Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Exotic Armour, an inside look at Sudan's armour repair facility

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Sudan is arguably one of the most interesting countries when it comes to the variation of military equipment in use with its army, owing to its diverse range of suppliers ever since the country's independence from Great Britain in 1956. Originally trained and equipped by Egyptians and the British, Sudan then began receiving large shipments of Soviet military equipment, followed by Chinese deliveries of arms. In recent years, Sudan has bought large numbers of weaponry from nations such as Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, which along with the Chinese and Iranians are now the lead suppliers of weaponry in Sudan.

In addition to the countries already listed, Sudan has also received weaponry from nations such as Germany, Libya, Czechoslovakia, France, US, Saudi Arabia, Czechoslovakia, Eastern Europe, and of course, North Korea. Operating such a diverse fleet of armoured fighting vehicles is nothing short of a logistical nightmare, and specialists from several of these countries are present in Sudan at any given time to help maintain these vehicles. To help ease this process Sudan established an armour repair workshop and the Elshaheed Ibrahim Shams el Deen Complex, the latter of which is also involved in the production of several types of armoured fighting vehicles.

The armour repair workshop solely focusses on the repair of main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) however, and falls under the command to the Sudanese Army. This opposed to the Elshaheed Ibrahim Shams el Deen Complex, which is part of the Military Industry Corporation (MIC). The armour repair workshop is located in the heart of Khartoum, which is certainly an interesting location to set up such a facility.

Walking through the many armoured fighting vehicles littering the complex, some in various states of decay, are not only Sudanese personnel but also several Eastern Europeans aiding with the maintenance and overhaul of Soviet-era AFVs. Most of the images in this article are from one of such advisors, many of which photograph their work during their stay in Sudan. This particular person has previously served in Uganda and Yemen, also aiding with the training of personnel here.

A badly damaged T-72AV, also known as the al-Zubair-1 in Sudan, awaiting repair of its destroyed 125mm 2A46 cannon or alternatively to be used as a source of spare parts. Sudan bought the last remaining stock of T-72AVs from the Ukraine, which previously supplied these tanks to several other nations worldwide, many in Africa. The Sudanese purchase of T-72AVs is noteworthy as South Sudan had previously bought a large number of T-72AVs just a few years earlier. This deal was arranged via Kenya, and became the subject of international debate due to the hijacking of the MV Faina cargo ship, which carried 33 T-72AVs on their way to South Sudan.

While Ukrainian instructors became responsible for training South Sudanese soldiers on operating the T-72AV, it appears the country had no problem selling the rest of its T-72AVs to Sudan, which quickly deployed them in Southern Sudan against the SPLA-N. This deal led to a peculiar situation where during the plausible event of renewed hostilities both the Sudanese Army and the South Sudanese Army would deploy their T-72AVs with identical camouflage against each other, which will almost certainly lead to confusion and possibly friendly-fire incidents on the battlefield.

The venerable Alvis Saladin armoured car, still in pristine condition awaiting repainting outside one of the facility's maintenance halls. Despite the Saladin's age, several countries continue to operate the vehicle, with even Indonesia looking to upgrade its remaining examples. It is unknown if the Sudanese Army continues to operate the vehicle or intends to display its remaining Saladins as gate guards.

The same Alvis Saladin after receiving an interesting camouflage pattern, which one could argue has somewhat diminished the original looks of the vehicle. At least two vehicles have received the new paintjob, although the second vehicle suffers from serious damage to the front, further enhancing the perception of poor looks.

The Ferret armoured car is another British staple that has seen service in Sudan, and is one of the first armoured fighting vehicles to have served in the ranks of the Sudanese Army. This vehicle too has been repainted, and is missing its M1919 Browning machine gun. One of the front tires of the repainted vehicle has deep cuts, making it likely this vehicle is no longer intended for combat use. A row of seemingly decommissioned Chinese Type-62 light tanks can be seen in the first image, a few of which remain in active service.

A BMP-1 upgraded with a 30mm 2A42 Cobra one-man turret, replacing the ubiquitous 73mm 2A28 Grom armed turret normally installed on the BMP-1. A joint development between Belarus and Slovakia, Sudan also operates several BTR-70s upgraded with the Cobra turret. The coaxial 7.62mm PKT is missing on this example. One of Sudan's few BMP-2s can be seen in the background, which operate alongside a similarly small number of Iranian-designed Boragh Armored Infantry Combat Vehicles (AICV), itself a copy of the BMP-2.

A French Panhard M3 VTT (Véhicule de Transport de Troupes) APC among a hodgepode of other vehicles in the background, including a Soviet BMP-2, a Chinese WZ-551, a Chinese Type-59D and two Iranian Safir-74, Type 72z, T-72Z or ''Shabdiz''. This Panhard M3 was deprived of its 20mm autocannon, and is unlikely to ever see service again. Similarly, the fleet of French AML-90s is believed to have suffered the same fate.

