Wednesday, 27 August 2014

North Korean MANPADS showing up in the hands of fighters of the Islamic State‏?

A photo published by the Islamic State after the capture of Tabqa airbase apparently revealed the capture of an Igla-1E man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS) at this base. However, it has now been uncovered the missile isn't an Igla-1E and the photo was not taken at Tabqa but at Kshesh, an airbase captured from Jaish al-Islam that is now being used as a training base by the Islamic State. The row of decommissioned MiG-17s in the background and the presence of two L-39s gave the identity of the base away.

While the missile was initially identified as an Igla-1E, the MANPADS seen operated by the fighter didn't quite match the system's visual appearance. The presence of an aerodynamic spike (as seen on the 9M39 Igla) indicated it isn't just a regular Soviet-produced Igla-1E, which all have pyramidal nosecones. Other external features ruled out other Russian systems and foreign copies thereof. Few other countries produce Igla-1Es, however, North Korea acquired a license to produce them along with 9K111 anti-tank missile systems and subsequently modified and produced different variants of Igla-1Es for its own needs. While the modified 9K111s received the designation of Bulsae-2, it is currently not known what name the Igla-1E received. However, MANPADS in North Korean service often receive the nickname "Hwaseong Chong" (Arquebus).

While Syria is known to have acquired North Korean arms, MANPADS were never noted to have been delivered to the Syrian regime. While both the DPRK and Syria were never too keen on publishing information about arms transfers, the possible North Korean design wasn't yet recognized in Syria during the now three-and-a-half-year-long conflict either, which saw numerous other MANPADS fall in the hands of opposition fighters.

The missile also wasn't sighted in various photo and video reports coming out of the captured bases of Division 17, Regiment 121 and Brigade 93, which showed scores of other equipment being captured, including Iranian made I-RAAD anti-tank missiles.

North Korea is well known to have been delivering arms to what have been branded terrorist organizations by the U.S. A recent example of such transfers was confirmed by the sighting of Bulsae-2s used by Hamas.

While it is unknown wether the North Korean version differs qualitywise from its parent design, a couple of external differences can be noted. Firstly, the missile itself appears to use the aerodynamic spike seen on later generation Russian MANPADS instead of the characteristic pyramidal extension. Furthermore, on some models the battery and handles have been modified, and the protective cap is more reminiscent of more modern MANPADS.

It is unlikely that the Islamic State owns a substantial stock of Igla-1Es, as it is not even ruled out the missile pictured is the only one in their possession. It is therefore improbable the Igla-1E sighted will have any impact on the day-to-day operations of the air forces of the United States, Syria and Iraq over the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields.

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Monday, 25 August 2014

The Islamic State Resets Balance with Spoils of Tabqa Airbase (1)

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

With the recent fall of Tabqa airbase in Northern Syria, the Islamic State has again gotten its hands on a massive amount of military equipment, which will certainly be used to further strengthen the Islamic State's advance in the Middle East.

Although all operational assets of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) were evacuated before the base was captured by the Islamic State, two MiG-21MFs, one of which serialed 1543, one MiG-21bis serialed 2217 and three MiG-21UMs, two of which serialed 2360 and 2357 undergoing maintenance and numerous inoperational MiG-21MFs and MiG-21UMs were left at the base and subsequently captured as spoils of war. Up to twenty-three MiG-21s are believed to have been captured in total.

Also captured were four anti-aircraft positions with a total of twenty-four 57mm AZP S-60 anti-aircraft guns, a couple of T-62s, large stockpiles of ammunition and various 9M113 Konkurs and 9M133 Kornet missiles with associated launchers.

R-3S air-to-air missiles once destined to be used by the two squadrons of MiG-21s once based at Tabqa were also captured. While these missiles are useless in their intentional role without a suitable launch platform, R-3S missiles were used as unguided rockets after scores of them were captured at Dhab'ah airbase. However, due to the light warhead, this adaption is anything but useful.

Another invaluable asset to the Assad regime present at the base was a large array of radars responsible for detecting aircraft in Northern Syria. Without these, any aircraft is able to venture into Syrian airspace undetected. Given the Islamic State did not target the radars, it is likely they wanted to capture them in intact in an attempt to get a radar network up and running. However, it's plausible that all were sabotaged by the remaining personnel on the base.

