Saturday, 27 June 2015

Fortress T4: An Airbase at War

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The Islamic State's offensive in Central Syria has not only allowed the fighters of the Islamic State to expand their operations into areas previously out of reach, but it now also threatens the regime's gas supplies, its presence on numerous fronts, its control over the only road leading to the vitally important T4 airbase and the airbase itself, the largest of its kind in Syria.

T4, sharing its name with the nearby pumping station, is more commonly (yet incorrectly) known as Tiyas and a whole host of other names. After the fall of Tadmur airbase, it is now one of sixteen operational airbases under control of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF), and its defence is essential to the SyAAF's ability to exercise control over the Syrian skies. No less than three fighter-bomber squadrons and one helicopter squadron are currently operating out of T4, including the pride of the SyAAF: its Su-24M2s. The airbase is also home to the now decommissioned MiG-25 fleet, largely phased out in the previous decade. Despite being Syria's largest airbase, T4 only has one runway, making the airbase extremely vulnerable in case this single runway gets taken out.

In anticipation of an Islamic State offensive on T4 after their lightning advance throughout Central and Eastern Syria in mid and late 2014, the airbase's assets were heavily reinforced by a temporarily detachment of L-39s, formerly deployed to the then recently overrun Tabqa airbase and by one detachment of at least four Mi-8/17s.

Fully aware of the high military value of T4, the regime has made extensive efforts to defend the airbase, making it come close to being an impenetrable fortress. 'Fortress T4' also serves as a barrier between the now Islamic State controlled Tadmur, and regime controlled Homs, further adding to its importance. The regime forces defending T4 have clashed with the fighters of the Islamic State on numerous occasions throughout the past year, with the latest offensive coming close to the officer's housing and T4 pumping station. According to various reports by Islamic State related Twitter accounts, T4 was targeted with artillery in late May 2015, although it remains unknown if this caused any damage to the airbase.

While the airbase itself is not in imminent danger of falling to the fighters of the Islamic State, the control over the only road leading to T4 is disputed, and will likely completely be under the control of the Islamic State if they continue their push towards Homs. This would isolate T4 and make access by road impossible, leading to significant problems in the long run. Resupplying the airbase would then be in the hands of the SyAAF's transport aircraft and helicopters, but such an airlift would have serious drawbacks as it would be unable to bring in any heavy weaponry and fuel, not to mention the fact that it would also cost the regime loads of precious resources.

The resident fleet of aircraft and helicopters has the potential of being a major eyesore to the fighters of the Islamic State, and has the ability to thwart the Islamic State in any of its future offensives undertaken in the Homs Governorate. But as the SyAAF remains largely unable to respond to actual developments, and often only joins the fray after the battle on the ground has been fought, better coordination between regime forces on the ground and SyAAF aircraft and helicopters in the sky is required to fully optimise the assests available at T4. Furthermore, the desperate revenge strikes flown by the SyAAF on recently lost towns could be stopped to spare not only the life of the many innocent civilians killed during these sorties, but also the precious airframes used in these useless sorties, with the wasted flight-hours instead allocated to supporting the regime's ground forces.

For example, only one symbolic sortie from T4 was flown in aid of the defenders of Hulayhilah, while the defenders of al-Sukhna, al-Hail, Arak and the numerous other towns and gasfields recently captured by the fighters of the Islamic State received no aerial support whatsoever. The SyAAF also largely stood by when Tadmur was captured, only flying some aimless sorties to boost moral of the regime forces on the ground. The town was heavily hit only after it was captured by the Islamic State, with the ordnance used randomly dropped on residential areas.

The huge weapons depots and airbase present at Tadmur provided the fighters of the Islamic State with large amounts of weaponry and associated ammunition, a logical target for the SyAAF's fighter-bombers, which can be equipped with sophisticated precision guided weaponry. However, none of the depots were targeted by the SyAAF, and it was the US-led coalition that had to step in to destroy six anti-aircraft guns captured at Tadmur.[1] This while the majority of the aircraft capable of deploying precision guided munitions is stationed at T4, located only sixty kilometers from Tadmur.

