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

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.