Kampf um die Strategic Airlift Interim Solution

von Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter). Er ist Journalist in Berlin mit dem Schwerpunkt Sicherheits- und Geopolitik.

Antonow-124 auf dem SALIS-Drehkreuz Flughafen Leipzig (Foto: Markus Kutscher / CC-Lizenz / Wikipedia).

Antonow-124 auf dem SALIS-Drehkreuz Flughafen Leipzig (Foto: Markus Kutscher / CC-Lizenz / Wikipedia).

Zurzeit läuft bei der NATO das Bieterverfahren für eine Fortführung der Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS) ab 2017. Über das Projekt organisieren europäische Länder militärischen Lufttransport über ein Privatunternehmen. Seit SALIS vor zehn Jahren aufgelegt wurde, erbrachte die RUSLAN SALIS GmbH die Transportleistungen mit Antonow-124 Fliegern. Die GmbH ist ein 50/50 Joint-Venture der russischen Firma Wolga Dnepr und des ukrainischen Staatsunternehmens Antonow. Damit ist nun Schluss — im aktuellen Bieterverfahren treten die Noch-Partner als Konkurrenten gegeneinander an. Bis zum 9. März diesen Jahres konnten Interessenten ihre Gebote für SALIS bei der NATO Support und Procurment Agency (NSPA) einreichen; zwischen Ende April und Anfang Mai soll die Entscheidung fallen, wer in Zukunft das Geschäft macht.

Essenziell für Lufttransport
Auch wenn die genauen Vertragssummen bei SALIS nicht bekannt sind, das Interesse an dem Kontrakt dürfte groß sein. SALIS ist mehr als ein nettes Nice-to-have im militärischen Lufttransport. Bereits 2006 ins Leben gerufen, sollte SALIS zunächst nur den Mangel an Kapazitäten überbrücken, bis der A400M zugelaufen ist. Die Übergangslösung wurde aber de facto zu einem essenziellen Pfeiler des Lufttransports in der Allianz. Ob Medikamente oder Panzerhaubitzen in Einsatzgebiete – ohne SALIS geht wenig im Lufttransport europäischer Armeen. Die Bundeswehr gibt an, dass 70 Prozent ihres gesamten Lufttransports über zivile Auftragnehmer läuft, davon allein die Hälfte über SALIS. In 2015 waren das mehr als 4’000 Tonnen Fracht bei 65 Flügen. Auch für den Transport von Material und Einheiten der NATO Response Force und der Very High Readiness Joint Task Force ist SALIS vorgesehen, so das Bundesverteidigungsministerium.

Ursachen für den Bruch der Kooperation
Warum Wolga Dnepr und Antonow nicht mehr gemeinsame Sache machen, ist nicht ganz klar. Seit 2006 bekam die bisherige Partnerschaft den Vertrag zunächst verlängert und gewann auch die letzte Ausschreibung 2012. Es gibt aber Indizien, warum es zum Bruch kam.

Zum einen wird der Ukraine-Russland-Konflikt eine Rolle spielen. Antonow ist inzwischen in den staatlichen Rüstungsverbund UKROboronPROM eingegliedert worden. Im Wehrsektor hat die Ukraine Sanktionen gegen Russland erlassen, von denen auch Antonow betroffen ist. Deren Flugzeugtypen sind noch vor allem für militärische Bedürfnisse und den russischen Markt konzeptioniert. Infolge der Sanktionen musste Russland beispielsweise die Lizenzfertigung der Antonow-140 einstellen; kein gedeihliches Umfeld für Geschäftsbeziehungen der Ukrainer mit einer russischen Firma und vice versa.

Was die Kooperation ebenfalls belastet haben dürfte: Laut einem Branchenkenner ist das Joint-Venture der Ukrainer mit den Russen eine so genannte “Löwengesellschaft“. Das heißt, formal halten beide Partner zwar die Unternehmensanteile zu gleichen Teilen; der Geschäftsführer ist aber stets ein Vertreter von Wolga Dnepr und entscheidet darüber, was in der GmbH als Kosten / Gewinn definiert wird. Damit wären die Russen in der komfortablen Position, sich den Löwenanteil an den Gewinnen zukommen zu lassen und den Ukrainern stets nur soviel, damit sie bei der Stange bleiben.

Antonov An-124 auf dem Vorfeld des Frachtbereichs Süd auf dem Flughafen Leipzig/Halle.

Antonov An-124 auf dem Vorfeld des Frachtbereichs Süd auf dem Flughafen Leipzig/Halle.

Entscheidung der SALIS-Partner
Dass für die SALIS-Neuauflage ab 2017 Wolga Dnepr oder Antonow den Zuschlag erhalten, ist wahrscheinlich. Beide sind weltweit die größten gewerblichen Anbieter von Antonow-124 Maschinen (Wolga Dnepr: 10 / Antonow: 7). Genau diesen Großraumtransporter brauchen die europäischen Streitkräfte weiterhin. Ein Sprecher des Bundesverteidigungsministeriums über die Interessen der Bundeswehr im Kontext der SALIS-Neuausschreibung:

Die Bundeswehr benötigt die gesicherte Möglichkeit übergroße und überschwere Fracht im strategischen Lufttransport zu verlegen. Hierzu sind derzeit zwei Luftfahrzeugtypen geeignet. Dieses sind die ANTONOV AN-124 und die amerikanische C5M GALAXY, die nur militärisch betrieben wird. Es wurde national und multinational nach Lösungsmöglichkeiten zum Schließen dieser Fähigkeitslücke gesucht. Auch eine beauftragte Studie der European Defence Agency (EDA) kommt zu dem Ergebnis, dass es für die gesicherte gewerbliche Verfügbarkeit keine vollumfängliche Alternative zur AN-124 gibt.

Es wird spannend, wie die Entscheidung ausfällt und wie sich die einzelnen SALIS-Partnernationen dabei positionieren. Die NSPA in Kapellen / Luxemburg führt zwar das Bieterverfahren durch, letztendlich entscheiden aber die 14 SALIS-Partnerstaaten mit Stimmenanteilen, je nach Größe ihres Transportkontingents. Deutschland steht hier an erster Stelle und ist somit die Lead-Nation.

Denkbar wäre, dass der Gegensatz in der NATO über die richtige Eindämmungsstrategie gegenüber Russland, auch auf SALIS durchschlägt. Zur Linie Deutschlands, Hauptvertreter der Strategie “Druck plus Handreichen”, würde es passen, ein russisches Unternehmen zum Zuge kommen zu lassen. Dagegen wird der SALIS-Nation Polen mit ihrem “Hardbalancing” Kurs gegen Russland, eher daran gelegen sein, einer ukrainischen bzw. nicht-russischen Unternehmung den Zuschlag zu erteilen. Interessant wird zudem, wie die bisherige GmbH abgewickelt wird.

Das Deutschland-Netzwerk der Russen
So wie es aussieht, hat Wolga Dnepr sein Angebot für SALIS ab 2017 über die Ruslan SALIS GmbH abgegeben. Die Gesellschaft deutschen Rechts ist am Bieterverfahren beteiligt, so Iwan Strelnikow, kaufmännischer Geschäftsführer der GmbH, gegenüber dem Autor. Die Antwort auf die Nachfrage, ob das Angebot mit Übereinstimmung von Antonow zustande kam und auch die Interessen des ukrainischen Nochpartners bei der GmbH widerspiegelt, wurde verweigert. Zwei Firmen haben zusammen ein fifty-fifty Joint Venture und eine nutzt es dann für ihr eigenes Angebot? Laut einem Fachanwalt für Vergaberecht, dessen Kanzlei auch Bundeswehrprojekte betreut, ist das möglich, da das “Innenverhältnis” der Gesellschaft für die Beteiligung an Bieterverfahren keine Rolle spielt.

Dass Wolga Dnepr sein Angebot für die SALIS der NATO über die deutsche Gesellschaft laufen lässt, zeigt, dass die Russen in der Firma das Sagen haben. Im Handelsregisterauszug der Ruslan SALIS GmbH heißt es, “Ist nur ein Geschäftsführer bestellt, so vertritt er die Gesellschaft allein.” Seit Beginn von SALIS 2004 ist das der Wolga-Dnepr Mann Valery Alexandrowitsch Gabriel. Auch dessen Stellvertreter kam bis vor Kurzem stets aus dem russischen Unternehmen. Doch nun bauen die Russen die GmbH um, für die Zeit nach dem Abgang der Ukrainer. Laut der Leipziger Volkszeitung ist der Deutsche Dierk Näther jetzt Vize-Geschäftsführer bei Ruslan SALIS. Näther war bis 2015 Chef des Flughafens Leipzig. Damit bauen die Russen ihr Netzwerk in der SALIS-Leadnation Deutschland aus. Wolga Dnepr Rechtsvertreter für SALIS ist Elmar Rauch, ehemaliger Ministerialrat an der Vertretung Deutschlands bei der NATO in Brüssel. Rauch schied 2001 freiwillig aus dem Dienst und heuerte bei Wolga Dnepr an. In Branchenkreisen gilt Rauch als Konstrukteur des bisherigen SALIS Joint Ventures. Zudem lobbyiert Wolga Dnepr über die Deutsch-Russische Wirtschaftsallianz für seine Interessen, in deren Beirat wiederum ein Vertreter des Leipziger Flughafens sitzt.

