Last week, the Black Sea became the latest theatre upon which tensions flared between the United Kingdom and Russia. On June 23, the British Royal Navy’s Type-45 HMS Defender entered…
Last week, the Black Sea became the latest theatre upon which tensions flared between the United Kingdom and Russia. On June 23, the British Royal Navy’s Type-45 HMS Defender entered contested waters off the Crimean Peninsula while sailing from Odessa (Ukraine) to Batumi (Georgia). As expected, Russia reacted aggressively, sending fighter jets and warships to taunt the Defender.
Unpicking these events proved difficult at first, given inconsistent reports from both the Russian and British militaries. However, nearly one week on, the fog of uncertainty has somewhat lifted, and the discovery of classified Ministry of Defence (MoD) documents at a bus stop in Kent (England) on June 27 has established a broader picture. The incident is part of a geopolitical contest in the region that has simmered for weeks.
Russia opened with a bang. On June 23, Russian media reported that the HMS Defender had entered Russian-controlled waters, and Russian forces had subsequently fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the destroyer’s pathway. Initially, many media outlets speculated that Russia was making baseless accusations and blowing events out of proportion.
The MoD downplayed the severity of the events. According to the MoD, the HMS Defender was “conducting innocent passage” and was not the target of Russia’s warning shots. The MoD’s rather bland coverage of events was at odds with reports from BBC Defence correspondent Johnathan Beale, who was on the Defender during the incident. According to Beale, the crew of the Defender took battle stations as Russian warships shadowed the British vessel and issued threats. BBC audio provides evidence that jets could clearly be heard overhead. Beale also mentions artillery shots from afar.
The HMS Defender entered Russian-claimed waters by two nautical miles and was prepared for some degree of confrontation.However, the Royal Navy transited the area using an internationally recognized shipping lane. The international community does not recognize Russia’s claim over Crimea or the adjacent waters. De jure, Crimean watersstill belong to Ukraine.
AIS data shows that HMS Defender was at it’s closest around 10 nautical miles (18.5km/11.5mi) from the Crimean coast. The UN state that territorial waters can be up to 12 nautical miles. This would put HMS Defender 2 nautical miles or 3.7km inside ‘Russian’ waters around Crimea. pic.twitter.com/nLUZ96Qs04
The incident was a tester for how Russia would react to a NATO sail through. The MoD’s classified documents left behind a bus stop in Kent (England) corroborate this assessment. The papers highlight route options for the HMS Defender and estimate Russian reactions to the proposed routes. The timing of the (literal) unearthing of these documents in the face of Russian rhetoric points to a likely composed leak to set out the motivations behind the Defender’s movements. Without officially setting the record straight, the MoD has proven a point.
Classified map of shows HMS Defender’s route options from Odessa to Batumi (source: BBC News)
The HMS Defender’s controversial voyage aimed to strengthen the British-Ukrainian alliance. In plotting a course through what it, and most of the world, deems internationally recognized Ukrainian waters, London rejects Russia’s claims over Crimea. Incidentally, on the day of the skirmish, the UK issued a press release stating that the UK and Ukraine have signed an accord to boost Ukrainian naval capabilities. Part of the agreement is the commitment to building a naval base in the Black Sea, which will serve as the primary base for Ukraine’s fleet.
Moscow was probably aware of the Defender’s plans tosail through Russian-claimed waters and responded with a disinformation campaign. Before the incident, on June 18, Russia falsified the tracking data of the Defender and another NATO warship. The ‘spoofed’ automatic identification system (AIS) data put the ships within two nautical miles of Sevastopol. However, port camera footage confirmed that both warships were still docked in Odessa.
Russia pulled an identical move on another ship, the USS Ross, on June 29. Spoofed AIS data falsely showed that the USS Ross was nearing Crimea, when in fact, the American vessel was also still ported in Odessa.
AIS (Automated Identification System) tracks which appear to show USS Ross ((DDG-71) off Crimea right now appear to be falsified. A live webcam in Odessa shows her berthed there as expected.#OSINTpic.twitter.com/3E82eikFTs
The incident was a preamble to the Sea Breeze 21 multinational exercise this week. Led by the US and Ukraine and encompassing 30 other states, this year’s edition is the largest in the history of Sea Breeze. Not long after Sea Breeze 21 kicked off, the Netherlands’ MoD reported that Russian jets had harassed the Dutch HNLMS Evertsen frigate in international waters. Russia will very likely continue to rattle the sabers in protest of the multinational drill.