The most modern radar available at Tabqa is the Chinese made JY-27, seen in footage of the base before the capture below. Although this radar could be of great use for the Islamic State when aided by former operators of the system, the JY-27 lacks a height finding capability and needs to be supported by the three PRV-13s also present on the base. Other radars captured included a P-12, a P-14 and a P-35/37.

Despite the fact that many of the forty-year-old aircraft captured were derelict to begin with and possibly even deliberately sabotaged by the remaining personnel, it is not unthinkable that the Islamic State will work on making the two MiG-21s previously undergoing maintenance operational again. Similar to how the Taliban used pilots and technicians to enable them to operate MiG-21s, Su-20s, L-39s and Mi-8/17s in Afghanistan, mechanics trained to operate this equipment might be forced to aid the Islamic State in keeping them operational. Alternatively, given the amount of states operating MiG-21s in the past, it is plausible that Islamic State sympathisers with flight or aircraft maintenance experience will be brought in from abroad.

The Islamic State showed no interested in making any of the L-39s captured from Jaish al-Islam at Kshesh operational again however, instead using the airbase as a training base for its fighters. It is also possible the retreating fighters of Jaish al-Islam destroyed the L-39s, preventing possible use by the Islamic State.

The Islamic State is mostly defenceless against aerial attacks both in Syria and Iraq, a lack in capabilities thankfully exploited by the USAF and SyAAF in the past few weeks. Numerous anti-aircraft guns were also captured at Tabqa and during earlier battles, but due to their low mobility and limited use against modern, high-flying aircraft they don't present the same risks to enemy aircraft as surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) do.

The most important facts remain that the fall of Tabqa ends the SyAAF's dominance over the Raqqa Governorate and provides a free card for the Islamic State to expand their base of operations deeper into Syria. Although a renewed offensive on Aleppo might seem a more obvious move for the Islamic State, there now lies nothing between the Islamic State and Tadmur (Palmyra) airbase and T.4 airbase, housing the SyAAF's Su-24 fleet.

Wether or not the captured aircraft will be brought into active service, it is evident that the latest in a string of victories for the Islamic State will have great impact on the balance between the forces currently battling for control of Syria and Iraq.

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Sunday, 24 August 2014

Tabqa airbase captured by the Islamic State at last

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

After encountering some setbacks earlier on, Tabqa airbase finally fell to fighters of the Islamic State today. With only one Pro-Assadist obstacle remaining in Northern Syria, the Islamic State's territorial continuity in Northern Syria is closer than ever.

Tabqa is now the third airbase to have been captured by the Islamic State and is the second currently in the hands of the Islamic State along with Kshesh. Tabqa provides the Islamic State with numerous anti-aircraft guns and radars. Although several MiG-21s were captured intact, it is deemed unlikely that the Islamic State will be able to use them.

While the initial three assaults were slowed down and then repelled by a combination of minefields and the involvement of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF), which brought in fighter-bombers, attack helicopters and resupplied the base with transport planes, the ground forces on the base remained limited in numbers. The renewed, fourth offensive broke through Tabqa's main defence line, after which the SyAAF was powerless to stop them.

The losses at Tabqa reveal the main weakness of the Islamic State: A lack of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to destroy or prevent enemy aircraft from flying over its territory. While there aren't any SAMs to capture in Iraq, such weaponry is available in Syria. Although MANPADS are scarce in Northern Syria, Deir ez-Zor still houses two SAM sites with 2K12 Kub mobile SAM systems. While the 2K12s are too complicated to use for an inexperienced crew, former operators can be forced to man these systems for the Islamic State.

The continued efforts by the SyAAF to save Tabqa from capture by the Islamic State were significant. Yet now it seems this expensive operation was all in vain. It did not only cost precious amounts of fuel, but also tonnes of ammunition used by the SyAAF's fighter-bombers and attack helicopters on positions of the Islamic State.

The assault on Tabqa airbase largely came as unexpected as it was thought Kweres airbase would be next on the list. The reason for focussing on Tabqa instead might have something to do with the status of this base.

