Thursday, 15 June 2017

Syria Rearms: Russian deliveries of BMP-2s and 2S9s arrive

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

After the first delivery of T-62Ms and BMP-1s to the Syrian Arab Army earlier this year, new imagery coming out of Syria has now revealed that more types of armoured fighting vehicles have recently been sent to the country onboard Russia's 'Syria Express'. These new deliveries come as government forces are currently making major gains in Eastern Homs against the fighters of Islamic State, and the new vehicles will likely be deployed here to bring the fight back to the Islamic State once and for all.

The delivery of large amounts of weaponry and vehicles is part of the de-facto re-establishment of the Syrian Arab Army, with the aim of creating a unified army incorporating some of the many militias that are currently active throughout Syria. The driving force behind this process is the newly established 5th Corps, which is to serve as a counterweight to the increasing strength of the aforementioned militias that have largely taken over the role of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) in the past six years.

In accordance with Russia's role in the reinstatement of the Syrian Arab Army, it is also Russia that is responsible for training and equipping the new force. Although this led some to believe that Syria would soon receive additional T-72s, T-90s or even BMP-3s, all of which would be more advanced than the current armour composition of the regime forces, the deliveries until thus far have mostly included older weaponry excess to requirements or no longer in service with the Russian Army itself.

Nonetheless, many of these delivered vehicles and weaponry are ideally suited for the Syrian Arab Army in their current operations against the many factions fighting over control of parts of Syria. In addition to the delivery of small arms and large numbers of Ural, GAZ, KamAZ and UAZ trucks and jeeps, other deliveries so far have encompassed T-62Ms, BMP-1(P)s and 122mm M-1938 (M-30) howitzers, and now also including BMP-2s infantry fighting vehicles and 120mm 2S9 self-propelled mortars.

The delivery of BMP-2s and 2S9s is of interest as previous deliveries to the 5th Corps amounted to less advanced equipment such as BMP-1s and World War 2-era 122mm M-30 howitzers. The fact that more advanced equipment is now arriving in Syria might be a sign that Russia deems the rearmament programme a success, and could potentially step up the delivery of more advanced equipment as the conflict continues to develop in favour of the current government.

Despite the relative scarcity of the BMP-2 in footage and images of the Civil War, this vehicle is certainly no stranger to the Syrian battlefield. Indeed, Syria continues to operate the survivors of the around 100 BMP-2s it had previously acquired in the late eighties, all but a few of which are in service with the Republican Guard in operations mostly in and around Damascus. In addition to the BMP-2s already in service since the 1980s, a limited number of BMP-2s along with T-72Bs and BMP-1s were received from Russia in 2015 to take part in operations near Tadmur. At least one but possibly two of these BMP-2s were subsequently destroyed here.

The vehicles that are currently being delivered can easily be discerned from the BMP-2s already operating in Syria by their dark green camouflage and more importantly, by the presence of anti-radiation lining installed on the turret, which is only present from the BMP-2 Obr. 1984 variant and onwards. The BMP-2s that Syria had previously received in the late eighties were of the older Obr. 1980 variant and lack such anti-radiation lining, as well as other incremental improvements.

The BMP-2 improves significantly upon the capabilities of the BMP-1, which has served as the Syrian Arab Army's main infantry fighting vehicle ever since its introduction in the 1970s. Originally designed for use on the plains of Europe, the armament of the BMP-1 was quickly found to be inadequate for supporting infantry and incapable of targeting heavily armoured armoured fighting vehicles. In addition, the BMP-1's mediocre gun elevation, lack of armour and inability to fire accurately while on the move makes it woefully outdated for use in today's conflicts.

Incorporating many of the lessions learned from the BMP-1, the BMP-2 does away with several of these serious drawbacks. Most notably is the replacement of the 73mm 2A28 cannon with a fast-firing 30mm 2A42, which is very well-suited for supporting infantry and suppressing enemy positions thanks to its high elevation. The BMP-2 also comes with an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) launcher for the 9M113 Konkurs as opposed to the BMP-1's unwieldy 9M14 Malyutka, which is rarely fitted let alone used.