Die Antonov An-225 Mriya

Die Antonov An-225 Mriya

Die ukrainisch-polnische Allianz
Das Deutschland-Netzwerk der Russen sehen die Ukrainer als Bedrohung. Laut ukrainischen Quellen, muss der kommende SALIS-Dienstleister laut Anforderungskatalog der NSPA nicht mehr sechs, sondern sieben bis acht AN-124 bereitstellen. Dahinter argwöhnen die Ukrainer Lobbyarbeit von Wolga-Dnepr. Denn während der russische Konkurrent zehn AN-124 aufbieten kann, wäre Antonow mit seinen sieben Maschinen dieses Typs bereits am Limit. Um dieses Manko auszugleichen, hat Antonow sein SALIS-Angebot wohl wie folgt konzipiert: Über ein Abkommen mit Maximus Airlines aus den Vereinigten Arabischen Emiraten erhalten die Ukrainer zwei zusätzliche AN-124. Um den Auftrag zu bekommen, bieten die Ukrainer der NATO an, das einzige Exemplar der AN-225, dem größten Frachtflugzeug der Welt, für SALIS zu nutzen, zum Preis einer AN-124. Während die Russen den deutschen Vektor bespielen, setzen die Ukrainer auf Polen. Zurzeit verhandeln beide Seiten über die Bildung eines Konsortiums zwischen Antonow und Firmen der polnischen Luftfahrtindustrie. Ein Ziel dabei: Die Antonow-Flieger unabhängig von russischen Komponenten zu machen. Außerdem möchten die ukrainischen Flugzeugbauer ihr Portfolio für das 21. Jahrhundert diversifizieren. Zwischen Antonow und dem polnischen Rüstungsunternehmen WB Electronics gibt es ein Memorandum zum Bau von Drohnen für die ukrainischen Streitkräfte.

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How Israel fears its qualitative military edge will be undercut

Throughout its almost seven-decade existence, the leaders of the State of Israel have long worried that their far larger Arab neighbours would one day brandish more advanced weapon systems against them, effectively combine those weapons with their superior numbers and erase the qualitative military edge Israel has over them and defeat it.

A Royal Air Force Boeing Sentry AEW.1 (E-3D serial ZH103) from No. 8 Squadron, RAF Waddington, deployed to the U.S. Air Force 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing, prepares to take off for a mission from Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, on 22 March 2003.

A Royal Air Force Boeing Sentry AEW.1 (E-3D serial ZH103) from No. 8 Squadron, RAF Waddington, deployed to the U.S. Air Force 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing, prepares to take off for a mission from Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, on 22 March 2003.

This fear saw Israel come out in staunch opposition to the Americans decision in the early 1980’s to sell Saudi Arabia advanced E-3 Sentry AWACS surveillance aircraft since, in the wrong hands, they could potentially have alerted an enemy to where Israelis aircraft were operating and could in turn compromise the element of surprise for Israel in a future war, a crucial element for its victory against Egypt in the June 1967 war. [1]

Presently the Israelis are concerned about the tiny oil sheikdom of Qatar buying a fleet of F-15 jets from the US. An interesting situation considering that Israel hasn’t been concerned about Saudi Arabia’s manic military build-up over the course of the last decade given the fact it perceives Riyadh as a bulwark against Iran, its number one regional adversary, and the salient fact that Qatar is a trusted US ally. This is primarily due to the fact that Qatar has been supportive of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in recent years and is therefore seen as too untrustworthy and volatile to Israel to possess advanced military hardware.

While its opposition and lobbying in United States Congress to stop the Qatar deal is reminiscent of its opposition to the Saudi-AWACS deal, there is another respect to which the Israelis have increasingly feared that its qualitative military edge could be undermined. That being the acquisition by formidable non-state actors of hi-tech weaponry which could undercut the technological edge the Israeli military wields against its enemies.

Historically Israel’s greatest battlefield victories have been achieved against conventional adversaries. The aforementioned 1967 war was such a stunning success given Israel’s ability to knock out the air power of its adversaries and take speedy control of the skies. Air superiority over the Sinai Peninsula enabled the Israelis to strike convoys of the Egyptian Army out in the open and effectively neutralise the threat posed by that army. Egypt tried to prevent a repeat of that defeat in the ensuing 1973 Arab-Israeli war by establishing a network of surface-to-air missiles to prevent its ground forces from being decimated from the air before advancing in a failed bid to recapture its lost territory.

Locations_bombed_Aug13_no_fact_boxBy the time the Israelis began fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon in the early 1980’s, they found themselves facing a vastly different enemy. Facing off against an elusive guerilla enemy has invariably proven more difficult for the Israeli military than facing off against a conventional enemy in the open. To effectively cripple a group like Hezbollah, without risking a large ground deployment and a large number of casualties, entails directing firepower against Hezbollah positions without harming civilians, which has proven extremely difficult given the fact that Hezbollah is deeply embedded and entrenched among the population. Meaning that to even cripple the group militarily the Israelis would risk killing large numbers of civilians.

Add to this the fact that Hezbollah has amassed many more surface-to-surface missiles since its last war with Israel ten years ago. Weapons which could do considerable damage to Israel itself. To quickly destroy those weapons the Israelis would be unable to warn civilians in areas it targets to minimize innocent casualties without risking losing the all-important element of surprise.

One Israeli official last year outlined how frustrating this has proven to be. He pointed to 200 Shiite villages in southern Lebanon which constitute military strongholds and would need to be quickly razed in the event of another war to prevent rockets from being fired into Israel. “It is a win-win situation for Hezbollah,” the official pointed out. “If we attack them, we kill civilians, If we don’t attack because there are civilians, it is good for Hezbollah as well.”

In the last round of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah approximately 1,200 people in Lebanon were killed. The first sign that Israel’s qualitative technological edge over Hezbollah is at risk of being undermined took place when the Israeli naval vessel, the INS Hanit, was badly damaged by a Chinese-made Hezbollah C-802 anti-ship missile (see also Mark Mazzetti, “Striking Deep Into Israel, Hamas Employs an Upgraded Arsenal“, The New York Times, 31.12.2008). Similarly Hezbollah guerrillas also managed to hit eleven of Israel’s advanced Merkava tanks during Israel’s limited ground incursion into south Lebanon, killing 12 soldiers, in the latter phase of that war using Kornet anti-tank missiles.

AT-14_07 AT-14_15
Boxes with Russian 9M133 Kornet anti-tank guided missiles seized in the South Lebanese village Ghandouriyeh. Click on the image to enlarge.

While its forces were threatened on the ground and in the sea the Israelis still dominated the skies and were, albeit with the risk of increasing the civilian death toll, able to rapidly bomb Hezbollah anywhere in Lebanon (see the map of Israel’s bombings during the 2006 Lebanon War above).

That superiority could also be undermined sometime in the future and Israel is well aware of it. Since the war in Syria began, Israel has launched air-strikes into that war-torn country numerous times, all of their raids appeared to serve a single purpose: Prevent Hezbollah from getting its hands on advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft missile systems. Such weaponry in Hezbollah’s hands could further undermine Israel’s ability to rapidly get the upper hand against the group in any future war since it could significantly undermine its superiority of the skies.

This is one scenario Israel has had to fear the most in recent times, the day it has to deal with a large conventional adversary are essentially gone. The threat of the elusive, guerilla adversary garnering the means to undercut Israel’s long-held qualitative military edge is likely what keeps the minds of many military strategists in Jerusalem preoccupied.

Footnotes
In July 2015, the US have begun to upgrade Saudis E-3 Sentry fleet with the new Interrogator Friend or Foe (IFF) systems, as part of the fleet’s Block 40/45 upgrade program (for more details about the upgrade see “Saudis Seek E-3 Fleet Upgrades“, Defense Indutry Daily, 31.07.2015).

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The largest-caliber mortar system in the world is shelling cities in Syria and Ukraine (2/2)

by Sébastien Roblin. He holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.

Excluding rockets, the Russian 240 mm Mortar M240 — both the 2S4 vehicle and towed M240 systems — is the largest caliber land-based artillery weapon in use. Part one has covered the basic characteristics and its employment in the Yom Kippur War by the Egyptian and Syrian armies, as well in Afghanistan by the Soviets and during the Second Chechen War by the Russian Army. The following second part will cover its use in Ukraine and Syria.

2S4 Tyulpan

2S4 Tyulpan

The M240 mortar in the Syrian Civil War
With the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the rebel-held city of Homs was bombarded by the Syrian Arab Army. In February 2012, a month in which the bombardment is believed to have killed 1,000 civilians, reports began to surface that the Syrian army was using its 240mm mortars on the densely populated city. Conclusive evidence for which was eventually given in the recovered tail-fin fragments of an F-864 shell in the Baba Amr district, and later videos showing the mortars being fired. Human Rights Watch then published several reports that gained wide traction in the media, leading to articles in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and other outlets. (Many articles stated that 2S4 Tyulpan vehicles were used, but none have ever been recorded being sold to Syria nor has any media emerged showing their use, so it is safe to conclude that the systems in question are towed M240s).

