter-terrorism concern may be, it was merely used as a P.R. tool to falsely-advertise what it was a genuine geopolitical move directed against the West, and in facilitation of the Kremlin’s goal of  regaining some of its lost influence.

“Listening-in”

The Kremlin’s asset-building started long before its formal combatant intervention in the Syrian Civil War in September 2015. The first conflict-related installations were Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) outposts:

(1) One, located on the coastline of Latakia, was considered to be the largest external intelligence collection facility that the Kremlin operated.

(2) Another base, presumed to be titled “Center S” was located in al-Hara, Da’ara governorate in Syria’s deep south. The facility was jointly operated between the radio-electronic unit of the Russian Foreign Military Intelligence (GRU) and their Syrian counter-parts. Their efforts were directed at recording and decrypting radio communications of the Syrian Opposition groups. The revolution began in Da’ara province, therefore key influencers and leaders were to be tracked and neutralized in that area. The Belingcat determines that this facility is at least partially responsible for high-value target (HVT) acquisition and neutralization of Opposition commanders, rendering it strategically important for the Assad regime. The Northern Military District of the Israeli Armed Forces based in the Golan Heights was also the target of communications interception. This suggests that the installation might have pre-dated the Syrian Civil War, and that the initial purpose was more related with the Israeli-Arab confrontation, than counter-insurgency efforts. This hunch is also backed by a disclosure made by the Debka File as appeared in the Washington Times. The private-Israeli intelligence firm revealed in 2012 that Russia expanded and upgraded the radars used at the surveillance station. The range was reportedly extended to all parts of Israel and Jordan and as far south as the northern Saudi Arabia. It was also reported that Iranian concerns of a regime change at Damascus was key in enhancing the outpost’s capabilities. Various photos pinned to walls show visits from top-ranking senior military officers of the Russian Armed Forces or from Kudelina L.K., Counselor to the Minister of Defence of Russia. (translation provided by Belingcat and Oryx Blog).

Satellite photo of ”Center S” found by the Oryx Blog.

The outpost was abandoned when Opposition groups stormed it in October 2014. Rebel commanders later issued videos and photos of the sensitive information found inside the facility. The raw data was exploited by the public sphere and open-source analysts to determine the scope and scale of this facility. The network of SIGINT stations used to spy on Israel and later, on the Opposition groups is believed to be wider and concentrated in Da’ara province.

 

Active Operational Presence (AOP):

Logistics and hardware are key in assuring functionality and efficiency in military operations. In order to accommodate the thousands of troops, dozens of mechanized assets and fightersjets, the Russian Armed Forces relied on self-built facilities (some known, some rumored) and shared-bases with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). The Khmeimim Air Base (Latakia province) and 1971-established Tartus Naval Facility (Tartus province) demands the most of our attention. They were built and enhanced on the Syrian coastline, a region largely inhabited by the governmental-loyalist and dominant, the Allawites. This region is a stronghold for the Bashar al-Assad regime (an Allawite himself) due to the sectarian history that promoted Allawites into top military and political positions following the instatement of the Assad dynasty in 1971.

“Bunk buddies”

There are also known joint military installations with the Syrians and Iranian. These most likely serve as a temporary accommodation for the Russian Armed Forces, respective of their ongoing operations:

Tiyas (T4) Air Base (Tadmur/ Palmyra, Homs province) – largely used for the three battles of recapturing and defending Palmyra/Tadmur from ISIS.

Shayrat Air Base (Homs province) – The presumed air base used for launching the chemical strike against Rebels and civilians in Khan Shaikhoun (April 2017). The military base was hit by the U.S. with 59 tomahawk cruise missiles in retaliation, damaging hangars and fighter jets. This is the last remaining major air field operated by the Syrian forces.

Shayrat Airbase (photo source: iSi)

Deir ez-Zor Air Base (Deir ez-Zor province) – under siege between 2012-2017, it was exclusively supplied through an air bridge. Russian assets were only deployed there in late-2017 when the area was liberated. This base served in support of expeditionary operations on the mid-Euphrates valley and all the way to Abu Kamal.

Observation Post in the SDF-held Afrin canton (Aleppo province) – the Afrin canton is isolated from the rest of the Federation in Northern Syria. It is an enclave between Turkey and the Turkish-controlled northern Aleppo. It is administered by the U.S-backed and YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The YPG brokered an uneasy deal with Russia to shelter it from Turkish attacks. Russian forces were deployed in the area in mid-2017 and established a small observation post to monitor the tensions. In December 2017, reports suggested that the Kremlin was pulling-out its troops, accommodating the Turkish plans of besieging and liberating the area, in exchange of handing Idlib province to Russia.