The delivery of the 2S9 is also notable as this vehicle was previously not in service with the Syrian Arab Army, which had until thus far has never operated any type of self-propelled mortars. The 2S9 is armed with a 120mm breech-loaded 2A51 mortar that can lob shells over a distance of eight kilometers with conventional ammunition, and over 12 kilometers with a rocket assisted projectile. A guided mortar round has also been developed for the 2S9, but is unlikely to have been deployed to Syria.

While the Syrian Arab Army continues to operate large numbers of 122mm 2S1s and 122mm BM-21s in addition to several types of towed artillery guns for artillery support, the high elevation of the 2S9 makes it perfect for engaging entrenched Islamic State positions on mountains and ridges regime forces are currently facing in Eastern Homs. While some might be quick to note that the 2S9 is air-droppable, it is unlikely that any will be sent to Deir ez-Zor this way. As the 2S9 is the first of its type to have entered service with regime forces, it is likely that crews will first have to be trained on the vehicle, which is true for the BMP-2 as well (albeit to a lesser extent) so it might take some time before they show up on the frontline.

As regime forces are currently making major gains, mainly against the Islamic State, Russia appears intent on affirming its support for the Syrian government, further consolidating its stakes in a conflict that has so far seemed to continue on endlessly. For Syria, the actual delivery of these vehicles is possibly much less significant than the trend it represents. With an ally that is essentially capable of indefinitely replenishing the Syrian Arab Army's stocks and that despite economic hardships is willing to pay the checks required to bring about its return as a coherent fighting force, eventual victory for the pro-regime forces seems likely, barring any unexpected twists and turns in the future course of the war. Whatever the case, the current developments are certain to affect the strategic balance between force battling over Syria significantly, and could well have far-reaching consequences for the ultimate outcome of the Syrian War.

Special thanks to Wael Al Hussaini.

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Thursday, 8 June 2017

Flying under the radar, Syria's 'Special Purpose' Mi-17s

The Syrian Arab Air Force's Hip fleet is perhaps best known for its leading role in the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas across Syria with what have popularly become known as barrel bombs, an act that has defined the usage of aerial assets during the Syrian Civil War. While the role of makeshift bomber currently remains one of the main tasks of Syria's Mi-8/17s, other roles the Hip fleet has carried out during the past six years of brutal war have been severely underreported.

Perhaps the most significant role of the Hip fleet is that it represented a lifeline between regime-held Syria and besieged army garrisons across Syria, which had been completely cut off by road for sometimes up to several years. The Mi-8/17s could, contrary to transport aircraft, land to bring in reinforcements or transport the wounded to hospitals. Indeed, the city of Deir ez-Zor is now completely dependant on Syria's fleet of Hips for bringing in reinforcements and evacuation of civilians and wounded, as Deir ez-Zor's airport is too close to the fighting.

In addition to its role as a transport helicopter and makeshift bomber, several of Syria's Hips have been upgraded for tasks that remain largely unknown to the general public. While it is unclear if some of these helicopters continue to see service in their new configuration, it is certain that they represent an interesting albeit underreported chapter of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF), which will be the subject of this article.

Before going into detail on Syria's upgraded Mi-17s, it is of interest to mention that the first 'Special Purpose' Hips had already arrived in Syria in the early 1980s, shortly after the conclusion of the main phase of the 1982 Lebanon War. The SyAAF and Syrian Arab Air Defence Force (SyAADF) had suffered severe losses to the Israeli Air Force during aerial combat over the skies above Lebanon, where Israel fully exploited its superiority in electronic warfare. Unable to respond in a similar fashion with any of the equipment Syria then operated, Hafez al-Assad turned to the Soviet Union for assistance.