Paul Conroy, a war correspondent in Homs who experienced the bombardment, singled out the terror the mortars inspired in several passages in his book “Under the Wire“. After Conrony’s media center was hit by a rocket strike, killing two journalists, and wounding him and fellow French journalist Edith Bouvier, he wrote about being stuck in a makeshift hospital while the city shook under a constant barrage from the mortars:

The first shell of the opening salvo shook our world. […]
“Paul, what do you think that explosion was? It was bigger than anything we have heard so far.” […]
“Okay, since you asked, Edith, that was 240mm mortar – the largest in the world […] If one hits us, we won’t know about it. Not a thing.” […]
In the far off distance we heard three deep, muffled, bass-like thumps. “Here they come,” I said. “Now listen.” There was a four-second delay before we heard the scream of the huge mortars. The sound was long and drawn out […] — Paul Conroy in “Under the Wire“, Weinstein Books, p. 237ff.

In an article he later wrote: “I lay there and listened as salvos of three of these mortars were launched at a time, 18 hours a day, for five days […] The question was, where was all the ammunition coming from?”.

Cluster Munitions in the Suburbs of Damascus
There were few reports of the use of 240mm mortars in 2013 and 2014, besides a YouTube video claiming to depict a mortar strike in 2013 (see video below). This could be a result of depletion of ammunition stocks. However, in late 2015 and early 2016, casings of 240mm rounds designed to carry cluster munitions were identified by ARES in Dhouma and East Ghouta, both suburbs of Damascus. In both cases, the fragments were parts of rocket-assisted 3O8 Nerpa (Seal) cargo projectiles (the rockets double the mortar’s range to 20 kilometers or more).

Photo of the 240mm 3O8 cargo shell that struck the school in Dhouma. The man is holding an unexploded O-10 submuntion, of which 14 are carried in the cargo shell (Photo: Yasser el Doumany).

Photo of the 240mm 3O8 cargo shell that struck the school in Dhouma. The man is holding an unexploded O-10 submuntion, of which 14 are carried in the cargo shell (Photo: Yasser el Doumany).

These specialized “cargo-shells” are designed to rain O-10-FRAG and A01-SCh cluster bomb sub-munitions over an area equivalent to four football fields. Cluster munitions are more deadly than regular High Explosive shells to exposed persons and vehicles, but their use has been curtailed or discontinued in many militaries because a significant percentage of the sub-munitions fail to explode after impact, remaining behind as deadly traps for civilians that may come across them after the fighting has moved on or ended. The 3O8 container shells can carry fourteen O-10 bomblets, weighing 4 kg (8.8 lbs.) each, which fall to the ground with parachutes. O-10s had never been confirmed used in war before, though there were rumors they were used in Chechnya.

Most of the cluster munitions have been dropped by aircraft, but Nerpa shells have been positively identified in at least two cases.

On the 13th of December, two different schools were struck by the Nerpa cluster warheads while students were in class, killing eight children and two teachers. A local organization associated with the rebels, the Damascus School Directorate, posted pictures of the aftermath of the attack, and Human Rights Watch noted that the “photographs and video footage of injured children and damage consistent with a cluster munition strike to what appears to be a school.” To put it plainly: the surviving children in the photographs exhibit multiple deep wounds. Another photo shows two children in pink school clothes lying in a pool of blood next to a wall pocked with multiple impact craters. One of the 3O8 cargo-shells remains buried in the concrete next to the school, where it was photographed, giving proof of the attacks that reportedly had been ongoing for months.

The sudden appearance in late 2015 of these more sophisticated, long-range projectiles for the weapon system leads to the obvious, though unconfirmed, conclusion: these rounds were part of a new shipment of arms sent by Russia, reflecting Vladimir Putin’s intensified support for Bashar al-Assad in 2015, which also has included the transfer of major hardware such as the T-90 tank.

The terminal at Luhansk International Airport after the final bombardment by 2S4 Tyulpans in September 2014.

The terminal at Luhansk International Airport after the final bombardment by 2S4 Tyulpans in September 2014.

The “Tactical Nuke” of Luhansk Airport
Meanwhile, fighting raged in Eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists. The first Tyulpan was sighted in Ukraine on July 5th, 2014 by an OSCE drone. These provided early, indisputable proof of Russian support for the rebel, as the Ukrainian army never owned 2S4s. At least four “batteries” are reported to be in use by Russian-backed separatists.

By the Fall of 2014, the conflicted entered a static phase in which the Ukrainian army and the separatists fought protracted artillery duels punctuated by occasional assaults for control of strategic positions. Chief amongst them were Luhansk and Dontesk International Airports, both barely held on to by Ukrainian government forces. But after a particularly devastating bombardment in September, Ukrainian Defense Minister Valery Gelety wrote on Facebook that Luhansk had been struck by a “tactical nuke”. After this panicked claim, the Gelety later clarified: “In particular, the forces of the Russian Federation made two strikes with self-propelled mortar 2S4 “Tulips” in Luhansk airport. It is for this reason that our military had to leave. The blows were so powerful that “completely destroyed the building from the fifth floor to the basement.”

He further pointed out that 2S4s were capable of firing nuclear projectiles, and claimed the Russians were testing out their “new equipment” in Ukraine. (Russian media mocked him, pointing out the 2S4s had been developed in the 1970s). Gelety said: “If it were not for the Tyulpans, we could have been holding the airport for months and nobody would have ousted us from it.”

A video taken just before the fall of Luhansk airport captures the devastation caused by the bombardment:

160 kilometers to the West, the battle for Donetsk International Airport raged on for 240 days. Again, 2S4s were moved into position. Ukrainian nationalists operating in the rebel-held claimed to have exploded a mine or IED under one 2S4, preventing it from joining the attack. But in January, 2015 the 2S4s launched a heavy bombardment which caused the terminals in the airport to literally collapse onto their foundations. The ensuing tank attack finally forced Ukrainians to withdraw on January 21st.

Once again, the 240mm mortars had a tremendous psychological impact as well as physical one—and incited intense discussion in the media.

Note: An earlier version of this article included a YouTube video which claimed to portray an explosion caused by a 2S4 artillery strike.  However, this explosion was actually that of a chemical plant likely struck by the artillery of the Ukrainian army. 

Artillery and Ethics
No Western army today operates tube artillery as large-caliber as the M240/2S4. But that is simply because they instead rely upon aircraft using precision-guided munitions often heavier than the M240’s 282-lb shells to destroy heavy fortifications, such as JDAMs (which vary in weight from 500 to 2,000 lbs.). There are also large rocket artillery-systems such as the 270mm M270 MRLS used by the US Army. On this basis, some Russian and Syria commenters argue that Western forces have frequently employed heavier, higher-tech ordnance, and that the M240/2S4 are no different than any another weapon of war.

This ignores the context in question. Accurately targeting a 240mm mortar against an identifiable military position, such as fortifications on the Suez canal or a mujahidin cave in Afghanistan, though still gruesome in effect, is not the same as saturating them in an urban area with a heavy civilian population, like Homs or Beirut. A strike from such a massive shell can plunge through reinforced roofs and easily kill or injure all of the occupants in an apartment building, even if they are in “safe” cover. As Conroy observed when he encountered a 10 by 15 meter large cellar packed with 300 female civilians in Homs: “The cellar was a haven for these women and children but it wasn’t a bombproof shelter. A direct hit from a 240mm mortar would kill all of them.” Furthermore, the use of cluster munitions which explode indiscriminately over a wide area, will leave behind a deadly legacy of unexploded sub-munitions outlasting the war itself.

In short, using big guns is not in itself the concern. It is the willingness to employ them against civilian areas — sometimes even with the civilians as the intended target — that is at the heart of the critique.

Posted in English, International, Proliferation, Russia, Sébastien Roblin, Security Policy, Syria, Ukraine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Syrian Army of Islam Can Learn a Lesson from Hamas

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College and a reporter for War Is Boring. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.

Jaysh al-Islam

Jaysh al-Islam

The Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam) represents one of the most powerful factions in the Syrian opposition and the most powerful in the Damascene countryside. When comparing Jaish al-Islam and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) many similarities between the two are striking. As the Syrian paramilitary comes to resemble the Palestinian terrorist organization, both defending their besieged strongholds against stronger enemies, Jaish al-Islam may try to mimic Hamas further.

Though Jaish al-Islam represents the strongest rebels in the countryside of the Syrian capital, it, like Hamas, much share territory with rivals. Sometimes, it has solved potential problems by absorbing similar, smaller paramilitaries. Elsewhere, Jaish al-Islam has resorted to attacking potential enemies among the Syrian opposition. “Jaish al-Islam recently launched a campaign of arrests against its rival faction — Jaish al-Umma,” reported Syria Deeply March 22. “This led to the execution of the group’s leader Abu Ali Khayba and the imprisonment of high-ranking official Abu Subhi Taha”. Hamas has often approached its rivals in the Gaza Strip with more benevolence, cooperating with Islamist factions such as the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine and secularist factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. However, the terrorist organization little questioned expelling Fatah, Hamas’ greatest competitor, during the Battle of Gaza (for more see also Austin Michael Bodetti, “Hamas Is Hardline but Palestinian Islamic Jihad Is Even More Extreme“, offiziere.ch, 04.04.2016). Jaish al-Islam and Hamas have balanced cooperation with violence in overpowering and subduing their revolutionary rivals. Maintaining hegemony in their insurgencies, they are the Syrian government’s and Israel’s preeminent enemies.