Armed Russian military jets caused a dangerous situation in the Black Sea near HNLMS Evertsen last Thursday. The aircraft repeatedly flew dangerously low over and close to the ship and carried out mock attacks. HNLMS Evertsen was in international waters during these harassments. pic.twitter.com/fcY1nH392V
Further escalations between the UK and Russia in the Black Sea have to be expected. British-Russian relations are at a low due to the Novichok poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury in 2018. As the UK is redefining its role in the post-Brexit world, London is eager to project itself as a solid military force supporting Ukraine. Furthermore, the recent events underscore that the UK is willing to dabble in the evolving ‘grey zone’ of information warfare. Bydownplaying the events of June 23 and then setting the record straight through the “loss” of classified documents, London plays fast and loose with the truth akin to, but not as versed as the dis/information warriors in Moscow.
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.
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 through, reportedly 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.”
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.
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.
IMINT/SIGINT ops ongoing in the Black Sea region:
-US RQ-4 Global Hawk over E. Ukraine (the daily #FORTE10)
-RAF ELINT plane near Kerch strait
-P8 Poseidon joining the party pic.twitter.com/gdkw53rhDL
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.
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.
This article has been updated on 14 April to include a new image of an ISR “party” and a paragraph explaining it.
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.
For those wondering why the RAF shadowed Russian aircraft in international airspace west of Ireland yesterday, their routing cut straight across the routes taken by airliners crossing the North Atlantic (and the TU-142MR trails an antenna several kms long when talking to subs). pic.twitter.com/3QKx3ltT0W
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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The British Royal Air Force (RAF) Quick Reaction Alert-North (QRA) from Lossiemouth scrambled three times in the past week to intercept Russian military aircraft transiting the United Kingdom’s flight information…
The British Royal Air Force (RAF) Quick Reaction Alert-North (QRA) from Lossiemouth scrambled three times in the past week to intercept Russian military aircraft transiting the United Kingdom’s flight information region (FIR). The British QRAs, often done in partnership with regional allies, are coordinated by the Combined Air Operations Centre (COAC) based in Uedem, Germany. COAC-Uedem acts as NATO‘s Command and Control hub for the northern air policing area.
During their transits through the UK’s FIR, the Russian aircraft buzzed the flight corridors used by civilian airliners to enter and depart British airspace. The RAF jets, typically two or three Eurofighter Typhoons, activated their transponders to make themselves visible to air traffic controllers (ACT) while shadowing the Russian “visitors.” This allowed the ACT authorities to see where the uncooperating planes are and de-conflict the airspace accordingly. At times ACT had to divert commercial flights to mitigate the risk of collision with the “incognito” Russian aerial formation.
For those wondering why the RAF shadowed Russian aircraft in international airspace west of Ireland yesterday, their routing cut straight across the routes taken by airliners crossing the North Atlantic (and the TU-142MR trails an antenna several kms long when talking to subs). pic.twitter.com/3QKx3ltT0W
Russian military activity in the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap has increased exponentially in the past years in terms of training exercises, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) sorties and maritime surveillance missions. The GIUK gap is very important for Russia to move its nuclear-capable submarines and ASW aircraft in and out of the North Atlantic in case of war. To better understand the enemy order of battle and tactics in the region, the Russian are deliberately testing the RAF and NATO’s overall QRA reaction (time and tactics) while also monitoring maritime movements.
The first interception this week took place on 8 March 2020, when a composite formation of Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) and Russian Navy (RuN) buzzed both the Norwegian and the British FIRs. The Russian composite formation consisted of one Tu-142 MK ASW and maritime patrol aircraft (AISC/NATO Reporting name: Bear-F), one Tu-142MR/M submarine communications relay variant (Bear-J), and one MiG-31 (Foxhound) operated by the RuAF.
The Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) scrambled first and deployed two F-16AM fighter jets, which conducted an initial visual identification of the Russian aircraft formation, and (for the first time) two F-35A stealth multirole fighters. When the two Bear’s continued their flight further down over the North Sea, two RAF Eurofighter Typhoons intercepted them.