Eager to test its Mi-8 electronic warfare variants, the Soviet Union subsequently deployed up to eight Mi-8PPAs, Mi-8MTP/Us and Mi-8SMVs to Syria, where they were based at T4 airbase with regular detachments to Mezze airbase, located closer to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. These helicopters were tasked with jamming the guidance radars of enemy surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs), and might have been pitted against Israeli MIM-23 'Hawk' SAM sites during peacetime before they returned to the Soviet Union at the end of the eighties, ultimately ending up in a helicopter boneyard.

Back to Syria, where the vast majority of the SyAAF's Mi-8s and Mi-17s continue to operate in their original configuration, often with their rear doors removed to allow for easy loading and dropping of so-called barrel bombs (which by today's standards actually consist of more sophisticated designs that have little to do with barrels). The fact that several of the SyAAF's Hips had been upgraded was first hinted at shortly after the capture of Taftanaz airbase on the 11th of January 2013, resulting in the loss of more than a dozen Mi-8/17s and Mi-25s.

Taftanaz was the second heliport to be overrun by the rebels, following the capture of Marj as-Sultan heliport on the 25th of November 2012. Despite frantic efforts for a last ditch evacuation with some of the helicopters located here, the loss of Taftanaz represented the first major blow to the SyAAF, losing almost as many Mi-8/17s as there are operational airframes today.

Careful examination of the airframes captured here revealed the addition of an electro-optical system under the fuselage of one of the Mi-17s. Later footage from Taftanaz would also show a dismounted electro-optical system and its associated control panel. Another image taken in 2013 at Mezze airbase would also give us the first good view of the armoured panels protecting each side of the cockpit. Interestingly, this relatively simple addition aimed at increasing crew survival has only been applied to a small number of helicopters.

As these upgraded helicopters have only been sporadically sighted during more than six years of war, it is likely that only a few Mi-17s were upgraded to this new standard before the outbreak of the Civil War. Differentiating these upgraded Mi-17s from other non-upgraded Mi-17s helicopters remains difficult however, as is witnessed by this example. It might be easy to mistake this helicopter for one of the regular Mi-17s in use with the SyAAF's helicopter forces, but the hardly visible armoured panels on the cockpit and electro-optical turret serve to differentiate it as one of the upgraded examples.

While Syria's Mi-17 already come equipped with three hardpoints on either side of the fuselage, allowing for the installment of rocket pods, bombs or as in the case above, a 23mm UPK-23 gun pod, the addition of an electro-optical system would significantly increase the helicopter's capabilities in target acquisition and threat identification. In turn, the armoured panels installed around of the cockpit increase the survivability of the helicopter crew, a welcome addition to the anti-aircraft weapon rich environment of Syria.

It is highly likely that these upgrades were carried out by the SyAAF's overhaul and maintenance facility 'The Factory' at Neyrab/Aleppo IAP, which has also been responsible for the design and production of the indigenous chaff/flare launchers mounted on nearly all of the SyAAF's Mi-8s and Mi-17s. The electro-optical system seen in detail below and the armoured panels are believed to have been acquired from Iran, which has carried out similar upgrades on its helicopters.

Other specialised Mi-17s have been used for less lethal tasks, such as the transportation of very important persons (VIPs) across the war-thorn country. As movement from one side of Syria to the other by road has meanwhile become impossible or too time consuming to allow for rapid deployment across the country, Suheil 'The Tiger' al-Hassan nowadays make use of a Mi-17 configured as a VIP transport to allow him to swiftly cross long distances.

The SyAAF already operated several Mi-8Ps (identifiable by the rectangular/square windows instead of the round windows found on normal Mi-8/17s) for VIP transport, but had already retired these before the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Bashar al-Assad makes use of two VIP helicopters of his own, which will be covered on this site in a later article alongside his other transport aircraft.

While the tasks of the aforementioned helicopters are relatively straightforward, the SyAAF also operates at least two Mi-17s that have been converted for as of yet unknown tasks. First seen during a large-scale Syrian Arab Air Force exercise in July 2012, this Mi-17 was seen equipped with two oddly shaped containers installed on either side of the fuselage.

