Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Photo Report: The Syrian Arab Army (2)

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

With the Syrian Ministry of Defense finally having embraced 21st century media technology, it now regularly uploads high-definition images on both its official website and twitter account. Despite this 'giant' leap forward, the Syrian MoD still only communicates to the outside world in Arabic, thereby excluding a large audience that could otherwise be interested in reading or viewing the MoD's statements on ongoing battles in the Syrian theatre. Nonetheless, the images published provide for a perfect opportunity for another 'Photo Report'.

A Pantsir-S1 of the Syrian Arab Air Defence Force (SyAADF). Significant quantities of modern surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) have reached Syria in the past decade, with deliveries even continuing during the Syrian Civil War. Although a complete overhaul of the SyAADF with the acquisition of S-300PMU-2s, Buk-M2s, Pechora-2Ms and Pantsir-S1s was originally planned during the 2000s, the delivery of the first has been postponed and is ultimately believed to have been cancelled. A more advanced version of the Pantsir-S1 has also been introduced to the SyAADF recently, similar to a variant that has been delivered to Iraq since 2014.

A Syrian T-72AV TURMS-T (Tank Universal Reconfiguration Modular System T-series), a variant upgraded by Galileo Avionica of Italy during the 2000s in order to enhance its fire-control system. Interestingly, instead of solely upgrading its T-72AVs or T-72M1s to TURMS-T standard, the SyAA decided to also include T-72 'Urals' in the upgrade programme. The T-72 'Ural' and T-72M1 also make up the majority of the fleet upgraded with the TURMS-T's panoramic sight. As upgrading all of the TURMS-T equipped T-72s with the panoramic sight was deemed too expensive, only a limited amount of T-72s received the system. Why mainly the less advanced T-72 variants received this sight remains a mystery.

A 'Volcano' rocket seen departing its launcher. These rockets became well known for their ability to destroy complete housing blocks with a direct hit, a decisive factor during the battle for al-Qusayr in 2013. The Volcano pairs a standard artillery rocket with a much larger warhead, drastically increasing its lethality at the cost of a decreased range and accuracy. Mass-production picked up pace around the same time, and these rockets 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 are known to be in production in Syria itself.

The BMP-1 still constitutes the mainstay of the Syrian Arab Army's inventory of infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), and with recent Russian deliveries of further BMP-1s and BMP-1Ps, this is unlikely to change in the near future. The BMP-1's lacklustre armament and thin armour protection have been made painfully clear during the Syrian Civil War, and only little work has been carried out by the regime side for the purpose of improving the capabilities of these vehicles. Some factions have attempted to 'reinforce' the armour of their BMP-1s by adding Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armour to the hull and turret of the vehicle. While the turret armour is strong enough to be compatible with Kontakt-1 blocks, the hull's paper thin armour is unable to withstand their detonation, shattering the thin layer of armour with the possibility of inflicting heavy injuries to the personnel inside.

The T-72 'Ural' is the oldest T-72 variant in service with the Syrian Arab Army. Once said to be ''the best tank in the world'' by Hafez al-Assad, nowadays it is famous for its major flaw, and is the subject of many videos in which it suffers a violent cook-off after a hit, resulting in the turret being blown off spectacularly.

While the Syrian Civil War has seen a large number of AK-pattern rifles in service with the various factions fighting for control over Syria, the profileration of PK-pattern machine guns is often overlooked. While the PK and PKM still make up the majority of general-purpose machine guns in Syria, several derivatives have also showed up in the Syrian theatre in the past several years. This includes the Russian PKP Pecheneg and the North Korean Type-73. The latter originated in Iran, which bought a batch of these machine guns during the Iran-Iraq War. These were soon stored after Iran began producing its own PK and PKM-pattern machine guns, and ultimately found their way to Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Three T-72AVs, still in pristine condition, making their way through a Syrian battered town. Although it offers a vast improvement over the tank's regular armour, Kontakt-1 has proved to be incapable of protecting it against heavier rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). In addition, the supports for the ERA blocks on the side skirts have shown themselves to be too weak to withstand the blast of an incoming RPG, sometimes causing the whole side skirt to fall of after just one hit.