While extensive in terms of types, Syria's numerically limited stock of precision guided missiles has seen little use throughout the Civil War, making it likely that the majority is still being withheld for a possible future conflict with the U.S. or Israel. But as the war has now entered its fourth year, one would question if such weaponry wouldn't be better off used in this conflict instead. While the SyAAF's current arsenal of precision guided weaponry would be quickly depleted, it could be quickly replenished by Russia; the continuous flow of Russian-made weaponry that reaches Syria on a regular basis is a testament to that fact.

When examining T4 using the latest (public) satellite imagery available one can spot a large number of seemingly inoperational aircraft spread around the airbase, with as much as thirty-two decommissioned MiG-25s visible at T4 in October 2014. While certainly an impressive sight, it marks the end of an era for the once mighty 'Foxbat' fleet. The fleet of MiG-25s was slowly decommissioned throughout the previous decade, with only a few examples remaining operational by the turn of the century.

The exact number of MiG-25s Syria received is thought to be around forty. Versions are believed to include MiG-25P (later upgraded to MiG-25PDS) and MiG-25PD interceptors, MiG-25R and RB reconnaissance aircraft and MiG-25PU conversion trainers. A reason for the retirement of the MiG-25 fleet might not only be its age and the increasing costs to keep the aircraft operational that come with it, but also the type's vulnerability to Israeli jamming.

The career of some MiG-25s appeared to have been revived on several occasions throughout the Syrian Civil War; the last confirmed sorties were flown in March and April 2014, during which a MiG-25PD(S) launched R-40 air-to-air missiles at ground targets. These sorties, to no one's surprise, yielded no beneficial results.

The last to operate the MiG-25s was an unknown squadron at Tadmur, sporting three MiG-25PD(S) and one MiG-25PU in its ranks until late 2013. These aircraft were then likely flown to T4, where they joined the remainder of the MiG-25 fleet already stored here.

The majority of the active aircraft operating out of T4 are housed in the airbase's fifty-eight Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS), including the SyAAF's Su-24M2s. T4 has traditionally been the home of Syria's Su-24s, with most located in the South-Eastern part of the airbase. A few examples are also detached to Seen at any given time. The Su-24s are undoubtedly the most important assets of the SyAAF, and have seen heavy usage in the past four years.

Although T4 is located closely to Islamic State held territory, 819 Squadron flying the Su-24s rarely participates in sorties flown against the fighters of the Islamic State. Instead, the Su-24 serves as the SyAAF's long arm, mostly striking villages throughout all of Syria. From Deir ez-Zor to Quneitra and even testing the reaction time of the Royal Air Force based at Akrotiri, Cyprus, the Su-24s done it all.

Contrary to earlier reports, the transfer of one Su-24MK and one Su-24MR by Libya to Syria in the mid 1990s might have not taken place, and has been disclaimed by several SyAAF pilots and the former base commander of T4. This means that the number of Su-24s Syria received stands at just twenty. However, nineteen of these Su-24MKs were upgraded to M2 standard by the 514 ARZ Aircraft Repair Plant in Rzhev in Russia between 2010 and 2013. Just in time to participate in the Civil War, all aircraft returned to Syria relatively unnoticed.

The upgrade provides for improved targeting, navigation and fire control systems by replacing the plane's old control systems. The plane is also made compatible with newer versions of the KAB-500/1500 and with Kh-31As, Kh-31Ps, Kh-59s and R-73s, adding to the FAB, OFAB and RBK bombs, Kh-25s, Kh-28s, Kh-29Ls, Kh-29Ts and Kh-58s guided missiles, KAB-500s and KAB-1500s guided bombs, S-24 and S-25 air to ground rockets, rocket pods and R-60 air-to-air missiles it can already carry. In Syrian service, all but the R-73 are available to the Su-24M2s, which are reserved for the SyAAF's MiG-29SMs instead.