Jaysh al-Islam on training.

Jaysh al-Islam on training.

Despite Hamas’ membership in complex, contradictory coalitions with not only Iran and Syria but also Qatar and Turkey, Israel has managed to outgun the terrorist organization and all other Palestinian factions for decades. Jaish al-Islam faces a similar problem, for, as long as Iran and Russia continue to support the Syrian government with firepower and manpower, the paramilitary will need to use asymmetric, guerilla warfare. The Syrian government has besieged and encircled Jaish al-Islam’s territory for years, so the rebels have responded by tunneling below the Syrian Army’s frontlines. “Jaish al-Islam also operates several underground smuggling tunnels in the area,” notes the OSINT Blog. “These tunnels reduce the effectiveness of the near total government siege on Jobar. Other tunnel networks allow the transfer of supplies into [Eeast] Ghouta and allow Jaish al-Islam’s leadership to leave and enter the [Eeast] Ghouta pocket at will. […] The network of tunnels crisscrossing under [Eeast] Ghouta makes it extremely hard for the Syrian government to totally blockade areas they are besieging.” In Aleppo and Idlib Governorates, rebels have used tunnels for less-obvious objectives, such as exploding Syrian soldiers’ military bases beneath them. Tunnel warfare remains an important component of Hamas’ arsenal too. Palestinian fighters have used tunnels to ambush Israelis, hide rockets, and smuggle weapons. Earlier this month, Israeli soldiers discovered another of Hamas’ tunnels despite two years without incidents. Because the Syrian government and Israel exercise air supremacy, Jaish al-Islam and Hamas have found creative methods of avoiding enemy warplanes. Surprisingly the rebels outside Damascus have yet to bomb the Syrian government like their northern allies, given that Iran and Russia continue to arm the Syrian government well beyond the support that the Syrian opposition receives from regional powers.

One of the Jaish al-Islam infiltration tunnels used to successfully attack from behind SAA lines in the 2015 Tal Kurdi Offensive (Source: "The Economics of War: A Case Study on Jaish al-Islam", The OSINT Blog, 19.03.2016).

One of the Jaish al-Islam infiltration tunnels used to successfully attack from behind SAA lines in the 2015 Tal Kurdi Offensive (Source: “The Economics of War: A Case Study on Jaish al-Islam“, The OSINT Blog, 19.03.2016).

Targeted killings have forced Jaish al-Islam and Hamas to heighten their adaptability and durability. Last year, an airstrike from Russia or Syria killed Zahran Alloush, Jaish al-Islam’s leader. His followers replaced him soon enough. Since then, Jaish al-Islam has sustained its preeminence among the Syrian opposition in general. The Syrian opposition’s leading negotiator to Geneva III is Muhammad Alloush, an important politician in Jaish al-Islam. The paramilitary has also counterattacked Kurdish and Syrian soldiers as far as Aleppo after accusing them of violating the ceasefire. The consequences of Zahran Alloush’s killing have been minimal at worst. Hamas, meanwhile, remains as strong as ever even though Israel has assassinated dozens of its leaders. It has coordinated with Egypt to patrol its territory bordering the Sinai Peninsula, showing that its strength has only increased since the 2014 conflict with Israel. “This emphasizes the Palestinian stand to tighten security on the border and nothing that harms Egypt will come out of Gaza,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.. Jaish al-Islam and Hamas have proved their durability in confronting the military superiority of the Syrian government and Israel.

Where the Syrian Civil War and the conflicts in Israel and Palestine overlap, comparing Jaish al-Islam and Hamas becomes difficult. Once, Hamas worked with Iran, one of the Syrian opposition’s enemies. The Palestinian terrorist organization has transitioned away from Iran because of the Syrian Civil War’s inherent sectarianism, presenting opportunities to ally with other states. Some journalists have even alleged that Hamas has backed the Syrian opposition. However these relationships develop, they should intrigue analysts enough to consider a comparison between Hamas and Jaish al-Islam.

The Syrian ceasefire degrading daily, Jaish al-Islam may look to Palestine for an example of how to resist an enemy with superior airpower, firepower, and manpower. Unless the Syrian opposition receives long-requested surface-to-air missiles, the present military dilemma will require a creative yet violent response. In fact, Hamas has already learned one for Israel.

Posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, English, Gaza, Syria | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Has Sudan Received More Su-24 Fencer?

Sudan probably received additional Su-24 Fencer aircraft from Belarus, recently acquired satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe suggests.

DG (25JAN2016) Wadi Sayyidna

Satellite imagery acquired by DigitalGlobe on 25JAN2016 show two Su-24 Fencer ground attack aircraft parked on the apron at Sudan’s Wadi Sayyidna.

Back in 2013, it was reported that Sudan would acquire 12 Soviet-era Su-24 Fencer aircraft from Belarusian BelTechExport. The aircraft, previously flown by the Belarusian Air force, were decommissioned from the cash-strapped air arm not long before.

We’ve been tracking the swing-wing bombers ever since Belarus transferred them to the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant in Baranovichi. There, workers overhauled the ground attack planes and repainted the bombers in a fresh desert camo scheme.

The same year the aircraft were delivered. The Harvard-based Satellite Sentinel Project were the first to publish satellite imagery showing three of them parked at Wadi Sayyidna just north of Khartoum. United Nations arms control documents later showed that Sudan received a total of four in their first shipment.

With new bombers, the north African country wasted no time putting them to use. Since then, they’ve been involved with several bombing runs in South Kordofan’s Nuba Mountains, helping kill and displace the local Nuba population. Earlier in 2015, Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces stepped up their campaign by continuing to arm brutal militias to attack the region. There’s even evidence that the regime has employed cluster munitions.

By December, the warring parties failed to come to a cessation agreement which means these ground attack aircraft haven’t flown their last flight in the conflict. But the question remains, will future strikes involve the same aircraft received in 2013?

DG (19DEC2015) Sudan Su-24 King Khalid AB

Satellite imagery acquired by DigitalGlobe on 19DEC2015 show two Su-24 Fencer ground attack aircraft parked on the apron at KSA’s King Khalid Airbase.

It’s hard to say, but here’s what we know.

Last year Sudan deployed forces in support of Operation Decisive Storm, Saudi Arabia’s Yemen intervention to restore Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power. Among those forces include Sudan’s recently acquired Su-24. Media reports citing the number of aircraft deployed by the north African country unfortunately conflict. Sudanese sources say between three and four. Imagery acquired on 19 December 2015 available in Google Earth still showed two Su-24 Fencer parked on the apron and active at KSA’s King Khalid Airbase.

New satellite imagery (top header image) of Wadi Sayyidna also show two Fencer parked on the apron in January 2016. Assuming the number of aircraft deployed is correct, the January imagery suggests either the aircraft have returned from the conflict or that new arms transfers occurred. However, it seems unlikely that Sudan would have recalled the bombers from the Saudi-led coalition given developments in Aden throughout the month. (See more about that here). There’s also been no media attention on the return of the aircraft to Sudan.

By late February, the Sudan Tribune reported that the Saudis would be providing the north African country USD 5 billion in military assistance. Citing unidentified sources, the article suggests the additional funds were a reward for Sudan’s political and military support confronting Iran [read: Yemen]. The new support comes in addition to renewed Saudi agricultural investment and banking support.

Then there’s also previous satellite imagery from Belarus to consider. Back in 2014, we watched Belarus move more of the decommissioned bombers to the 558th’s work apron. The following year, we saw the finished products roll out of the drive-through maintenance hangars and parked nearby. Given the camo scheme observed in the imagery, it’s likely Belarus has provided a second batch of Su-24 to Sudan.

If confirmed, it would suggest that Belarus is continuing with additional deliveries of the rumored contract. While at present we can’t be 100% certain, we await further imagery to provide a higher confidence level of this assessment.

Posted in Armed Forces, Belarus, Chris B, English, General Knowledge, Intelligence, Saudi Arabia, Sudan | Tagged | Leave a comment

The largest-caliber mortar system in the world is shelling cities in Syria and Ukraine (1/2)

by Sébastien Roblin. He holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.

Excluding rockets, the Russian 240 mm Mortar M240 — both the 2S4 vehicle and towed M240 systems — is the largest caliber land-based artillery weapon in use. Part one of the following article will cover the basic characteristics and its employment in the Yom Kippur War by the Egyptian and Syrian armies, as well in Afghanistan by the Soviets and during the Second Chechen War by the Russian Army. The second part will cover its use in Ukraine and Syria.

Remnants from a 240 mm rocket-assisted mortar projectile in Damascus.

Remnants from a 240 mm rocket-assisted mortar projectile in Damascus.

The Russian M240 mortar is the largest-caliber contemporary mortar system in use — indeed, along with its vehicle mounted counterpart, the 2S4 Tyulpan (Tulip), it is possibly the largest caliber tube artillery system (not including rockets) used in combat today. Its massive shells were intended to smash apart heavy military fortifications, but just as often they have been employed to rain devastation upon densely populated urban areas.

The fascination with “the biggest guns” often can seem of doubtful relevance. The most extreme designs often remain impractical prototypes that rarely see widespread production or use. This is not the case with the M240 and 2S4, however, since the mortar was first produced by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, it has been employed in six wars (the Yom Kippur War, Lebanese Civil War, Soviet War in Afghanistan, Second Chechen War, War in Ukraine, and Syrian Civil War) by Syria, Egypt and the Soviet Union/Russia.

