Tag: Eastern Mediterranean

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

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

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


FOXHOUNDS KNOW HOW TO KILLJOY

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

 

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

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

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

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

BACKFIRES ARE BACK

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

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

AIR-NAVAL EXERCISES UNDERWAY

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

 

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

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

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

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

SECOND HOME?

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

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

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

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

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

ENHANCED AIR PATROL

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

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

REVIVING THE MIG-31 SALE TO SYRIA? 

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

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

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

PACKING A BIGGER PUNCH

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

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


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

by HARM

editing by Gecko

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Turkey to Send UAVs to Northern Cyprus Base, Expanding ‘Mediterranean Ops’

Amid Ankara’s continued hydrocarbon exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) will allow the Turkish Air Force (TAF) to fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from…

Amid Ankara’s continued hydrocarbon exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) will allow the Turkish Air Force (TAF) to fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from Gecitkale airport, Turkish Cypriot officials announced on Friday. 

Geckitale Airport was opened in 1986 and is located 25 km inland from the TRNC capital and coast city of Famagusta/ Gazimagusa. Turkey developed Geckitale Airport as both an alternative to the TRNC’s main airport (Ercan) and as major, NATO-standardized air base. While Geckitale served only briefly as a commercial airport, it saw intense military activity. During the renewed tensions with Greece in the 1990s, Turkey forward-deployed F-16s to Geckitale. Following privatisation in 2012, Geckitale is only opened to VIP, charter and military flights. 

AN ENERGY SECURITY DISPUTE

The move to open Geckitale to Turkish UAVs comes at a time of rising tensions between Turkey, on the side, and Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, on the other, over the demarcation of exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the Eastern Medtierranean. Over recent years, Greece, Cyprus and Israel have discovered offshore gas fields in their EEZs. The trio, supported by the United States, signed an intergovernmental agreement to pursue a common pipeline project, in March 2019. Known as the “EastMed,” the project envisions an undersea pipeline that would deliver Israeli and Cypriote natural gas to the European Union via Greece. The European Commission has designated the EastMed pipeline as a “Project of Interest.”



Turkey, who hasn’t found any hydrocarbons in indisputably Turkish waters, sees the EastMed project as a threat to its status as an energy transit country and to the TRNC’s maritime rights. Turkey is the only member of the United Nations that does not recognize Cyprus, and is not a signatory of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. As a result, the Turkish view on maritime disputes is that no island, including Cyprus, can have a full EEZ. Ankara therefore either claims parts of the Cypriote offshore hydrocarbons or demands that the internationally-recognized Government in Nicosia shares its exclusive resources with the TRNC. 

Turkish efforts to contest and redraw the map of the Eastern Mediterranean are far more advanced. On November 28, Ankara signed an agreement with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), outlining their maritime boundaries. In accordance to the Turkish view on maritime boundaries, the agreement deprives the Greek islands of Kastellorizo, Karpathos, Kasos and Crete of an EEZ. This surged tensions with Greece but also with Israel and Egypt, which are spearheading a diplomatic offensive against Ankara. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the agreement would also allow Turkey to carry out drilling on Libya’s continental shelf with Tripoli’s approval.



UNILATERAL TURKISH DRILLINGS TO SPARK MILITARY TENSIONS

The Turkish Government ignored international criticism and authorized Turkish Petroleum to conduct drillings off Cyprus’ east and west coasts. Two Turkish drilling vessels – “Fatih” and “Yavus” – alongside “Oruc Reis” and “Barbaros Hayrettin Pasa” seismic vessels have been searching for oil and gas in the past five months. UAVs deployed from Dalaman Airport in southwestern Turkey have previously provided overwatch for the surface group. Turkish Navy and Coast Guard vessels – including Barbados- and G-class frigates – have also escorted Fatih and Yavus throughout their explorations. 


The Turkish Navy intercepted “Bat Galim”, an Israeli research ship belonging to the Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, in Cypriote waters two weeks ago. The Bat Galim was conducting research in coordination with the Cypriote government when the Turkish warships forced it to leave. In response, the Israeli Air Force and Navy staged a major military exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean involving F-15I “Ra’am”, F-16I “Sufa” and F-35I “Adir” fighter jets, two days ago. 

GECIKTALE AIRPORT: FASTER ISR DEPLOYMENTS, LONGER LOITER TIME

Tensions are expected to rise as Turkey will enforce its maritime claims and safeguard its commercial drilling operations, while Israel, Greece and Egypt will attempt to contest the Turkish and Libyan (GNA) objectives. With the permission to use Geciktale in effect, the Turkish UAVs – likely Bayraktar 2-TB – will have a shorter flight-path to its objective and enjoy a longer loiter time. This translates into increased situational awareness over the drilling operations and better response time to Greek or Israeli actions.

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