Khmeimim/Hmeimim Air Base, in Latakia

In mid-2015 Russia began establishing an air base in extension of the International Bassil al-Assad Airport in Latakia, on the Syrian coastline. Advertised as Russia’s strategic center for combating ISIS, the base was leased by Damascus free of charge and for an undefined limit of time as signed by a bilateral accord in August 2015. New amendments have been brought to the treaty in January 2017 that leases the Hmeimim aerodrome for 49 years to the Russian Armed Forces with subsequent extensions over 25-year periods. The same deal applies for the Tartus Naval Facility. The external perimeter of the base has Syrian military protection, while the inside is bound to Moscow’s jurisdiction, embedded personnel and their family receiving diplomatic immunity and privileges.

Russian military engineers repaired and extended the runaways to suit fighters jets, troop carriers and heavy transport cargo plans to land and take-off. RT was granted exclusive access to the Air Field in October 2015, when the facility was still under works. They showcased air-conditioned and white-painted living quarters that could host over 1,000 personnel, in addition to aircraft hangars, field kitchens and even saunas.

The circumstantial purpose of this Air Base is to serve as a nerve-center for Russia’s operations in Syria. Serving as a launching pad for the vitally-needed airstrikes supporting the Syrian government. When the air campaign started in mid-2015 in Syria, about a dozen Su-25 ground-attack jets were stationed at the Air Field according to Washington Post’s estimates. Throughout the years, the number of fighter jets has varied and remained largely unknown. However, own estimates based on satellite imagery obtained by independent Twitter analysts and Jane’s intelligence via Airbus Defence & Space, showcase an average number of 23-26 jets.

A line-up of aircrafts from July 15, 2017 show: 11 Su-24s, 3 Su-25s, 10 Su-27s or 35s, 4 Su-3 and 6 Su-34, amounting to a record-high of 33 jets on the ground at once. The surplus of aircrafts came after a Russian MiG-29K from the sole Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov crashed in the Mediterranean on November 14, 2016 following a problem with one of the arrestor cables. The Kuznetsov does not have a catapult to launch its aircraft and it relies on a ramped deck to get the jets aloft. Although the problems were known for the outdated Cold War-era ship, its deployment in the Eastern Mediterranean was more of a (failed) show of force attempting to replicate a modern U.S. Naval Task Force. Following the incident, the aircraft carrier was returned to the naval base in Sevastopol, Crimea, while the nine fighter jets (8 Su-33s and one Mig-29k) have been transferred to the Latakia Air Field – as revealed by Jane’s Intelligence satellite imagery analysis. This upped the number of fighter jets for a period of time, boosting the intense air campaign that besieged Aleppo until December 2016.

Afterwards, Vladimir Putin announced a partial withdraw of its aircraft and troops in early 2017. However, the number hardly decreased. Satellite images from May 2017 still showed around 26 fighter jets stationed on Latakia’s runway. And even though the Kremlin announced a third withdrawal of forces from Latakia, satellite imagery posted by Qalaat Mudiq Twitter shows a remaining air fleet of 17 jets. Other air assets such as helicopters (attack or transport) or surveillance planes have not been included in this analysis, although they have been spotted in large numbers on the Latakian runaways.

The following slideshow contains most of the visual proof supplied through satellite imagery, supporting the analysis of the aerodrome:

A2/AD– Closing the Southern Airspace?

In order to safeguard such a robust deployment, Russia made efforts to build an enhanced anti-air posture.

In the Mediterranean, the Kremlin followed the same recipe of creating A2/AD “bubbles” as in Kaliningrad, northern Kola peninsula and Crimea. Through its key military deployments, Russia established a combination of integrated strategically-important anti-air defense systems and tactical nuclear-capable offensive missile batteries, covered by Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) counter-measures. In Syria, such a robust posture is mostly hosted by the Air Field in Latakia. The purpose of an Area-Denial Access Zone (A2AD) is to deny NATO air superiority or presence in selected areas. This is also one of the most constant practices in Russia’s resurgence strategy. Anti-access capabilities are used to prevent or constrain the deployment of opposing forces into a theatre of operations, whereas area denial capabilities are used to reduce their freedom of maneuver once in a theater (Luis Simon; 2017).  Russia attempts to prevent its opponents from establishing air supremacy in strategically significant regions.

Most probably, the Russian always had in plan to protect their vast military build-up by deploying advanced air-defence systems in Syria. But following the downing of a Mig-29 by a Turkish F-16 in November 2015, Moscow accelerated the deployment of the advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system at the Khmeimim Air Base. The S-300 was also commissioned to guard the Naval Facility in Tartous, alongside a network of vessels equipped with mobile anti-air and anti-missile interceptors. The naval assets continue to patrol the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria’s shores.

