Saturday, 25 February 2017
By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Transnistria, officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), is a breakaway state in Eastern Europe that has remained in the shadows ever since its self-proclaimed independence as a Soviet republic in 1990 and subsequent breakaway from Moldova in 1992. Currently only recognized by Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which themselves are also unrecognised countries, Transnistria is situated in between the Ukraine and Moldova. Nonetheless, Transnistria functions as a de-facto state with its own army, air force and even its own arms industry.
It is the latter that has produced a number of very interesting designs that have entered service with Transnistria's armed forces over the past two decades. This industry was highly active during the Moldovan Civil War, producing a variety of DIY armoured fighting vehicles and homemade multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) for use against the Moldovan Army. After the cessation of hostilities, the arms industry would play a vital role in upholding the operational status of the Transnistria's army, which has remained unable to replace its dated inventory of Soviet weaponry ever since its establishment in 1991.
One of these designs is a unique armoured personnel carrier (APC) based on the Soviet GMZ-3 minelayer. First unveiled in 2015 by Transnistria's former president Yevgeny Shevchuk and Defense Minister Alexander Lukyanenko, at least eight of these vehicles are believed to have entered service with the Transnistrian army that year. At least two of these vehicles were seen participating in exercises just over a month later, confirming their operational status.
Transnistria is notorious for its supposed role in arms trafficking throughout the region and farther abroad. Large quantities of weaponry and ammunition from the Soviet 14th Army were taken over by Transnistrian locals, elements of the 14th Army loyal to Transnistria and foreign fighters when Moldava entered what according to the Moldovan government was and still is Moldovan territory, resulting in conflict between the two in 1992. While large amounts of the missing weaponry and ammunition was subsequently secured, taken over by the newly established Transnistrian Army or transported back to Russia under the supervision of the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Moldova, limited quantities of weapons originating in Transnistria still found their way abroad. Nevertheless, its status as an arms trafficking country is certainly exaggerated.
Despite having ended armed conflict in 1992, the situation in Transnistria remains extremely complicated, with the the breakaway state wishing to join the Russian Federation while continuing to remain heavily reliant on Moldova for exporting the limited produce its economy outputs. Despite making small steps towards increasing transparency to the outside world, Transnistria remains a Soviet Socialist Republic, as such continuing to make use of the hammer and sickle in its flag – even retaining the KGB as its main security agency. Russia still maintains a limited presence in Transnistria, its soldiers officially on a peacekeeping mission.
When the Soviet Union dissolved, much of the personnel and their associated weaponry which once made up its military became subordinate to the newly established states they were located in. While this process was often troubled by the departure of many ethnic Russians stationed outside of the former Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, this wasn't the only problem encountered in Moldova. The 14th Army was in fact stationed in the Ukraine, Moldova and the breakaway state of Transnistria, with various units of the 14th becoming subordinate to either the Ukraine, Moldova and Russia, or loyal to the newly formed Transnistrian republic. Obviously, this made for an extremely complicated and sensitive process.
When Transnistria took over most of the weapon storage depots on the territory it controlled, it inherited large amounts of highly specialised vehicles while being left without any significant numbers of infantry fighting vehicles or self-propelled artillery. Indeed, apart from several 122mm 2S1 Gvozdikas and 152mm 2S3 Akatisyas that were present in this area (which in fact likely found their way to Russia), there is no self-propelled artillery in the inventory of the Transnistrian Army. Instead, it relies on an arsenal of towed field artillery and 122mm 'Pribor' MRLs for indirect fire support.
The specialised vehicles Transnistria took over included a large number of GMZ-2 and GMZ-3 minelayers. Redundant in their original role during the Moldovan Civil War, several GMZs were employed as makeshift armoured personnel carriers by Transnistria, and at least one was subsequently destroyed in the fighting. Transnistria would continue to make use of several GMZs in their original role after the war, but with no need for such a large fleet of minelayers, most vehicles were placed in storage until it was decided to convert at least eight GMZ-3s to armoured personnel carriers. Although the amount of GMZs available to Transnistria remains unknown, the number is likely insufficient for the conversion of much more GMZs to this role.
In order to be capable of carrying infantry, all minelayer equipment was removed in line with its new role as armoured personnel carrier. The minelaying arm and the compartment for its operator were removed to make place for a door, while the space the mines were stored in was cleared and expanded to accommodate for the infantry compartment. The GMZ-3 in its original configuration can be seen here, a striking indicator of the transformation it has underwent.