The Tu-142s are the maritime variant of the notorious Tu-95 strategic bombers and were built to hunt NATO submarines. The Russians were likely collecting intelligence on the NATO naval buildup in Norway for the multinational exercise “Cold Response” as well as communicating with submerged platforms.
RAF Lossiemouth dispatched two QRA Typhoons to intercept and shadow two Russian Tu-142 (Bear-F) aircraft as they approached the UK’s area of interest on 11 March 2020. The British Typhoons intercepted the Russian “Bears” west of the Shetland islands, inside the UK’s FIR, and shadowed them south towards Ireland. French aircraft took over QRA duty for the airspace until the Bay of Biscay, where the Bears returned north and were again intercepted by the RAF jets.
Early this morning, #TeamLossie launched two Quick Reaction Alert Typhoons to intercept and shadow two Russian Tu-142 Bear-F aircraft as they approached the UK’s area of interest.
RAF Lossiemouth scrambled three QRA Typhoons to intercept and shadow two Russian Tu-160 long-range strategic bombers (“Blackjack”) on 12 March 2020. The flight path and pattern was identical to the one from the day before.
The RAF Lossiemouth QRA team proved that it can secure British and NATO skies at a moment’s notice 24/7 and 365 days per year. However, thanks to its social media and communications team, RAF Lossiemouth demonstrated how a military operation can be done efficiently and transparently.
The RAF Lossiemouth has actively engaged with the public through its Facebook and Twitter accounts, explaining why and how the interceptions were conducted, sharing photos from the QRA scrambles and even publishing ADS-B/ Mode-S tracking codes so that enthusiasts can track their aircraft using flight trackers.
The deepening crisis in the Middle East has prompted American and British authorities to review travel advice information for the region. Following the United States UAV-strike that killed Iranian Revolutionary…
The deepening crisis in the Middle East has prompted American and British authorities to review travel advice information for the region. Following the United States UAV-strike that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF) Major-General Qassim Soleimani, tensions have been high between Iran, which seeks retaliation, and the US-led International Coalition against ISIS.
SECURITY RISK FOR FOREIGN CITIZENS
Even before the strike, intelligence suggested that Iran and its network of Shiite paramilitary groups – many sanctioned terrorist groups – were plotting to kidnap, attack or kill foreign citizens in Iraq, in particular U.S. diplomatic personnel. With the recent developments, the security risk for foreign citizens has significantly increased. Currently, there is also a risk that foreign nationals – in particular American and British – could be arbitrarily detained by security personnel in Iran, or by militiamen in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
MORTAR, ROCKET AND MISSILE THREAT
In addition, there is a heightened risk of mortar, rocket and missile attacks in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).
STAY AWAY FROM CROWDS
Angry crowds have taken to the streets to condemn the killing of IRGC-HQ Maj. Gen. Soleimani in the Middle East. Many demonstrations are led or coordinated by hostile militias, which could result in violence. You should avoid any rallies, marches, processions, and keep away from military sites.
FURTHER ADVICE: Please monitor your country’s foreign travel service for updates and editorial reviews. Things can change fast as the situation in the Middle East is extremely fluid.
NATIONAL ISSUED ALERTS
U.S CITIZENS, BE ADVISED:
Most of the U.S Department of State (DOS)-issued travel warnings in the Middle East are not new and have remained unchanged for years. However, the DOS has reviewed and amended its travel advice for Iraq and Iran in the past two weeks.
for U.S. DOS travel map go to travelmaps.state.gov
IRAN. Last updated on December 26, 2019. The DOS maintains the Level 4 Travel Advisory Level (TAL) – DO NOT TRAVEL for Iran. The DOS advise all U.S. citizens against all travel to Iran due to risk of kidnapping, arbitrary arrest and detention for U.S. citizens. The U.S. government does not have diplomatic or consular relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The U.S. government is unable to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Iran.
IRAQ. Last updated on January 1, 2020. The DOS maintains the Level 4 TAL – DO NOT TRAVEL for Iraq. The DOS advise all U.S. citizens against all travel to Iraq due to terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict.