An incredibly rare sight: A Syrian T-72AV deprived of all its Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armour. This image allows for a great comparison between the T-72AV still sporting all of its explosive reactive armour seen above. The tank below is likely operated by a training unit, with the explosive reactive armour removed for use with T-72AVs serving in combat units serving on the frontline, which can obviously make better use of it.

A training exercise of one of Syria's commando units. Atlhough the Syrian Civil War is about to enter its sixth year, not much is known about special operations carried out by these units. Instead, most of Syria's 'Commandos' appear to be employed as regular infantry alongside the Syrian Arab Army and NDF. They can easily been discerned from other units by their 'القوات الخاصة – 'Commandos' – patch, but are only rarely seen wearing their red beret.

The profileration of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) in the Syrian Civil War has meanwhile ben sufficient to test the armour plating of the Russian T-90, the U.S. M1 Abrams and even the German Leopard 2. With Turkey ramping up its intervention in Northern Syria by deploying M60Ts and Leopard 2A4s to the Syrian theatre, the Syrian Civil War serves as a perfect testing ground for the world's newest in armour and armour upgrades. While the M1 Abrams was once thought to be nearly impenetrable, the tank has found its match with the deployment of 9M133 Kornet ATGMs by the Islamic State. Similarly, Turkey's Leopard 2A4s have fallen victim to ATGM attacks during their short deployment to Northern Syria, mostly owing due to poor tactics employed. Although the T-90A's armour protection has also been tested during combat in Syria, a catastrophic ammo cook off has yet to occur.

Although the T-72 has received the most attention during the Syrian Civil War, the T-62 and T-55 series that remain in service continue to make up the majority of Syria's tank fleet. Indeed, the Syrian Arab Army's newly established 5th Corps has recently begun receiving T-62Ms from Russia. This recent Russian 'armour influx' has already seen the delivery of T-90As, T-90s, T-72 Obr 1989s, T-72Bs, BMP-2s and BMP-1(P)s in the past two years.

Syrian Arab Army soldiers aiming their small arms at a defensive position during an exercise. Although large quantities of Chinese-made helmets and body armour were procured from China shortly before the Civil War, the SyAA soon ran out of this newly issued equipment. While some units were re-equipped with whatever was found laying in warehouses, others had to do with far less, or would even be responsible for their own clothing and equipment as was the case with Suqour al-Sahraa' (The Desert Falcons), resulting in an abundant variety of uniforms and equipment on the battlefield seen today.

A T-72M1 makes it way through downtown Aleppo. Heavily contested since 2012, the days of regime presence in the city were once thought to be numbered. Under siege and attacked from all sides, the Syrian Arab Army looked to consolidate its remaining territory first, while later offensives would be key in tipping the scales in favour of the regime. Against all odds, the city was completely recaptured four years later; a fatal blow to the rebels.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Damascus, a memorial to all Syrian soldiers killed in conflict. The monument's dome symbolizes the universe, with the overlying arch symbolizing victory. Two verses (Quran:169,170) are written on either side of the dome.

وَلَا تَحْسَبَنَّ الَّذِينَ قُتِلُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّـهِ أَمْوَاتًا بَلْ أَحْيَاءٌ عِندَ رَبِّهِمْ يُرْزَقُونَ﴿١٦٩﴾ فَرِحِينَ بِمَا آتَاهُمُ اللَّـهُ مِن فَضْلِهِ وَيَسْتَبْشِرُونَ بِالَّذِينَ لَمْ يَلْحَقُوا بِهِم مِّنْ خَلْفِهِمْ أَلَّا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ ﴿١٧٠﴾ (آل عمران: 169، 170) - 'Think not of those who are slain in God's Way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the Presence of their Lord; They rejoice in the Bounty provided by God: and with regard to those left behind, who have not yet joined them [in their bliss], the [Martyrs] glory in the fact that on them is no fear, nor have they [cause to] grieve.' (Quran:169,170)

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Saturday, 25 February 2017

A Forgotten Army: Transnistria's DIY APCs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Transnistria, officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR), is a breakaway state in Eastern Europe that has remained in the shadows ever since its self-proclaimed independence as a Soviet republic in 1990 and subsequent breakaway from Moldova in 1992. Currently only recognized by Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which themselves are also unrecognised countries, Transnistria is situated in between the Ukraine and Moldova. Nonetheless, Transnistria functions as a de-facto state with its own army, air arm and even its own arms industry.

