Tag: russia

NATO ISR Planes Monitor Russian Military Build-Up

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

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

RUSSIA’S 2021 BEAR SCARE

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

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

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

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

IMINT ON DEMAND: RQ-4 IS OUR “FORTE”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POSEIDON IS WATCHING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ELECTRONIC STALKERS: RC-135W RIVET JOINT FLIGHTS

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

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

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

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

ISR PARTIES

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

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

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

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

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

PREVENTING SURPRISES

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

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

T-Intelligence will continue to monitor the situation. 


by HARM

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

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Satellite Imagery shows Russian Military Staging Ground near Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by HARM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HYPOTHESES FOR THE RECENT SITUATION:

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

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

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

Geolocation of images showing Ukrainian military vehicles in Dnipro train station

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

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

2.Posturing for ceasefire negotiations.  

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

3.Preparations for a renewed offensive against Ukraine.

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

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

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

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

PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENT

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

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


by HARM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I. RUSSIAN AIRCRAFT SHADOW NATO AIRSPACE

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

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

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

SCRAMBLE, SCRAMBLE, SCRAMBLE

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

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

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

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

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

“THIS IS ̶N̶O̶T̶ A DRILL”

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

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

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

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

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

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


II.THE GIUK GAP: WHY IT MATTERS TO RUSSIA

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

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

NORTHERN FLEET

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

 

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

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

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

WITHHOLDING STRATEGY AND BASTION DEFENSE

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


III. NATO COUNTERMEASURES: BACK TO THE FUTURE

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

NATO LEVEL MEASURES:

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

STATE-LEVEL MEASURES:

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

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

OUTLOOK

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

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

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


by HARM

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

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Russia Brags About Bombing Syrian Hospital To Prove ‘Iskander’ Works

Armenia’s Prime-Minister Nikol Pashinyan shocked the Russian Defense Ministry when he complained about the Iskander-E missile system’s ineffectiveness in a public interview (23 February 2021). PM Pashinyan said that the Iskander missiles launched…

Armenia’s Prime-Minister Nikol Pashinyan shocked the Russian Defense Ministry when he complained about the Iskander-E missile system’s ineffectiveness in a public interview (23 February 2021). PM Pashinyan said that the Iskander missiles launched during the short war with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region “didn’t explode or maybe 10 percent of them exploded.” When asked why the Iskander disappointed, Pashniyan hinted at the missile’s old age: “I don’t know… maybe they were weapons from the ‘80s.”

“IT WORKS JUST FINE”

In response to Pashiynan’s claims, Russia has released a video montage showing two successful Iskander strikes – both ballistic and cruise missile variants – in Syria. But instead of clearing the Iskander’s name, Russia has inadvertently proved that it has targeted hospitals – an allegation that Moscow has perpetually disputed despite evidence to the contrary from open-source investigations (e.g. New York Times) and even the United Nations (UN). 

The second clip from the compilation shows an Iskander missile hitting an H-shaped building. Twitter user and geolocation wizard @obretix identified the target as a hospital in Azaz, near the Turkish border. While the footage is undated, the attack seems to match reports from early 2016 about an unclaimed strike on Azaz hospital. 

HOSPITAL ATTACK TOOK PLACE IN EARLY 2016

An Airwars assessment from 19 January 2016, quoting two Syrian sources, informs: “Russian forces targeted the town of Azaz with two ballistic missiles, causing the death of one civilian and injury of several others.”

A Reuters report from 15 Feb 2016 similarly mentions an unattributed missile strike on a “hospital and school sheltering refugees in Azaz, Syria,” quoting local residents and medics. A Physicians Across Continents (PAC) Facebook post corroborates the Reuters report and describes an airstrike on Azaz hospital. 

Sentinel-2 satellite imagery from that time is sparse and does not cover every day. However, when comparing imagery from 17 January vs. 16 February, there seems to be a “splash” mark on the impact area seen in the footage.

T-Intell retroactive battle-damage assessment of Iskander strike on Azaz hospital @ Sentinel 2 satellite images via Sentinel Hub and frame extracted from RIA footage

Google Earth Pro high-resolution imagery from 20 March 2016 shows the same area at Aziz hospital visibly scared.

Azaz Hospital on 20.3.2016 © Maxar Technologies via Google Earth Pro

In conclusion, Russia’s Iskander attack on the hospital took place before mid-March 2016, and very likely between 17 January and 16 February.

