Saturday, 29 August 2015

New evidence proves Russian military directly engaging in Syrian Civil War

The regime's offensive in the Lattakia Governorate continues to reveal previously unknown details about Russia's involvement in the Syrian Civil War. Apart from the sighting of recently delivered Russian BTR-82A infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), new evidence now confirmes Russian military personnel has a key role in leading the offensive on the ground.

Sound fragments heard in a news report from the Media Wing of the National Defence Force (NDF) covering the offensive in Lattakia, which was also the first to reveal the presence of BTR-82As in Syria, confirm earlier accounts of Russian military personnel being sent to Lattakia in support of the ongoing regime operations in this area. Together with the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) and the recently arrived Republican Guard, the NDF launched a new offensive aimed at recapturing territory previously lost to the rebels in North-Eastern Lattakia. If it proves successful, the offensive will greatly enhance the regime's control over its currently endangered heartland, and provide a serious blow to rebel forces.

The conversation is difficult to hear due to the booming noise coming from the BTR-82A's 30mm 2A72 autocannon, yet certain phrases can be made out, including calls to resume fire support and at some point "Павлин, павлин, мы выходим", which translates to "Peacock, Peacock, we are moving out" (Peacock presumably being a callsign).

A translation from 2:03 to 2:30 of the video is provided below:

2:03: ''Давай!'' - Give me/Come on!

2:06: ''Бросай!'' - Throw!

2:10: "Ещё раз! Ещё давай!'' - Once again! Do it again!

2:30: "Павлин, павлин, мы выходим" - Peacock, Peacock [callsign], we are moving out.

Although only little of the conversation is heard, it appears to be directed at the crew of the BTR-82A, implicating the vehicle was in fact operated by Russian military personnel. However, when the subject of Russian personnel being sent to Syria was raised on the 4th of August to Vladimir Putin's press secretary, following comments made by the head of Russia's Airborne Troops, he reportedly denied requests of such nature had been made by the Syrian regime.

Interestingly, this is not the first indication of Russian ground involvement in the Syrian Civil War this month. The news website Souria Net reported on the 12th of August that Russian military personnel was dispatched to the village of Slanfah (some 30 kilometres East of Lattakia) to defend against the rebels' advance on the primarily Alawite ground.

Consequently, the pro-regime newspaper al-Watan ("The Homeland") published an article on the 26th of August claiming Russia is expanding its presence in Syria by constructing a new military base in Jablah, a coastal city in the Lattakia Governorate some 25 kilometres South of Lattakia itself. The same article mentions a variety of rumours and conspiracy theories regarding Western and Russian meddling in the Syrian Civil War including the much-publicised but ultimately false story of the delivery of six Russian MiG-31 interceptors last month, as well as the supposed start of handing satellite imagery to pro-regime forces by Russia. Although no evidence towards the the provision of satellite imagery has been found before, it is known that Russia supported the Syrian regime both prior to and during the Civil War with signals intelligence (SIGINT) through its Center-S, S-2 and (presumably) S-3 intelligence gathering facilities, the first of which was captured on the 5th of October 2014.

The news also coincides with an upsurge of sightings of Russian-made drones in Syrian skies, further indicating the initiation of novel intelligence programmes in recent months.

While the fact that Russian military contractors have operated in Syria before might lead one to argue the conversation in Russian might not have been made by Russian military personnel, it should be noted that the probability of such contractors operating an advanced weapons system like the BTR-82A are very slim. Additionally, the Russian government actually forbids the deployment of contractors in Syria, and the FSB detained the leadership of the so-called Slavonic Corps upon return to Russia (which was in October 2013). Of course, the statements made by Syrian media corroborate the notion of Russian enlisted personel in Syria, further undermining any arguments that could be made towards the theory that the exchange in the video was made by private military contractors.

Obviously, this evidence of secretive Russian military involvement in Syria does not represent an isolated occurance: much-publicised reports of Russian military personnel operating in the Ukraine and years of unabating (even increasing) support to the Syrian regime serve as a testament to Russia's dedication towards protecting its foreign interests, even if this means getting directly entangled in open conflict. The fact that such a stealthy intervention now appears to be occurring once again increases the uncertainty of Syria's future, and may spell the onset of much wider Russian participation in a war that nears its half-decade mark.