On December 31, 2019, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad suspended public consular services, until further notice, as a result of damage done by Iranian-backed terrorist attacks on the diplomatic compound. On October 18, 2018, the DOS ordered the suspension of operations at the U.S. Consulate General in Basrah. That institution has not reopened. Only the U.S. Consulate General Erbil remains open and continues to provide consular services.
BRITISH CITIZENS, BE ADVISED
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has reviewed the Foreign Travel Advice (FTA) for Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Turkey.
IRAN. As of January 6, 2020, the FCO advise all British nationals against all but essential travel to Iran and against all travel to:
within 100km of the entire Iran/Afghanistan border
within 10km of the entire Iran/Iraq border
the province of Sistan-Baluchistan
the area east of the line running from Bam to Jask, including Bam
However, for British-Iranian dual nationals the FCO advise against all travel to Iran. If you’re in Iran, you should consider carefully your need to remain. If your continued presence is not essential, you should consider leaving. There is a risk that British nationals, and a significantly higher risk that British-Iranian dual nationals, could be arbitrarily detained or arrested in Iran.
The criminal justice process followed in such cases falls below international standards. Iran does not recognise dual nationality. If you are a dual British-Iranian national and are detained in Iran, the FCO’s ability to provide consular support is extremely limited
IRAQ. As of January 4, 2020, the FCO advise against all travel to Iraq, except for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq where the FCO continue to advise against all but essential travel. If you’re in areas of Iraq where the FCO advise against all travel, you should consider leaving by commercial means.
If you’re in Iraq or decide to travel, make sure you have robust contingency plans in place and keep these under review. You should keep up to date with the latest developments across the country, including via the media and this travel advice, avoid any rallies, marches or processions, and follow the instructions of local authorities.
SYRIA. As of January 6, 2020, the FCO advise against all travel to Syria. British nationals in Syria should leave by any practical means. Consular support is not available from the British government from within Syria, as all services of the British Embassy in Damascus are suspended and all diplomatic and consular staff have been withdrawn. If you need to speak to a consular officer in the UK, call the FCO in London on +44 (0)20 7008 1500.
YEMEN. As of January 6, 2020, the FCO advise against all travel to Yemen. This includes the mainland and all islands. If you’re in Yemen, you should leave immediately. If you choose to remain in Yemen, you should minimise movement around the country and within cities and towns, monitor developments in the local security situation and follow other precautions in this travel advice. Consular support is not available from the British government from within Yemen. If you need to speak to a consular officer in the UK, call the FCO in London on +44 (0)20 7008 1500.
TURKEY. As of January 6, 2020, the FCO advise against all travel to Turkish areas within 10 km of the border with Syria, except the city of Kilis. This amendment was brought in connection with the recent tensions in Iraq and augments the existing security alert concerning Turkey. The FCO advise against all but essential travel to:
all other areas of Sirnak, Kilis (including Kilis city) and Hatay provinces
the provinces of Diyarbakir, Tunceli and Hakkari
GULF STATES. TheFCO reviewed the FTA for Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, KSA and Oman, but has not issued a warning against travel. However, all of these countries have pre-existing security alerts due to terrorism. The risk of terrorist attacks in the Gulf is likely or very likely (depending on the state). Exercise caution and regularly check the travel advice for each country.
Despite the initial announcement to withdraw all U.S. servicemen from Syria, the Trump administration will keep 400 troops in northeastern Syria and al-Tanf as part of a “multinational peacekeeping force.” Since…
Despite the initial announcement to withdraw all U.S. servicemen from Syria, the Trump administration will keep 400 troops in northeastern Syria and al-Tanf as part of a “multinational peacekeeping force.” Since the U.S.-led Coalition against ISIS (Da’esh) is transiting to the next phase of contingency operations, the reduced troop count is adequate to maintain military pressure on the terror group, prevent a large-scale Turkish attack on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and restrict Iran’s freedom of operations in Syria. Former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and several military commanders publicly disagreed with Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, arguing that a continued U.S. presence is necessary to prevent the resurgence of Da’esh (Consult our assessment on the CONSEQUENCES OF A U.S. TROOP WITHDRAWAL FROM SYRIA here).