On September 2017, Jane’s Intelligence reported the deployment of a second S-400 system in Syria. The claim was confirmed by satellite imagery provided by Airbus Defense & Space. The anti-air hardware was placed near Maysaf, a small city located in north-western Homs province. The move further enhances Russia’s overall anti-air denial zone doubling-down on the strategically important shore but also widening its reach over the central Syrian airbases in Shayrat and Tyras (Homs province). Combined with defensive hardware, Russia also deployed its utmost offensive arsenal.

In December 2016, the private satellite imagery company ISI confirmed the presence of two Iskander batteries at the Khmeimim Air Base. Additional photos acquired and analyzed by ISIS on January 2017 confirm the reports that Russia used the batteries to strike ISIS positions in Deir ez-Zor all the way from Latakia. This was most probably a show of force after their attempts to camouflage the ballistic system were unfolded by private satellites and was showcased all over the news. The presence of the Iskander in Syria was rumored since early 2016.

The Iskander-M is a tactical (short-range) ballistic missile system. According to CSIS’s Missile Defence Project the Iskander-M (extended-range) has a 400-500 km striking range. Due to its operational mobility, launch weight and payload, the weapon system can strike both stationary and moving targets, including SAM sites and hardened defense installations. It was purposely built to overwhelm enemy anti-air missile defenses in a flexible and timely manner. Most importantly, the Iskander-M is also capable of firing nuclear warheads. This is one of the strongest and accurate weapons in Russia’s anti-access strategy.

Further image analysis show that the Iskanders have their own launch pad in Latakia Air Base. Suggesting that the hardware is also in Moscow’s plan for the 49-year long presence there.  Both the Iskander strike ranger and the S-400 cover zone encompasses the NATO strategic Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, the British bases in Cyprus, Israel, Jordan and parts of Saudi Arabia. Without a doubt, the Russians created a AD/2D bubble in NATO’s southern flank.

A Mediterranean Fleet

Russia seeks to further contest NATO’s control of the southern flank by introducing a permanent Mediterranean fleet that would extend its military might in the Middle East and further enforce the A2/AD established in the area. These plans would add an element of strategic nuclear deterrence, and will seek to influence the geopolitical order in the Mediterranean basin. The long-forgotten port of Tartus plays the key role in this endeavor.

Since its foundation in 1971, Tartus was never considered to be a real military base. Officially registered as a Material-Technical Support Point (MTSP), the port was solely used as a local repair shop for Russian warships, sparing them from a trip way back to Sevastopol, Crimea in case of malfunctions.

Model of Tartus Naval Facility

Starting with the Syrian Civil War, this was used as a cargo hub for weapons transfers to the Loyalist camp. It later supported Russia’s war efforts against Opposition groups and ISIS. The port helped re-establish the 1992-dissolved Rusian 5th Operational Squadron that was purposed to counter the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Cold War, and extend Russia’s sea power into the Mediterranean.

But as the conflict nears its closing fights, Moscow and Damascus signed a treaty extending the lease of the port for an additional 49-years. According to the TASS news agency, the deal, signed in early 2017 will expand the Tartus naval facility, Russia’s only naval foothold in the Mediterranean, and grant Russian warships access to Syrian waters and ports. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defence Minister stated that the structures built in Latakia and Tartus have begun forming a permanent presence in the region. The later will host a naval strike group consisting of a nuclear submarine and 11 warships. Everything except an aircraft carrier can be docked there. This will attract additional coastal missile defence deployments and anti-submarine measures.  The Tartus build-up represent the bedrock of an upcoming Mediterranean Fleet armed with a strategic nuclear deterrent – escalating Russia’s posture from the tactical-limited Iskander.

Part of the strategy of recovering its lost power, Russia seeks to project trust into regional stakeholders. It hopes that as the West grows weary of further interventions, destabilized states as Libya and Egypt will seek Moscow’s help for combating terrorism. This will open the door for further weapons trade, military deployments (extension of power projection) and energy opportunities. However, Russia lacks both the intent and the capacity to do a better job at counter-terrorism than the West. As Chatam House notes, The real driving forces behind Russian involvement in the region are a mixture of ambition, opportunism and anti-Western sentiment.

In early 2017, Russia was believed to have deployed Special Operations Forces in an Egyptian army base near the Libyan border. US and diplomatic officials said that any such Russian involvement might be part of an attempt to support the Libyan military commander, Khalifa Haftar, who suffered a setback on oil ports controlled by his forces.

