Thursday, 10 November 2016

A Navy reborn: New warships spotted in North Korea

Exclusive new images featured in one of our articles for NK News Pro have revealed the construction of four 77 metres long corvettes is in an advanced stage, once again showing rearmament of the ill-equipped Korean People's Navy is continuing at an unexpected pace.
Although unfortunately, our full analysis is behind a paywall, an NK News article featuring various experts in the field of North Korean weapon proliferation on the new corvettes is available for free. Alternatively, you could wait for the full analysis in our upcoming book: The Armed Forces of North Korea: on the path of Songun. 

A Navy reborn: New warships spotted in North Korea

Exclusive HD photos reveal secretive new class of large warships with advanced capabilities set to enter service

''Four new large naval combatants are being constructed in the DPRK, set to become the new centerpieces of a fleet that has seen a range of new projects slowly replace the obsolete equipment from the Cold War. Although progress on the new corvettes, two of which have been under assembly since 2011, has been slow and disorderly, new images show their entry into service may not take much longer. At a length of 77 meters each, the new vessels constitute the largest naval project undertaken by the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) in decades, bringing new capabilities to the table that represent a tangible threat to opposing navies in the region.''

The full analysis of these vessels, which incorporate a variety of the latest technologies available to the KPN, can be found at the NK Pro website here:

A free NK News article featuring various experts in the field of North Korean weapon proliferation on the new corvettes can be read here:

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Sunday, 6 November 2016

Photo Report: The Syrian Arab Army (1)

The following images were taken during Syrian Arab Army exercises over the past several years, including the large-scale exercise involving all branches of the Syrian Armed Forces in 2012. This exercise was carried out amid an increasingly deteriorating security situation in Syria, leading to calls from the international world for an intervention similar to the one seen in Libya. In response, the Syrian Armed Forces launched a several day long exercise to show its strenght to the outside world.
The T-72AV, also known as the T-82 in Syria, seen during an exercise in the Rif Dimashq Governorate. Although the fleet of 'T-82s' has suffered heavily due to the large-scale proliferation of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) in Syria, a sizeable amount of tanks remain operational. Fully intact T-72AVs still sporting all of their explosive reactive armour (ERA) blocks as seen below have become an increasingly rare sight however.

Operating alongside the T-72AV is the T-72 'Ural', the first and also the least numerous T-72 variant to have been acquired by Syria before the start of the Civil War. The tanks can be seen equipped with a laser engagement system for training uses only. The T-72 'Ural' can easily discerned from other T-72 variants by the TPD-2-49 optical rangefinder protruding from the turret and by its flipper-type armoured panels instead of the rubber side-skirts seen on later types.

A row of 130mm M-46 field-guns take aim at a target during the 2012 exercises. Although several other types of artillery guns have been delivered or pulled out of storage over the course of the Civil War, the 130mm M-46 and the 122mm D-30 remain the primary artillery guns of the Syrian Arab Army. A limited number of 130mm M-46s have been mounted on Mercedes-Benz trucks under a programme aimed at increasing their mobility and effectiveness. Chinese 130 mm BEE4 rocket assisted projectiles (RAP) were specifically acquired for use with this platform, and greatly increased the operational potential of the 130mm M-46. Although the conversion of large numbers was planned, the start of the Civil War prevented the commencement of full scale production, and therefore they remain a relatively rare sight.

A convoy of three T-55(A)MVs and a single BMP-1 underway during an exercise in 2010. Although the Syrian Arab Army's immense fleet of tanks and BMPs were once destined to jointly operate on the plains of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, many are now individually attached to the various units and militias wrestling for control over Syria. Only the 4th Armoured Division and parts of the Republican Guard continue to operate their armour in organised fashion and (sometimes) with infantry support.

The Syrian Arab Army's fleet of T-55(A)MV has traditionally been concentrated along the Golan Heights, and although outdated when compared to Israeli armour currently in service, one could argue their combat effectiveness could surpass that of the T-72 'Ural' and T-72M1. The T-55(A)MV features Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armour (ERA), a KTD-2 laser rangefinder, smoke grenade launchers, an upgraded engine and the capability to fire the 9M117M Bastion anti-tank missile. The costs of just a few of these missiles is higher than the actual price of the T-55 launching them, and they have seen only limited action in Syria's Quneitra Governorate.

A soldier takes aim with his RPG-29, without a doubt the most feared type of RPG currently fielded in the world. The PG-29V's 105mm tandem warhead has so far caused tremendous losses under the SyAA's fleet of tanks, mainly the T-72. Although the T-55(A)MV and T-72AV are both equipped with ERA aimed at increasing the survivability of the tank, the tandem warhead was specifically designed to counter such armour and faces little problems penetrating it.