While officially branded as a “monitoring and observer force”, the remaining U.S. troops will likely consist of special operations force (SOF) elements tasked with terminal attack control (for air operations), indigenous capacity building, direct action, reconnaissance and counter-insurgency operations. Regular troops will provide force protection. Air assets based in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility will continue to provide close air support and prosecute the remaining Da’esh high-value targets (HVTs) scattered in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. Besides American forces, the multinational peacekeeping force will likely include French and British SOF elements, which have liaised with the Coalition since 2014. Allied contribution to the multinational peacekeeping force could bring the troop count to over 1,000.
Reports suggest that the U.S. administration is also pursuing other NATO allies to contribute to the force. As the Da’esh threat is an inherently transnational issue that concerns the security of all NATO and European Union states, a concerted effort is required. Countries such as Belgium, Denmark and Germany, that still have citizens under Da’esh command, should have a particular interest to commit troops or expand their Iraq deployments to prevent battle-hardened jihadists from returning to their home countries in Europe.
Photo credit: Cpl. Carlos Lopez (Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade)
AFTER-ACTION REPORT – At 4:20 Damascus time, April 14, 2018, a joint Air and Naval operation of the United States of America (USA), Republic of France and the United Kingdom…
AFTER-ACTION REPORT – At 4:20 Damascus time, April 14, 2018, a joint Air and Naval operation of the United States of America (USA), Republic of France and the United Kingdom of Great Britain (UK) launched air strikes and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TALM) from assets present in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, as well as from the Arabic/ Persian Gulf towards Syria. The military action was a direct response to the Assad’s regime use of Chemical weapons against civilians and Opposition Forces in the Damascus city of Douma – the last pocket near Eastern Ghouta unconquered by the Loyalists at that time. Days before the highly expected but unconfirmed strike, T-intelligence (Ti) has successfully forecasted the time-frame, targets and nature of the joint U.S., British and French response. In the two cables posted on the Facebook page on April 12 (Post 1, Post 2), Ti assessed the Trump administration’s intentions and unpeeled most of the operational timeline of the strike. The following assessment reflects on the analytical process and facts that weighted into the operation, as well as the outcome of the military engagement:
Intentions of the Trump administration: Reinstate Deterrence through Controlled Escalation
Following the Douma gas attack and the immediate political messages sent from Washington, London and Paris, Ti judged that a military retaliation against the Bashar al-Assad regime is not only highly likely, but imminent. The judgement was also fueled by the 2017’s precedent set by Donald J. Trump, when he directed 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TALMs) to hit the Shayrat air base – the location used to deliver the chemical attack in Khan Sheykoun by the Assad regime. The Trump administrator drew a red line in the sand, Assad broke it, and retaliation swiftly followed. Ti was looking for the same formula but in a bigger, more punitive format.
Ti assessed that the Trump administration did not take this decision lightly, as the President has earlier signaled plans to exit the Syrian Civil War. He repeatedly stated that he intends to withdraw the almost 2,000 U.S. troops deployed in Syria (mostly consisting of costly and limited Special Operations Forces) as major operations against ISIS/ DAESH are coming to an end. Allies and regional partners are attempting to backtrack this decision, with President Macron claiming success. Key Arab countries are pressured to make contribution that would maintain U.S. presence as a counter to Iranian hegemony in the region. Inherently, a military strike was to be politically-cautions enough that it would not drag the United States further into the civil war and the geopolitical confrontation that it involves. However, a large scale than last year’s attack was needed and expected for doubling-down on President Trump’s redline.
Ti looked for a larger military and logistical build-up in comparison to last year’s strike, as a way to validate and measure the likelihood of an attack. Subsequently, a more ambitious and larger target-list was expected.
With the use of military force, Allies sought to reinstate a credible deterrent against further use of Chemical weapons, and (b) to degrade the capabilities of the Assad regime, and subsequent Syrian Arab Army (SAA) from conducting similar attacks in the future. The thin line that curbed operational “creativity” was a possible escalation with Russian and Iranian forces embedded with their Syrian allies. Secretary of Defense James Mattis especially feared possible repercussions against the 2,000 U.S. troops operating against the remnants of ISIS/ DA’ESH in northern and eastern Syria within Operation “Inherent Resolve”.