It is the latter that has produced a number of very interesting designs that have entered service with Transnistria's armed forces over the past two decades. This industry was highly active during the Moldovan Civil War, producing a variety of DIY armoured fighting vehicles and homemade multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) for use against the Moldovan Army. After the cessation of hostilities, the arms industry would play a vital role in upholding the operational status of the Transnistria's army, which has remained unable to replace its dated inventory of Soviet weaponry ever since its establishment in 1991.

One of these designs is a unique armoured personnel carrier (APC) based on the Soviet GMZ-3 minelayer. First unveiled in 2015 by Transnistria's former president Yevgeny Shevchuk and Defense Minister Alexander Lukyanenko, at least eight of these vehicles are believed to have entered service with the Transnistrian army that year. At least two of these vehicles were seen participating in exercises just over a month later, confirming their operational status.

Transnistria is notorious for its supposed role in arms trafficking throughout the region and farther abroad. Large quantities of weaponry and ammunition from the Soviet 14th Army were taken over by Transnistrian locals, elements of the 14th Army loyal to Transnistria and foreign fighters when Moldava entered what according to the Moldovan government was and still is Moldovan territory, resulting in conflict between the two in 1992. While large amounts of the missing weaponry and ammunition was subsequently secured, taken over by the newly established Transnistrian Army or transported back to Russia under the supervision of the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Moldova, limited quantities of weapons originating in Transnistria still found their way abroad. Nevertheless, its status as an arms trafficking country is certainly exaggerated.

Despite having ended armed conflict in 1992, the situation in Transnistria remains extremely complicated, with the the breakaway state wishing to join the Russian Federation while continuing to remain heavily reliant on Moldova for exporting the limited produce its economy outputs. Despite making small steps towards increasing transparency to the outside world, Transnistria remains a Soviet Socialist Republic, as such continuing to make use of the hammer and sickle in its flag – even retaining the KGB as its main security agency. Russia still maintains a limited presence in Transnistria, its soldiers officially on a peacekeeping mission.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, much of the personnel and their associated weaponry which once made up its military became subordinate to the newly established states they were located in. While this process was often troubled by the departure of many ethnic Russians stationed outside of the former Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, this wasn't the only problem encountered in Moldova. The 14th Army was in fact stationed in the Ukraine, Moldova and the breakaway state of Transnistria, with various units of the 14th becoming subordinate to either the Ukraine, Moldova and Russia, or loyal to the newly formed Transnistrian republic. Obviously, this made for an extremely complicated and sensitive process.

When Transnistria took over most of the weapon storage depots on the territory it controlled, it inherited large amounts of highly specialised vehicles while being left without any significant numbers of infantry fighting vehicles or self-propelled artillery. Indeed, apart from several 122mm 2S1 Gvozdikas and 152mm 2S3 Akatisyas that were present in this area (which in fact likely found their way to Russia), there is no self-propelled artillery in the inventory of the Transnistrian Army. Instead, it relies on an arsenal of towed field artillery and 122mm 'Pribor' MRLs for indirect fire support.

The specialised vehicles Transnistria took over included a large number of GMZ-2 and GMZ-3 minelayers. Redundant in their original role during the Moldovan Civil War, several GMZs were employed as makeshift armoured personnel carriers by Transnistria, and at least one was subsequently destroyed in the fighting. Transnistria would continue to make use of several GMZs in their original role after the war, but with no need for such a large fleet of minelayers, most vehicles were placed in storage until it was decided to convert at least eight GMZ-3s to armoured personnel carriers. Although the amount of GMZs available to Transnistria remains unknown, the number is likely insufficient for the conversion of much more GMZs to this role.

In order to be capable of carrying infantry, all minelayer equipment was removed in line with its new role as armoured personnel carrier. The minelaying arm and the compartment for its operator were removed to make place for a door, while the space the mines were stored in was cleared and expanded to accommodate for the infantry compartment. The GMZ-3 in its original configuration can be seen here, a striking indicator of the transformation it has underwent.