Although the procurement of large numbers of AK-74Ms was planned to replace the AK(M) and other (foreign) derivatives, the Civil War put a halt to this large scale re-equipment programme. The AK-74M was reportedly pitted against several other contenders including the Iranian KH-2002, all but two of which malfunctioned. Several new batches of AK-74Ms were received during the course of the Civil War however, alongside several other types of modern Russian weapons. Nonetheless, weapons such as the AK(M)-47 and PKM  have remained the most prevalent small arms amongst pro-Assad forces.

A convoy of BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) underway to their operational zone. Having suffered heavy losses during the war, the BMP-1 continues to see service with the many factions spread throughout Syria. The vehicle has served as the basis for many DIY modifications, and even a BMP-1 based multiple rocket launcher was recently sighted in service with the 4th Armoured Division.

Although many hoped for the reintroduction of the T-34/85 on today's battlefield, sightings of this legendary tank in Syria in recent years has so far remained limited to just five examples, two of which belonged to a batch of T-34/85s converted to T-34/122 self-propelled howitzers armed with the 122mm D-30, which was retired long before the Civil War. Two other (intact) T-34/85s were seen in Syria's Quneitra province, used as static pillboxes facing Israel. It is likely these tanks were operational until quite recently. The T-34/85 below was seen during an exercise shortly before the start of the Civil War. While the T-34/85, or T-34/76 for that matter, indeed continues to be used in oeprational capacity across the globe, their presence nowadays remains limited to Yemen and North Korea.

160mm M-160 mortars seen during the 2012 exercises. Seeing heavy use during the early stages of the Civil War, when many of the protests and armed uprisings that followed were still contained in the cities, these and other heavy mortars were often deployed just outside the city perimiter for the shelling of neighbourhoods that had revolted. In more recent years, the M-160s are believed to have been supplemented by additional 240mm M-240s with rocket-assisted projectiles.

Two BMP-1s during a recent training exercise simulating a combined assault on an enemy position with armour and infantry. Although this makes for great propaganda footage, such coordinated assaults are only being (correctly) carried out a limited amount of pro-Assad units during today's war. On the opposing side, al-Nusra Front (which recently rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) makes heavy use of mainly T-72s and BMP-1s operating together during assaults on regime-held parts of Aleppo.

Syrian Arab Army soldiers run towards the infantry compartment of their BMP-1 IFV during an exercise. All soldiers appear relatively well equipped compared to the hodgepodge of uniforms and equipment regime soldiers are outfitted with today. The SyAA had acquired large numbers of Chinese-produced combat gear, including helmets and bullet proof vests, shortly before the start of the Civil War, but simply ran out of stock when it started amassing an increasing number of new recruits in order to gain the upper hand on the battlefield.

A BM-21 fires one of its forty 122mm rockets towards a new target. The BM-21 is by far the most numerous multiple rocket launcher (MRL) in service with the Syrian Armed Forces. The type previously operated alongside a sizeable number of North Korean 122mm BM-11 MRLs before these were donated to Lebanon along with Syria's remaining stock of T-54 and older T-55 variants. With an increasing number of Volcanoes and 220mm, 300mm, 302mm multiple rocket launchers at hand, the Syrian Arab Army has somewhat compensated for the loss of large numbers of BM-21s by a substantial increase in qualitative firepower. Rebels operating in Northern Syria recently received BM-21s acquired from Eastern Europe by one of the Gulf States, further increasing the proliferation of this system in Syria.

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Monday, 26 September 2016

Back from retirement, Sudan's MiG-23s take to the skies

The Sudanese Air Force has operated several types of combat aircraft acquired from multiple sources since its founding in 1956. While current types such as the MiG-29SEh, Su-25 and Su-24 are well known for their involvement in the Sudanese Civil War and Operation Decisive Storm, older types such as the F-5E and MiG-23MS have been poorly documented while in the Sudanese Air Force ever since their inception in the 1980s.
Although the Sudanese Air Force (SuAF) is no stranger to Soviet-manufactured combat aircraft, the Sudan actually never ordered any MiG-23s from the Soviet Union. Instead, the SuAF received its MiG-23s from Libya, which deployed up to twelve Libyan Arab Air Force (LAAF) examples to Sudan in the late eighties. This deployment was accompanied by a large number of Libyan pilots and technicians responsible for operating the aircraft while in Sudanese service.
When the Libyan contingent departed Sudan about two years later, the Sudanese Air Force was left with aircraft it couldn't really fly nor maintain. And thus, after just several years of operations, the survivors were placed in storage at Sudan's largest airbase, Wadi Sayyidna. Here they joined an increasing number of MiG-21Ms, J-6s and F-5Es also placed in storage due to a lack of spare parts. It wasn't until two decades later when the MiG-23s resurfaced again.