Although some argued that these boxes could be part of an active protection system against man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), this helicopter was already seen well in advance of any MANPADS threat in Syria, and it is unlikely that the SyAAF would sacrifice six hardpoints for these contraptions. The authors' best guess at this time is that these containers in part serve as a panoramic observation system, although its use may extend beyond that. This helicopter can also be seen in the header, where it is parked behind one of the Mi-17s upgraded with an electro-optical system and armoured panels at Mezze airbase.

Arguably the most interesting helicopter conversion to have served in the SyAAF is also the most mysterious; just one example is believed to have been converted to its new role before the project was cancelled, after which the helicopter was returned to its original configuration. This Mi-17 '2981' was only seen once: General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub, the Chief of the General Staff of the Syrian Arab Army, examined it during a visit to Bley airbase in July 2015.

This helicopter stood out because of its newly applied camouflage pattern, which has not been seen on any other Mi-8/17 in Syrian service. The green square on the right side of the fuselage was also of interest, and appeared to have been closed at some point after the helicopter received a new camouflage pattern. Interestingly, inquiries about the nature of this conversion revealed that the helicopter might have been a test platform for a remote weapon station, with the opening in the side housing a 7.62mm GShG-7.62 or 12.7mm Yak-B rotary machine gun. The only other instance that SyAAF Mi-8/17s were armed in such fashion was in 2012, when several helicopters were believed to have been fitted with a 12.7 mm DShK firing out of the rear of the helicopter.

As the Syrian Civil War has entered its sixth year, the SyAAF's Mi-8/17s Hip fleet remains at the forefront of the regime's aerial campaign against its opponents. While the effectiveness of these helicopters as makeshift bombers can be questioned, the Hip has once again proved to be the reliable workhorse it is well known for. Although the number of operational airframes continues to shrink, with just fifteen airframes believed to be operational at any given time, the adaptability and multifunctionality of the Mi-8/17 airframe ensures it will remain in use until the very end, possibly even outlasting the Syrian War.

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Probe-and-drogue, the story of Libya's ill-fated in-flight refuelling programme

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Probe-and-drogue, the story of Libya's ill-fated in-flight refuelling programme

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Libya's aerial refuelling programme has only been rarely reported on since its inception in the late eighties, and suffered from a series of setbacks that ultimately led to the abandonment of the programme. Nonetheless, this ambitious project has definitely left its traces within the Libyan Air Force, and aircraft once playing a key role in the in-flight refuelling programme are still flying amidst the increasingly deteriorating security situation inside the country today.

The former LAAF (Libyan Arab Air Force) has been split into two air forces for several years now, each operating various types of fighter aircraft and helicopters. While a unity government is supposed to act as Libya's new government, the division of the country between several warring factions effectively continues. Libya Dawn, once loyal to Libya's unrecognised parliament, and the Libyan National Army (LNA), fighting for Libya's internationally recognised government are the strongest forces on the ground.

Although both are mainly focused on fighting Islamic extremism such as the Islamic State, sporadic clashes and bombings between the two continue at an increasing rate. This is an unfortunate result of the chaos that followed after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, mainly caused by a greed for power on the side of Libyan factions and a lack of support on the side of NATO, which played a major role in the ousting of Gaddafi but provided inadequate support in helping Libya to develop itself into a functioning democracy.

With a limited number of operational airframes divided between two air forces, both Libya Dawn and the Libyan National Army have scrounged the divided country for aircraft that could be made operational with relatively little effort or by cannibalising other airframes. Aircraft previously thought to have found their final resting place are now repurposed and restored to operational status and with Libya's lax rules when it comes to photographing sensitive equipment on most Libyan airbases, images of these airframes leak regularly. This peculiar situation provides the ideal footage for a review of Libya's ill-fated aerial refuelling programme, which has remained unknown to many until this date.