Mortars are considered the infantry man’s personal artillery. Unlike heavy howitzers and field guns, lighter mortars can be disassembled and carried on foot, and used at the discretion of low-ranking officers without having to pass on a request to a separate artillery unit. Mortars deliver explosive payloads comparable to cannons of the same caliber, and at a higher potential rate of fire if needed, though at the cost of having shorter range: a modern medium or heavy mortar typically has a range of 6-7 kilometers using regular projectiles, while a contemporary heavy howitzer might shoot to distances of 24 kilometers or more. But the sheer portability of the mortar—combined with its usefulness for concealed, indirect fire has made them ubiquitous in guerilla conflicts and insurgencies around the world. Indeed, mortars are numbered among the “small arms” or “light weapons” that cause 90% of civilian deaths in contemporary wars.

Video capture from Syria: a 240mm F864 shell compared to a regular shell.

Video capture from Syria: a 240mm F864 shell compared to a regular shell.

The Soviet M240 Mortar, however, is an aberration. Mortar designs above 120mm caliber are few in number, but the M240 shells are twice that in diameter. Hardly a “light weapon”, it weighs over 4,150 kg (9,130 lbs.) once it is deployed for combat (which takes 25 minutes), with each of its 1.5 meter-long shells weighing in at 130kg (282 lbs.), including 34 kilograms of high explosives. It can deliver these shells to a distance between 800 to 9,700 meters at a rate of fire of one shell per minute, although special rocket-assisted ammunition can extend the range to above 20 kilometers. Unlike the coughing report of most mortars, each shot from an M240 makes a ringing sound like a gigantic bell as the projectile shoots up at a seemingly vertical angle into the sky.

What was the rationale behind such a combination of extreme firepower with comparatively short range? Well, the M240 still weighs a lot less than other weapons of the same caliber, such as the 29,000 kg. (64,000 lb.) 240mm M1 howitzer still operated by Taiwan, and its shorter range is less of an impediment if used against an immobile, fortified target. In other words, the M240 is a siege weapon.

Goliaths of the Yom Kippur War
The Soviet Union supplied M240 mortars to both the Egyptian and Syrian armies, who gave the weapon its baptism of fire in the Yom Kippur War. The Egyptian mortars were tasked with pounding the heavy Israeli fortifications along the Suez Canal. The Syrian mortars, grouped in a special high-level artillery formation, smashed the Israeli outposts on Mount Hermon and Tel Fares on the Golan Heights, disrupting Israeli communication networks and blinding artillery observation and intelligence-gathering posts.

Alon Harksberg, an Israeli veteran of the battle on the Golan Heights, later wrote about the effects of a 240mm bombardment in a web forum:

With the 240mm, warning [of an incoming bombardment] and cover didn’t really matter since if you happened to be in the same general area where they impacted, you’d be dead (if lucky) or horribly maimed / injured from giant shrapnel and flying debris (if not so). During the war of attrition that developed on the Hermon following the 1973 armistice, the Syrians used 240mm (and 180mm [Soviet S-23 field guns]) to rake the ridge from end to end, sometimes on a nightly basis, until we put an end to that in an operation which still cannot be discussed. That was a very unsettling experience to say the least, with many brave men succumbing to mental fatigue under the relentless bombardment. […] We used to call them these huge bastards “Goliaths”, both after the biblical character and after the map grid in which one of the more notorious batteries was located (submerged under nearly 2 meters of anti-air raid concrete, with only the barrels sticking out, ala Guns of the Navarone).

The Syrian mortars were not permanently silenced however. Sixteen years later, in an ominous foretaste of their employment in the Syrian Civil War, 240mm mortars and heavy 180mm guns were used to shell East Beirut in 1989 during the Lebanese Civil War. A 1989 briefing in the Knesset by then-Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Rabin suggests a chilling death toll: “In the previous round of fighting, the Syrians employed 180 mm. and 240 mm. artillery, and mercilessly shelled urban centers in East Beirut. As a result of this shelling and the Christians’ return fire at West Beirut, more than 900 people were killed, and more than 3,000 injured in the last round of fighting”.

A UN account of the bombardment notes that “[e]ach projectile weighed 110 kilos and could penetrate the concrete shelters which had hitherto afforded the civilian population some protection. Fifteen people had been killed and more than forty-wounded two nights before in a shelter close to the UNIFIL and UNTSO offices in East Beirut.” (Marrack Goulding, “Peacemonger“, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, p. 105).

The Washington Post and the New York Times also marveled at the devastation, one article noting that it was more “like a bomb than a shell. It can leave a crater 15 feet in diameter“.

The Siege of Beirut in 1982.

The Siege of Beirut in 1982.

The M240 and 2S4 Tulip in Afghanistan
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union first employed its 240mm mortars in combat in Afghanistan. Konstantin Scherbakov, a gunner in the 1074th Artillery Battalion gave a detailed account of a 1985 strike against a fortress in the Panjshir Valley belonging to the Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud — yes, that Massoud, the future leader of the Northern Alliance opposing the Taliban who was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks (for Massoud’s role in AFghanistan see also Dr. Adrian Hänni and Lukas Hegi, “The Pakistani Godfather: The Inter-Services Intelligence and the Afghan Taliban 1994-2010”, offiziere.ch, 2013. part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4). The 1074th was equipped with M240 mortars (not 2S4 vehicles as reported in some sources) towed by MT-LB armored tractors, and had received specialized laser-guided Smel’Chak (Daredevil) rounds that could be landed on target by a laser designator.

Going into the gorge, the battery took up firing position on crests to the left and right of our units. Soon the situation was they had blocked our progress with DShK heavy machine guns firing from a protected position inside Massoud’s fortress. At this point, the commander of the battalion, Major Vershinin enlisted the team into destroying the gun emplacements. Commander Beletsky lit the target with a laser rangefinder and we took our first shot using a regular round and then the second with the laser-guided “Daredevil.” […]. — Konstantin Scherbakov.

In a twelve minute fire mission, the fortress was reduced to rubble. The engagement highlighted one of the advantages of the mortar system: like all mortars, the M240 shot shells at a high-angle trajectory, and could arc over the walls of the fortress while conventional bombardment from 122mm guns slammed into the fortress walls. The laser-guided shells drastically improved accuracy, and furthermore, the sheer weight of the shells meant that they were little affected by meteorological conditions. However, the weapons could become dangerous if not well-maintained:

When firing, it was of great importance to thoroughly clean the barrel, literally after every shot […] Once we accidentally left a fragment from a previous shot in the barrel, and the next shell jammed while loading. The situation was rather unpleasant, since we could neither pull nor push the shell in or out. We had to stack mattresses under the breech and carefully hooked the jammed shell with drag ropes to an MT-LB tractor which pulled in one direction, while a second MT-LB pulled the barrel in another. It barely came out! After that, we made sure to clean the barrel perfectly after every shot. — Konstantin Scherbakov.

The towed M240s were replaced in Afghanistan by self-propelled 2S4 Tulip vehicles, where they continued to prove effective in destroying mountain strongholds and fortified caves. The 2S4 mounts the M240 mortar on a 30-ton armored vehicles with a crew of nine. The peculiar name comes out of a Russian tradition of naming self-propelled artillery after flowers (there are also the 2S1 Carnation, the 2S3 Acacia, the 2S5 Hyacinth, and the 2S7 Peony). These vehicles equipped special “High Powered Artillery Brigades” during the Cold War that had access to nuclear projectiles.

M240 Mortars in the Panjshir Valley, 1985 (Photo by Konstantin Scherbakov).

M240 Mortars in the Panjshir Valley, 1985 (Photo by Konstantin Scherbakov).

Leveling Grozny
The 2S4 showed up again in Russian service in the Second Chechen War in a manner which foreshadowed tactics employed in Syria. An independent 2S4 artillery unit “destroyed over 127 targets” in the separatist capital of Grozny, according to one source.

One analysis states that “[t]he Russians used these [2S4s] in the Second Chechen Campaign to help level Grozny […] Tanks and artillery ringed the city while dismounted infantry and special forces personnel, accompanied by artillery forward observers and snipers, slowly crept into the city searching for Chechen strong points. When they found them, artillery and long-range tank fire was directed to eliminate the strong point and crush the building. Large segments of the city were flattened before ground forces moved into the city.”

“Conservative” estimates suggest 25,000 to 29,000 civilians were killed by all causes in Grozny. By contrast, the Russian Army admits to the loss of 368 soldiers, and claims to have killed 1,500 rebels. In 2003, the United Nations named Grozny the “most destroyed city in the world”.

Three buildings in Chechnya reportedly struck by just two 240mm mortar rounds (Photo from the archives of Alexei Terentiev).

Three buildings in Chechnya reportedly struck by just two 240mm mortar rounds (Photo from the archives of Alexei Terentiev).

Posted in Afghanistan, Egypt, English, History, International, Israel, Lebanon, Russia, Sébastien Roblin, Syria, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Iran Expands Presence in Syria With Special Forces Deployment

by Galen Wright.