Special thanks to PFC_Joker.

Monday, 24 August 2015

From Russia with Love, Syria's BTR-82As

Just days after the sighting of several BTR-80 variants among other military equipment bound for Syria onboard the Russian Navy ship Nikolay Filchenkov, an Alligator-class landing ship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, more advanced Russian-made weaponry has apparently found its way to Syria, with the sighting of BTR-82s being the latests in a series of ill-reported weapon deliveries to the war torn country.

Footage of the Lattakia offensive shows the presence of at least one BTR-82A infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) taking part in the offensive aimed at recapturing previously lost territory in North-Eastern Lattakia. The offensive is conducted jointly by the National Defence Force (NDF), Syrian Arab Army (SyAA), and the Republican Guard, the latter of which only recently deployed to the Syrian Coast in such large numbers. Along with its T-72s, BMP-2s and 152mm 2S3 Akatsiya self-propelled howitzers, the Republican Guard arrived here in mid June 2015. It can be expected that the delivery of BTR-82s to Syria occured at around the same time. The arrival of the Republican Guard greatly boosted the firepower of the National Defence Force, tasked with defending the region and mostly armed with ageing weaponry that was previously stored. In fact, the NDF was even forced to use 100mm KS-19 anti-aircraft guns as conventional artillery during previous offensives.

Syria was known to have received a limited number of BTR-80s from Russia in late 2013 or early 2014 under the chemical weapons removal deal, although none of the vehicles tasked with transporting and defending the chemical weapons were ever returned to Russia. At least two different versions of BTR-80s were previously sighted in Syria, with several BTR-80s of an unknown variant spotted onboard the Nikolay Filchenkov. The previously unknown delivery of BTR-82s thus makes up either the third or fourth BTR-80 variant to have entered Syrian service.

The camouflaged BTR-82A comes with the tacitcal number ''111''. This opposed to the identification system seen on Syrian military vehicles already in service for longer periods of time. The BTR-80s delivered under the chemical weapons deal were all painted olive drab without any tactical markings. 

Delieveries of military equipment to Syria are undertaken by Russian Navy landing ships, sailing from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean on a regular basis. While opposed to the Assad regime, almost all of the military equipment delivered to the regime passes right through Turkey's largest city. Just 3 days ago, on 20 August, landing ship Nikolay Filchenkov passed through Istanbul carrying trucks and armoured vehicles on its deck. The presence of the vehicles on deck was notable, as equipment was previously only carried in the cargo bay and thus out of sight when passing the Bosphorus. This likely means that the batch of vehicles being sent to Syria under this deal was so big that it simply didn't fit in the cargo bay alone!

The long-barrelled 2A72 30 mm autocannon easily distinguishes the BTR-82A from the standard BTR-80 armed with 14.5 mm KPVT heavy machine gun. The differences with BTR-80A, an older model with the same 2A72 cannon are of a more subtle nature.

The main difference is the presence of the TKN-4GA-02 night-vision device on top of the BTR-82's turret, replacing the BTR-80's TPN-3 night-vision device. A second identification point is the different exhaust, which can also be seen below.

The recent delivery of BTR-82s to Syria will not have any significant impact on the day-to-day operations on the battlefields of Syria. While fairly capable for a wheeled IFV, the BTR-82A is only protected against small arms fire and thus anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) such as the TOW will have no problems pentrating its paper-thin armour.

The delivery mainly serves as a reminder of Russia's commitment to support the Assad regime, meaning deliveries of other vehicles and weapons systems are likely in the future. With the supply of brand-new looking T-72AVs still sporting all explosive reactive armour (ERA) titles appearing infinite, the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) remaining capable of supressing rebel groups and flying desperate revenge strikes on recently lost towns in addition to the string of articles of recently delivered Russian weaponry seen below, Russia's commitment to keeping the Assad regime in power continues to be greatly underestimated and might be far larger than anyone previously expected.

Special thanks to PFC_Joker, Laszlo Miko and Bosphorus Naval News.