Turkey has since repaired and renovated the hospital, and it is now functional again. 

BACKFIRE

The Iskander is not the first Russian system that is publicly scrutinized. Observers, including T-Intelligence, have noted the ease with which Turkish drones managed to hunt down Russian-made Pantsir aerial defense systems in Syria and Libya. The Russian Defense Ministry is growing increasingly defensive about the effectiveness of its capabilities. However, with this latest “public relations” stunt, Russia has foremost proven that it bombs hospitals, not that the Iskander-E works. 

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Russian Pipe-Layer Resumes Work on Nord Stream 2

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

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

Overview of Fortuna’s location

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

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

Sentinel-1 SAR shows Fortuna initiating pipe-laying operations

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

UNSTOPPABLE

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

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

KEY BACKGROUND

What is Nord Stream 2?

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

Nord Stream 2 map (source: Gazprom)

Why did work on Nord Stream 2 stop?

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

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

Why is Nord Stream 2 a problem?

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

by IRT

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Diamonds are Forever: Russia Doubles Down on Central African Republic (CAR)

1. Russia has deployed over 300 regular military forces and hardware to the Central African Republic (CAR) in December, according to Russia’s foreign ministry. CAR officials have confirmed this information….

1. Russia has deployed over 300 regular military forces and hardware to the Central African Republic (CAR) in December, according to Russia’s foreign ministry. CAR officials have confirmed this information. They have stated that President Faustin Toaudera, who was running for re-election, requested Russia’s military assistance to prevent election violence. 

ELECTIONS UNDER THREAT OF VIOLENCE

2. In late November 2020, rebel forces launched an offensive against the capital city of Bangui, threatening the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in CAR. President Toaudera has accused the opposition of working with the rebels and preparing a coup against his government. The opposition denies these allegations and accuses Toaudera of inviting the Russian military to reinforce his position. 

3. Presidential and parliamentary elections took place on 27 December amidst violence and widespread reports of irregularities. On January 3rd, the CAR electoral commission announced Toaudera’s victory. 


RUSSIAN AIRLIFT OPERATIONS TO CAR

4. First signs of an increased Russian military presence appeared on social media between 16 and 19 December. Locals shared photos of Russian cargo planes at Bangui Airport. Preliminary OSINT indicates that the following assets airlifted Russian soldiers and equipment to CAR:

16 December: 

  • 2x Ilyushin Il-76 (RF-tail numbers unclear)

Annex 1

24 December: 

  • 1x Antonov An-124 (RF-82034), which delivered two Mi-8AMTsh helicopters (AFIC/NATO Reporting name: Hip)

Annex 2

27 December:

  • 1x Ilyushin Il-76 (RF-76771)
  • 1x Ilyushin Il-76 (RF-86901)
  • 1x Ilyushin Il-76TD (EX-76003)Operated by FLY SKY AIRLINES LLC, flight EX-76003 hauled Toyota Land Cruisers and equipment identified as the Turkish-made Otokar Cobra armored personnel carrier (APC).

Annex 3

28 December:

  • 1x Ilyushin Il-76 [RF-86901]

*Flight log is preliminary and is limited to December 2020, landing dates can be inaccurate, and the list incomplete. 


5. Observed activities of the Russian reinforcements are:

  • Aerial patrol over Bangui. Multiple Social media intelligence (SOCMINT) sources indicate that the two Hi-8s conducted overwatch.

  • Internal foreign defense. Russian forces, likely special operations forces, military intelligence and private contractors, conducted joint operations with the CAR military in the Bangui area of operations. Images show Russian soldiers manning checkpoints, patrolling the periphery, and clearing villages around the capital.  (evidence 1; evidence 2).
  • Enhanced VIP protection. Social media photos show armed men in military fatigues consistent with Russian special forces (Spetsnaz) guarding CAR President Toaudera during campaign rallies.

Annex 5 Russian operatives have been part of Touadera’s security detail for years

  • Public Relations (PR). Russian-supplied BRDM-2 amphibious armored vehicles, branded with the Russian-CAR friendship stickers,  featured in campaign rallies and parades (video evidence starts at 3:05). The same vehicles were then observed in combat and patrol. Russian and CAR forces have reportedly already lost one BRDM-2 in fights with rebel forces. 