Overview of the Tartus Naval Facility

In Cairo, the Egyptian and Russian ministers signed a $21 billion deal to start work on Egypt’s Dabaa nuclear power plant. While just in November 2017, Egypt has reached a preliminary agreement to allow Russian military jets to use its airspace and bases. Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. aid from the Middle East, a country firmly aligned with the Sunni-block, and holds the naval access point for European energy and maritime trade.

Black Swans: Seafaring unpredictable waters

In such long-term and comprehensive strategic planning, unpredictability is a key input. In this case, the unknown knows are plenty enough. Russia vision for the Eastern Mediterranean is primarily marked be three main (but not limited to) wildcards:

  • Long-term efficiency of the AD/2D;
  • The geopolitical context of the region;
  • Capability to secure its assets in Syria.

To echo Admiral Richardson the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, what Russia is doing is more of a wishful projection than actual “denying” adversaries. If the AD/2D bubble did control the Syrian airspace, then the United States would have been deterred from launching 59 tomahawk cruise missiles from the Eastern Mediterranean into a joint Syrian-Russian air base in Shayrat. It is true that Russian Command was notified beforehand in order to avoid unwanted escalation. The U.S. Navy was only targeting the Syrian Regime for its use of chemical weapons (CW) in Khan Sheykoun. But it is also true that Moscow could have operated its anti-air defense system (if it didn’t at that time) and (attempt to) intercept the ordinance – at least to send a message, if not to protect the air field. The notification came through the Qatar-based de-confliction line. That channel is used by US CENTCOM and the Russian Aerospace Command to conduct joint air control and avoid unwanted incidents. While rational from both parts to maintain a dialogue in such a crowded airspace, it is possible that Moscow would have imposed a complete no-fly zone if it had the power or the leverage to do so. Notably when competing in close operations room as the Raqqa province or the mid-Euphrates valley in Deir ez-Zor.  Russia’s resurgence is real, the AD/2D is palpable and threatening, but it still cannot top Western technology and strategic planning.

On the long-run, the creation of AD/2D bubbles is counter-productive for the Kremlin. Moving advanced air defense and tactical nukes on NATO’s borders will only urge its richer and more capable Western adversaries to further proliferate precision-strike missile systems. A tech-race that Moscow cannot keep-up with, chiefly given its worsening economy. The United States will maintain its naval supremacy for the next decades despite any attempt from foes to compete.

In the current geopolitical environment, Russia’s plans are caught between a rock and a hard place. The Kremlin is playing Russian roulette in the Israeli-Iranian divergence. It simultaneously attempts to maintain its military cooperation with the Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian militias, Iraqi PMUs and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and to pivot with Jerusalem. A gamble that has proven dangerous and inefficient. Russia failed to enforce its guarantees made to the Israelis, that Iranian-backed elements would not take positions near the Golan Heights or build military bases in southern Syria. In fact, the situation is worsening as Hezbollah and Iraqi PMUs have seized the Damascus-Baghdad highway, establishing a direct supply line between Lebanon, Syria and Iran. We can expect an increase in the number of IAF clandestine air raids tasked to neutralize Hezbollah HVTs and weapons transfers. This will render the Russian multilateral diplomatic engagement as a missed opportunity in a changing Middle Eastern order.

Recent Rebel attacks on the Latakia Air Base only shows that Russia and the Regime are still unable of fully securing vital and strategic assets from unsophisticated acts of aggression. Further, troop movements and hardware deployment have been poorly camouflaged by traditional or electronic means. In contrast, U.S. Special Operations Force in Syria enjoy far better operations security/ operational secrecy (OPSEC) than Russia’s. And this given the fact that the Western press is larger, more resourceful and freer to conduct such investigations.

End Notes

While a new tide is announced in the Eastern Mediterranean, the West is still able to operate in Russia-made A2/ADs. There is little to nothing that the Kremlin can do to compete with U.S. military superiority. However, given the sensitive emerging context in the Middle East, the build-up in Syria holds great potential for regional ambitions. This will provide the Russians with more opportunities to challenge NATO’s southern flank. Moscow’s new permanent fleet escalates tensions with the West, and raises key questions in regards to the freedom of navigation/trade and maritime security in the Eastern Mediterranean.

 

Non-hyperlink embedded References:

Charles K. Bartles (2017) Russian Threat Perception and the Ballistic Missile Defense System, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 30:2, 152-169

Luis Simón (2017) Preparing NATO for the Future – Operating in an Increasingly Contested Environment, The International Spectator, 52:3, 121-135

Strategic Comments(2017) TLAMs in Syria, 23:3, iii-v
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