Monday, 21 November 2016

The Islamic State going DIY, the birth of the battle tram

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Images coming out of the recently captured town of Bashiqa, Mosul revealed the presence of an all too familiar Islamic State armoured fighting vehicle. Hidden under a tree and abandoned by its previous owners, this behemoth previously made an appearance in the now infamous Islamic State offensive near Naweran, North of Mosul, a video which went viral due to the rather comical performance of several fighters involved in the offensive. While Abu Hajaar became the inspiration of memes across all corners of the internet, the Islamic State's usage of up-armoured trucks and other vehicles involved in this offensive was of particular interest for others.

While many of the Islamic State's DIY creations are often very crude in nature, merely consisting of metal plates slapped onto a vehicle's hull, a large industry aimed at converting vehicles to better suit the Islamic State's needs does exist, and has produced several designs perfectly suited for the type of warfare encountered in the Syrian and Iraqi theatre. The armour workshops responsible for these designs are located through Islamic State held territory, with the largest workshops located in Raqqa and Mosul.

Shortly after the capture of Mosul and surrounding towns, the Islamic State established several armoured formations to operate some of the captured equipment previously left behind by the Iraqi Army and Ministry of Interior. While some of the vehicles remained unmodified and were subsequently used in their original configuration, others were modified for use as VBIEDs or as armour on the plains of Mosul with the 'Storming Battalion'.

In their role as Inghimasi – shock troops tasked with penetrating enemy lines without any expectation to come back alive – the 'Storming Battalion' mainly makes use of faster wheeled vehicles as opposed to heavier and therefore slower tracked armoured fighting vehicles. While Inghimasi normally make up about one-fourth of the fighters participating in a typical offensive, the whole 'Storming Battalion' is in fact an Inghimasi unit. While tanks are operated in an offensive role by the Islamic State in Iraq, most of these belong to the 'al-Farouq Armoured Brigade' and 'Shield Battalion'. Thus, it is mainly the 'Storming Battalion' that makes use of improvised and up-armoured AFVs.

Many of the vehicles converted for use with the 'Storming Battalion' are essentially armoured personnel carriers (APCs), featuring a cabin for the fighters to stand in and shoot from. While it is envisioned that at least some of the vehicles drop off the fighters carried onboard, the 'Storming Battalion's' offensives almost exclusively lead to the destruction of the vehicles before reaching their objective. But with plenty of trucks and other vehicles at hand for conversion, the production of vehicles for the 'Storming Battalion' continues and has even been standernised somewhat, with only marginal differences found on vehicles of essentially the same class. In the case of the battle tram, two examples are confirmed to have been produced, serialed '201' and '202'. The existence of battle tram '200' is likely but remains unconfirmed.

The battle tram features a heavily armoured front cabin, which is (with a little imagination) somewhat reminiscent of a human face or a character from Thomas the Tank Engine, inspiring the designator "battle tram". Spaced armour covers the fighter's compartment while metal plates protect the wheels, six of which are present on this vehicle. Indeed, the battle tram is almost certainly based on the Soviet KrAZ-260, several of which were captured in and around Mosul back in 2014. Previous attempts at producing such large armoured personnel carriers resulted in a host of impressive but awkward looking vehicles.[1] [2] Contrary to these examples, the battle tram appears to be relatively well-balanced in its design.

The presumed armament of the second battle tram remains unchanged from the previous version, which has an heavily armoured cupola in which a machine gun can be fitted. Interestingly, battle tram '202' appears to be equipped with four rams on the front, two of which might also serve as structural reinforcement. Although these rams could be effective for breaking through certain obstacles, it would also make the vehicle prone to get stuck while navigating uneven terrain, not to mention that the debris from a collapsing obstacle would end up on the fighters' heads in the infantry compartment. No ladders for scaling trenches for climbing up Peshmerga positions were seen installed on '202', despite being a feature of '201'.

The cabin of the battle tram is largely similar to those of other vehicles used by the 'Storming Battalion'. Instead of seatbels found on smaller vehicles, metal handlebars were installed to provide support to the fighters inside during high speed operations. No pintle-mounts for light or heavy machine guns are present, forcing the crew to fire their weapons either without stabilisation or from the metal handlebars, which proved far from successful when used by inexperienced fighters. Battle tram '202' has a slightly different cabin layout than '201', with the small exit door located on the rear, and not on the side as with battle tram '201'.

The first battle tram featured in the now (in)famous Islamic State offensive near Naweran, North of Mosul. This offensive, apart from Abu Hajaar, Abu Abdullah and Abu Ridhwan in their up-armoured M1114, saw the participation of several highly modified trucks and other vehicles by the 'Storming Battalion'. This included the first battle tram '201', seen here shortly before the commencement of the offensive and shortly after the conclusion of the failed offensive.

The battle tram, along with the rest of the 'Storming Battalion's' vehicles, was effectively trapped when the bulldozer tasked with filling the huge trench in front of the Peshermerga positions was taken out. Shortly after, the battle tram was hit and subsequently abandoned by its operators, similar to what happened to the vehicle of Abu Hajaar. The presence of spaced armour installed on the sides of the vehicle is clearly visible here, and was apparently effective in stopping at least one hit before the vehicle was abandoned.

Seen above: Battle tram '201' underway near Naweran filmed out of Abu Hajaar's M1114. An RPG gunner stands in the armoured cabin of the battle tram aiming his next shot. Despite all of the increased weight because of the extra armour, the truck appears to have little problems crossing the field at reasonable speed. The large size of the vehicle is well apparent compared to the up-armoured M1114 behind, and makes for an easy target for Peshmerga ATGM teams or RPG gunners. Indeed, the usage of such a vehicle on the plains of Mosul is bound to end in failure due to the aforementioned reasons, and it would possibly be much better suited for usage in an urban environment such as seen in Mosul now.