A clearing was created between the driver's seat and infantry compartment for a gunner position equipped with a single 14.5mm KPV heavy machine gun (HMG), which was extensively modified for easier handling by its operator. In addition to the single HMG, rifles and light machine guns can be fired out of the vehicle's five firing ports. It is unknown if this transformation effected the armour of the GMZ-3, which was originally protected against small-arms fire and explosive fragments.
For Transnistria's size and economic means, the vehicle certainly exhibits impressively professional features, and presents a clear case of making the best possible use of every means available. In that regard, Transnistria is sure to continue surprising its tiny audience of foreign observers with the products of its indigenous military industry.
Friday, 17 February 2017
Following many rumours concerning the delivery of new armoured fighting vehicles to the Syrian Arab Army, images coming out of Syria have now confirmed such a delivery did indeed take place. These newly delivered vehicles are destined for the Syrian Arab Army's 5th Corps, which is currently engaged in heavy combat with the Islamic State in between T4 airbase and Tadmur. Indeed, images and videos covering the fighting that currently takes place here have already confirmed the vehicles are doing their part in bringing the fight back to the Islamic State.
While many expected the delivery of more T-72s or even T-90s as a follow-up to the small deliveries of these vehicles to elements of the Syrian military in late 2015, it now appears the core of the 5th Corps will be made up of battle-proven armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) such as the T-62M and BMP-1(P) instead. Although certainly less advanced than some of the more modern T-72s and BMP-2 variants employed in the Syrian theatre elsewhere, the delivery of these AFVs are still a welcome addition to the badly-depleted vehicle park of the Syrian Arab Army.
Indeed, while deprived of any active protection systems such as the Shtora found on the T-90 series of tanks, the T-62M is a vast improvement over the T-55 and earlier T-62 variants that continue to make up the majority of Syria's now battered tank fleet. The BMP-1s and BMP-1Ps delivered offer little in offensive and defensive capabilities, but are likely to serve the 5th Corps well because of the fact that they are easy to master and maintain, especially for crews with existing experience in operating these vehicles.
Russia appears to be a key driver behind the de-facto re-establishment of the Syrian Arab Army by exerting pressure on the regime to bring back control of the many militias to the army instead of continuing as independent units under the control of the Syrian High Command. While Iran's goal of keeping Syria under its sphere of influence was enacted by the establishment of several militias, many of which foreign, Russia seeks to create a stable situation that allows for the survival of the current government by creating an unified army instead.
The lack of such an unified army has been made painfully clear during most of the regime's defeats over the past several years, the failed Tabqa offensive and losing Tadmur for a second time serving as recent examples. A project similar to that of the establishment of the 5th Corps was initiated shortly after the Russian intervention in Syria, which called for the merging of several militias, including parts of the NDF, into the 4th Corps. When the NDF largely replaced the Syrian Arab Army as the regime's primary forces, the NDF saw its tasks expanding from guarding neighbourhoods to undertaking offensives elsewhere and guarding towns, gasfields and other strategic installations throughout Syria. Thus, this initiative would have called for the return of these tasks to the SyAA, with the NDF remaining a force dedicated for local defense only. Thus far, this process appears to have been largely unsuccessful however.
In contrast to other units of the Syrian Arab Army, which consist almost exclusively of drafted personnel, the 5th Corps hopes to attract large numbers of men by offering salaries and benefits that were previously only found with militias such as Suqour al-Sahraa' (The Desert Falcons). To further strengthen its ranks, Syrian men that were previously exempted from the draft are likely to join the 5th Corps amidst sharpened rules for exclusion from mandatory service.
The now almost six-year long civil war has taken a heavy toll on the once immense Syrian tank fleet, suffering heavy losses due to the widespread profileration of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). Yet it is mainly the poor tactics employed by most regime forces that have effectively degraded the tank to the role of a vulnerable static pillbox. Although the amount of armoured fighting vehicles that remain available still appears to be sufficient for current operations, the number of vehicles of the same class is too low to equip an entirely new fighting force: The 5th Corps.
In accordance with Russia's role in the establishment of the 5th Corps, it is also Russia that is responsible for equipping the new force. Although this led some to believe the new force would be equipped with a wide range of modern Russian weapon systems, Russia has so far committed to the delivery of older weaponry that is no longer in service with the Russian Army itself. Nonetheless, the delivered vehicles and weaponry are ideally suited for the Syrian Arab Army and the 5th Corps.