Out of the twenty Su-24s originally acquired by the SyAAF, eleven examples remain operational as of June 2015. All but one loss incurred during the Civil War, with one airframe damaged beyond repair after suffering an accident before it had commenced. One was shot down with a MANPADS by the Free Syrian Army above Daret Izzah on the 28th of November 2012, another was shot down by an Israeli Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) after having strayed into the airspace over the Golan Heights on the 23th of September 2014 and another fell near Nahtah on the 11th of June 2015, likely due to premature detonation of its ordnance. One Su-24M2 was heavily damaged by anti-aircraft fire in May 2015, after which its pilot managed to guide the airframe to T4 despite the condition it was in. However, it crashed while on approach to the runway after it became apparent that the damage done to the aircraft would prevent a safe landing. Both the pilot and navigator ejected safely. An additional two Su-24s were believed to have been destroyed in an accident on the 28th of May 2015, during which an explosion occured while both aircraft were being rearmed for another sortie, resulting in the death of at least five and wounding another dozen. Additionally, two Su-24s are out of service after having been hit by ground fire. While the damage on both of these aircraft is minimal and can be repaired, the SyAAF currently lacks the resources to do so. The fleet of available airframes has thus almost been cut in half, and each loss is a heavy blow to the SyAAF.

A second fighter-bomber squadron based at T4 operates the Su-22M4, all of which are located in the North-Western and South-Western part of the airbase. 827 Squadron has seen heavy use against the fighters of the Islamic State in the past year, mainly flying in support of Suqour al-Sahraa' (Desert Falcons) units patrolling the Syrian desert.

The Su-22M4 is outfitted for the carriage of S-24 and S-25 air-to-ground rockets, unguided rocket pods, FAB, OFAB and RBK bombs, KMGU-2 munitions dispensers, Kh-25, Kh-28, Kh-29L, Kh-29T and Kh-58 air-to-ground missiles and R-60 air-to-air missiles. The Su-22M4 has almost exclusively been used to deliver unguided weaponry in the Syrian Civil War: its potential to deliver guided weaponry again being ignored.

Although its Su-22s are often targeted by anti-aircraft guns of the Islamic State, 827 Squadron has suffered relatively light losses in the past four years, with only one Su-22M4 shot down by the fighters of the Islamic State near the Shaer gas field on the 30th of November 2014. As seen with the Su-24M2s, a couple of airframes are awaiting repair after having suffered some form of combat damage.

In the mid to end of 2014, T4's aerial assests were further strengthened by the deployment of a detachment of L-39s. Although nowadays rarely sighted in Syria's skies, the remainder of the SyAAF's L-39 fleet remains active on nearly every front, the L-39ZOs and L-39ZAs almost exclusively flying their sorties in the night in the Aleppo and Damascus region.

The L-39s based at T4 were among the examples overhauled at 'The Factory', the SyAAF's repair and maintenance center located at Neyrab/Aleppo International Airport. The overhauled examples were distributed between Syria's remaining operational airbases, including Tabqa before it fell to the fighters of the Islamic State on the 24th of August 2014. The L-39s now present at T4 are believed to have been formerly based at Tabqa. These aircraft have thus followed the fighters of the Islamic State as they carried out their offensives in Syria.

In an effort to boost the firepower of the L-39s, all of the overhauled airframes were rewired for the carriage of 80mm B-8 rocket pods, a weapon originally not destined to be used on the L-39. A B-8 equipped L-39ZO now stationed at T4 airbase can be seen below. The carriage of B-8 rocket pods greatly enchances the L-39's capabilities, which previously could only be armed with 57mm rocket pods and bombs.

Recent satellite imagery of T4 shows the presence of at least five L-39s at any given time, most sitting on the tarmac formerly used by the SyAAF's MiG-25s or by the double HAS, now acting as a support facility for the L-39s.

A detachment of Mi-8/17s now based at T4 act in support of the remaining regime forces in the region, and as a liaison between the airbase and the rest of regime-controlled Syria.

Four Mi-8/17s can be spotted on recent satellite imagery, stationed right next to the L-39s.

Many of the HAS's now empty after the decommissioning of the MiG-25 fleet have been turned into barracks, weapon depots and defensive strongholds. Two HAS's located on the North-Eastern side of the airbase and one HAS located on the South-Eastern part of the airbase have seen specifically much activity around them, with several trucks present in or near the HAS's at any given time.