Libya's large surface area makes aerial refuelling tankers a coveted asset that allows aircraft to cross long distances to reach their targets without frequent stopovers or forward deployments to airbases closer to the target. This was especially true during the Gaddafi-era, when Libyan aircraft frequently struck targets in Chad, Sudan and even Tanzania in support of Libyan forces deployed to Chad and Uganda, or simply as an act of retribution.

Libya's shadow war in Chad can be seen as a defining period for the Libyan Air Force, facing off against not only the Chadians but also the French, which deployed to Chad in support of Hissène Habré fighting against the Libyans and proxies present in the country. As most Libyan airbases were located in the North of the country, the LAAF forward-deployed its aircraft to the remoteness of Southern Libya or even in Northern Chad. Both locations would prove to be extremely vulnerable to strikes by the French Air Force and Chadian incursions, the latter raiding Maaten ar-Surra airbase in Southern Libya and even capturing Wadi Doum airbase in Chad, leading to severe losses on the Libyan side.

It is likely that the experiences gained in Chad and monitoring the developments worldwide were decisive factors in Libya's decision to acquire aerial refuelling tankers. Although by the mid-eighties the Soviet Il-78 was already in production, Libya instead turned to the West to help set up an aerial refuelling project of its own in a similar way Iraq would. Although the reasons for this decision remain unknown, it is possible that Libya was simply not permitted to acquire the Il-78 at the time.

In 1987, Libya contracted the West German company Intec Technical Trade und Logistic (ITTL) to set up an in-flight refuelling programme in Libya itself. Despite being a staunch opponent of the West, Libya had no problems contracting Western companies for all sorts of deals, including defence-related ones. On the delivering end Western companies, eager to profit from Libya's oil wealth, had no problems working for Libya either. Interestingly, ITTL began with acquiring in-flight refuelling (IFR) probes from France in addition to designing one of their own, which were subsequently installed on at least three MiG-23BNs and a single MiG-23UB.

Despite having bad experiences with the MiG-23MS, and also encountering more of the same problems with the MiG-23BN, the MiG-23BN proved to be a valuable asset for it sturdiness and weapon payload in Libyan service. Therefore, the decision to install in-flight refuelling probes on this fleet in particular so as to expand their range was not surprising. In addition to adding IFR-probes to its MiG-23BNs, the Libyan Arab Air Force could also count on the remainder of sixteen Mirage F.1ADs it had previously acquired from France; arguably the most capable aircraft in the Libyan inventory and already capable of being refuelled in mid-air.

ITTL proceeded with converting one of the LAAF's C-130s to the in-flight refuelling role by installing aerial-refuelling pods under both wings, which would have allowed for the refuelling of two aircraft at a time. Unfortunately, the C-130 proved less than ideal for this task when attempting to refuel the MiG-23, which was unable to adjust to its relatively slow operating speed. Although the Mirage F.1AD was capable on refuelling from the C-130, Libya already operated a far more suitable platform at this time: The Il-76.

As such, Il-76TD '5A-DNP' from Libyan Air Cargo (itself a de-facto part of the LAAF) was modified for the in-flight refuelling role by ITTL technicians. Despite their efforts, ITTL was forced to abort its operations in Libya when their involvement in Libya's in-flight refuelling programme became publically known. While their withdrawal would ultimately herald the end of this ambitious programme, it is believed that Libya continued the project for several years on its own, eventually ceasing all further efforts in the mid-nineties. Interestingly, footage of the project was documented on film and can be viewed online.

Around the same time as ITTL commenced work on Libya's in-flight refuelling programme, Libya entered negotiations with the Soviet Union to replace its fleet of Tu-22 bombers with up to 36 Su-24MKs supported by a fleet of six Il-78 tankers. This combination of Su-24s and Il-78s was to act as the LAAF's long arm, replacing the Tu-22 in this role. While the Tu-22s were able to cross long distances from their base at al-Jufra, the operational career of these aircraft was coming to an end at the late eighties, and they had to be replaced.