In addition to the delivery of small arms and a large number of Ural, GAZ, KamAZ and UAZ trucks and jeeps, deliveries to the 5th Corps so far have encompassed T-62Ms, BMP-1Ps and BMP-1s and 122mm M-1938 (M-30) howitzers. The latter are of a more modern variant than the examples already in use in Syria, with the Russian-delivered examples part of a batch that underwent modernisation during the 1970s, exchanging the original rubber foam wheels for more modern ones allowing for better mobility both on-road and off-road.
Before their appearance in Syria, some of the T-62Ms were already spotted in Russia while underway to a harbour for transport to Syria. These vehicles were then shipped onboard the 'Syria Express' towards Tartus, where the majority of vehicles and equipment has been arriving. The T-62Ms and BMP-1s were subsequently spotted in Tartus waiting for distribution to their new units, including a part of the 5th Corps currently seeing action against the Islamic State in Central Syria.
The T-62M is an upgrade programme aimed at upgrading several variants of the T-62, which by the early 1980s had become severely outmatched by their more modern Western counterparts, to a common standard. The programme aimed to adress the T-62's shortcomings in the field of firepower, protection and mobility, greatly improving the capabilities of the until then badly underperforming tank. The upgrade ran parallel to the modernisation of the T-55 and T-55A to T-55M standard, which was carried out during the same time.
The increased armour protection was achieved by the installment of BDD 'Brovi Il'icha' appliqué armour on the turret front and upper and lower glacis plates, increased armour protection against anti-tank mines, rubber side skirts and anti-radiation lining on parts of the turret. The resulting increased weight was compensated by a new V-55U diesel engine. To utilise the full potential of the powerful 115mm gun the 'Volna' fire control system module was installed, comprising the KTD laser rangefinder (LRF) and associated equipment. The tank also gained the capability to launch the tube-fired 9M117 (9K116-2) Sheksna ATGM, which is nearly identical to the 9M117 (9K116-1) Bastion in use with Syria's T-55(A)MVs. For this purpose, both the gunner and commander received new sighting systems, now also allowing for much increased efficacy during night combat. In addition to all this, the tank was equipped with a new stabiliser, a thermal sleeve for its 115mm gun, a new radio and a block of smoke grenade launchers on each side of the turret.
Despite its age, the T-62M has only just been retired by the Russian Army after decades of counter-terrorism operations in the Caucascus, a task for which it was also heavily employed in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of this country. Several other nations continue to operate the T-62M, most notably Cuba, where it ironically serves as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias' most modern tank.
Most of the tanks can still be seen with the H22-0-0 rail transit markers that were applied in Russia before shipment to Syria. While not removing these markings is in this case of little significance, similar markings were also left in place on Russian tanks deployed in the Ukraine, which could once again be used to confirm Russia's involvement in the war in Eastern Ukraine.
The delivery of large amounts of these albeit dated vehicles could very well end up reversing the trend of widespread attrition that has decimated Syria's fighting vehicles. Perhaps more importantly, it shows Russia remains willing and capable of supporting its ally with large amounts of military equipment, despite economic hardships and the fact that Syria is bankrupt. This initiative essentially represents the re-establishment of the SyAA in organised form, and should it succeed it is certain to have far reaching consequences for future developments in the Syrian War.
Monday, 21 November 2016
By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Images coming out of the recently captured town of Bashiqa, Mosul revealed the presence of an all too familiar Islamic State armoured fighting vehicle. Hidden under a tree and abandoned by its previous owners, this behemoth previously made an appearance in the now infamous Islamic State offensive near Naweran, North of Mosul, a video which went viral due to the rather comical performance of several fighters involved in the offensive. While Abu Hajaar became the inspiration of memes across all corners of the internet, the Islamic State's usage of up-armoured trucks and other vehicles involved in this offensive was of particular interest for others.
While many of the Islamic State's DIY creations are often very crude in nature, merely consisting of metal plates slapped onto a vehicle's hull, a large industry aimed at converting vehicles to better suit the Islamic State's needs does exist, and has produced several designs perfectly suited for the type of warfare encountered in the Syrian and Iraqi theatre. The armour workshops responsible for these designs are located through Islamic State held territory, with the largest workshops located in Raqqa and Mosul.
Shortly after the capture of Mosul and surrounding towns, the Islamic State established several armoured formations to operate some of the captured equipment previously left behind by the Iraqi Army and Ministry of Interior. While some of the vehicles remained unmodified and were subsequently used in their original configuration, others were modified for use as VBIEDs or as armour on the plains of Mosul with the 'Storming Battalion'.