The Islamic State's efforts to self-produce several types of armoured fighting vehicles has resulted in a myriad of highly specialised vehicles well adapted to the type of assaults typically carried out by the Islamic State. The profileration of ATGMs and the presence of Coalition aircraft and helicopters in the air over any major Islamic State offensive has however made these AFVs completely out of place on the Iraqi battlefield. A true belief in the possibility of success has led to attempt after attempt, each time ending with the same result: annihilation. While the Islamic State's efforts in the field of design and production are certainly impressive, producing large numbers of vehicles for use in offensives that are practically doomed right from the start is in sharp contrast to the operations of the Islamic State performed elsewhere, and is a luxury it will not be able to afford for much longer.

Special thanks to @tellmemo and @javed12186147.

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Thursday, 10 November 2016

A Navy reborn: New warships spotted in North Korea

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

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)

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

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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Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Syrian Adventures of Buratino: The 'Shams MRL'

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The 4th Armoured Division is well known for operating several types of tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles upgraded with additional armour throughout the Damascus theatre of operations. Having performed these armour upgrades on a range of armoured fighting and support vehicles, the 4th Armoured Division (4th AD) has now expanded its arsenal once more by introducing a new type of multiple rocket launcher (MRL), popularly known as 'Shams', meaning Sun in Arabic. It's thought its nickname was derived from that of the aesthetically similar Russian TOS-1A 'Solntsepyok, which has been referred to as 'Sun' during its deployment in Syria.

This vehicle continues the trend of highly professional upgrades performed on the armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) of the 4th AD. Located in Adra, Rif Dimashq Governorate, the first of such upgraded vehicles appeared in late 2014, when at least two of the up-armoured T-72M1s were shown destroyed shortly after their deployment to Jobar. This however did not deter the 4th AD from pressing on with the programme and in the years that followed, several types of up-armoured AFVs would be sighted on the battlefield.

Elsewhere in Syria, factions fighting for control over the country have begun upgrading several of their armoured fighting vehicles to better suit the type of warfare encountered on the battlefield. This has included everything from implementing measures to reduce visibility from the air to converting tanks to vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). The BMP serves as the basis for many of these DIY modifications, and has proven a popular platform despite its obvious limitations and weaknesses.

While many DIY modifications of this vehicle thus exist, the conversion from an infantry fighting vehicle to an MRL is the first of its kind in Syria, and arguably the most sophisticated fire-support platform based on the chassis of a BMP in the entire world. Previous experiments throughout the world included the installation of 23mm gunpods and 80mm B-8 rocket pods taken from aircraft and helicopters on the BMP's turrets while Cuba has recently begun converting several of its BMPs to the fire-support role, fitting them either with a 100mm anti-tank gun or a 122mm D-30 howitzer.

The 'Shams' combines a launching unit for five large-calibre rockets with the chassis of a BMP-1. The rockets are of the popular 'Volcano' type, which pairs a standard artillery rocket with a much larger warhead. These rockets became widely known for their capability to destroy complete housing blocks with a direct hit during the battle for al-Qusayr in 2013. Syria's defence industry began mass-producing these Volcanoes around the same time, and are now in use on nearly every front in the Syrian theatre.

In Syria, three iterations of the Volcano are currently believed to be produced, further divided into several sub-variants each. The most widespread types in use are the 107mm and 122mm based variants, although a 220mm based variant also exists. Converting these rockets is a relatively easy process, as 107mm and 122mm (Grad) rockets are extremely common in Syria, and 220mm rockets known to be in production in Syria itself. The 'Shams' uses two variants of the 122mm based Volcanoes, both equipped with a massive 300mm warhead.

Interestingly, one of the two variants is described as having a thermobaric warhead (reportedly weighing a whopping 350 kilograms), which makes use of the air's oxygen to create a more powerful explosion than conventional warheads can achieve and is ideally suited for usage in confined spaces. The other variant uses a 250kg conventional warhead (compared to some 65 kilograms for the original 122mm rocket) and can be discerned from the thermobaric variant by its shorter rocket booster. The range of these Volcanoes is claimed to be 3.4 kilometres for the thermobaric variant and 1.5 kilometres for the conventional variant. In addition to its five rounds ready to be fired, more rounds can possibly be carried in the BMP-1's infantry compartment, although doing so might be hazardous to the vehicle and crew itself.

Although images of the 'Shams' were first posted to the internet only a month ago, the system has already seen action during the battle for Deir Khabiya and Khan al-Sheeh, Rif Dimashq Governorate. The 4th Armoured Division is currently engaged with rebels for control over this higly strategic town and its encompassing landscape, completely surrounding the rebel-held area in late October. This event led to the redeployment of at least a part of the 4th AD, which is also believed to have included the 'Shams'. It is therefore likely to pop up in another part of the Rif Dimashq Governorate or even Damascus soon.

The 'Shams' is a perfect example of wartime adaptation, turning an otherwise mediocre armoured fighting vehicle into a potent platform perfectly adapted to the type of warfare encountered on the Syrian battlefield today. It depends on the willingness and resources of the Syrian Arab Army to make more of such nifty modifications, and if flexibility in their armour upgrades is reflected in military strategy then that decision will have a large impact on the outcome of the Syrian Civil War. 

Special thanks to SyrianMilitaryCap. from Syrian Military Capabilities.

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