Strategically located, the fall of the base provides a free card for the Islamic State to expand their base of operations deeper into Syria. Although a renewed offensive on Aleppo might seem a more obvious move for the Islamic State, there is now nothing in between the Islamic State and Tadmur airbase (Palmyra) and T.4 airbase, housing the SyAAF's Su-24 fleet.

Also, while Tabqa still houses operational fighter-aircraft, Kweres is nothing more than a runway littered with plane wrecks and troops only capable of defending the base, already being under siege and preparing for the imminent assault since December 2012.

While most of the planes at Kweres are either incapable of performing interdiction sorties, damaged or destroyed by the Islamic State's mortar fire pounding the airbase in the last months, Tabqa is home to 12 squadron and another unknown squadron flying MiG-21bis, MiG-21MFs and MiG-21UMs

The airbase was also home to various Mi-8/17, Mi-25 and SA-342 'Gazelle' detachments, mostly being used for barrel-bomb attacks and resupplying the besieged bases of Division 17, Regiment 121, Brigade 93 and Kweres airbase.

Lastly, Tabqa houses eight munition bunkers, four anti-aircraft positions with a total of twenty-four anti-aircraft guns and five radars. Two PRV-13s, one P-14, one P-35/37 and the modern JY-27 radar system remained undamaged after the the initial three assaults, probably because the Islamic State wants them intact.

These radar systems are responsible for detecting aircraft in Northern Syria. If that capability is lost, the Pro-Assadists will lose any grip of what plane enters Syrian airspace via the North. A gap that can't be filled.

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Saturday, 23 August 2014

Tabqa airbase still holding out against the Islamic State

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

After a series of fierce clashes, the penultimate Pro-Assadist stronghold in Northern Syria is still holding out against fighters of the Islamic State. Tabqa airbase is now the fourth base to have been targeted by fighters of the Islamic State in a series of offensives conducted in lightning speed.

Similar to the attack on Brigade 93, the base was pounded by artillery and multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) captured at Regiment 121 and Brigade 93. However, while the capture of Regiment 97, Brigade 93 and Regiment 121 went smoothly, fighters of the Islamic State fell into a prepared, well-executed trap during the assault on Tabqa. Subsequently the Islamic State only managed to capture one anti-aircraft position and a few buildings.

Much of this has to do with the inability of the Islamic State to succesfully defend itself against enemy aircraft, a gap in capabilities fully exploited by the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF), which not only flew sorties against fighters of the Islamic State, but also managed to resupply the base using Il-76 and An-26 transport planes.

The defence of Tabqa rested on the SyAAF's ability to provide sufficient air cover to not only help defend the base, but also strike back at Islamic State positions. The initial assault was slowed down by the many minefields surrounding the airbase, during which the fighters also came under heavy fire from multiple sides. The SyAAF was subsequently unleashed on the fighters of the Islamic State, which were out in the open and fully exposed. The MiG-21s still present at the airbase remained active during the assault, flying sorties from Tabqa's 9.842 feet long runway.

The SyAAF's assault on Islamic State positions and vehicles around Tabqa also saw the first combat role for the SA-342 'Gazelle' in the now three-and-a-half-year-long Syrian Civil War. Because the SA-342s can only be armed with SS.12 and HOT anti-tank missiles, they weren't very useful before. The open deserts of Tabqa proved to be the perfect place for these helicopers. Armed with HOT missiles, they saw heavy action against vehicles of the Islamic State.

They were joined by the heavier Mi-25s, which flew sorties armed with unguided rockets and bombs.

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Monday, 18 August 2014

Kh-29 air-to-surface missiles used as unguided rockets in Libya

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

In a series of photos coming out of Tripoli, Libya, it appears Libya Dawn is now using highly sophisticated guided missile weaponry in the ground-to-ground role. The missile used was taken from a weapon depot near Ghardabiya airbase, near Sirte. The missile, a Kh-29T, normally uses TV-guidance to reach its intended target. In Libyan service, the Kh-29T was solely used on the Su-24 delivered from the Soviet Union in the late 80s.