The Su-24MK brought with it a wide array of air-to-ground missiles and guided bombs that allowed for precision strikes, a capability the Tu-22 lacked. Indeed, during a bombing sortie against a target in Tanzania, the Libyan Tu-22 crew not only missed the target, but the entire country as well, with the bombs landing across the border in Burundi instead! Unfortunately for Libya, disagreements over payment and the UN arms embargo in effect since 1990 prevented the LAAF from receiving the desired amount of aircraft, and only six Su-24MKs and one Il-78 would eventually find their way to Libya.

It remains unknown however if this sole Il-78 was ever used in the in-flight refuelling role since its inception in 1989 or 1990, although it is certain that the aircraft spent the majority of its career as a cargo aircraft, still equipped with its three UPAZ pods aerial-refuelling pods attached. Wearing commercial Jamahiriya Air Transport (Libyan Air Cargo) titles, the Il-78 was first seen in early April 2005 coming in to land at Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport (IAP) after having been overhauled at the 123 ARZ repair plant in Staraya Russa, Russia between 2004 and 2005.

Due to its extremely rare sightings, the Il-78 is perhaps the most elusive aircraft to have ever entered service with the Libyan Air Force. Only rarely sighted throughout its career, the aircraft became even more elusive after the conlusion of the Libyan Civil War, resulting in the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi. Remaining grounded at al-Jufra airbase, Libya's sole Il-78 was thought to have met its final resting place before the aircraft resurfaced at Misrata airbase in late 2015, confirming the ill-fated aircraft had re-entered service.

Forgoing the sophisticated capabilities that are its raison d'être, the aircraft continues its short career in the cargo rol. In accordance with its new owners, the Gaddafi-era Jamahiriya titles in English and Arabic were painted over, and the new Libyan flag applied over the Jamahiriya green. The aircraft bears heavy traces of wear on the aircraft's windows, and the front windows have likely been replaced.

As the Libyan Civil War continues with no cessation of hostilities in sight, military equipment is brought back to operational conditions in an effort to reinforce the arsenals of the warring factions wrestling for control over Libya and its resources. Although the dreams of a dedicated aerial refuelling fleet to support a long-gone professional air force capable of undertaking international sorties have faded from memory long ago, Libya's skies remain abuzz with the remnants of this past age, as the aircraft that played a vital role in the programme are slowly consumed by the unabating demands of war.

Special thanks to Tom Cooper from ACIG.

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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Monday, 27 March 2017

Another One Bites the Dust: Major arms depot falls to Islamic State

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Just over a year after capturing Deir ez-Zor's Ayyash weapon depot in the largest arms haul of the Syrian Civil War, the Islamic State has once again got its hands on massive quantities of ammunition captured from a storage depot in Deir ez-Zor. This arms haul joins the list of other major instances where vast amounts of weaponry and munitions traded owners such as the capture of the aforementioned Ayyash weapon depot, Regiment 121, Brigade 93 and the Mahin arms depot, all but the last of which were at the hands of the Islamic State. Each of these depots provided its capturers with a wide array of weaponry, vehicles and ammunition that could immediately be used against their former owners, a major blow to other factions fighting for control over Syria.

A propaganda video released by the Islamic State, showing its fighters on the offensive in Deir ez-Zor, was the only footage released of the capture of the depot. The video, على أبواب الملاحم - 'At the Doors of Epics [Battles]', details the Islamic State's efforts towards splitting the regime-held territory in two, which they succeeded in doing so in February 2017. This means that the airbase and Brigade 137 are now completely isolated, further complicating efforts to supply both pockets and drastically increasing the vulnerability of the airbase. Despite the growing threat, it remains unlikely that the Islamic State will be able to capture either pocket. The capture of significant quantities of ammunition, including up to three million rounds of small arms rounds will surely allow the Islamic State to prolong its fight for survival.

This is an estimate of the ammunition captured, the real figures are believed to be higher. The contents of at least 652 crates could not be identified. Small arms are not included due to the small quantities captured.


