Tag: UAV

Iran Used Cruise Missiles, Suicide Drones in Saudi Attack

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

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


KINETIC PLATFORMS

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


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

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

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

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

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


DELIVERY AND EXECUTION

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

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

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

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


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

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Is Boeing’s AI-Powered Drone the Loyal Wingman of Tomorrow? The Aussies Think So.

Details on the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) “Loyal Wingman” project remain classified and sparse. During the project reveal in Melbourne (Australia) on February 27, 2019, drone-producer Boeing has nevertheless…

Details on the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) “Loyal Wingman” project remain classified and sparse. During the project reveal in Melbourne (Australia) on February 27, 2019, drone-producer Boeing has nevertheless disclosed some juicy bits of information. The “Loyal Wingman” drone, officially designated as “Airpower Teaming System” (AST), will spearhead electronic warfare (EW) and intelligence gathering sorties in contested or denied environments, which are deemed too dangerous for manned assets. 

With a performance range of 3,700 km (2,200 miles), the unmanned aerial vehicle’s (UAV) airframe will receive a low-observability coating that will significantly boost its survivability in sensor-rich and hostile airspaces. Besides stealth, the “Loyal Wingman” will provide another fifth generation avionic element, namely enhanced networking capability. Towards this objective, the drone is designed to network sensor data, air control, and targeting information with allied airframes such as Australia’s E-7 (airborne early warning and control aircraft), EA-18G Growler (electronic attack aircraft), F/A/-18E/F SuperHornet (fighter jet), and P-8 Poseidon (naval aviation maritime security patrol aircraft). In the future, the UAV will be able to network with other drones and the RAAF’s expanding fleet of F-35A Joint Strike Fighters. These features will allow the “Loyal Wingman” to become a force multiplier, while keeping Australia’s fighter pilots and small airfleet out of harm’s way. 

The technology behind the “Loyal Wingman’s” visionary features is Artificial Intelligence (AI). The RAAF’s “Project Jericho” employs AI technology in four key areas: combat cloud, advanced sensing, human-machine augmentation, and autonomous processing. On the battlefield of tomorrow, the RAAF expects that information will be too overwhelming for humans to process in a timely manner. Special purpose AI capabilities, including deep learning algorithms with cutting-edge processing speed, can mitigate this problem and optimize the individual-machine performance. In other words, the “Loyal Wingman” could drastically reduce the time in which a nearby pilot, ground station analyst, or political decision-maker receives key intelligence (and not only unprocessed information). This would provide unprecedented decision-making advantages and improved situational awareness.

AI augmentation could, however, go even further. Experts believe that the “Loyal Wingman” could use its deep learning processors and computing power to study the flight patterns, radar cross sections and combat maneuvers of adversarial aircraft and devise options to outmaneuver them. The UAV could also provide telemetry for intercepting enemy ordnance, using mathematical scheduling and estimation models, and link with other drones for swarming attacks. AI could therefore truly push the technology aboard the “Loyal Wingman” to the edge of fifth generation aerial combat. 

The “Loyal Wingman” is expected to embark on its maiden flight in 2020. The United States Air Force is pursuing a similar UAV project called “Skyborg,” which is expected to make its debut in 2023.


by HARM 

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Hunting AQAP in Yemen: Joint UAE-US Special Operations Base in Mukalla (IMINT)

(1) The number of U.S. operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has drastically increased under the Trump administration. The U.S. has established its primary base of operations in…

(1) The number of U.S. operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has drastically increased under the Trump administration. The U.S. has established its primary base of operations in the city-port of Mukalla (Southern Yemen), which was liberated from AQAP by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and its local allies. The cooperation with the UAE enables the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Forces Command (JSOC) to target AQAP’s strongest cells in Yemen.

(2) Southern and Central Yemen are important recruitment and training grounds for AQAP. The rough, remote and hostile terrain provides sanctuary for high-value targets (HVTs) that have planned and continue to plan major attacks on American citizens and the U.S. homeland.

(3) AQAP’s power in Southern and Central Yemen has increased considerably during the Yemeni Civil War. The central government’s collapse allowed AQAP to establish large urban strongholds. AQAP dominates the Hadramawt, Mahrah and Shabwa provinces, and exerts significant control in Abyan and Bayda. AQAP cells have conducted attacks in major cities such as Aden, Hudayah and Sana’a. AQAP is currently estimated to have between 6,000 and 7,000 active fighters in Yemen.

(4) In 2015, AQAP seized control of Mukalla (Hadramawt province), proclaiming it the capital of the Yemeni “wilayat.” As Mukalla is Yemen’s second largest city-port on the Southern seaboard after Aden, the city became an important revenue and recruitment source for AQAP.

(5) In mid 2016, AQAP was ousted from Mukalla by the UAE and an allied coalition of local tribesmen and secessionist militias that later formed the Southern Transnational Council (STC). The ground offensive was backed by limited U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) elements as well as by U.S. airborne and maritime intelligence support. The UAE claims that it has neutralized over 500 AQAP militants, however, media sources suggest that the Emiratis also bribed a number of jihadists to withdraw from the area.

(6) In 2017, the new U.S. Presidential administration authorized the Department of Defense (DoD) and the CIA’s Special Activities Division (SAD) to accelerate and expand operations against AQAP. Mukalla, now under UAE/STC control, has become America’s largest covert forward operating base (FOB) in Yemen.