In the early stages of the Libyan Civil War, 1124 Squadron flew a number of sorties with the remaining two operational Su-24MKs against National Liberation Army positions near Ra's Lanuf. In the course of these operations, one Su-24MK was brought down. The sole operational Su-24MK and the two non-operational Su-24MKs were subsequently destroyed by NATO air strikes at Ghardabiya airbase.

The weaponry once bought to be used by these Su-24s was now useless as no other aircraft in Libyan inventory was capable of carrying these weapons. This left sophisticated KAB-1500 laser-guided bombs, Kh-25, Kh-29L and Kh-29T air-to-surface missiles without operator.

It now appears efforts have been made to make some of this weaponry usable again, albeit not in their intentional role. The Kh-29T depicted in the launch photos had its fins and ailerons at the front and back removed for a somewhat more stable flight path in the unguided ground-to-ground role. The size of the warhead was obviously the reason these missiles are now used in their new role, packing a 320 kilogram heavy warhead.

More launches of such sophisticated missiles can be expected as Libya Dawn is in the possession of a large stock of missiles and already conducted several similar launches.

Special thanks to Khaled Ben Alewa.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Jaish al-Islam, more than just a rebel faction?

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Jaish al-Islam is arguably the strongest of the seven rebel groups fighting under the Islamic Front umbrella. Primarily fighting in Damascus, it takes the brunt of the Pro-Assadist forces, including fighters of Hizbullah and the Republican Guard.
Formely fighting as the Platoon of Islam and Liwa al-Islam, the brigade restructed itself into Jaish al-Islam. Once part of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, Jaish al-Islam later became one of the founding members of the Islamic Front, under which it still fights today.

Jaish al-Islam is led by Zahran Alloush, who also acts as leader of the Military Office of the Islamic Front. Zahran Alloush studied at the Islamic University in Medina, Saudi Arabia before returning back to Syria.

After being arrested by the Intelligence Services in 2009, Zahran Alloush was imprisoned and charged for practising Da'wa, for which served two years in prison. Zahran Alloush was released from Sednaya Military Prison in June 2011 as part of a government amnesty. Yet, it is most likely prisoners like Zahran Alloush were released in order to further strengthen the process of islamification of the opposition.

In September 2011, Zahran Alloush founded the Platoon of Islam, later envolving into Liwa al-Islam and Jaish al-Islam. Apart from being active on the battlefield, Jaish al-Islam also makes extensive use of media to spread its own ideology. Other services provided are flour and fuel, all distributed by Jaish al-Islam's relief organization Nour al-Islam.

When still fighting under the name of Liwa al-Islam, the brigade began to receive financial support via private channels from Saudi Arabia, enabling Liwa al-Islam to grow significantly.

The flow of money was apparently enough to allow Jaish al-Islam to work on two L-39s in an effort to establish a local air force. Based at Kshesh, this project was abandoned after the capture of the airbase by the Islamic State. A video showing the L-39s can be viewed here.

Jaish al-Islam also used the money for a wide amount of other projects. Notably was the usage of a captured 9K33 missile system to shoot down at least two Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) helicopters [1] and the purchase of two T-72AVs and two BMP-1s from a corrupt officer in the 4th Armoured Division, an elite unit within the Syrian Arab Army.

Armoured fighting vehicles always had an important status within Jaish al-Islam, it being the only group in Syria which operates various types of armour and infantry in a mechanized force, fully exploiting their potential. Footage of Jaish a-Islam's armour in action can be viewed here and here.

The group takes the use armour so seriously it even founded a school to train its personnel on all aspects of armoured warfare. A video about that school can be viewed here.

Most interestingly however was the foundation of a local arms industry, capable of both manufacturing a wide array of munitions, performing overhauls and upgrades on captured fighting vehicles and producing small arms.

Below a list of Jaish al-Islam's most ambitious arms projects.

The 'Dushka' bolt-action sniper rifle, using 12.7×108mm rounds from the DShK heavy machine gun.

A 23mm anti-materiel rifle, the largest of its kind currently used in the world. The rifle can be seen used here.

Manufacturing 107mm rockets and various types of large and small caliber mortar rounds.

The integration of 107mm Type-63 multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) on a new chassis, improving its off-road capability. This system can be seen in action here.