The Department of Defense worked in close coordination with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Central Command to carefully compile a shortlist of targets for President Donald J. Trump to pick from. They had several guidelines to respect in the process of target-acquisition and evaluation:
Connection to the Syrian regime’s Chemical and Biological Weapons program – facilities (storage, research) and delivery assets (fighter jets, helicopters);
Reduction and prevention of civilian casualties or collateral damage; and
Avoiding casualties among Russian and Iranian personnel present in Syria, operating in either solo or joint military compounds with their SAA counter-parts.
The campaign’s philosophy was military-precise and politically-cautious. However, delays (due to political consultations in London, Paris) and premature twitter threats from President J. Trump have (possibility intentionally) complicated this process. The SAA began moving their air assets from major air fields to the Russian-owned Kheimeini Air Base in the coastline province of Latakia – a sanctuary from any possible U.S. strike. This rendered the Pentagon’s objective of striking WMDs means of delivery unreachable. The Department of Defense had to continuously re-evaluate the strike list in accordance to the developments on the ground and incoming intelligence.
On Wednesday, U.S. officials suggested to commercial flight companies via Eurocontrol to avoid the Syrian airspace in the next 72 hours. While not very common, commercial no-fly zones have become a much more usual practice after the downing of flight Mh-17 by Russia in Eastern Ukraine. Ti judged with significant strength and confidence that this would be the window for the US, UK and FRA to get their house in order and commence with military operations.
CLAIM (Very Accurate): Inherently, the days suggested by Ti were Thursday, Friday and Saturday (12-14 April, 2018) – preferably at the crack of dawn (4-5 a.m. Damascus time).
OUTCOME: The operation commenced on Saturday pre-dawn 4:20 am Damascus time.
Thursday afternoon saw a two-hour long meeting in the White House attended by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Halley, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Vice-President Mike Pence, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. No decision was made at that time due to reported disagreements between John Bolton and James Mattis regarding the targeting list. John Bolton, an ex-Bush administration official and a firebrand warhawk advocated towards a punitive strike against SAA installations, reportedly including air defense sites. James Mattis called for a proportionate response and related to the Syrian regime’s WMD program, arguing that striking air defenses would escalate tensions with Russia and Iran, which could retaliate on the U.S. troops operating northern and eastern Syria. Also, Theresa May only received the full backing of her Cabinet on Thursday evening. President Trump then had a phone call with Prime-Minister May and President Macron to further discuss the situation – rumors suggested that the topic was the continuously changing target-list and the possibility of breaking the decision-making deadlock in the following days.
With the window of Thursday night/ Friday morning being missed, we assessed that the list of targets got shorter and weaker, but that a final line-up of locations was supplied to POTUS. The loss of military initiative severely weakened the potential impact of a campaign. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) had taken all the necessary measures to mitigate or eliminate the projected damage on its air fields and military. We assessed that the operation would try to compensate the lack of substance with a higher number of targets. There is also indication that Israeli intelligence has played a role in checking and compiling the list of targets. As reflected by the disappointment expressed by Israeli officials regarding impact and effect of the strike, Mossad’s contribution did not make it in the final draft of the line-up.
CLAIM (Relatively Accurate): Ti estimated that 4-8 targets would be hit, consisting of largely deserted air fields and facilities. They would have moderate military importance and would not cause casualties, especially not Russian or Iranian. Likewise, Ti noted with confidence that the US CENTCOM will maintain communications with their Russian counter-parts through the Qatar-based de-escalation, purposely to avoid unwanted incidents.
OUTCOME: The trilateral strike hit three targets (one military installation including an airfield, one WMD storage center, both in Homs; and a Chemical and Biological Weapons Research Center in Bazreh, Rural Damascus). The Joint Chief of Staff, General Joseph Dunford confirmed that the operation involved an exchange of communication with the Russian counter-parts regarding the de-escalation of certain parts in the Syrian airspace minutes before the missile were launched. Also, no human casualties (including Russian or Iranian) were reported due to the evacuation of personnel conducted by Damascus earlier that week.
