Thursday, 28 November 2013

Syria's recently upgraded Su-24s (1)

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans 

The Su-24 represents the most modern and main strike element of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF). They have taken an active part in the Syrian civil war since November 2012. While most of the SyAAF attack aircraft are already worn out and struggling to cope with the high demands, the Su-24s just received a full factory overhaul in Russia, ensuring they can maintain a high operational tempo.

Syria received a total of twenty Su-24s since 1990. Twenty Su-24MKs were ordered from the Soviet Union in 1988 and delivered in 1990. The fleet equips 819 squadron based at T4 in the middle of Syria with a few planes being detached to Seen in the South. The MK version Syria received was a downgraded variant of the Su-24M, the M being built for the Soviet Union and the MK for export customers like Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria.

Although little known to the public, the whole Syrian Su-24MK fleet was upgraded to M2 level in the past years. All twenty Su-24MKs were upgraded to MK2. The MK2 upgrade brings the Su-24s on the same standard as the Russian Su-24M2s. The upgrade provides for improved targeting, navigation and fire control systems by replacing the plane's old control systems. The plane is also being made compatible with newer versions of the KAB-500/1500 and for Kh-31As, Kh-31Ps, Kh-59s and R-73s.

The contract was signed in 2009 and work started in 2010, with most of the upgrades completed in 2013.[3] More than half of the twenty-one upgraded Su-24s made it back to Syria without any problems, but up to ten of them weren't so lucky and were still stuck at Rzhev last autumn.

Five Syrian Su-24s at Rzhev on the 30th of July 2012

However, given the importance of Su-24M2s to SyAAF, Assad regime must have done its utmost to recover its most advanced attack aircraft sitting idly in Russia. According to a source that wants to remain anonymous, the SyAAF was already working to have them delivered a year ago. This of course being a strict violation of the arms embargo.

The example of the well-known Mi-25 deal shows that after the Russian ship carrying overhauled helicopters to Syria was forced to turn back because of the imposed embargo[4], those Mi-25s were nevertheless delivered to Syria in a covert deal. [5]

The lack of publicity on the Su-24M2 deal should have only made the delivery easier, so we may safely assume that the aircraft most likely have already made it back to Syria. New satellite photos of Rzhev can make that clear when they come up on Google Earth or other services.

The Syrian Su-24s fly mainly in Idlib and Hama, but also occasionally in places like Deir ez-Zor and Rif Dimasqh. Their use has been increasing with the fleet of MiG-23BNs and Su-22s being as good as spent and in need of a 'brake' to recover. Thanks to this, the Su-24 secured its place as the most important asset in the SyAAF inventory.

On the 28th of November 2012, a SyAAF Su-24M2 was shot down above Daret Izzah in the Aleppo Governorate, making it the first loss of a Su-24 in the conflict/

The SyAAF also used her Su-24s to test the British Air Defence around Cyprus on the 2nd of September and the Turkish Air Defence on the 5th of October. A military intervention would likely have been carried out from Akrotiri, Cyprus. This would be a logical target for the SyAAF, hence the testing of the British reaction time.

Apart from the obvious FAB, OFAB and RBK bombs, the Syrian Su-24s are also being armed with Kh-23s Kh-25s, Kh-29Ls, Kh-29Ts, Kh-31s, Kh-58s, KAB-500s and KAB-1500s. Carriage of S-24 and S-25 air to ground rockets, along with the air to air missile R-60 is rather rare. Although possible, carriage of unguided rocket pods is non-existent.

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Saturday, 16 November 2013

Russian contractors in Syria

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Additional evidence of Russian contractors operating in Syria has emerged. According to an article published on the news site, a private military company named Slavonic Corps indeed operated in Syria, but was actually disbanded after a single failed operation. The following story was told to by former Slavonic Corps contractors which operated in Syria.

By the beginning of October the Slavonic Corps had 267 men in Syria, organized in two companies and based in Lattakia. The plan was to deploy to Deir ez-Zor to 'guard' the oil fields there, which are of viral importance for the survival of Assad, although they were hinted that 'guard duty' may involve actual fighting.

The contractors received 37mm M1939 Anti-Aircraft Guns and 120mm 120-PM-43 mortars, and were supposed to receive four T-72s and several BMPs. However, what they actually got from the Syrian high command were old T-62s and BMP-1s that couldn't even drive on their own power. So when they finally headed for Deir ez-Zor on the 15th of October, it was on guntrucks and technicals, without any heavy armour support.