The introduction of the Arrow of Islam 3 MRL, armed with three 122mm rockets installed on a 6x6 Ural-375D. The Arrow of Islam 3 was mainly used against Nasriyeh airbase, home to a large portion of the SyAAF's fighter-bomber fleet.

However, Jaish al-Islam's main focus is refurbishing and upgrading various types of armoured fighting vehicles. All overhauls and upgrades are believed to be carried out by just a single workshop in Eastern Ghouta.

A previously unarmed BTR-60PU-12 command vehicle, once captured along with the 9K33 Osa and now adapted for use on the battlefield, upgraded with add-on armour and armed with a 23mm gun taken from a ZSU-23. A Czechoslovak made AMB-S armoured ambulance vehicle was upgraded in a similar way.

A BREM-2 armoured recovery vehicle (ARV) captured at Batallion 559, an army Storage Base North of Seen airbase. While not of much use for Jaish al-Islam in its original role, the vehicle was not let go to waste and was reconfigurated into a fire-support platform armed with a 14.5mm ZPU-4.

Modifying several BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles with the addition of extra armour. Of the three variants spotted so far, one has slat armour and four 81mm smoke grenade launchers installed on its turret while the other two are equipped with explosive reactive armour (ERA) from a T-72AV here. All of the vehicles feature new rear doors, increased armour on its glacis plate and (provision for) slat armour further reinforced by sandbags on their sides. These vehicles can be seen in action here, here and here.

Jaish al-Islam's tank fleet consists of a few T-55s, multiple T-72M1s, one T-72M1 equipped with the Italian TURMS-T fire-control system (FCS) and numerous T-72AVs. At least one T-72AV was upgraded with additional armour on the rear and on its glacis plate.

More interesting is the upgrade of at least two T-55AMs with homemade armour mounted on the turret and front of the vehicle. It is unknown if the armour contains any explosives and metal plates, also known as ERA. One of the two vehicles can be seen in action here.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The spoils of Brigade 93, captured by the Islamic State

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Boosted by the large quantities of weaponry and ammunition captured at Regiment 121 just more than a week ago, fighters of the Islamic State took overran another regime stronghold in Nothern Syria on the 7th of August 2014, Brigade 93. This base, part of Division 17, was home to around fifty tanks, seventeen howitzers, numerous anti-aircraft guns, countless trucks and various other armoured fighting vehicles. Although some of this equipment may have been distributed to other bases, most of it was still believed to have been present on the base during the attack.

BM-21s captured at Regiment 121 were used to attack Brigade 93 before the main assault begun, reportedly setting parts of it ablaze. The base was then attacked by three VBIEDs, clearing a path for Islamic State fighters storming the base. During the attack that followed around ninety fighters of the Islamic State are believed to have died along with around 300 regime soldiers and another hundred captured, which were subsequently executed. Only a few soldiers managed to evade initial capture by the Islamic State, with most of the fleeing personnel surrendering in the desert and subsequently executed as well.

Footage and images of the base show at least thirty T-55s, two BRDM-2s, ten 122mm D-30 howitzer and one 130mm M-46 field-gun captured by the fighters of the Islamic State, making the capture of Brigade 93 the largest heavy-arms haul of the Syrian Civil War so far.

Interestingly, the attackers employed a wide variety of armoured fighting vehicles, including at least one U.S. M-1114 captured in Iraq. A 122mm BM-21 multiple-rocket launcher, likely one of the examples captured at Regiment 121 can also be seen. The SyAAF would also pound the airbase during the assault, which is believed to have caused little damaged to the equipment littered on the base, which should have been a priority target.

The Islamic State also captured its first self-propelled anti-aircraft gun (SPAAG). Although originally designed to attack air targets, the four 23mm guns of the ZSU-23 are often used against ground targets.

The two remaining regime strongholds in Nothern Syria, Tabqa and Kweres airbase are obviously next on the list. Tabqa airbase is home to at least two squadrons operating MiG-21s and has provided most of the air support for regime forces located in the North of Syria. Kweres was the Syrian Arab Air Force's main training base before the revolution, housing three squadrons worth of MBB-SIAT 223K1 Flamingos, PAC MFI-17 Mushshaks and L-39s.

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