Recent comments by Iranian military personnel suggest that their support for the Assad government in the Syrian Civil War includes previously unknown contributions by the country’s conventional armed forces (the Artesh). Specifically, the deployment of advisors including those from the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade. This revelation is significant because it hints at an increasingly expeditionary role for a branch previously oriented for territorial defense.

65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade on exercise, December 2014 (IRNA).

65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade on exercise, December 2014 (IRNA).

Despite this development it is confidently assessed that the bulk of support to Damascus remains under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and their militias from around the region (see Galen Wright, “Examining Iranian Drone Strikes in Syria“, offiziere.ch, February 29 2016; for a description of the IRGC’s role in Syria, see: Paul Bucala and Frederick W. Kagan, “Iran’s Evolving Way of War: How the IRGC Fights in Syria“, AEI’s Critical Threats Project, March 24 2016).

1_Arasteh Speaks

Brigadier General Ali Arasteh speaks at the NEZAJA’s Rapid Reaction Training Center, March 2016. (Mizan News)

Unlike the IRGC’s involvement, which gradually came to light as casualties mounted, evidence of the Artesh’s involvement comes from unsolicited comments made by Brigadier Ali General Arasteh, the chief-of-staff for the Artesh’s Ground Force (NEZAJA). [1] First, while speaking during a graduation ceremony at one of the force’s training centers in March 2016 he remarked: “This training session is not exclusive to the forces’ advisors in Syria and Iraq, but in some cases these personnel will be used.” On April 4 he spoke directly to Tasnim News, stating that the NEZAJA had already sent advisors to Syria, including some from the 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade.

This comment was followed by a number of reports from Syria. On April 6, Iran’s Fars News tweeted an unconfirmed picture of the brigade’s personnel in al-Hadher, south Aleppo. This was followed by casualty reports on April 10 & 11 from the same area, where pro-government forces had just begun a major offensive. [2] At the same time, pro-government sources reported that the brigade deployed alongside Lebanese and Iraqi Hezbollah during fighting against Jabhat al-Nusra in al-Eis.

2_Around Aleppo

Location of NEZAJA activity in Syria. (Google Earth / Landsat)

Although the Artesh’s deployment to Syria is surprising, their choice of units isn’t. The 65th Airborne Special Forces Brigade – often referred to by its Persian acronym “NOHED” – is the Artesh’s counterpart to US Army Special Forces, whose own responsibilities include advise and assist missions.

3_Qualification BadgeThe similarity between the two is more than coincidence. When the unit was originally constituted as the 23rd NOHED Brigade in the 1970s, it was done so under the supervision of advisors from the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center & School. Despite the collapse of this relationship following the 1979 Revolution, the legacy is still evident in the brigade’s green berets and qualification badge, which is nearly identical to the Special Forces’ De oppresso liber unit insignia.

One of the brigade’s core specialities is irregular warfare, a term of art equivalent to the DoD’s unconventional warfare (guerrilla warfare supported by special forces). Their first experience actually came in the form of UW’s converse – foreign internal defense (FID) – when the brigade was deployed to support the Oman government during the 1970’s Dhofar Rebellion. This continued after the Revolution when the brigade assisted in suppressing the 1979 Kurdish rebellion on Iran’s western border by clearing villages and training counter-guerrilla militias. When Iraqi forces invaded later that year, touching off the Iran-Iraq War, the tables were turned and the brigade was tasked with organizing pro-Iranian guerrillas to operate behind Iraqi lines, under the auspices of the newly-created Irregular Warfare Headquarters. [4]

Over the course of 1980-1988 the brigade grew to a full division. After the war, the division’s special forces – remnants of the original 23rd – were reconstituted as the independent 65th NOHED Brigade in 1991.

Mojtaba Hashemi, a veteran of the pre-Revolutionary NOHED Brigade who would later be instrumental in operating the Irregular Warfare HQ during the Iran-Iraq War. Pictured wearing insignia of the US Army Special Forces. (Sajed.ir)

Mojtaba Hashemi, a veteran of the pre-Revolutionary NOHED Brigade who would later be instrumental in operating the Irregular Warfare HQ during the Iran-Iraq War. Pictured wearing insignia of the US Army Special Forces. (Sajed.ir)

These remnants included a hostage-rescue unit, which specializes in tactics that are largely synonymous with counter-terrorism. This training emphasizes small unit combat, especially in populated urban areas, often with the objective of capturing enemy combatants alive and with a minimum of collateral damage. With experience in this field dating back to the 1970s, the brigade also found themselves tasked with helping the IRGC and police establish their own special forces during the 1990s.

More important than the brigade’s capability itself, their deployment to Syria is also a product of one of the Artesh Ground Force’s rare moments of preeminence. Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria, and especially since the rise of the Islamic State (IS), Tehran has been preoccupied with what they refer to as “proxy wars” and the danger posed by spillover from neighboring intrastate conflicts. NEZAJA officials argue that the brigade’s mix of counter-terror and irregular warfare capabilities is an antidote to these non-traditional threats.

After the IS seized Mosul in summer 2014, NEZAJA commanders used the fear that Iranian territory was next to press their case for expanding special forces training to other units. In the official telling, the IS’s advance was only turned aside because the NEZAJA was able to quickly mobilize and deploy several combat brigades to the border. In a 2015 interview with Defa Press, the Ground Force’s commander Ahmad Reza Pourdastan claimed: “When they saw the power of our forces they dared not take another step, but instead went deeper into Iraq”.

A few months later Pourdastan argued to Iran’s legislature that this incident demonstrated the NEZAJA’s importance to the country’s counter-terrorism operations, and – importantly – the need to increase their funding: “As soldiers we say that today we see the footsteps of Daesh in Afghanistan and Pakistan and they are preparing themselves. As a soldier I plead that in these conditions the ground forces of the Artesh and IRGC must be strengthened in terms of mobility and readiness so that we can afford the equipment nescessary. […] Today’s battle is the ground force’s battle […]”.

To this end, NEZAJA planners have advocated the development of “rapid reaction forces” modelled on units like the 65th Brigade, which are lightweight and can be deployed to most locations without a lengthy mobilization process. Colonel Tazgari, the commander of the Rapid Reaction Training Center that Arasteh spoke at in March, elaborated further: “Rapid reaction forces are forces that must enter operation as soon as possible and deal a fatal blow to the enemy and in fact they operate as the tip-of-the-spear for operational units in times of crisis and then these operational units use the window of opportunity that these forces created. In the field of equipment and vehicles it is necessary that rapid reaction units to have the highest mobility […]”. This translates into an emphasis on airborne assaults delivered by helicopter, raiding tactics, up-arming of light-infantry with weapons like large-caliber small arms and man-portable anti-tank weapons, and close-coordination with supporting elements like artillery and UAVs.

5_CT Training-MRA Exercise

A hostage-rescue scenario during counter-terrorism exercises, December 2014 (IRNA)

When Arasteh visited the center’s graduation ceremony, personnel from the 65th Brigade were documented among the instructors. Even before the center was formally inaugurated in summer 2015, the brigade was responsible for providing similar training on an ad hoc basis to NEZAJA units rotating through border security assignments.

Although the development of rapid reaction forces indicates the NEZAJA’s intent to deal with regional violence like that in Syria, their responsibilities are constitutionally circumscribed to protecting the country’s borders and its “territorial integrity”. The question is whether or not the Artesh is allowed to, in protecting the borders, go beyond them.

The Islamic State’s 2014 advance described above clarified both this question and the Artesh’s answer. The NEZAJA’s leadership believe they are constitutionally entitled to operate beyond Iran’s borders. In short, they’ve codified a doctrine of preemption. Pourdastan has made it clear that he thinks preemption is justified by the unique conditions of the irregular battlefield: “Today we face the new methods [being used by] these threats, threats which are different from those in the past, and as an arm of the Islamic Republic we must create and strengthen our capacity to confront them. One of these threats is the activity of takfiri groups in Iraq, Syria, and around Iran. […] We’ve determined that if these terrorist groups or takfiris come close to crossing our red-lines, which are very far away from Iran’s borders, a heavy blow will be dealt to them”.

8_65th at RR Training Center

NOHED instructors at the Rapid Reaction Training Center, March 2016. (IRNA)

Over the past two years the NEZAJA has been responsible for a handful of known extra-territorial missions. According to reporting by Babak Taghvaee in the February 2015 issue of Combat Aircraft Monthly, when the NEZAJA mobilized against the IS in summer 2014 the 65th Brigade sent troops to coordinate with Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army, as well as direct fire support provided by the Artesh’s fixed and rotary-wing aircraft. The brigade also sent troops to the Mosul Dam and Baiji oil refinery. [5]

Postings on social media also document the brigade’s presence in Iraq through 2015, and at least one raid into Pakistan involving the arrest of six men claimed to be IS members (see image below).

This mandate isn’t just limited to fighting the Islamic State. Additional reporting by Taghvaee in Combat Aircraft’s July 2015 issue claims that in May a detachment from another NEZAJA unit – the 55th Airborne Brigade – conducted a heliborne assault into northern Iraq to strike guerrillas, not from IS, but Kurds from the anti-Iran PJAK.

Although Pourdastan says that this doctrine is limited to a 40 km buffer, it’s hard not to see the NEZAJA’s Syria deployment as the inevitable evolution of this logic. Once the initial justification has been made, what’s to stop further extensions of the so-called “red lines”? Why not 41 km? Why not 42? Why not Aleppo?