 

PRE-EXISTING RUSSIAN ASSETS

6. Russia’s latest military deployment expands its previously discrete presence in CAR. At least two Kremlin-sponsored private military corporations (PMCs), namely Vagner and Sewa Security Services, have been present in the country since 2017 when Russia and CAR signed a security agreement. 

7. As a T-Intelligence assessment found in 2018, “the Russian-CAR security accord mainly seems to serve as a front for advancing the commercial interests of Putin’s oligarchic circle on the mineral market in Africa.” Our OSINT investigation identified “Lobaye Invest” as the leading Russian company profiting from diamond extractions in CAR. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Treasury put Lobaye Invest and owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, who also reportedly heads Vagner, under economic sanctions. 

8. Vagner contractors carry out a number of missions, primarily site and external security for diamond mining operations. While one of the world’s poorest countries, CAR is rich in mineral resources such as gold, (gem-quality) diamonds, and uranium. In 2019, The Africa Report published an extensive inquiry into the network of Russian companies profiting from CAR’s diamond exploitations contracts 

9. “Sewa Security Services” is another Russian private military corporation (PMC) operating in CAR under the 2017 security accord. Sewa is primarily engaged in VIP protection. Throughout the years, press and social media photos have shown Sewa operatives and other contractors guarding CAR political figures, including President Toudega. 

A member of the close protection unit for Central African republic President Touadera, composed by Russian private security company operatives from Sewa Security, are seen in Berengo on August 4, 2018. – Russian military consultants have set up training for the Central African Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces after delivering weapons to the country. Already trained by the European program (EUTM), the soldiers are trained in the handling of weapons by the Russian consultants. (Photo by FLORENT VERGNES / AFP via Getty Images)

10. Important: It is likely that “Sewa Security Services” is Vagner’s cover name and company under which the PMC operates in CAR. 

11. Vagner and/or Sewa are also engaged in capacity building for the CAR military and, to a lesser extent, foreign internal defense. The Berengo estate, 35 km southwest of Bangui, is operational command and headquarters of the Russian contractors in CAR. 

GEOINT Vagner PMC barracks near Bangui (Analysis by T-Intelligence; imagery courtesy of Planet Inc.)

OUTLOOK

12. It is evident that Russia’s troop deployment aimed to strengthen President Touadera’s position ahead of elections. The Kremlin’s investments in diamond drilling in CAR depend on the stability of Touadera’s presidency. 

13. Apart from local rebels, Russia’s main adversary in CAR is France. Under President Macron, France has worked to rebuild influence in Francophone Africa, which directly threatens the Kremlin’s interests in CAR. To protect its investments, Russia will double down on CAR, increase troop numbers (regular and irregular) and throw more assets into the fight. 


by HARM

editing by Gecko

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Russia moves Troops to border with Belarus

Russian military intervention in Belarus is increasingly likely. Open-source intelligence shows significant military activity in Russia’s western military district. Eyewitnesses have documented at least three unmarked convoys of the Russian…

Russian military intervention in Belarus is increasingly likely. Open-source intelligence shows significant military activity in Russia’s western military district. Eyewitnesses have documented at least three unmarked convoys of the Russian Military Guard (RosGuard) consisting of transport vehicles and logistics trucks moving towards the border with Belarus on 16-17 August 2020. A CITEAM assessment indicates that the convoys could move approximately 600 people. 

Established on President Putin’s orders in 2016, the RosGuard is a militarized institution of the Russian Interior Ministry tasked with territorial defense, securing critical infrastructure, counter-terrorism, and “protecting public order.” 

So far, we have NOT noticed any Russian military assets operating in Belarus. However, the situation could change dramatically at any movement as pro-democracy protests continue to grow at an unprecedented scale. A crowd of over 200,000 demonstrated in Minsk over the weekend against Belorussian autocratic leader Lukashenko, and workers across the country have gone on strike.

Lukashenko branded the freedom movement as being a foreign-backed “colored revolution” and falsely claimed that NATO is preparing to invade Belarus. To back-up his conspiracy, Lukashenko ordered the army to hold a series of snap exercises near the Polish and Lithuanian borders between 17 and 21 August. Photos on social media show that the Belarusian forces are moving several Tochka-U short-range ballistic missile systems from Minsk towards the west, an alarming development for NATO. 

Unable to quell the protests, Lukashenko opened “Pandora’s box” by requesting security and military assistance from Russia on 15 August. After a second phone call on Sunday, Lukashenko claimed that Putin promised him “comprehensive security assistance.”