A tank company, now stationed in the centre of T4, further strengthens the airbase's defences.

Satellite imagery also shows the many destroyed buildings in the officer's housing quarters located East of the airbase. This location was the scene of heavy fighting back in November 2014, which also spread to the nearby T4 pumping station. The defenders succesfully managed to push the fighters of the Islamic State back from both locations however.

Russian contractors from the Slavonic Corps, sent to protect the oilfields around Deir ez-Zor, also passed by T4 on their journey to the city. The contractors, apparantly spending more time posing for photos than actually fighting, were routed after being ambushed by rebel forces near the town of al-Sukhna on the way to Deir ez-Zor, and swiftly returned to Russia afterwards, where the owners of the Slavonic Corps was subsequently imprisoned by the Federal Security Service (FSB) because the operation was deemed illegal by the Russian government. Five contractors together with Su-24M2 '2514' can be seen below.

The two S-75 and three S-125 surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites surrounding the airbase remain active, and regularly change positions to throw off their adversaries. Although they are unlikely to be of much use during a potential Coalition air campaign against the Assad-regime due to their outdated nature, they would force the flight ceiling of coalition aircraft up in the early stages of such a campaign and might deter stand-alone strikes by other parties. The systems tasked with directing these SAMs to their targets are two P-18 ''Spoon Rest D'' and two P-35/37 ''Bar Lock'' radars, which are responsible for detecting any plane flying in this part of Central Syria, a crucial task now that Tadmur airbase and its many radars have been captured by the Islamic State. One RSP-7 radar and one Parol Identification friend or foe (IFF) system also present at T4 guide the aircraft that are coming in to land.

The latest offensive of the Islamic State on this vital airbase has once again been stopped before reaching the airbase, and with the recent setbacks for the Islamic State, this might have been their last chance to take it. Fortress T4, as large as it is important, will indubitably continue to serve as a major hub for the Syrian Arab Air Force.

Written in collaboration with R.S from Luftwaffe A.S. Satellite imagery by finriswolf.

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Monday, 22 June 2015

Syria's R-330P communications jamming stations, from Russia with Love?

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

After the first sighting of the SPR-1 proximity fuse jamming station in Syria, a second type of jamming platform has been revealed to be in service with the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA). While the R-330P was already believed to be in Syrian service since the late eighties, it now seems that Syria has received another batch of these highly specialised vehicles in more recent years, likely delivered by Russia.

The R-330P 'Piramida-I', based on the chassis of an MT-LBu, is utilised for detecting, intercepting and jamming voice and data communications. Equipped with two antennas, one is tasked with detecting and intercepting very high frequency (VHF) bands used by communication systems while the other antenna jams these frequencies, disabling any communication systems within a range of 25 kilometers that use these frequencies.

The presence of just one of these vehicles could have a significant impact on the ground, making it impossible for the rebels to coordinate their attacks and communicate with each other over the radio, thus possibly thwarting any rebel offensive. A deadly tool in the hands of trained personnel.

Syria is believed to have received its first R-330Ps at around the same time as the delivery of the first SPR-1s, which occurred in the late eighties. Both types are operated by the same electronic warfare unit, believed to be based near Damascus. The R-330Ps operated by this unit remain in their original camouflage, and show clear signs of rust and worn-out paint, such as the example below, reading: الجيش  - ''The Army'' and ٣٩٧١٧٩ - ''397179''.

The sudden appearance of a brand-new, well-maintained and green camouflaged R-330P in Syria is therefore highly surprising, and points at this vehicle being part of a more recent acquisition, parallel to deliveries of other highly specialised systems that have reached Syria in the past few years, such as the UR-77 mine-clearing vehicle and the 300mm BM-30 'Smerch' multiple rocket launcher (MRL).

Even in the face of recent setbacks for the Assad regime, it is clear that not all cards have been played yet. While the R-330P platform is not a directly lethal weapon, the far-reaching consequences of utilising such a system is affirmed by rebel offensive successes in Eastern Ukraine, which reportedly made heavy use of electronic warfare (EW) systems and thus completely denied their opponents the ability to communicate and coordinate operations.