˜ 3,320,600* rounds of 7.62x39, 7.62x54R, 12.7mm and 14.5mm ammunition.
- 2,310 rounds of 85mm ammunition.
- 693 rounds of 100mm ammunition.
- 13 rounds of 125mm ammunition.
- 120 rounds of 120mm ammunition.
- 68 rounds of 122mm rocket ammunition.
- 15 TM-62 anti-tank mines.


- 1 T-72M1 TURMS-T.
- 3 T-72M1s.
- 1 AMB-S.
- 1 Tatra 148.
- 1 UAZ-469.
- 5 cars.

Although assessing the exact contents of each spam can of small arms munition is impossible, by volume the total amount would equal roughly 3.32 million rounds of 7.62x39mm, or a slightly smaller numer distributed of larger calibres such as 12.7mm and 14.5mm. Regardless, truly a tremendous amount of small arms ammunition was captured indeed.

An immense quantity of 85mm UBR-365P AP rounds was also discovered in the arms depot. While certainly an impressive sight, these rounds are completely useless to the Islamic State. The 85mm D-44 anti-tank cannon currently is the only weapon in the Syrian arsenal capable of firing these rounds, but only a small number of these are active on the battlefield. In fact, the D-44 is so rare the Islamic State is currently believed to be in the possession of just one.

At least 693 rounds of 100mm tank ammunition were also found stored in two seperate rooms. This quantity far exceeds the need of the Islamic State in the city of Deir ez-Zor as it only operates several T-55 tanks that use these shells here. It is thus extremely likely that at least a part was transported to Raqqa for further distribution among Islamic State units elsewhere.

The presence of Iranian ammunition crates dated the 5th of May 2015 is notable, dating back to shortly before the encirclement of the city. These crates likely arrived onboard of one of the SyAAF's Il-76s that frequently visisted Deir ez-Zor when it was still possible for these aircraft to land at the airbase. This has meanwhile become impossible due to the close proximity of the Islamic State to the runway from the Eastern and Southern side, a fact that was made painfully clear by the destruction of two L-39s in their Hardened Aircraft Shelter (HAS).

Much of the ammunition was quickly loaded onto trucks and cars, and was likely distributed among Islamic State units located throughout Syria. The targeting of these stockpiles before would prevent this from happening, and limit the Islamic State's ability to continue replenishing its stocks. Nonetheless, such action has time and again not been undertaken by either the SyAAF or Russian Air Force, which combined with the lack of timely evacuation or sabotage of such depots by ground units in the first place has been a major boon to opposing parties during the Syrian War.

The Islamic State also captured two airdrops destined for regime forces in the city, one of which was already believed to have been emptied of its contents before the Islamic State arrived. However, it is extremely likely that the ammunition from these crates was later encountered in one of the depots captured. Several airdrops have so far ended up in the wrong hands after landing in Islamic State controlled territory, which includes the two pallets below.

While a less than ideal situation, these airdrops are meanwhile the only way to supply the city and its inhabitants after the complete encirclement of Deir ez-Zor in May 2015. Both the United Nations and Russian Air Force have actively participated in dropping humanitarian aid to the starving population living in regime-held parts of the city, while Il-76s of the SyAAF are mostly active for the purpose of supplying weaponry, ammunition and fuel to the remaining regime forces held up in the city.

In addition to capturing huge amounts of ammunition, the offensive also provided the Islamic State with four T-72M1s, more than doubling the size of the T-72 fleet the Islamic State currently operates in and around Deir ez-Zor. This arms haul also included a single T-72M1 equipped with the Italian TURMS-T (Tank Universal Reconfiguration Modular System T-series) fire-control system, amounting the first T-72 TURMS-T to have been captured by the Islamic State.

Interestingly, two of the T-72M1s feature protective covers around their TPN-1-49 gunner sights, a modification that is slowly being applied across what remains of Syria's battered T-72 fleet. A single Czechoslovak AMB-S armoured utility vehicle was also captured, which will likely end up employed as a VBIED similar to the two BREM-2 armoured recovery vehicles captured near the Ayyash weapon depots.

Article written in collaboration with MENA_Conflict.

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