A Russian military intervention in Belarus will likely result in the de facto annexation of the country. Moscow has always feared that a “colored revolution” will transform its neighbor into an adversary. If Belarus slips from the Kremlin’s orbit, Russia will lose access to the Suwalki Gap, the strategic corridor linking the Baltic states to the rest of NATO, and the gargantuan Baranovichi airbase.
In the past months, Moscow has been insistently pressuring Lukashenko to bring Belarus into a new federal union with Russia. While “Europe’s last dictator” wants to keep the country under his thumb, given the new circumstances he will likely prefer to forfeit Belarus to Russia than be ousted by the population.


This report was originally published on our Facebook page on 17 August 2020.

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Russia Sends Fighter Jets to Libya

Russia has deployed military aircraft to Libya to support General Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) from the United States Africa Command (US AFRICOM) shows. The new…

Russia has deployed military aircraft to Libya to support General Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) from the United States Africa Command (US AFRICOM) shows. The new intelligence confirms claims, previously made by the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, that Haftar is receiving aerial reinforcements from Russia. 

Recently, the LNA has been caught on their heels by the GNA. Backed by Turkish airpower, the GNA has forced the LNA out of strategic positions in northwestern Libya. The GNA’s successful offensive and Turkey’s aerial onslaught have marked the most significant setback for Haftar yet. The Russian intervention aims to tip the balance back into the LNA’s favor. 



FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE: A FOURTH GENERATION PACKAGE

The flock of Russian fourth-generation aircraft deployed to Libya consists of at least four MiG-29 multi-role fighters (NATO Reporting name: Fulcrum) and an unknown number of Su-24 (Fencer) and Su-34 (Fullback) fighter-bombers. Two Su-35 air superiority fighters (Flanker-E) of the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) provided counter-air escort for the formation. 

The aircraft first relocated from Astrakhan (Russia) to Hmeimim Air Base near Latakia, Syria with a stopover at Hamadan Air Base Iran) to refuel on 12 and 14 May.

At Hmeimin Air Base, they received a new paint job to camouflage their origin and refueled before continuing to Libya on 18 May.

When they entered Libyan airspace, the unmarked Russian aircraft made another refueling stop near Tobruk. They then resumed their journey to al-Jafra Air Base on the same day. At least 14 unmarked Russian aircraft were delivered to al-Jafra using this air bridge, according to US AFRICOM. 

On the next day, satellite imagery showed a MiG-29 Fulcrum on the taxiway of the LNA-held al-Jafra Air Base. The geospatial imagery prompted extensive speculations regarding the ownership of the aircraft on social media. Some claimed that the MiG-29 is a RuAF jet. Others argued that the United Arab Emirates bought it from Belarus for Haftar’s air wing. 

While we know that the aircraft belong to the RuAF now, it is still unknown who will operate them. Faced with a massive shortage of trained personnel, the LNA has previously hired mercenary pilots for its legacy Su-22s and MiG-23s. Fourth-generation fighter jets are nevertheless a completely different league. Even the most experienced pilots require months of training to master these machines. While Russia may have sent pilots, the Kremlin traditionally prefers to operate in the shadows. Russia makes extensive use of state-backed private military corporations (PMCs) and irregular forces to do dirty work overseas instead. 

STATE-BACKED MERCENARIES 

It is noteworthy that US AFRICOM specifically identified the “Wagner Group” PMC as the primary beneficiary of Russia’s new air power in Libya. While the Russian government has never officially acknowledged the existence of Wagner, the PMC has been the go-to choice of the Russian Military Intelligence (GRU), when it comes to outsourcing politically sensitive external operations. Wagner is known for fighting in Eastern Ukraine, Syria, the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan, Libya, and other countries. 


The article was updated to include the latest information released by US AFRICOM on 27 May 2020.

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Lethal Stalkers: How Turkish Drones Are Neutralizing Haftar’s Pantsirs in Libya (BDA)

Turkish drones operating in Libya on behalf of the Government of National Accord (GNA) have neutralized ten of General Haftar’s Pantsir S-1E (NATO Reporting name: SA-22 “Greyhound) air defense systems…

Turkish drones operating in Libya on behalf of the Government of National Accord (GNA) have neutralized ten of General Haftar’s Pantsir S-1E (NATO Reporting name: SA-22 “Greyhound) air defense systems in less than a week. The Turkish aerial onslaught was the most significant suppression/ destruction of air defenses (S/DEAD) operation of the Libyan Civil War and a colossal humiliation for Russia’s prime counter-drone and short-range air defense. Forced into retreat, Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) has pledged to respond with the biggest aerial battle in Libyan history. 