In their role as Inghimasi – shock troops tasked with penetrating enemy lines without any expectation to come back alive – the 'Storming Battalion' mainly makes use of faster wheeled vehicles as opposed to heavier and therefore slower tracked armoured fighting vehicles. While Inghimasi normally make up about one-fourth of the fighters participating in a typical offensive, the whole 'Storming Battalion' is in fact an Inghimasi unit. While tanks are operated in an offensive role by the Islamic State in Iraq, most of these belong to the 'al-Farouq Armoured Brigade' and 'Shield Battalion'. Thus, it is mainly the 'Storming Battalion' that makes use of improvised and up-armoured AFVs.
The battle tram features a heavily armoured front cabin, which is (with a little imagination) somewhat reminiscent of a human face or a character from Thomas the Tank Engine, inspiring the designator "battle tram". Spaced armour covers the fighter's compartment while metal plates protect the wheels, six of which are present on this vehicle. Indeed, the battle tram is almost certainly based on the Soviet KrAZ-260, several of which were captured in and around Mosul back in 2014. Previous attempts at producing such large armoured personnel carriers resulted in a host of impressive but awkward looking vehicles.  Contrary to these examples, the battle tram appears to be relatively well-balanced in its design.
The presumed armament of the second battle tram remains unchanged from the previous version, which has an heavily armoured cupola in which a machine gun can be fitted. Interestingly, battle tram '202' appears to be equipped with four rams on the front, two of which might also serve as structural reinforcement. Although these rams could be effective for breaking through certain obstacles, it would also make the vehicle prone to get stuck while navigating uneven terrain, not to mention that the debris from a collapsing obstacle would end up on the fighters' heads in the infantry compartment. No ladders for scaling trenches for climbing up Peshmerga positions were seen installed on '202', despite being a feature of '201'.
The cabin of the battle tram is largely similar to those of other vehicles used by the 'Storming Battalion'. Instead of seatbels found on smaller vehicles, metal handlebars were installed to provide support to the fighters inside during high speed operations. No pintle-mounts for light or heavy machine guns are present, forcing the crew to fire their weapons either without stabilisation or from the metal handlebars, which proved far from successful when used by inexperienced fighters. Battle tram '202' has a slightly different cabin layout than '201', with the small exit door located on the rear, and not on the side as with battle tram '201'.
The battle tram, along with the rest of the 'Storming Battalion's' vehicles, was effectively trapped when the bulldozer tasked with filling the huge trench in front of the Peshermerga positions was taken out. Shortly after, the battle tram was hit and subsequently abandoned by its operators, similar to what happened to the vehicle of Abu Hajaar. The presence of spaced armour installed on the sides of the vehicle is clearly visible here, and was apparently effective in stopping at least one hit before the vehicle was abandoned.
Special thanks to @tellmemo and @javed12186147.
The Islamic State going DIY, inside a DIY offensive
The Islamic State going DIY, the Telskuf offensive
The Islamic State going DIY, the birth of the battle monstrosity
The Islamic State going DIY, from armoured recovery vehicle to battle fortress
The Islamic State going DIY, from armoured recovery vehicle to battle bus
The Islamic State going DIY, 122mm D-30 howitzers used as anti-aircraft guns
The Islamic State going DIY, from earthmover to earthbreaker
Thursday, 10 November 2016
By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Exclusive new images featured in one of our articles for NK News Pro have revealed the construction of four 77 metres long corvettes is in an advanced stage, once again showing rearmament of the ill-equipped Korean People's Navy is continuing at an unexpected pace.
Although unfortunately, our full analysis is behind a paywall, an NK News article featuring various experts in the field of North Korean weapon proliferation on the new corvettes is available for free. Alternatively, you could wait for the full analysis in our upcoming book: The Armed Forces of North Korea: on the path of Songun.
A Navy reborn: New warships spotted in North Korea
Exclusive HD photos reveal secretive new class of large warships with advanced capabilities set to enter service
''Four new large naval combatants are being constructed in the DPRK, set to become the new centerpieces of a fleet that has seen a range of new projects slowly replace the obsolete equipment from the Cold War. Although progress on the new corvettes, two of which have been under assembly since 2011, has been slow and disorderly, new images show their entry into service may not take much longer. At a length of 77 meters each, the new vessels constitute the largest naval project undertaken by the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) in decades, bringing new capabilities to the table that represent a tangible threat to opposing navies in the region.''