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Monday, 8 June 2015

From Russia with Love, Syria's Vepr-12s

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The last two decades have seen a complete resurrection of civilian owned weaponry in Syria. The trend of owning and dealing weapons quickly declined after the 1982 Hama Massacre, after which fear arose that having a gun could have you linked to the uprising. Strict gun laws enforced shortly after the failed uprising also made it harder to acquire and own weapons. The fear slowly faded away during the 80s, and the shotgun, now tolerated by the regime, became increasingly popular as a hunting tool in rural areas throughout the 90s, much of which had to do with their favourable price.

Despite this, being in the possession of an automatic assault rifle was strictly forbidden after 1982. While some politically reliable farmers and shepherds were able to get a security clearance which allowed them to be in the possession of an automatic assault rifle before 1982, this clearance was too expensive for the general farmer. Illegally owning an assault rifle would generally result in two to six years imprisoment, and a fine of anything between 2000 to 10.000 USD before the revolution. This didn't deter some to get hold of an AKMS to ward off thieves raiding 'someone's' pistachio trees however.

Back to the shotgun, the use of which within the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) and National Defence Force (NDF) remains limited. The Syrian military doctrine never focused on house-to-house fighting, and as a result specialised weaponry for such situations was never acquired. Limited numbers of military grade shotguns, such as the Italian SPAS-15, did find their way to private individuals in the Syrian coast in the past years however.

The Syrian Civil War and the widespread house-to-house combat through which it is often fought brought the need for weapons optimised for close-quarters combat, and a Syrian military delegation was sent to Russia to purchase such weapons. It is believed that the ВПО-205-03, along with the AK-104, was among the weapons inspected by the Syrian military delegation during a Russian weapons expo in 2012, which in turn led to the acquisition of a limited batch of ВПО-205-03 fully automatic shotguns, the military-grade variant of the Vepr-12.

The shotguns of the Vepr-12 series bear heavy resemblance to the AK-74M and AK-100 series, and one could mistake it for an assault rifle, especially with the conventional magazine in place. The picatinny rail with which it is outfitted, as opposed to the standard side mount seen on the AK series, accepts a wide variety of optical sights, vertical forward grips, IR pointers and flashlights.

The already compact ВПО-205-03 can be further shortened by the side-folding stock, making it an ideal weapon for close-quarters combat. Like most of the world's shotguns, the weapon fires standard 12-gauge shells.

As is commonly seen with deliveries of sophisticated weaponry to Syria, none of these shotguns found their way to the battlefront. Instead, all were immediately distributed to various important figures and parties in the coastal area. While the ВПО-205-03 would be a godsend for the regime forces fighting in for example Deir ez-Zor, corruption prevents the use of such weaponry in places most needed. Of course, in this case it concerns just the use of a single new type of shotgun, but ultimately such policies could end up costing the regime the war.

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Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Islamic State's spring offensive: Hulayhilah

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Hulayhilah, located in between Tadmur and al-Sukhna, was captured on the 13th of May 2015 by fighters of the Islamic State. The industrial town of Hulayhilah is a support facility for the gasfields and pipelines located throughout Central Syria, and served as their administrative and industrial heart. After the fall of al-Sukhna in October 2013, Hulayhilah became a stronghold for regime forces, which launched a successful counter-attack from here while supported by artillery then recently moved to Hulayhilah.

Although al-Sukhna was already back under regime control after just one week in 2013, and the fighters of the Islamic State never pushed into the direction of al-Sukhna after that, the heavy weaponry present at Hulayhilah never left the industrial town. While deploying heavy weaponry near a potential hot zone just in case does indeed make sense, stationing this kind of equipment in small, hard to defend towns creates needlessly large risks. The establishment of numerous large and well-guarded forward operation bases would likely serve the regime better instead.

Thus, in typical SyAA fashion, the town was massively overstocked with arms and ammunition, far surpassing the needs of the defenders. In terms of firepower, Hulayhilah was the greatest of all regime bases from the East of Tadmur to the West of Deir ez-Zor.