OPERATION “VOLCANO OF RAGE” 

The GNA’s counter-offensive against LNA advances in western Libya and around Tripoli (“Vulcano of Rage”), which commenced in April 2019, has finally reached a breakthrough. Backed by Turkey’s S/DEAD campaign, GNA forces have secured the Tunisian border, recaptured the western shoreline, and pushed the LNA out of its strategic positions in Watiyah Air Base and south of Gharyan. GNA militias are now ready to retake northwestern Libya (Tripolitania), the country’s most populous region. 

Map of “Rage of Volcano” offensive via Rr016

BAYRAKTAR VS. PANTSIR 

Pantsirs provide point air defense for LNA tactical positions, and especially airfields. The airfields are vital for Haftar’s air wing as they host fighter aircraft refurbished with Egyptian, Emirati, and Russian assistance, as well as Emirati drones for airstrikes against the GNA. 

Emirati variant of the Pantsir S-1Export, which uses the Rheinmetal Man SX45 8×8 truck, via Portal Defensa

The Pantsir’s 96K6 surface-to-air missiles have an engagement range of up to 24 km. In comparison, Ankara’s Bayraktar 2TB unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), which was likely responsible for the strikes against Hafter, uses MAM-L Smart Micro Munition manufactured by Rokestan. The MAM-L can strike targets up to 14 km away. In theory, the Turkish UCAVs with their small warhead (max. 22 kg) and limited engagement range are not ideal for S/DEAD missions. Turkey likely leveraged the inexperience of the Pantsir crew members, who are a combination of Russian mercenaries (Wagner) and poorly trained Libyans (it is unknown whether the Emirati military advisors play an active role in operating the Pantsirs).  

Bayraktar TB-2 armed with MAM-L and MAC-C missiles via IslamicWorldNews

Part of Turkey’s tactics are long-endurance ISR sorties (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) that identify the perfect window of opportunity for a strike. The footage in the BDA section shows that most of the attacks caught the Pantsirs unprepared and inactive after the Turkish drones had stalked them for an extended time.

It is furthermore possible that Turkey used the Koral Electronic Warfare (EW) system to jam, deceive or paralyze the Pantsir’s radar. An electronic attack could explain how the drones managed to get within firing range even when the air defenses were up and running. Turkey deployed the Koral in Libya as part of a broader military assistance package, which includes frigates, air defenses, and even Syrian rebels, in early 2020. 

The KORAL Mobile Radar Electronic Warfare System is composed of Electronic Support and Electronic Attack System each mounted on an eight by eight tactical truck (photo credits: ASELSAN)

THE HUNT: BATTLE DAMAGE ASSESSMENT

The GNA claims that the drone campaign neutralized ten Pantsir S-1E air defense systems (9 destroyed, one captured) in four days, between 16 and 20 May. 

The GNA and affiliated press outlets released footage that confirms seven drone strikes, most of which have been validated through geolocation. Analysis of the footage, coupled with social media photos from the target sites, irrefutably prove that the raids hit five Pantsir batteries – four destroyed, one damaged. However, this does not mean that the rest of the strikes did not take place or that other missiles did not reach their targets. It is uncommon for militaries to publish targeting footage from all of their operations. 

We estimate that the loss of Pantsirs racks up a bill of at least $140 million for the United Arab Emirates, which supplied the systems to Haftar. 


16-18 MAY: RAID ON WATIYA AIR BASE

The GNA resumed its counter-offensive against the LNA in early May, pledging to recover Haftar’s gains from the past year. On 15 May, GNA forces encircled the LNA-held Watiya Air Base (WAB) in western Libya and called in Turkish air support to soften the enemy’s defenses. On the night of 16 May, Turkish drones took to the skies of Watiya and raided the strategic airbase. The drones struck two clamshell hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) in WAB’s southeast corner, damaging a Pantsir S-1E. The GNA captured the Pantsir (and a makeshift user manual) after the LNA withdrew from WAB on 20 May. 