(7) The SOFs deployed in Mukalla are drawn from all JSOC special mission units, but mostly the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (known as DEVGRU or Navy SEAL Team Six). The SOFs get airlifted from the U.S. Naval Expeditionary Base “Camp Lemonnier” in Djibouti to Riyan Airport in Mukalla. Camp Lemonnier is a hub for special operations in the Horn of Africa area and the most important launching pad for drone/unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes outside of Afghanistan.

(8) Flight traffic monitors show undesignated Dornier 328-110 turboprop commuter aircrafts departing Camp Lemonnier and “disappearing” over Mukalla after descending for landing. The Dornier 328 is the civilian version of the C-146A Wolfhound – the primary SOF air asset used to airlift fireteams or small cargo loads into semi-prepared airfields. JSOC is known to use the civilian version of the Wolfhound for SOF deployment in order to maintain operations security (OPSEC) standards.

Sample of D328 flights observed by T-Intelligence

(9) Image Intelligence (IMINT) based on commercial satellite imagery furthermore reveals a significant military expansion of Riyan Airport since it was liberated from AQAP. UAE/STC forces have built or considerably expanded at least 10 sites in vicinity to the runway, including observation posts, warehouses, fortified sites, patrol routes, a small seashore construction, and a number of unidentified buildings. A militarized checkpoint replaces the civilian airport entrance, which was closed in mid 2016. The main apron hosts military attack and transport helicopters, which can be used to forward deploy SOFs into combat areas.

Military enhancements of Riyan Airport near Mukalla, Yemen: July 1, 2016 (post-AQAP liberation) vs. June 23, 2018 (last available satellite imagery)

Military aircraft activity on the main apron and minimal enhancements around the taxiway: July 18, 2017 vs. June 23, 2018

Seashore constructions: July 1, 2016 vs. June 23, 2018

Logistics site “Delta” (West of the runway): July 1, 2016 vs. June 23, 2018

(8) Reports also suggest that a covert detention and interrogation center – run by local authorities and exploited by the UAE and U.S. for intelligence collection – has been established on the grounds of Riyan Airport. We assess that all of the airport enhancements serve military purposes. In 2018, enlargement and enhancement efforts continue.

(9) The mission profile of JSOC SOFs deployed in Yemen is to conduct reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and HVT-execution, including support for kinetic UAV strikes. They frequently liaise and coordinate with Emirati commandos and enlist the help of local STC-aligned tribesmen and militias.

(10) The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) also assists the U.S. counter-terrorism effort. The KSA commands a network of human intelligence assets that has infiltrated AQAP’s ranks. These assets provide critical intelligence and plant signal beacons on HVTs for UAV targeting missions. AQAP is trying combat the KSA-infiltration through strict counterintelligence measures, as announced in a propaganda video issued in early September 2018.   

(11) The unprecedented surge in SOF missions has produced valuable intelligence and eliminated several AQAP HVTs in Yemen. According to CENTCOM datasets assessed by The Long War Journal, the U.S. conducted 125 UAV kinetic strikes in 2017 – more than in the previous four years combined. With 33 strikes by September 2018, the U.S. is again on track to surpass the pre-2017 years. The SOF/UAV strikes have targeted AQAP training camps, checkpoints, safe-houses, and tactical positions in Abuan, Bayda, Mahraw, Shabwa and Northern Hadramawt – Northern Hadramawt hereby received the largest share of attention.  

(12) A U.S. UAV strike in the second half of 2017 reportedly killed Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, AQAPs most talented bombmaker. Al-Asiri was known for disguising bombs as printer cartridges, cell phones, and other devices or planting them in human bodies to bypass airport security. The UAE played a major role in the target-acquisition process, as Emirati commandos captured al-Asiri’s wife for interrogation. Al-Asiri’s death represents a crucial blow for AQAP’s capabilities.

(13) At the moment, the primary target of U.S. SOF/UAV operations in Yemen is AQAP emir Qasim al-Raymi, who is closely associated with Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQ’s top commander. In the past eight years, al-Raymi was unsuccessfully targeted by the U.S. at least three times. The last attempt took place in 2017, when a controversial DEVGRU-led raid on al-Raymi’s safe house in Yalka (Bayda province) failed to kill the target.

(14) It is highly likely that U.S. SOF/UAV operations in Yemen will intensify in the next years. The U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) is currently looking to contract private operators for airborne casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) and medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) in Yemen and the Horn of Africa area. According to the draft performance work statement published online, the Special Operations Command Center will be the beneficiary of these services. The call specifies that the private contractors have to be able to operate fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft on unprepared runways as small as 900 m, use night-vision goggles, carry no less than eight men or almost 2 tons of cargo, and refuel with running engines. Aircrafts need to be armored with lightweight, Level III (7.62 mm and 5.56 mm) Ballistic Protection Systems.

(15) The details of this commercial listing suggest a sustained expansion of the current SOF activities in and around Yemen. We asses that U.S. SOFs have moved further in AQAP-held territory and are building/planning to build FOBs with coaxial dirt runways to receive supplies and evacuate personnel. As these FOB postings are highly dangerous, the SOFs require MEDEVAC/CASEVAC assets that are available 24/7 and can work under heavy enemy fire.


DISCLAIMER: Some IMINT materials have been excluded from the analysis in order to safeguard U.S. OPSEC, as SOF missions in Yemen are ongoing.  

by HARM and Gecko

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