Apart from housing several tanks, artillery and MRLs, Hulayhilah also saw use as a forward operating base for Suqour al-Sahraa' (Desert Falcons), a detachment of which was present during the assault. More importantly, the town served as a communication hub to communicate with regime forces, mostly Suqour al-Sahraa', patrolling the vast Syrian desert. The loss of such modern equipment is a heavy blow to the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA), yet slightly softened by the fact that the regime has nobody to communicate with in Central Syria anymore.

The assault on Hulayhilah was believed to have been conducted at around the same time as the assault on al-Sukhna and Arak, leaving the regime troops no chance to warn and aid each other. The fact that the recent offensive came at a time when the Islamic State was thought to have partly been brought to a halt under pressure from coalition airstrikes and assaults on the Syrian and Iraqi fronts must also have played a role in the regime's incompetence in defending their positions in Cental Syria. A video covering a part of assault on al-Hail, Arak, Hulayhilah and T3 can be seen here (WARNING: GRAPHIC).

The tactics used during the assault on Hulayhilah were strikingly similar as the same as the ones used during the assault on al-Sukhna; First, the high ground opposite to Hulayhilah was targeted, stormed and then captured, and the 14.5mm KPV and 122mm D-30 howitzer found here immediately used against the defenders of Hulayhilah itself.

Although the defenders of Hulayhilah could count on more men and heavy weaponry than their adversaries, the fighters of the Islamic State were already too close to the town to be hit with artillery. Instead of utilising the remaining weapon systems, or making a last ditch effort to counter and possible stop this sudden assault by the fighters of the Islamic State while entrenched in the many buildings in Hulayhilah, most entered the nearest vehicle they could find and drove off or fled on foot, leaving their comrades behind.

The fighters of the Islamic State subsequently chased some of the fleeing regime forces down, which stood no chance in the vast and empty desert. Others that didn't flee fought to their deaths or were captured and executed, some of them after being found hiding in two vehicle pits.

The large arsenal present at Hulayhilah thus saw no action during the the Islamic State's spring offensive. The resident garrison was simply not aware of any assault going on in the al-Sukhna region, and as a result, none of the weapons systems were manned, let alone turned into the right direction. Even though Hulayhilah was well stocked and equipped to engage any enemy movement in the al-Sukhna region, the defenders never expected any assault on the town itself and therefore couldn't defend themselves against the relatively small force of Islamic State fighters.

One of the Syrian Arab Air Force's (SyAAF) Su-22M4s from the nearby T4 airbase attempted to raise the moral of the defending regime forces from the air but its ordnance missed the Islamic State's fighters. This single sortie marked the end of the SyAAF's 'aerial campaign' in the al-Sukhna region offensive.

The timing of the Islamic State's attack proved crucial, as capturing both al-Sukhna and Hulayhilah at the same time prevented regime forces at Hulayhilah using their artillery to support the defenders of al-Sukhna, and prevented regime forces at al-Sukhna to use their tanks to support the defenders of Hulayhilah.

Advanced communications equipment, such as the Chinese TS-504 troposcatter pictured below, was among the equipment captured. This is the second loss of such a system in a month, only a small number of which were delivered at the end of the previous decade.

The Ghaneema (spoils of war) consisted of various types of light and heavy weaponry, some of which seen below. Large caches of small arms and munitions were found at the site, including PG-7 warheads, large amounts of artillery shells for the resident artillery and a rare machine gun which was not yet seen in Syria before: the Hungarian KGK general purpose machine gun.

Among the heavy equipment captured were at least two 122mm D-30 howitzers, two 130mm M-46 field guns and one Iranian produced 107mm Fajr-1 single-barelled multiple rocket launcher (MRL). The graffiti on the D-30 reads: من أملاك الدولة الإسلامية - ''Owned by the Islamic State'' while the text on the M-46 reads: دولة الخلاف  - ''The Caliphate''.

Self-propelled artillery included one 122mm 2S1 self-propelled howitzer and one 122mm BM-21 MRL. At least one tank was also captured; one T-72M1, rendered useless by the fact that the barrel of its 125mm main gun has been destroyed, likely caused by a malfunction of the gun system.

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