Capabilities Employed: Tracking Assets and Flow of Logistics Surrounding Syria
Ti has been tracking logistics and civilian & military (available) air traffic that could indicate a build-up in the Eastern Mediterranean by the US, UK and France. Effort had two short-falls: an over-focus on that particular area, when there are hundreds of other assets already deployed in some framework or form through the region – which were ultimately activated for the operation. Which leads to the second issue: white noise of open-source data. The myriad of ongoing active deployment, engagements, schedules commissioning and circumstantial events (as military drills solo or joint) was nearly impossible to filter for a precise assessment. However, moderate judgments have been made. For example, we [continued]
CLAIM (Precise): [continued] rejected the idea that a military strike would be conducted by the Strike Group 8 (SG8) commissioned to the area from Norfok, Virginia on Wednesday. That deployment was planned months in advanced and while it could have been activated for the campaign, it would have represented a disproportionate use of military logistics and assets in relationship with the targets. The assets already scattered through the region would have sufficed for a limited military strike. The SG8 holds the potential, manpower and capabilities to annihilate the entire Armed Forces of the Assad regime. Ti was tracking assets for a limited campaign involving air strikes and cruise missiles, not regime change.
OUTCOME: SG8 played no role in the campaign against the Syrian regime, other than deterrence, power projection and cover (press-wise) for the actual assets.
The transfer of air assets between U.S. regional basses, as Sigonella, Aviano (Italy) to Incirlik (Turkey) was eye-catching, but internal assessment dismissed the Incirlik Air Base as a possible launch site for the campaign given the political pivot between the Turkish Government, the Assad regime and Russia over the conflict in Syria.
Deployment of fuel tankers towards the Mediterranean from the U.S. and the U.K. was a strong pre-strike logistical indicator. However, it was difficult to dismiss whether those assets were not actually commissioned to support fighter jets on active duty against ISIS/ DAESH within CJTF/OIR.
Starting with Tuesday, the U.S. Air Force began flying 3-4 reconnaissance and electronic intelligence gathering sorties per day, using Boeing Poseidon P-8 planes in the Eastern Mediterranean and focusing on the Syrian coastline. Their path, runtime and some technical details were visible in a number of publicly available air traffic monitoring websites and apps. Deployment of those aircrafts came from the aforementioned U.S. air fields in Italy. UAVs (unmanned aerial-vehicles) as the RQ-4 (call sign “Forte 10”) were intensifying surveillance runs and ELINT/IMINT collection about Syrian coastal anti-air defenses. The ISR (Intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance) efforts were reportedly subjected to Russian Electronic Warfare (EW) jamming measures.
Early last week, the USS Donald Cook has been dispatched to sail in the Eastern Mediterranean after completing a port-call in a Cypriot harbor. Its exact location was unknown due to OPSEC reasons but Ti assessed that its mere presence does not hold the potential for an escalatory capability-build-up in the region or to stage an attack. However, the warship was not ruled out of a possible engagement. Compared to 2017, two warships launched 59 TALMs against the Shayrat Air Base. Ti was looking for more regionally-deployed assets or/ and allied contributions to combine forces.
News of British submarines being deployed in the area, alongside the French multi-class destroyer, Aquitaine, was a strong indication that a percentage of the expected force would be provide by Allies. Intensified activity at the British air base in Cyprus was another strong indication. The Aquitaine was repeatedly buzzed by Russian fighter jets throughout 11-13 April, 2018.
Ti was monitoring with caution and restraint. There is always the risk that logistical activity and capability deployment can be routine, circumstantial or related to other events: engagement against ISIS/ DAESH within OIR, military exercises with local allies, or troop rotation in U.S. basses in the region For example, a reported and growing U.S. military activity in Jordan was actually due to the upcoming international annually military drill with the Jordanian Army, and had little-to-no connection to a Syrian Strike – as assessed at that time. The evacuation of the Russian Mediterranean Task Force (part of the Black Sea Fleet) based in the Naval Facility in Tartus, was more related to the series of military drills in the Syrian waters (starting with April 11), than an imminent U.S. strike. Regardless that Russian officials had later used the exercises to keep the assets away from impeding danger.
Monitoring a number of publicly available air traffic websites and apps, Ti noticed a complete reduction in commercial flights transiting Syrian airspace – with the exception of the Syrian state-owned ChamWings and affiliated jets, outbound to Tehran (Iran), Baghdad, and Najaf (Iraq). Flights towards the busy Beirut Airport (Lebanon) were re-routed either through Turkey, Egypt or Jordan (and Israel). Kuwait Air Ways cancelled all of their flights to Lebanon.