The Pantsir S-1E system damaged after the drone raid on al-Watiya Air Base

The next day, Turkish drones bombed a third hangar, causing it to collapse on a Pantsir. Photos from the site show the Pantsir buried in concrete, seemingly totaled. This attack raised many questions, as the micro-munitions used by Turkish drones, do not pack a punch big enough to crumble a HAS. Possibly, a Turkish frigate off the Libyan coast launched a cruise missile that destroyed the “clamshell.” Alternatively, the drone attack triggered a series of secondary explosions, which caused the hangar to implode. 

BDA of the Al-Watiyah raids via ImageSat International

Left without anti-air cover and surrounded by the GNA, Haftar’s LNA withdrew from WAB on 18 May 2020. GNA militias secured the airbase immediately after. Social media postings of GNA fighters provide an on-site Battle Damage Assessment (BDA), which confirmes that one Patnsir was damaged and another destroyed (third hangar). 

The second Pantsir S-1 targeted, covered in concrete

The photos also showcased other military hardware left behind by the LNA, including several decommissioned Mirage-F1 and Su-22 (Fitter) aircraft and Mi-24 (Hind) and Mi-35 helicopters (Hind-E) dating back to the Gaddafi-era. 


18 MAY: SOUTH OF SIRTE

Hours before the LNA withdrew from WAB and some 300 km east, a Turkish drone executed another operation. The UCAV was monitoring an LNA military transport carrying an inactive Pantsir S-1 on its trailer. The truck was moving the Pantsir from Ghardabiya AB, near Sirte, to al-Jafra AB in central Libya. When the vehicle stopped around 70 km south of Sirte, the Turkish drone scored a direct hit on the Pantsir.

20 MAY: RAIDS ON TARHUNAH AND ELSEWHERE

Videos released to the press on 20 May, show a series of drone strikes that neutralized four Pantsirs in the town of Tarnurah. The airstrikes intended to soften Haftar’s defenses in the area.

The attack destroyed one inactive Pantsir, which was on the move in an intersection west of Tanurah. Two other Pantsirs were supposedly destroyed while sheltered in hangars. The videos show the missiles hitting the structures, but do not offer proof that confirms the “kills.” However, if the hangars were harboring Pantsirs, the air defense systems likely did not survive the attack. 

The fourth engagement shows an irrefutable kill of an active Pantsir – radar spinning and scanning. The official release claims that this strike also took place near Tarnurah.

The GNA also announced that it destroyed three other Pantsirs on the same day: two in “Wishka” and one in Suk el-Ahad. As they did not provide visual proof, we are unable to confirm the outcome or the location of the strikes. 


HAFTAR TO STRIKE BACK? 

The chief of the LNA’s air wing, Saqr Al-Jaroushi, vowed to unleash the “largest aerial campaign in Libyan history” with all Turkish positions now “legitimate targets for our airforce.” 

The GNA’s Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha said at least six MiG-29s (Fulcrum) and two Su-24s (Fencer) have flown into eastern Libya from Russia’s 55th Hmeimim Airbase in Syria, to bolster the LNA’s offensive capabilities. He added that Russian Air Force Su-35 air superiority fighters (Flanker-E) escorted the flight group. 

Mr. Bashagha’s accusations are consistent with unconfirmed reports from earlier this week, which claimed that six MiG-29s flew from Russia to Syria with a stop in Iran’s Hamadan Air Base. This formation may have continued to Libya. 



However, Scramble Magazine claims that the fighters jets were sent from Belarus, and not Russia. The aviation magazine assesses that the UAE procured MiG-29BM (Bolyshaya Modernizaciya) and Su-24M variants from the Belarussian Air Force for the LNA. They also said that Belarussian and Syrian pilots familiar with the airframes are likely involved in the operation. 

Geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) released by Maxar Technologies partially confirmes the reports. Satellite imagery of the LNA-held al-Jufra Air Base (JAB) shows at least one MiG-29 taxied on the runway as of 19 May. 

MiG-29 at al-Jufrah Air Base, Libya, on 19 May, via Digital Globe/ Maxar

Likely, JAB was also the destination of the Pantsir S-1E intercepted on the move south of Sirte on 18 May. It is possible that the Pantsir had been re-deployed to reinforce JAB’s aerial defenses before the aircraft build-up. 

Haftar’s aerial reinforcements signal that the Libyan Civil War will likely re-escalate. It remains to be seen how the GNA’s main allies, Turkey, Qatar, and Italy, will react. 

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