They made a stop at T4 Airbase for two days, the following photo was taken there.

A very rare photo of a SyAAF Su-24 bomber, with Slavonic Corps contractors posing in front of it.

On 18th October, they were sent to al-Sukhna because Syrian Arab Army and National Defense Force troops were engaged in heavy fighting here. In a brief engagement near al-Sukhna the Slavonic Corps suffered six WIAs (Wounded in Action) and had to retreat. During the retreat, one of the contractors, Aleksei Malyuta, lost his ID. This marked the end of the Russian contractors in Syria, at least for the time being. In the end of October Slavonic Corps was effectively disbanded and their personnel was flown back to Russia in two charter flights.

While fighting near al-Sukhna, they broke the main principle of Slavonic Corps Limited:

''The Company's activities are in strict correspondence to Russian law and to the law of those countries where the Company protects Russian companies' interests. Our principle - we never participate in armed conflicts as mercenaries and never consult entities, groups or individuals having even a slightest relation to terrorist organizations. Further we never take part in events related to overthrow of governments, violating human rights of civilian population and in any other actions violating International Law and Conventions.'' [1]

Slavonic Corps Limited used to consist of veterans which served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Eastern Africa, Tajikistan, Northern Caucasus, Serbia and other countries.[2] Many of the contractors are likely to have served in the Second Chechen War, fighting Chechens and other foreign Mujahideen they also encountered while fighting near Sukhna.

The map shows that both T4 Airbase and al-Sukhna are indeed on the road to Deir ez-Zor

''سورية الأسد'' (Assad's Syria) The most widely used pro-Assad slogan in Syria.

It is important to note that according to the Slavonic Corps leadership was detained by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) upon returning to Russia and charged with recruiting mercenaries. Apparently sending Russian contractors to Syria actually is not a policy supported by the Russian Government at the moment.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Iran deploying her newest drones to Syria: The Yasir UAV

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans 

In a video uploaded on the 9th of November 2013, the Iranian Yasir Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) made its first appearance in the Syrian sky. The Yasir is based on the American made Scan Eagle, of which at least one was captured by Iran in December 2012. The Scan Eagle was quickly copied by Iran and two variants have since been revealed to the public, one being the Sayeh and the other being the Yasir. The Yasir has a twin tailboom with a v-tail rudder, as opposed to the Sayeh, which has no tail at all.

Yasir is reported to be capable of flying at an altitude of 15.000ft, having an endurance of eight hours and an operational radius of 200km. This means that the Yasir is able to cover large parts of Syria while being controlled by Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (Sepāh) operators inside Damascus. Two Yasir UAVs were downed so far. One on the 5th of December 2013 over Aleppo and one over Qalamoun on the 7th of December 2013.

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Sunday, 3 November 2013

Jaish al-Islam's own Air Force?

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

A video uploaded by Jaish al-Islam's media office revealed the birth of the world's newest air force, operating two L-39ZAs from Kshesh airbase (also known as Jirah or Jarrah). This base was captured on 12th of February 2013 by Ahrar al-Sham. Kshesh was formerly home to 2nd Squadron operating L-39ZAs and one unknown squadron operating L-39ZOs.

The L-39ZA is the light attack variant of the L-39 equipped with a GSh-23L double barreled 23mm cannon and four pylons capable of carrying a 1.290 kg payload. The two outer pylons are wired for carrying R-13 and R-60 air to air missiles. Although both missile types are widely available in Syria, none were seen at Kshesh.

The caption on the plane reads (above) ''إلا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله'' (There is only one God and Muhammad is his Prophet) and (below) ''لواء الإسلام'' (Liwa al-Islam)

Jaish al-Islam is, without a doubt, the best equipped brigade fighting Assad. It has the knowlegde, money and will to turn captured vehicles or planes against their former operators. The first example of this was the usage of the 9K33s. against several helicopters of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) Getting two L-39s working is a whole different story, likely made possible with aid from former SyAAF L-39 pilots and technicians. With countless other countries also operating L-39s, Liwa al-Islam could also have hired people from abroad to achieve getting some of the L-39s working. Spares, fuel and munitions could easily be acquired via Saudi Arabia.