The main and only shortfall of this assessment, is that Ti largely concentrated on the Eastern Mediterranean region for asset-deployment and build-up due to resource management and operational practicality. It made for sense for TALMs to be launched from the waters just hundreds of km away from the targets, rather than thousands of km. This was only partially fruitful as the following section will detail.
Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) and Operational Layout
On Saturday morning before dawn (April 14, 2018), the US, UK and France launched 105 missiles against the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons development and storage assets. The military campaign was limited and sought to reinstate a credible deterrence against the Assad’s regime usage of WMDs after crossing the red-line instated by the U.S. unilateral strike from April 2017.
The trilateral force consisting of the US, UK and France was integrated throughout the planning and execution of the operation and employed solely air and naval assets deployed in the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East. The U.S. fired:
37 (30+7) TLAMs from the Red Sea (USS Monterey and USS Laboon);
23 TLAMs from the Arab Gulf (USS Higgins);
6 TLAMs from the secretive Virginia-class submarines John Warner operating from the eastern Mediterranean;
and 19 JSAAM-ER missiles by a B-1b Strategic bomber coming from Al-Udeid Air base (Qatar) via Jordan. The B-1b’s Defensive Counter Air (DCA) escort was provided by F-16Cs, F-15Cs and advanced F-22 Raptors armed with air-to-air missiles and the counter-EW capable EA-6B Prowler from the U.S. Marines Corps. This marked the first use of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) in combat.
The British Typhoon and Tornado fighter jets fired 8 Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles into the Homs facility, alongside the French Rafale/ Mirage jets that activated 9 SCALP missiles. British and French jets flew from the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Akrotiri, Cyprus;
The French Navy also fired a number of their indigenous equivalent of the TLAM, namely the Missile de Croisière Naval (MdCN);
From the total of 105 strikes, 76 missiles were concentrated fire on the Barzeh Scientific Research Center.
JUST IN: Periscope video of US submarine John Warner launching 6 Tomahawk missiles into Syria https://t.co/lo9JMIVmtM
The targets that were struck and destroyed were specifically associated with the Syrian regime’s chemical and biological weapons program. The targets were also selected to minimize and reduce risk of civilian and foreign (Russia, Iran) losses. The first target was the Barzeh Scientific Research Center (Rural Damascus province) that developed, produced and tested biological and chemical weapons technology. The second and third targets were both located in Him Shinshar, Homs province – consisting in a command & control center that contained a Chemical Weapons (CW) storage site and bunker. All of the targets have been successfully and accurately destroyed. The military operation was a success.
The only retaliatory fire came from the Syrian regime’s anti-air defenses which fired around 40 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) at the incoming strikes. Russia had not activated its military infrastructure deployed in Syria due to technological secrecy and political reasons. US, British and French delivery assets didn’t require entering Syrian airspace as the missiles have a generous range that allowed them to be launched from hundreds of km away. Therefore, fighter jets, ships and bombers were not subjected to Syrian counter-measures. The Syrian regime and Russia claim to have shot down a number of TLAMs.
Despite Russian and Syrian claims, it is highly unlikely that Syrian anti-air defense were able to shot down the incoming missiles. Neither Damascus nor Moscow, either officially or via disinformation campaign did not present prove of wreckage, debris or remnants of TLAMs. The significant gap in Syrian S-200 capabilities and Western technology is irreconcilable. The TALMs can change course and speed in mid-air being able to easily evade Soviet-era defense systems, and its size and nature make it difficult for even advanced anti-air weapons to track and intercept them. On the other hand, as the Syrian SAMs were fired but did not hit their targets, there is no information on where those SAMs have fallen. Their impact is worrying given the highly-populated areas of Damascus. There is also no confirmation of the reported use of Russian Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities nor of their potential impact on the joint American-British-French operation.
Time will tell whether the limited retaliatory strike on Syria manages to completely deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons in the future. The military operation was a success, but Ti assess that the losses and damage inflicted on the CW infrastructure were too superficial and came too late for them to degrade these kinds of Syrian capabilities. Damascus had almost a week to conduct pre-damage control and evacuate assets, personnel and data. Employment of SAMs still suggest that targets were relevant enough to (try to) defend, but far from having any strategic impact. The tactical scratches inflicted were solely purposed to echo a strong political message to the Assad regime, and not to severely inflict military losses as a way of containing conflict escalation.
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