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Friday, 21 August 2015

The Islamic State going DIY, from earthmover to earthbreaker

The vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) has been made famous by the fighters of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq over the past two years. One could even argue the Islamic State perfected the concept by constantly building and deploying better protected and even larger variants on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. From using radio-controlled toy cars to even tanks and self-propelled artillery to carry explosives, the Islamic State has done it all.

The VBIED in Islamic State service functions somewhat the same as airstrikes, artillery fire and rocket barrages in conventional military forces. Apart from having the potential to inflict heavy damage on the convoy or base, it also serves as a psychological weapon, terrifying and demoralizing any defenders still alive after the blast. In its assaults on well-defended bases, the Islamic State relies heavily on VBIEDs before initiating the final push. With this in mind, the Islamic State has now begun using massive earthmovers as VBIEDs.

Images coming out of Islamic State-held al-Qaryatayn, located in between Damascus and T4 airbase shows one of such massive earthmovers in its new role as earthbreaker.

In an effort to protect the driver and the front wheels, the earthmover was equipped with very rudimentary DIY armour consisting of armour plates and what one could call slat armour. To ensure good situational awareness with such a heavy vehicle, the windows of the earthmover are extremely large, exposing the driver of the already giant vehicle to machine-gun fire. To protect him, a window was cut in the armour plate with 'slat-armour' installed in front.

The observant viewer of the Islamic State's offensive into Central Syria in late May 2015 will have little problems recognizing the earthmovers, which were captured at the Khunayfis Phosphate mine when it was overrun by the Islamic State. Around a dozen earthmovers were present at Khunayfis when the fighters of the Islamic State took over the mine, ensuring a steady supply of more earthmovers for conversion to VBIEDs for the time to come. A row of earthmovers at the mine can be seen below.

This particular example was used against the al-Mafraq checkpoint North-East of al-Qaryatayn, a mere fifty-kilometers drive from Khunayfis. Although located only thirty-five kilometers away from T4 airbase, housing three fighter-bomber squadrons and a detachment of Mi-8/17 helicopters, the giant earthmover apparently arrived at its destination 'safely' and was put into use against the checkpoint at night, the results of which remain and will undoubtedly remain unknown. The resulting blast however can be seen below.

The giant basket of the earthmover allows for an almost unlimited amount of explosives to be carried towards its target. In fact, the question is if the fighters of the Islamic State stationed near Khunayfis and al-Qaryatayn are able to scrounge enough ordnance together to completely fill at least one of the baskets in the first place.

With around a dozen earthmovers captured, of which about half still in operational condition or in a sate to be made operational, and with plenty of targets in Central Syria left, we might see more of such giants rolling through the vast Syrian desert. Although capable of carrying enough explosives to create a second al-Hota, its large size will likely result in it being target practise for any well-defended checkpoint.

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Thursday, 20 August 2015

Houthis continue to fire ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia

After launching a R-17 Elbrus/Hwasŏng-5/6 (Scud-B) on the 6th of June 2015 against Khamis Mushait in Saudi Arabia and another R-17 Elbrus/Hwasŏng-5/6 against al-Sulayyil missile base on the 29th of June 2015, elements of the Yemeni Army loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis again fired a ballistic missile at Saudi territory. This operation, carried out on the 20th of August 2015, saw a Tochka missile being fired at the Saudi Naval Base near Jizan, the results of which remain as of yet unknown.

Although all of Yemen's Transporter Erector Launchers (TEL) used for launching ballistic missiles were thought to have been destroyed along with the existing stock of R-17 Elbrus, Hwasŏng-5/6 and Tochka missiles at the site housing the Group of Missile Forces of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Yemen, footage coming out of Yemen's 'Amran Governorate on the 17th of May 2015 showed a battered but intact MAZ-543 TEL transported towards the Saudi border in broad daylight. This confirmed the rumours that some TELs were hidden away from the ballistic missile site in order to escape destruction by Coalition airstrikes.

Despite the fact that the TEL missed two of its wheels, it apparently succeeded in launching two missiles against Saudi territory. Both of the missiles were succesfully intercepted by Patriot batteries of the Royal Saudi Air Defense however, resulting in the destruction of both missiles before hitting their intended targets. The single MAZ-543 TEL was then said to have been destroyed by Coalition airstrikes, which explains the fact that that no R-17 Elbrus/Hwasŏng-5/6 has been launched since.