Starting from the end of 2010, up to four MiG-23s could be seen parked on the tarmac outside one of Safat Maintenance Center's hangers on satellite imagery. All four aircraft were previously moved here to clear space in the hangars used by the Sudanese Air Force. But with an increasing number of projects on its hands, SAFAT soon found itself in lack of space too, forcing the technicians to move the MiG-23s outside when other aircraft had to be serviced in the hangar housing the MiG-23s.

These movements allowed one of the many Belarusian or Russian pilots and technicians present at Wadi Sayyidna to aid the SuAF with operating its fleet of MiG-29s, Su-25s and Su-24s, to pose with one of the three remaining MiG-23MS's. The aircraft shows clear traces of long-time storage, with the aircraft's roundel and flag slowly fading away to reveal the original Libyan markings. The serial number '09055' was originally assigned to this aircraft by the Libyan Arab Air Force and simply left in place by the Sudanese.

While Libya was in a state of war with the Sudan during the early eighties, mainly related to Sudan's support for Chadian rebels fighting against the Libyan Army operating in Northern Chad, it was quick to establish a close relationship with its former foe after the ousting of President Nimeiry in 1985. Having bombed Sudan's largest city Omdurman with a Tu-22 and having provided both financial and materiel support to rebels fighting the Sudanese Army in Northern Sudan and Southern Sudan, it now held talks for a possible merger between the two countries. While this merger never occured, the newly forged relationship between the Sudan and Libya would prove extremely beneficial for the Sudan, and the Sudanese Air Force in particular.

Starting from 1987, Libya began donating large amounts of military equipment to the Sudan. This mainly included desperately needed reinforcements for Sudanese Air Force, which by then was on its last breath due to a sharp decline of its operational capabilities. Within a year, the SuAF was strengthened by the addition of up to twelve MiG-23MS', as well as at least one MiG-23UB, several Mi-25s and two MiG-25R(B)s flown and maintained by Libyan pilots and technicians. This contingent was to form the core of Sudanese Air Force, and was quickly put to the test when the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) launched a series of offensives in 1987 and 1988.

In response, the Sudanese Air Force retaliated with airstrikes based on intelligence gathered by the MiG-25R(B)s, which flew reconnaissance sorties over Southern Sudan. These sorties were followed by airstrikes conducted by MiG-23MS' and Mi-25s against SPLA-held villages and camps. The skies above Southern Sudan proved particularly unhealthy for the MiG-23MS' however, with only six airframes still believed to be operational after a year of operations. After the Libyan contingent withdrew in 1989 or 1990, the four remaining MiG-23MS' were soon stored, likely to never fly again. The two MiG-25R(B)s remained Libyan possession throughout their stay in Sudan and both returned to Libya. The remaining Mi-25s continued operations until replaced by newer Mi-24s and Mi-35s sourced from Eastern Europe in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with their career ending at the military side of Khartoum International Airport (IAP). For more information on Libya's involvement in the Sudanese Civil War, click here.

Although the Libyan contingent did not prove to be particularly successful in increasing the operational capabilities of the SuAF in the long term, it set a precedent for further donations made by Libya to several air forces across Africa, which are to be covered in a future article. The partial remains of an ex-Libyan MiG-23MS '06918' that made a crash landing in Jonglei State, (what is nowadays known as) South Sudan can be seen below. The poorly applied Sudanese markings quickly washed out under the Sudanese sun, thus revealing the original Libyan markings.

The MiG-23MS is a prime example of the so-called 'monkey models'; downgraded equipment sold by the Soviet Union to friendly nations in the Middle East and Africa. These 'monkey models' included everything from tanks to naval ships and aircraft, which had sensitive equipment removed, lacked modern weaponry or had inferior armour compared to their Soviet counterparts. In order to create an export derivative of the MiG-23M, the Soviets went to entire new lengths to create what many deem the worst combat aircraft ever to have been made, basically resulting in a powerful engine with an aircraft built around it. Equipped with electronics already deemed useless after years of conflict in the Middle East and armed with the infamously incapable R-3S air-to-air missile, the aircraft proved both a nightmare to fly and maintain.