Sudan operates an extremely diverse fleet of BTR variants, including the BTR-70, Belarusian upgraded BTR-70s, Ukrainian upgraded BTR-70s, BTR-80s, BTR-80As and BTR-3s amongst others. In addition, the Sudanese Army also has a large inventory of Chinese WZ-551s and WZ-523s APCs and what remains of the Czechoslovakian OT-64A fleet delivered in the early seventies. The turret of a BTR-80 can be seen being installed in the second image.

A Soviet BRDM-2, which the Military Industry Corporation markets as the Amir-2 reconnaissance vehicle, still in mint condition. Although the design of the BRDM-2 dates from the early sixties, the Sudanese Army is believed to have continued receiving more examples from Belarus in the 2000s, which joined the already existing fleet of BRDM-2s in service with the Sudanese Army.

The Amir-2 was recently also showcased at IDEX 2017 in the United Arab Emirates, which led some to believe MIC was offering newly-build BRDM-2s for the international market. Despite MIC's confusing marketing strategies, the Amir-2 is actually an upgrade for the BRDM-2 for nations that continue to operate the vehicle. This upgrade sees the replacement of the BRDM-2's original 140hp GAZ-41 engine with the 210 hp Isuzu 6HH1 engine, which offers increased mobility and fuel-efficiency. Although several African nations continue to operate the aging BRDM-2, it is unlikely that any of these countries would be interested in upgrading these.

Three Chinese WZ-551s in one of the armour facility's maintenance halls. The WZ-551 was previously offered by the Military Industry Corporation as the Shareef-2. Although it is unknown what the MIC actually was offering by simply listing the WZ-551 among their products, it is likely that this referred to the overhaul of the WZ-551s in Sudan. Adding to the confusion, the WZ-523, another Chinese product to have reached Sudan, is currently offered as the Shareef-2. This apparent lack of understanding what MIC actually offers is reflected among many of their products, but likely means the MIC is capable of overhauling both the WZ-551 and WZ-523 in this particular case.

Although primarily acquiring second-hand armoured fighting vehicles from Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian stocks, the Sudanese Army also possesses Russian BTR-80As in addition to a limited number of Ukrainian BTR-3s, one of which can be seen below. A BRDM-2 (or Amir-2), a BMP-1 and a T-72AV can also be seen in the background. More interestingly however is the row of decommissioned M60s, only a few of which are still believed to be in operational use with the Sudanese Army.

An instruction room filled with the weapon systems of various Russian APCs and IFVs in service with the Sudanese Army. Two 14.5mm KPVs with a coaxial 7.62mm PKT for the BRDM-2, BTR-70 and BTR-80 can be seen on the left while two 30mm 2A42/2A72s cannons for the BTR-80A and BMP-2s can be seen on the right. Also note the complete BTR-80A module for the training of BTR-80A gunners seen in the back. The Russian flag leaves no doubt on the Russian influence on the training of Sudanese crews.

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Thursday, 25 May 2017

Suicide drones: The Islamic State's newest threat?

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The battle for Mosul has entered its seventh month of fierce fighting for the largest city in the hands of the Islamic State, with the most difficult fight for Mosul's Old City still to be fought. Facing a much stronger opponent with a large number of armoured fighting vehicles, special forces and air support, the Islamic State employs tactics that have become so characteristic for this organisation in its fight against Iraqi forces, including the large-scale use of VBIEDs in the narrow streets of the city.

Apart from the use of proven weapons and tactics, the Battle for Mosul also premiered several other weapons systems, 'Made in Islamic State', perfectly suited for the urban environment of the city and the way the Islamic State fights its battles. Arguably the best examples of this are the deployment of a new type of anti-tank rocket launcher as well as weaponised drones, both of which have widely publicised as their use intensified while the Iraqi Army captured ever more parts of the city from the entrenched Islamic State.

The latest Islamic State video release coming out of Mosul would go further into detailing some of the Islamic State's achievements in the production of weaponry and unmanned aerial and ground vehicles in the city. The video, 'We will surely guide them to Our ways', named in reference to Quran verse 29:69, would show the assembly and deployment of several weapon systems previously not seen before.

While the production of RPGs, recoilless-rifles and a homebred anti-tank rocket launcher is already a significant development, even more so is the combat debut of what appears to be a type of loitering munition, more commonly known as a 'suicide drone' (a somewhat inapt name as there is no human involved) against Iraqi forces in the city. While this threat has only received little coverage despite its potential, the drone's combat debut made painfully clear the current shortcomings of this new type of Islamic State munition.

Loitering munition is a relatively new concept that calls for flying munitions to loiter over the target area before striking a target chosen by a human operator or in some types, autonomously. This method has several advantages over conventional cruise missiles and guided rockets, which are programmed in advance to hit a set target. If no suitable target is found, the loitering munition self-destructs or in some cases can even return to base, thus allowing for much more flexibility in operations.