A clearing was created between the driver's seat and infantry compartment for a gunner position equipped with a single 14.5mm KPV heavy machine gun (HMG), which was extensively modified for easier handling by its operator. In addition to the single HMG, rifles and light machine guns can be fired out of the vehicle's five firing ports. It is unknown if this transformation effected the armour of the GMZ-3, which was originally protected against small-arms fire and explosive fragments.

For Transnistria's size and economic means, the vehicle certainly exhibits impressively professional features, and presents a clear case of making the best possible use of every means available. In that regard, Transnistria is sure to continue surprising its tiny audience of foreign observers with the products of its indigenous military industry.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Replenishing the Stocks: Russian deliveries of T-62Ms and BMP-1s reach Syria

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Following many rumours concerning the delivery of new armoured fighting vehicles to the Syrian Arab Army, images coming out of Syria have now confirmed such a delivery did indeed take place. These newly delivered vehicles are destined for the Syrian Arab Army's 5th Corps, which is currently engaged in heavy combat with the Islamic State in between T4 airbase and Tadmur. Indeed, images and videos covering the fighting that currently takes place here have already confirmed the vehicles are doing their part in bringing the fight back to the Islamic State.

While many expected the delivery of more T-72s or even T-90s as a follow-up to the small deliveries of these vehicles to elements of the Syrian military in late 2015, it now appears the core of the 5th Corps will be made up of battle-proven armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) such as the T-62M and BMP-1(P) instead. Although certainly less advanced than some of the more modern T-72s and BMP-2 variants employed in the Syrian theatre elsewhere, the delivery of these AFVs are still a welcome addition to the badly-depleted vehicle park of the Syrian Arab Army.

Indeed, while deprived of any active protection systems such as the Shtora found on the T-90 series of tanks, the T-62M is a vast improvement over the T-55 and earlier T-62 variants that continue to make up the majority of Syria's now battered tank fleet. The BMP-1s and BMP-1Ps delivered offer little in offensive and defensive capabilities, but are likely to serve the 5th Corps well because of the fact that they are easy to master and maintain, especially for crews with existing experience in operating these vehicles.

The 5th Corps is a newly established unit of the Syrian Arab Army, and serves as a counterweight to the increasing strength of the various militias that have largely taken over the role of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) in the past years. While the partial dissolvement of the SyAA and the subsequent rise of militias was necessary for the survival of the Syrian regime, it ended up creating a whole host of major problems that could potentially spiral out of control in the future. The establishment of the 5th Corps aims to address at least a part of these problems.

Russia appears to be a key driver behind the de-facto re-establishment of the Syrian Arab Army by exerting pressure on the regime to bring back control of the many militias to the army instead of continuing as independent units under the control of the Syrian High Command. While Iran's goal of keeping Syria under its sphere of influence was enacted by the establishment of several militias, many of which foreign, Russia seeks to create a stable situation that allows for the survival of the current government by creating an unified army instead.

The lack of such an unified army has been made painfully clear during most of the regime's defeats over the past several years, the failed Tabqa offensive and losing Tadmur for a second time serving as recent examples. A project similar to that of the establishment of the 5th Corps was initiated shortly after the Russian intervention in Syria, which called for the merging of several militias, including parts of the NDF, into the 4th Corps. When the NDF largely replaced the Syrian Arab Army as the regime's primary forces, the NDF saw its tasks expanding from guarding neighbourhoods to undertaking offensives elsewhere and guarding towns, gasfields and other strategic installations throughout Syria. Thus, this initiative would have called for the return of these tasks to the SyAA, with the NDF remaining a force dedicated for local defense only. Thus far, this process appears to have been largely unsuccessful however.

In contrast to other units of the Syrian Arab Army, which consist almost exclusively of drafted personnel, the 5th Corps hopes to attract large numbers of men by offering salaries and benefits that were previously only found with militias such as Suqour al-Sahraa' (The Desert Falcons). To further strengthen its ranks, Syrian men that were previously exempted from the draft are likely to join the 5th Corps amidst sharpened rules for exclusion from mandatory service.

The now almost six-year long civil war has taken a heavy toll on the once immense Syrian tank fleet, suffering heavy losses due to the widespread profileration of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). Yet it is mainly the poor tactics employed by most regime forces that have effectively degraded the tank to the role of a vulnerable static pillbox. Although the amount of armoured fighting vehicles that remain available still appears to be sufficient for current operations, the number of vehicles of the same class is too low to equip an entirely new fighting force: The 5th Corps.