While the air forces of Egypt, Iraq and Syria, left without an answer to the Israeli F-4E Phantom II, were eager to get their hands on new aircraft matching the F-4E's performance, they were less than impressed with their new mount. When Libya began its search for large quantities of weapons during the 1970s, the Soviet Union soon offered the MiG-23MS to Libya. But contrary to the delivery and training of Iraqi pilots on the MiG-23MS, which spend most of their time on the ground instead of flying the aircraft to its extremes, the Soviet Union not only marketed the aircraft as an adversary to the F-4 Phantom, but also to the F-14 Tomcat. The LAAF was angered by the gap between promised capabilities and reality, and invested considerable time and resources into increasing the combat capabilities of the squadrons operating the MiG-23MS. The delivery of MiG-23MS was amongst the reasons for the break of relations with the Soviet Union.

Despite its abysmal records, there is still some argument to make for the MiG-23MS' reintroduction into the Sudanese Air Force. Having enjoyed the fruits of the large oil reserves present in Southern Sudan, the Sudan lost its primary means of income after the separation of South Sudan in 2011. This not only meant the Sudan had less to spend on its military, it also meant the Sudan was now unable to buy weaponry in exchange for oil. With no significant financial boost in sight, the SuAF is unlikely to amass sufficient funds to acquire more modern combat aircraft in the near future, and has to soldier on with what its got.

Furthermore, the establishment of the Safat Maintenance Center (more commonly known as the Safat Aviaton Complex, part of the larger Safat Aviation Group) allowed the Sudan to overhaul an increasing number of aircraft and helicopters locally. Although most of these projects are undertaken with foreign technicians and help, it is considerably cheaper than transporting these aircraft to the Ukraine, Belarus or Russia for overhaul there. This means the Sudan can overhaul aircraft that would otherwise be deemed not worth the effort due to the costs involved in transporting these aircraft back and forth from maintenance centers abroad.

With this in mind, the SuAF began looking to overhaul several types of aircraft previously in storage. Once thought to have been grounded for the rest of their days, the MiG-23s were to receive an extensive overhaul after decades of storage. As the Sudan never truly operated nor maintained the MiG-23MS, SAFAT lacked the technical expertise to overhaul the MiG-23 all by itself, which forced it to look for assistance abroad. A partner was found in neighbouring Ethiopia, whose Dejen Aviation Industry proved capable of performing the required maintenance.

Dejen (formerly known as DAVEC, Dejen Aviation Engineering Complex) is responsible for the overhaul of a wide range of aircraft in service with the Ethiopian Air Force, and is one of the few maintenance centers to be fully qualified in overhauling the complex Su-27. Dejen, then still called DAVEC, was originally founded to allow Ethiopia to maintain its fleet of Soviet aircraft (mainly MiG-23BNs, MLs and UBs) locally, and thus has plenty of experience in overhauling this type of aircraft. The Tumansky R-29 engine of one of the four MiG-23s after undergoing revision at SAFAT can be seen below.

For the purpose of overhauling the aircraft at least ten Ethiopians from Dejen were present at Sudan's SAFAT, and Ethiopia also provided the pilots for the flight testing of the newly refurbished airframes, stressing the large role it played in bringing the MiG-23MS back to operational status. Additionally, as no Sudanese are currently believed to be trained in flying the MiG-23, it is likely Ethiopia will also provide training and spare parts (such as the new cockpit canopies already installed) for the aircraft.

The choice of armament for Sudan's MiG-23MS' is limited, consisting of several types of unguided bombs and UB-16 and UB-32 rocket pods for 57mm rockets. Although the SuAF once possessed stocks of R-3S air-to-air missiles for its MiG-21Ms, it is unlikely that any of these missiles still survive. Although theoretically Libya's donation of the aircraft to Sudan could have been accompanied by R-3S air-to-air missiles from Libyan stocks, the shelf-life of these missiles ran out decades ago. Thus, the MiG-23MS's role is restricted to fighter-bomber in Sudanese service. While the delivery of weapons by the MiG-23MS is unlikely to be even remotely accurate, a lack of accuracy has never posed a problem to the SuAF during the decades long conflicts ranging in the country.

Unfortunately for the SuAF, one of the four overhauled MiG-23s made a crash-landing at Wadi Sayyidna shortly after a test-flight. The aircraft caught fire and was subsequently dumped into a corner of the airbase. While not even back in operational service, the SuAF was already one MiG-23 down. It remains unknown if the airframe was a UB or a MS, but the loss of their only MiG-23UB would force the SuAF to purchase another airframe from abroad, making this project significantly more expensive.