The Islamic State was previously reported to have utilised loitering munition in Syria on several occasions, mainly against regime forces in the besieged city of Deir ez-Zor. It however remains unknown if the unmanned aerial vehicles in question were supposed to crash themselves into regime positions with their payload of a single PG-7 rocket or were actually designed to drop these instead: The latter seems more likely.

The Islamic State is not the first to have deployed loitering munition operationally. Indeed, such weaponry has already been used by Azerbaijan, Yemen, Israel and the U.S. in conflict, the latter even deploying them in Syria. Another operator of such "kamikaze-drones" is North Korea, which currently operates the largest of the type. Of course, the crudely constructed contraption used by the Islamic State is hardly comparable to modern munitions in use with countries that produce professional grade weaponry, but the threat remains comparably hard to counter, and has the potential significantly escalate the unabating harassment of Iraqi forces trying to weed the terrorist group out of the city.

The possible production of 'suicide drones' by the Islamic State was first hinted in a leak of documents from the Islamic State in March 2017. These documents detailed a request of a Tunisian drone developer Abu Yusra al-Tunisi for permission and funding for the development and production of multi-purpose UAVs that could loaded with 20 kilograms of explosives to be used as an air-to-surface missile. A summary in English of the Islamic State document can be found below.

Islamic State
Willayat Halab
Soldiers’ Central Office


Name: Abu Yusra al-Tunisi
Age: 47
Profession: Specialised in industrial electricity and electronics with some humble knowledge in the field of aviation and aeronautics. 

To those who may be concerned, I present the Ababil project. It is a multi-purpose UAV, with uses including: 

1- To recon an area 30 km in diameter.
2- Can be used as an air-to-surface missile with +20 kg payload.
3- It can be used to distract the enemy through the use of more than one UAV at night or during the day.
4- To jam the enemy aircraft.

The project will require a team composed of:
- An electro-mechanic engineer.
- A fiberglass specialist.
- An expert in AutoCAD who knows how to work on CNC.
- A metalworker 

The project will cost around 5,000 USD and will require 3 months to complete. I will show you photos of a prototype that I worked on when I worked in the field of research and development. The project was stopped for unknown reasons.

While it is unknown if Abu Yusra al-Tunisi ever received permission and funding to continue his Ababil project, it is unlikely that the drone seen in the latest Islamic State release is in fact the Ababil. Not only did Abu Yusra al-Tunisi ask for permission and funding to develop drones in Wilayat Halab (Aleppo governorate) in Syria, the supposed payload of more than 20kg of explosives seems a much too heavy load for the drone shown in Mosul.

Although the Islamic State's release only shows a glimpse of the drone's flight (which can be seen at 8:43), it reveals interesting details on the operations of the drone. Based around a metal frame (part of which held together by duct-tape) the drone is the largest type to have been produced by the Islamic State, which until thus far has mainly used quadcopters, Skywalkers and various indigenous drones for obversation purposes. Although the Islamic State has showcased weaponised Skywalkers on several occasions, no such conversion is believed to be used operationally.

The operator of the drone is seen standing left, holding a controller in his hands. It is likely that this operator was only responsible for bringing the drone into the air, after which the radio-control was taken over by another operator with access to a screen from which he could see the path of the drone due to its inbuilt camera. Despite the clear view of the drone in the video, which reveals a fuel tank half-full, no payload is visible. Whether this means it was unarmed at the time or if the payload was potentially installed closer to the engine and thus difficult to spot is uncertain.

The screen indicates the drone flew for about ten minutes at a speed of around 110 kilometres an hour before it makes its descent towards a gathering of Iraqi Army vehicles and soldiers, including a M1 Abrams. Interestingly, the footage cuts away shortly before the drone impacts. Although it is implied this is because its payload detonated, it's also entirely possible that it actually diverted at the last moment, or that it simply crashed and did not carry any payload. In the latter case, the purpose of the drone might have been aimed more at testing and propaganda uses than actually providing a workable weapon.

With the profileration of drones seen in the world of today, the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) as a delivery platform of explosives to strike locations in the West is a threat to be taken seriously. The crudeness and obviously improvised nature does little to mitigate the fact that in an era where remotely controlled weaponry is increasingly easy to develop for factions such as the Islamic State it will become harder and harder to protect forces from such asymmetrical warfare tactics.

While this attempt at striking Iraqi forces with loitering munition was unlikely to be a success, the attack represents a growing threat that one day might become a widely deployed tactic in similar conflicts throughout the world. Although the Islamic State's days as a conventional force in Iraq are slowly coming to an end, more surprises are certain to await in Syria, and the conflict continues to develop in unpredictable ways that are sure to leave their mark on the way wars are fought in the future.

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