In accordance with Russia's role in the establishment of the 5th Corps, it is also Russia that is responsible for equipping the new force. Although this led some to believe the new force would be equipped with a wide range of modern Russian weapon systems, Russia has so far committed to the delivery of older weaponry that is no longer in service with the Russian Army itself. Nonetheless, the delivered vehicles and weaponry are ideally suited for the Syrian Arab Army and the 5th Corps.

In addition to the delivery of small arms and a large number of Ural, GAZ, KamAZ and UAZ trucks and jeeps, deliveries to the 5th Corps so far have encompassed T-62Ms, BMP-1Ps and BMP-1s and 122mm M-1938 (M-30) howitzers. The latter are of a more modern variant than the examples already in use in Syria, with the Russian-delivered examples part of a batch that underwent modernisation during the 1970s, exchanging the original rubber foam wheels for more modern ones allowing for better mobility both on-road and off-road.

Before their appearance in Syria, some of the T-62Ms were already spotted in Russia while underway to a harbour for transport to Syria. These vehicles were then shipped onboard the 'Syria Express' towards Tartus, where the majority of vehicles and equipment has been arriving. The T-62Ms and BMP-1s were subsequently spotted in Tartus waiting for distribution to their new units, including a part of the 5th Corps currently seeing action against the Islamic State in Central Syria.

The T-62M is an upgrade programme aimed at upgrading several variants of the T-62, which by the early 1980s had become severely outmatched by their more modern Western counterparts, to a common standard. The programme aimed to adress the T-62's shortcomings in the field of firepower, protection and mobility, greatly improving the capabilities of the until then badly underperforming tank. The upgrade ran parallel to the modernisation of the T-55 and T-55A to T-55M standard, which was carried out during the same time.

The increased armour protection was achieved by the installment of BDD 'Brovi Il'icha' appliqué armour on the turret front and upper and lower glacis plates, increased armour protection against anti-tank mines, rubber side skirts and anti-radiation lining on parts of the turret. The resulting increased weight was compensated by a new V-55U diesel engine. To utilise the full potential of the powerful 115mm gun the 'Volna' fire control system module was installed, comprising the KTD laser rangefinder (LRF) and associated equipment. The tank also gained the capability to launch the tube-fired 9M117 (9K116-2) Sheksna ATGM, which is nearly identical to the 9M117 (9K116-1) Bastion in use with Syria's T-55(A)MVs. For this purpose, both the gunner and commander received new sighting systems, now also allowing for much increased efficacy during night combat. In addition to all this, the tank was equipped with a new stabiliser, a thermal sleeve for its 115mm gun, a new radio and a block of smoke grenade launchers on each side of the turret.

Despite its age, the T-62M has only just been retired by the Russian Army after decades of counter-terrorism operations in the Caucascus, a task for which it was also heavily employed in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of this country. Several other nations continue to operate the T-62M, most notably Cuba, where it ironically serves as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias' most modern tank.

While several variants such as the T-62 Obr. 1967 and T-62 Obr. 1972 were upgraded to the common T-62M standard, both are still easily discernible by the lack of the 12.7mm DShK on the T-62 Obr. 1967. Interestingly, Syria has received both Obr. 1967s and Obr. 1972s upgraded to T-62Ms. The latter has so far been featured more extensively in the footage coming out of Central Syria, and was also the first to fall victim to an Islamic State ATGM, with no casualties reported.

Most of the tanks can still be seen with the H22-0-0 rail transit markers that were applied in Russia before shipment to Syria. While not removing these markings is in this case of little significance, similar markings were also left in place on Russian tanks deployed in the Ukraine, which could once again be used to confirm Russia's involvement in the war in Eastern Ukraine.

The delivery of large amounts of these albeit dated vehicles could very well end up reversing the trend of widespread attrition that has decimated Syria's fighting vehicles. Perhaps more importantly, it shows Russia remains willing and capable of supporting its ally with large amounts of military equipment, despite economic hardships and the fact that Syria is bankrupt. This initiative essentially represents the re-establishment of the SyAA in organised form, and should it succeed it is certain to have far reaching consequences for future developments in the Syrian War.