While the overhaul of the MiG-23s provided the SuAF with four airframes at only marginal costs, the complicated nature of the MiG-23MS raises the question if it was really worth the effort. Already one aircraft down due to a crash-landing, and with more airframes sure to be lost in flying this highly complex aircraft, the MiG-23MS's second career in Sudan could turn out to be a short one.

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Monday, 8 August 2016

Photo Report: The Syrian Arab Air Defence Force

The Syrian Arab Air Defence Force, once a proud independent service of the Syrian Armed Forces, has suffered tremendously under the five-year long Civil War. While losing dozens of surface-to-air (SAM) and radar sites to the various factions fighting for control over Syria was already a serious blow to its capabilities, Syria's poor financial situation and the transfer of large numbers of personnel from the Syrian Arab Air Defence Force (SyAADF) to the Syrian Arab Army and National Defence Force effectively gave the killing blow to the SyAADF.
The following images were taken during a large-scale exercise involving all branches of the Syrian Armed Forces in 2012. This exercise was carried out amid an increasingly deteriorating security situation in Syria, leading to calls from the international world for an intervention similar to the one seen in Libya. In response, the Syrian Armed Forces launched a several day long exercise to show its strenght to the outside world.

The 9K317E Buk-M2E, which together with the Pantsir-S1 is the pride of what once was the Syrian Air Defence Force. The 9A317 transporter-erector-launcher and radar (TELAR), seen below, is capable of independent operations thanks to its 9S36 radar. Several of these systems are deployed around Damascus and Syria's coastal region. Although the arrival of highly modern air defence equipment from Russia was much anticipated after an Israeli airstrike on a suspected nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor in 2007, the newly arrived Buk-M2Es, Pantsir-S1s and Pechora-2Ms proved just as incapable of shooting down Israeli aircraft as the systems they replaced.

A 9M317 missile speeds off after having been launched from a 9A316 transporter-erector-launcher (TEL). The 9A316 carries four reloads instead of a radar, which means it's incapable of operating independently. Under normal circumstances, a Buk battalion consists of six TELARs and three TELs, which can be further divided into three batteries with two TELARs and one TEL each. Every battalion also included a target acquisition radar, a command vehicle and trucks carrying more reloads.

A Pantsir-S1 fires off one of its twelve 57E6 surface-to-air missiles. As with the Buk-M2E and Pechora-2M, these systems are mainly concentrated around Damascus and Syria's coastal region. In order to better blend in with their surroundings along the coast, many Pantsir-S1s have traded in their desert-environment finish for locally applied camouflage patterns.

The 2012 exercise provided the first visual confirmation of Syria operating the 9K35 Strela-10. Opposed to many other Strela-10 operators, Syria placed these systems around airbases instead of providing ground forces with a mobile SAM system. Although most 9K31 Strela-1s were placed into storage, all of Syria's 9K35 Strela-10s are still believed to be in active service.

Having never retired any SAM system, Syria continues to operate both the dual and quadruple S-125 launchers. The more modern quadruple variant is more common, and can be found located  throughout Syria. The dual launchers were mainly concentrated around Damascus, where one site was overrun by Jaish al-Islam in 2012.

In addition to operating both the dual and quadruple S-125 launchers, Syria also acquired several Pechora-2M surface-to-air missile batteries from Russia at the turn of the decade. This system combines a quadruple S-125 launcher (albeit with two missiles) on a Belarusian MZKT-8022 chassis, with greatly improved performance against enemy aircraft and cruise missiles. Several sites housing the Pechora-2M have been identified around Damascus and in Syria's coastal region, where they frequently relocate to different sites in order to keep an element of suprise.

Smoke rises as two 9M33 missiles are fired from a 9K33 Osa SAM system. While Syria already fielded the 9K33 in Lebanon during the eighties, the system was thrown into the spotlight after Jaish al-Islam captured several launchers in Eastern Ghouta in 2012. These 9K33s were then, and are still being used, to engage SyAAF helicopters flying over Jaish al-Islam held territory.

The 2K12 surface-to-air missile system gained legendary status while in service with Egypt during the 1973 October War (Yom Kippur War), which used them against the Israeli Air Force with great success. In fact, the system was so feared it quickly earned itself the nickname 'Three Fingers of Death'. The system was less successful in Syrian service however, and was completely outplayed along with the rest of the SyAADF and SyAAF during during Operation Mole Cricket 19 over Lebanon's Bekaa valley in 1982 and during Israeli Air Force raids into Syria over the past years.

An article covering what remains of the Syrian Arab Air Defence Force, its equipment and organizational structure will be published on this blog at a later date.

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