Despite this, sources claimed that no less than twenty ballistic missiles were fired at Saudi territory, only 40 percent of which intercepted by the Royal Saudi Air Defense Patriot batteries.[1] These additional launches have not taken place however, and the official might have been confused by counting 122mm BM-21, 220mm BM-27 and DIY al-Najim al-Thaqib rocket strikes as ballistic missile strikes.

Other reports stated that the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) commander Muhammad bin Ahmed al-Shaalan was killed when a R-17 Elbrus/Hwasŏng-5/6 missile hit Khamis Mushait, although he actually passed away due to a heart attack while on a work trip abroad. The to be expected 'dozens of Israeli officers alongside dozens of Saudi counterparts were killed when a Scud missile hit Khamis Mushait' rhetoric deserves no further attention.

As with the filmed R-17 Elbrus/Hwasŏng-5/6 launch, great effort has been put into hiding the exact location of the launcher, which has to be very close to the Saudi border considering the limited range of Yemen's Tochka missiles. The OTR-21 launcher itself must have been transported up North in the previous weeks or months, remaining out of sight of the Coalition's aircraft. The launcher, reading the Houthi's slogan of 'Death to America, Death to Israel, Cursed be the Jews and Victory for Islam' (which can also be heard in both launch videos), appears completely intact.

It is unknown how large the Houthi's stock of Tochka missiles still is, but given the fact the Houthis already managed to transport a R-17 Elbrus/Hwasŏng-5/6 missile to its associated TEL twice, only constant monitoring of the roads in Northern Yemen will prevent further launches. Alternatively, more Tochka missiles are already present at the launch site, requiring destruction of the TEL to prevent any further launches.

The sudden appearance of the OTR-21 came completely unexpected, and makes one wonder if this is the last of the intact launchers. However, due to the Tochka's limited range, other major Saudi cities remain out of firing range. Although looking impressive, the launch mainly serves as a propaganda stunt, and will in no way deter the Coalition to abandon its campaign.

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Monday, 17 August 2015

From Russia with Love, Syria's PKP Pechenegs

The PKP 'Pecheneg' machine gun is undoubtedly one of the most elusive types of firearms currently in use in the Syrian Civil War. With only one-hundred Pechenegs believed to have been ordered and delivered to Syria back in 2013, it has not yet been sighted in use with regime forces on the Syrian battlefields in any image or video available to the public. Although the low numbers of PKPs delivered is at least partially responsible for its elusiveness, the Pecheneg has only been adopted by Syria's secretive special forces, whose operations have so far mainly been limited to the shadows.

The list of weapons, ammunition and equipment requested by the Army Supply Bureau of the High Command of the Syrian Arab Republic to Russia's Rosoboronexport in early 2013 included one-hundred ''PK'' machine guns with a bipod, almost certainly referring to the PKP instead of the older PKM. The Pechenegs were believed to have been delivered a some time later along with five million 7.62x54mmR rounds destined to be used by the PKP and PKM.

Along with the AK-104 carbine, the ВПО-205-03 (Vepr-12) fully automatic shotgun and a host of other weapons, the PKP Pecheneg was also believed to have been inspected by the Syrian military delegation visiting the 2012 Russian weapons expo, which in turn led to the acquisition of a wide range of small arms optimized for the highly versatile combat environment seen in Syria in the past four years.

The PK series of machine guns remains incredibly popular throughout the world, with the many factions involved in the Syrian Civil War being no exception. Apart from serving in its traditional role as a general-purpose machine gun, other variants currently also see use as coaxial machine guns in tanks, IFVs and APCs and even as door-mounted machine guns in helicopters.

Bearing close resemblance to the design of its older brother on which it is based; the PKM. The Pecheneg was designed with the experiences from Afghanistan and Chechnya in mind. Chambered in 7.62x54Rmm, the PKP is claimed to be capable of a sustained rate of fire of up to 600 rounds without overheating and potentially damaging the barrel. The PKPs delivered to Syria are of the 6P41N 'Pecheneg-N' variant, meaning they come with a special mounting rail for night-vision sights.