Kshesh air base was bombed by the (SyAAF) shortly after the fall of the airbase. Although one L-39 was destroyed, this didn't prevent Liwa al-Islam from working on the other L-39s, from which around a dozen were still intact. It now seems that the united forces of Jaish al-Islam managed to get two L-39ZAs working.

L-39ZA serial 2111. Both L-39s received a new paint job.

Yet, this whole move is more to be seen as a propaganda show, and clearly did what it was supposed to do.

Monday, 23 September 2013

The Korean People's Air Force inventorised

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans 

The formation of the Korean People's Army Air Force (KPAF) began shortly after the liberation of Korea from the Japanese in 1945, with the KPAF officially being formed on August 20th, 1947.

The formation was complicated by the fact that most of the airfields were located in South Korea, not in the North. The Soviet Union was keen to help out, and this resulted in the delivery of Po-2s and Yak-18s. Koreans were sent to the Soviet Union and China for training, military aviation schools opened and joint Soviet-Korean units were set up. Activities of these joint units started in 1948 with Li-2s making regular flights to the Soviet Union and China.

Fighter deliveries started shortly after and this resulted in the KPAF being equipped with La-9s, Yak-9s and Il-10s. These planes were the mainstay of the KPAF for the years to come.

After the outbreak of the Korean War, the KPAF mainly provided air support to the army. The most successful raids being flown by Yak-18s and Po-2s. The planes were modified with bomb racks and flew daring raids against the UN forces during the night. The most successful night raid was the destruction of a fuel dump holding nearly 5.5 millions gallons of fuel in the Inchon area in June 1953.[1]

The KPAF was less successful in air to air combat, with the airspace being dominated by UN fighters, most of the KPAF was forced to flee into China. The UN dominance was only changed when the jet powered MiG-15 arrived over the battlefield. The UN reported that a little three hundred KPAF planes were destroyed in the Korean war, it is still unknown how many planes were shot down by the KPAF.

The KPAF remained active even after the signing of the armistice, as it had an important role in flying reconnaissance missions and supplying guerrilla units operating in South Korea. The KPAF was modernized and this resulted in deliveries of more MiG-15s, MiG-17s and Il-28s in the fifties, MiG-19s and MiG-21s in the sixties and seventies and F-6s, F-7s, MiG-23s, MiG-29s and Su-25s in the eighties. The early nineties saw the continues delivery of MiG-29s and the delivery of around thirty MiG-21bis acquired from Kazakhstan in an illegal deal worth eight million US dollars.

The KPAF faces some growing difficulties in operating as an air force.

- The KPAF faces a modern and well equipped enemy while still flying mainly antiques itself. The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) is equipped with modern fighters like the F-16 Block 32/52 and the F-15K. The ROKAF is also in the progress of acquiring F-35 stealth fighters and even producing KF-X stealth fighters on its own. The backbone of the KPAF fighter fleet remains to be the aged MiG-21, which has no chance against the ROKAF's F-16s and F-15'. The more modern MiG-23ML remains in service but in small and slowly dwindling numbers. Out of the sixty delivered, around thirty-two can be found in the open at Pukch'ang. The most modern fighter is the MiG-29. Out of the seventeen acquired, twelve can be found in the open at Sunch'ŏn, used only in small numbers at a time. The most modern fighter bomber is the Su-25, of which thirty-six were reported to have been acquired.[1], yet thirty-seven were found at again, Sunch'ŏn, of which about half seems to be used regularly. Note that both Pukchang and Sunchon have underground facilities in which more aircraft can be stored. Some of the planes are also occasionally dispatched to other airfields, this makes it hard to make a good estimate on the number of operational planes. The more modern aircraft are kept in better condition than the rest, though not used continuously, presumably out of fear for accidents and to spread flying hours across the entire fleet.

- The KPAF is unable to buy new planes to replace the old ones currently in service. Thanks to the arms embargo and countries unwilling to sell planes to North Korea, the KPAF is still flying with planes it received in the fifties. North Korea tried to acquire around thirty JH-7 fighter bombers from China, but this request was turned down by China. North Korea also has the reputation of not always 'paying the right amount of money' for the goods it has received. The KPAF could acquire a limited amount of planes from friendly states like Iran or Cuba. The latter tried to smuggle radars, missiles, two MiG-21s and twelve MiG-21 engines to North Korea onboard on the container ship Chong Chon Gang in July of this year (2013). This attempt to export 'sugar' failed though, with both Cuba and North Korea claiming these items were sent to the DPRK to be upgraded and then returned.