The full analysis of these vessels, which incorporate a variety of the latest technologies available to the KPN, can be found at the NK Pro website here: https://www.nknews.org/pro/a-navy-reborn-new-warships-spotted-in-north-korea/
A free NK News article featuring various experts in the field of North Korean weapon proliferation on the new corvettes can be read here: https://www.nknews.org/2016/11/exclusive-new-low-visibility-corvette-spotted-in-north-korea/
N. Korea flaunts new ship with advanced missile capability
KPA Navy flag ship undergoing radical modernization
North Korean Kh-35 anti-ship missiles shed light on a modernizing navy
First North Korean SLBM presents wholly novel threat
Sunday, 6 November 2016
By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The following images were taken during Syrian Arab Army exercises over the past several years, including the large-scale exercise involving all branches of the Syrian Armed Forces in 2012. This exercise was carried out amid an increasingly deteriorating security situation in Syria, leading to calls from the international world for an intervention similar to the one seen in Libya. In response, the Syrian Armed Forces launched a several day long exercise to show its strenght to the outside world.
The T-72AV, also known as the T-82 in Syria, seen during an exercise in the Rif Dimashq Governorate. Although the fleet of 'T-82s' has suffered heavily due to the large-scale proliferation of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) in Syria, a sizeable amount of tanks remain operational. Fully intact T-72AVs still sporting all of their explosive reactive armour (ERA) blocks as seen below have become an increasingly rare sight however.
Operating alongside the T-72AV is the T-72 'Ural', the first and also the least numerous T-72 variant to have been acquired by Syria before the start of the Civil War. The tanks can be seen equipped with a laser engagement system for training uses only. The T-72 'Ural' can easily discerned from other T-72 variants by the TPD-2-49 optical rangefinder protruding from the turret and by its flipper-type armoured panels instead of the rubber side-skirts seen on later types.
The Syrian Arab Army's fleet of T-55(A)MV has traditionally been concentrated along the Golan Heights, and although outdated when compared to Israeli armour currently in service, one could argue their combat effectiveness could surpass that of the T-72 'Ural' and T-72M1. The T-55(A)MV features Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armour (ERA), a KTD-2 laser rangefinder, smoke grenade launchers, an upgraded engine and the capability to fire the 9M117M Bastion anti-tank missile. The costs of just a few of these missiles is higher than the actual price of the T-55 launching them, and they have seen only limited action in Syria's Quneitra Governorate.
recently sighted in service with the 4th Armoured Division.
Although many hoped for the reintroduction of the T-34/85 on today's battlefield, sightings of this legendary tank in Syria in recent years has so far remained limited to just five examples, two of which belonged to a batch of T-34/85s converted to T-34/122 self-propelled howitzers armed with the 122mm D-30, which was retired long before the Civil War. Two other (intact) T-34/85s were seen in Syria's Quneitra province, used as static pillboxes facing Israel. It is likely these tanks were operational until quite recently. The T-34/85 below was seen during an exercise shortly before the start of the Civil War. While the T-34/85, or T-34/76 for that matter, indeed continues to be used in oeprational capacity across the globe, their presence nowadays remains limited to Yemen and North Korea.
160mm M-160 mortars seen during the 2012 exercises. Seeing heavy use during the early stages of the Civil War, when many of the protests and armed uprisings that followed were still contained in the cities, these and other heavy mortars were often deployed just outside the city perimiter for the shelling of neighbourhoods that had revolted. In more recent years, the M-160s are believed to have been supplemented by additional 240mm M-240s with rocket-assisted projectiles.
A BM-21 fires one of its forty 122mm rockets towards a new target. The BM-21 is by far the most numerous multiple rocket launcher (MRL) in service with the Syrian Armed Forces. The type previously operated alongside a sizeable number of North Korean 122mm BM-11 MRLs before these were donated to Lebanon along with Syria's remaining stock of T-54 and older T-55 variants. With an increasing number of Volcanoes and 220mm, 300mm, 302mm multiple rocket launchers at hand, the Syrian Arab Army has somewhat compensated for the loss of large numbers of BM-21s by a substantial increase in qualitative firepower. Rebels operating in Northern Syria recently received BM-21s acquired from Eastern Europe by one of the Gulf States, further increasing the proliferation of this system in Syria.
Photo Report: The Syrian Arab Air Defence Force
Photo Report: The Syrian Arab Navy
Photo Report: Syrian Arab Armed Forces Calendar 2015