The continuous flow of both offensive and defensive Russian-made weaponry that reaches Syria on a regular basis will assuredly lead to new sightings of even more advanced weapons and equipment never thought to have reached Syria in the past.

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Monday, 3 August 2015

The Islamic State going DIY, from armoured recovery vehicle to battle bus

Iraq's war on the Islamic State has seen the birth of a myriad of DIY designs, mostly initiated by Shiite militias looking to improve their firepower in order to gain the advantage over the enemy. The Islamic State is certainly no exception however, and it relies virtually exclusively on the ingenuity of their many arms workshops to turn the huge arsenals captured in and around Mosul into deadly weapons for use on the ever changing battlegrounds of Syria and Iraq, or simply for producing counter-measures against the Coalition's aircraft, which have so far denied the use of heavy weaponry by the Islamic State in several offensives.

The conversion of a BTS-5B armoured recovery vehicle (ARV) to a battle bus is such an example to turn an otherwise useless (to the Islamic State) vehicle into a potent weapons platform. Iraq acquired a number of BTS-5Bs in 2006 to serve alongside Iraq's increasing fleet of T-72s, but due to the inefficiency of the Iraqi Army the ARVs spent most of their service time languishing in forgotten corners of their bases. As a result, the Islamic State captured several ARVs near Mosul, including the WZT-2 and and BTS-5B seen below.

Of little use to the Islamic State in its original role, the BTS-5B was heavily modified to transport an armoured cabin over its original body. For this purpose, the crane, the snorkel and various crates containing additional tools were removed. The dozer blade and winch were retained however.

Blocks of armour and plating were installed on top of the newly erected platform while rubber side skirts were fitted to protect the tracks. Combined, it provides the occupants with protection against most light and heavy small arms fire from the front and sides. As a result of the blockage of the driver's hatch by the support beams of the platform, the driver had to enter his seat by a hatch on the floor of the platform. The support beams also blocked the driver's viewing port, forcing the driver to stick his head out while maneuvering the vehicle. Armoured glass was installed to make up for this increase of vulnerability however.

Armament consists of a shielded pintle-mounted 12.7mm DShK and several mounts for light-machine guns. The occupants also made use of M16s and AKMs to complement the single DShK during the vehicle's first and only use on the battlefield. All in all, the conversion was an impressive project which must have cost the Islamic State a large amount of man hours to accomplish, which is also why its poor battlefield career comes as somewhat as a surprise.

The battle bus could have been put to good use in urban environments, where the vehicle would have been used as a heavily armoured battering ram capable of providing fire-support to advancing troops. Its flexible, albeit light, armament would have been ideally suited for targeting elevated areas such as higher floors of flats, with its armour warding of retaliatory fire. Instead, the fighters of the Islamic State used the battle bus on the open plains near Shekhan, Nineveh Governorate, where the Islamic State waged an offensive against entrenched Peshmerga forces on the 25th of January 2015.

Shekhan was the site of a series of heavy attacks by the fighters of the Islamic State. The typical pattern of such an attack would include one vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) followed by an attack with M-1114s, Badger ILAVs or M1117 ASVs. As Peshmerga forces held the high-ground, and saw the vehicles coming from miles away, the exact logic behind these attacks remains unclear, especially after MILAN ATGMs reached the Peshmerga forces. It might serve as a testimony to the fact that although the fighters of the Islamic State are often quick to adapt to any combat situation, including operating armoured fighting vehicles in coordinated attacks, comprehension of suitable tactics in this situation remained beyond the Islamic State fighters' grasp in this region.

During the attack on Shekhan, several (up-armoured) M-1114s, one up-armoured Badger ILAV, one M1117 ASV and the battle bus moved up to the nearby mountain. Although under heavy fire from anything from small arms to RPGs and even tank fire, most of these rounds either missed or ricocheted from the vehicle's improved DIY armour. As a result, several vehicles managed to advance close to the mountain before being taken out. The battle bus on the other hand got stuck in a ditch, was hit by an RPG and probably also a mortar round, killing its exposed crew. Although this ended the career of a potent DIY armoured fighting vehicle, it also serves as a good example of the extent of the Islamic State's efforts towards increasing the firepower of its combatants. Footage of the failed attack can be viewed here.

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