- The KPAF has no direct access to spares thanks to the arms embargo. This already lead to problems in keeping the MiG-23s, MiG-29s and Su-25s operational, with the planes being rotated in order to spread flying hours across the entire fleet. A limited amount of spares could have been acquired from friendly states like Cuba and Iran, although they face the same problem as North Korea: an arms embargo. Such a limited amount would also be very expensive to acquire and wouldn't cover the whole fleet.

- The KPAF fighter fleet has a rapidly growing problem with their missile inventory. The shelf life of most missiles has runned out or is about to run out. The newest (publicly known) missile purchase dates from 1990, with the missiles being delivered in 1991. Fifty R-27R (AA-10) missiles were bought to equip the MiG-29 fleet. Other 'recent' missile purchases are two batches of combined, four hundred fifty R-24s (AA-7) missiles to equip the MiG-23 fleet and one batch of four hundred fifty R-60MKs (AA-8) to equip the MiG-23, MiG-29 and Su-25 fleet. All were delivered in the 1985-1989 timeframe.[2] The KPAF might have found a solution to this problem by acquiring missiles from friendly states, despite the arms embargo in place. Certain missile components could also have been reverse engineered and installed in order to extend the missiles' shelf life.

- The KPAF faces problems with the training of new pilots and keeping the current pilots trained. The training scheme is still based on the old Soviet model, a model which doesn't allow much flexibility within the air force. The KPAF is also hammered by fuel problems and a lack of spare parts. Most of the MiG-29 pilots fly the MiG-21 in order to preserve the lifetime and engines of the MiG-29s. Even though there have been reports of a (quite dramatic) rise in flights in recent years [3] [4], it is still unlikely that the average flying hours per pilot in North Korea are on a par with those in the South.

- An important tactic of the KPAF is to hide the planes in one of the many huge underground facilities (UGF's). It can be questioned if such underground facilities still provide a valid protection to the planes inside, especially with weapons like the GBU-57 around. If penetrating the facility wouldn't work, the ROKAF and the USAF could always opt to simply destroy the doors and roads leading towards the facility, locking the planes in their own base.

- Most of the KPAF senior positions are being held by people selected for political reasons, not for being actually qualified for the job. This can lead to a huge problem in a war, with the KPAF leadership not having a clue what do do.

But as an air force commander you have to think in solutions, not in problems.

- The KPAF has a huge fleet of 'stealthy' An-2s/Y-5s which can be used to transport units far into South Korea. Thanks to the plane having a slow speed and the ability to fly at a very low altitude it is hard to see on the radar. The ability to land at short strips makes this plane perfect for her task. Other unconventional means of infiltrating South Korean airspace undetected include the use of gliders and hot air balloons.

- The KPAF should avoid contact with South Korean fighters or South Korean air defence systems and instead focus on hit and run tactics.

- North Korea makes use of its long, mostly empty highways and many dirt landing strips it built to which the KPAF could divert its aircraft should the need arise.

- North Korean airfields as a rule have large amounts of dummy aircraft near or on them, a tactic which besides fooling the occasional satellite observer proved extremely effective during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

- North Korea has large amounts of ballistic missiles at its disposal which it could use to destroy South Korean airbases in a first strike manner, thereby dimishing the threat of modern South Korean aircraft.

- It has been reported [5] that the DPRK developed a rudimentary AEW capability by mounting a MiG-29s No-19E radar to at least one An-24 plane.

Fighter jets


Fighter bombers



Jet and conversion trainers


Basic trainers


Transport planes

  • Soviet Union An-2/Y-5 Two configurations: (2)
  • Soviet Union An-24RV (Operated by Air Koryo but in wartime likely under KPAF command)
  • Soviet Union Il-18 (Operated by Air Koryo but in wartime likely under KPAF command)
  • Soviet Union Il-76MD two configurations: (2) (Operated by Air Koryo but in wartime under KPAF command)
  • Soviet Union Li-2 (Likely to already have been decommissioned, may have been used as a bomber)


VIP planes (Operated by Air Koryo)

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)



    KPAF Airbases (Map via Scramble)

    This post was written in cooperation with Joost. For more information on the KPA, visit

    (This blog uses as much photos as there are available from the planes in North Korean service)

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