9_Instagram Photo

The results of a cross-border raid into Pakistan (Instagram / setare_tipe_makhsoos )

Footnotes
[1] Arasteh holds the position of coordination deputy, which is equivalent to the “chief-of-staff” or “executive officer” position in other command structures. This effectively makes him the NEZAJA’s third highest ranking officer.
[2] Documented casualties, as of writing, include:
…..– 2nd Lt. Mohsen Qeytaslou, 65th NOHED Brigade (Twitter)
…..– Maj. Zolfaqari Nasab, 65th NOHED Brigade (Twitter)
…..– 2nd Lt. Mojtaba Yadollah, 388th Mechanized Infantry Brigade (ABNA)
…..– Cpt. Hamidollah Bakeshnadeh, 65th NOHED Brigade (Twitter)
…..– Cpt. Morteza Zarharan, 258th Commando Brigade. (Twitter)
…..– Col. Mojtabi Zulfiqar-Naseb, 45th Commando Brigade. (ABNA)
[4] The Irregular Warfare Headquarters was later abolished and its responsibility passed to the IRGC.
[5] Private correspondence with author.

Posted in English, Galen Wright, International, Iran, Security Policy, Syria | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Iran Needs Afghans and Pakistanis in Syria

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College and a reporter for War Is Boring. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.

Group photo of Afghan fighters (ethnic Hazaras) before their failed offensive in Darra, recovered from a dead fighter's phone. As many as 10,000 Afghan fighters may have been recruited by Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Several Afghans said they were threatened with deportation or prison if they did not go to Syria (Source: Fariba Sahraei, "The Afghans sent by Iran to fight for Assad", BBC, 15.04.2016).

Group photo of Afghan fighters (ethnic Hazaras) before their failed offensive in Darra, recovered from a dead fighter’s phone. As many as 10,000 Afghan fighters may have been recruited by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Several Afghans said they were threatened with deportation or prison if they did not go to Syria (Source: Fariba Sahraei, “The Afghans sent by Iran to fight for Assad“, BBC, 15.04.2016).

Growing desperate for manpower, the Syrian government depends on foreign militias as well as local ones. Iran has arranged for Iraqi, Lebanese, and Yemeni volunteers to fight the Syrian opposition on the Syrian government’s behalf, deploying them across cities and supply chains that the failed state might struggle to defend by itself. Experienced from their own civil wars, these foreign fighters often outperform the Syrian Arab Army and its allied militiamen, yet, because of sectarian violence in their own countries, the Iraqis and Yemenis often need the return home. The Iraqis have proven the most obvious example, preferring to fight the terror organization “Islamic State” (IS, ISIL, or ISIS) in their own cities, towns, and villages instead of Syria. Iran has recruited Shias from Afghanistan and Pakistan to stem the shortfall of Arab volunteers.

Shiite combat fatalities in Syria January 2012 to February 2016.

Shiite combat fatalities in Syria January 2012 to February 2016.

In fact, Iran recruits Afghans and Pakistanis from not only their countries but also Iranian territory, where many live as immigrants and refugees. Unlike the Iraqi, Lebanese, and Yemeni volunteers, who have their own revolutionary movements, the Afghan and Pakistani fighters often join Iranian-led offensives as auxiliaries through the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Looking at the casualties, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Iran’s Shiite coalition incurred at least 1,530 combat fatalities in Syria between January 19, 2012, and March 8, 2016”. The casualties include 878 Hezbollah fighters, 342 Iranian nationals, 255 Afghans, and 55 Pakistanis. The apparent absence of non-Lebanese Arab casualties from Iraq and Yemen (at least in the Washington Institute’s analysis) points to the growing importance of the Afghan and Pakistani militias in Iran’s arsenal. Furthermore, the Afghans and Pakistanis, unlike the Lebanese, directly depend on Iran to arm, organize, and train them.

Burials for Shiite Combatants Killed in Syria January 2012 to February 2016.

Burials for Shiite Combatants Killed in Syria January 2012 to February 2016.

The Afghans and Pakistanis interest Iran because they widen its authority and power through Shia hegemony in the Greater Middle East. “The Afghan Hazara Shiite community was a logical target for Iranian recruitment in Syria’s war,” observed the Washington Institute. “Tehran has a track record of exploiting Shiite populations that it can directly influence due to its geostrategic, religious, and historical position. Given the long-term population of Afghans in Iran, Tehran may view the war as an opportunity to extend its influence over disparate Shiite elements and push its leadership agenda. Furthermore, the use of ethnically diverse fighters can be used to demonstrate wide Shiite support for the Iranian-organized armed defense of Assad, with the presumed goal of legitimizing Tehran’s approach.” The world’s only Shia theocracy has tried to expand its sphere of influence through cultural imperialism, focusing on Shia communities in countries prone to conflict. Iran leads the Resistance and Deterrence Axis, an anti-Israeli coalition of paramilitaries and states, and the Shia Crescent, a geopolitical region encompassing the Shias of Bahrain, the Emirates, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. The Axis of Resistance and the Shia Crescent overlap, allowing Iran the cultural and religious influence that it desires. In addition, Iran recruiting from Persian-speaking refugees on its own territory is far more practical than summoning distant Arab militias and also relieves some of the strain that the Afghan migrants might put on Iran’s resources and economy.

Because neither the Afghans nor Pakistanis speak Arabic and they lack the prowess of the Iraqi, Lebanese, and Yemeni militias, they represent a notable downgrade for the Syrian government’s power projection. Even so, the number of Afghans and Pakistanis may render this difficult irrelevant, and they meet the Syrian government’s immediate needs. The Army distrusts many of its Sunni soldiers, preferring Alawis or the foreign Shias. According to al-Jazeera, the Afghans supporting the IRGC number twenty thousand, critical to a military weakened by soldiers defecting and dying. “Though the number of Pakistanis fighting in Syria under the Hezbollah flag is impossible to gauge accurately, one thing is clear: it is rising,” wrote The National Interest. “The Pakistanis were originally integrated with other units and now serve in their own distinct unit.” The Guardian commented that the Afghans now outnumber all other foreign fighters backing the Syrian government except the Lebanese, represented by Hezbollah, which has an interest in protecting the Lebanese–Syrian border. The bizarre relationship between a desperate, declining government and thousands of Shia fighters from South Asia will add to the complexity of the Syrian Civil War and may hinder the Syrian government’s effectiveness and efficiency. If nothing else, these foreign combatants from a religious minority will ensure an increase in violent sectarianism.

A photograph of a soldier placed on the ground at a funeral ceremony in Mashhad, north-east Iran, held for an Afghan refugee killed in the Syrian conflict (Photo: Mujtaba Jalali for the Guardian).

A photograph of a soldier placed on the ground at a funeral ceremony in Mashhad, north-east Iran, held for an Afghan refugee killed in the Syrian conflict (Photo: Mujtaba Jalali for the Guardian).

Though the Afghans and Pakistanis serve to offset the gradual disappearance of non-Lebanese volunteers from the Syrian battlefield, recent events have shown that these foreign fighters too present a unique challenge. Whereas the Iraqis and Yemenis left Syria for home, many of the Afghans are departing the war-zone for Europe alongside thousands of Sunni Syrian refugees. The British Broadcasting Corporation interviewed several Afghans who had fought in the Syrian Civil War as the migrants traversed Europe. The interviewees claimed that Iran had often deceived or pressured them and, once they reached Syria, forced them into combat. Here, the Afghans and Pakistani’s lack of experience again becomes an obvious weakness. Most of the Iraqis, Lebanese, and Yemenis have travelled to Syria to support the Iranian cause. The Afghans and Pakistanis, however, seek better opportunities. When Iran fails to deliver these opportunities, they look further westward, joining many other South Asians arriving as refugees in Europe.

Observers should then consider the Afghans and the Pakistanis a short-term, problematic solution to the withdrawal of battle-hardened Arab militias. Since last, the Iraqi militias, which have made serious progress against the Islamic State in their own country, seem to be returning to Syria, implying that even Iran prefers them to the Afghans. Whatever the size of these Afghan and Pakistani brigades, then, their importance on the battlefield will likely decline with the return of combatants from Iraq to Syria.

More Information
Human Rights Watch in late 2015 interviewed more than two dozen Afghans who had lived in Iran about recruitment by Iranian officials of Afghans to fight in Syria. Some said they or their relatives had been coerced to fight in Syria and either had later fled and reached Greece, or had been deported to Afghanistan for refusing. […] Iran hosts an estimated 3 million Afghans, many of whom have fled persecution and repeated bouts of armed conflict in Afghanistan. Only 950,000 have formal legal status in Iran as refugees. The Iranian government has excluded the remainder from accessing asylum procedures, leaving many who may want to seek asylum undocumented or dependent on temporary visas. […] While Iranian law allows conscription by the Iranian military, it is limited to Iranian nationals. The conscription of anyone else, including Afghan nationals, by the [IRGC] falls outside the conscription allowed by Iranian law, and is thus arbitrary.” (“Iran Sending Thousands of Afghans to Fight in Syria: Refugees, Migrants Report Deportation Threats“, Human Rights Watch, 29.01.2016).

Posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, English, Iran, Mercenary, Syria | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The origins of Iran’s controversial ballistic missile program

A Ghadr-1 monted on a Transporter-Erector-Launcher, ready for immediate firing. Characteristic for a Ghadr-1 is the form of the warhead -- compared with a Shahab-3 its shape is like a baby bottle.

A Ghadr-1 monted on a Transporter-Erector-Launcher, ready for immediate firing. Characteristic for a Ghadr-1 is the form of the warhead — compared with a Shahab-3 its shape is like a baby bottle.

With the passing of the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 nations Washington’s attention and concern has shifted from Iran’s nuclear program to its ballistic missile program. Washington is concerned about Iran’s continued development and testing of missiles and frequently points to UN Security Council Resolution 2231 which calls upon Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launchers using such ballistic missile technology”.

Tehran has in spite of this continued its missile tests saying its missiles are not configured to carry nuclear warheads, are wholly conventional and defensive in nature. Washington, and the European members of the P5+1, say that recent missile tests are provocative since the large long-range missiles being tested are “inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons“.

The US remains satisfied that Russia isn’t transferring technology which will allow Tehran to develop or enhance its missile stockpile. This comes after a long and quite interesting history of Washington trying to prevent Iran from developing a ballistic missile capability. A history which, as it happens, stretches back to the Shah’s time when Tehran was seen as an ally as opposed to an adversary.

In the early to mid 1970’s Iran was a favoured arms customer of the US. It could afford to, and was allowed to, buy advanced weapon systems other countries could only dream of possessing. Iran is the only country the US ever allowed purchase F-14 Tomcat air superiority jet fighters and, incidentally, remains the only country to operate them. However there were limits to what the US was willing to sell. Those limits primarily revolved around any Iranian procurement of missile and nuclear technology.

While the Shah possessed a large fleet of hi-tech American warplanes he understood the importance of missiles for deterrence. And looking westward at his main regional rival, Iraq, he saw a ruthless regional rival amassing Soviet-made Scud missiles and other armaments which could pose a potential threat to him. When the Shah indicated a desire to buy Lance missiles in 1976 the U.S. Department of Defense opposed the idea on the basis that those missiles wouldn’t have been cost-effective for Iran if they were going to be used only for conventional warfare. Later the Carter administration would not consider selling Tehran Pershing missiles since they too were capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

In order to achieve a greater range, Iran abstained from the use of a combination of 4 Scud for a rocket propulsion. Rather, Iran put its trust on a new development from North Korea (Shahab-3). However, the result was only satisfactory after some own modifications.

In order to achieve a greater range, Iran abstained from the use of a combination of 4 Scud for a rocket propulsion. Rather, Iran put its trust on a new development from North Korea (Shahab-3). However, the result was only satisfactory after some own modifications.

The Ford administration had also prohibited American companies from investing in Iran’s nuclear program, which meant they were forced to sit by and watch European companies exploit that lucrative market.

Finally the Shah was approached by another country willing to provide him with the technologies he needed. That country was Israel.

Israel too was fearful of Iraq’s growing military power and fostered closer strategic relations with the Shah’s Iran given their common regional enemy. Israel needed oil, Iran needed technology. Project Flower as it was known began in July 1977. It sought to co-develop Jericho-2 missiles with a two-hundred mile range for Tehran to deter potential aggressors in a region where neighbours were acquiring both missile and nuclear capabilities (remember India detonated its first nuclear bomb in the 1974).

The extent of the cooperation saw the Iranians begin to build a site to assemble the missiles in south-central Iran, even a missile test range where the Israelis hoped to test their new weapon systems. Iran also provided Israel $280 million worth of oil as part of its first payment for the project.

The 1979 revolution put a rapid stop to this program before it fully got off its feet, the Israelis evacuated Iran and also managed to take their blueprints and plans for these proposed weapon systems with them, ensuring they did not fall into the hands of the new regime in Tehran.

Washington didn’t learn about the extent of the cooperation until afterword and was quite taken aback. Shortly thereafter Iran became bogged down in an eight-year war with Iraq, during that time it managed to purchase Scud missiles from Libya and Syria. They based their domestically produced Shahab (“Meteor”) missiles on the Scuds, a missile which has formed the backbone of Iran’s missile program to date.

Details of the Sejil-2. Its two-stage solid-fuel missile has a 2,000 km range and was first test-fired on May 20, 2009.

Details of the Sejil-2. Its two-stage solid-fuel missile has a 2,000 km range and was first test-fired on May 20, 2009.

By 1991 the Cold War was coming to an end and the US led a multinational military coalition which afflicted a devastating blow to the Iraqi military in the Gulf War. While the Iraqi dictator was not overthrown his ability to project force and threaten his neighbours was significantly reduced. The Israelis begun to see Iran as its number one regional rival and primary strategic threat. This came at a time when Iran begun to procure missile technology from North Korea.

Which led to another fascinating episode in Israeli diplomatic history. An attempt to effectively invest in North Korea, help Pyongyang alleviate an economic catastrophe in return for a pledge that it would not sell missile technology to Middle Eastern powers, namely Iran. At that time North Korea was seeking to sell a Scud-D missile variant to Iran, the Rodong-1. Israel offered to invest $1 billion into a North Korea gold mine in return. The US were not happy and while recognising the concerns Israel had about missile proliferation in the region they were not satisfied that Israel could trust any of Pyongyang’s promises. The secret diplomatic initiative collapsed. North Korea has since endured a famine and developed a stockpile of nuclear bombs and missiles.

Since then Iran developed the Shahab-3 which is based on the Nodong. A missile which has a range of around 900 km. Out of this came the Ghadr-110 (“Ghadr” the Persian word for “Intensity”) whose range extends to 1,800-2,000 km. Ghadr’s are much easier to field than the liquid-fuel Shahabs as are the more recently introduced Sejjil (“Baked Clay”) missiles whose range is estimated to be at least 2,000 km. Iran today stands as the only country to develop ballistic missiles with this range without first having built a nuclear weapons program.

Given the fact that this missile program is currently causing controversy and making headlines once again its historic origins should not be forgotten amid barrages of newsbites.

Posted in Armed Forces, English, History, International, Iran, Proliferation, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robot Guns Guard the Borders of Some Countries, and More Might Follow Their Lead

by Darien Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh is a contributor for War is Boring and Reverb Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for Auntie Bellum

In 2007 Israel began deploying remote-operated sentry guns along the border fence separating it from the Gaza Strip. That same year South Korea announced it had plans to install sentry guns along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the no-man’s-land dividing it from North Korea. Those plans were delayed for a few years, but North Korea did begin using sentry guns along the DMZ in 2010. The use of these remote-operated weapons systems has stirred some controversy, and it’s also proved to be lethally effective.

The Common Remotely Operated Weapons System (CROWS) attached to an M-2 .50-caliber machine gun without the barrel mounted at the F Company, 2nd Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) company area April 7 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense.

The Common Remotely Operated Weapons System (CROWS) attached to an M-2 .50-caliber machine gun without the barrel mounted at the F Company, 2nd Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) company area April 7 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense.

From Remote Weapon System to Sentry
Most sentry guns currently on the market are basically adaptations of remote weapon stations (RWSs) like Kongsberg’s Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station (CROWS) and Rafael’s Samson. CROWS and Samsons can be outfitted with an array of machine guns, such as the M249, M240, M2, MK-19, MK-47, M134 and the M230LF, as well as automatic grenade launchers and hard- or soft-launch missiles like the Griffin, Javelin, Stinger and TOW. They can also be equipped with non-lethal weapons like smoke grenade launchers and laser warning systems.

RWSs are highly versatile and can be used on naval ships or fixed platforms on land, such as pillboxes or towers. They’re also mounted to Humvees, Strikers, Pandurs and numerous other vehicles. RWS are currently in common use, in one form or another, by the U.S. military and those of dozens of other countries.

The primary benefit of an RWS is that it allows operators to survey the terrain around them, recognize potential threats, and target and engage verified enemies while remaining within the relative security of a pillbox or armored vehicle rather than being exposed in an turret.

Visual information is fed to the operator via cameras, infrared sensors, thermal imagers, laser range finders or other sensors mounted with the system. The operator monitors the information on a screen and reacts, if necessary, using a control panel. Such systems have been referred to, sometimes derogatorily, as “a video game with real guns“.

As a report from Defense Industry Daily noted, the success of localized RWS raised an obvious question: “Why does the operator have to be so close?” For Israel and South Korea at least, the answer was “no reason at all.” The main difference between RWS and the sentries deployed by Israel and South Korea is simply a matter of distance. With most RWS, the operator is only a few feet away from the weapon system they control and within firing range of the enemy. The people operating the robotic guns like those guarding the Gaza fence and the DMZ are sometimes several hundred yards away. They’re basically using RWS with extension cords.

Israel Led the Way in Deploying Automated Sentry Guns Along Borders
Israel began constructing a security fence around Gaza in 1994, soon after the signing of the Oslo I Accord in September of 1993. The fence itself greatly reduced the number of attacks in Israel by members of Hamas and other militant organizations. However, attempts to infiltrate the border, by militants and civilians, continued—with periods of great frequency.

When Israel unilaterally withdrew its forces and settlers from Gaza in 2005, it gave Palestinian militants greater mobility within the territory. The fence became the only physical line of defense between Gaza and Israel. It was susceptible to breaches and militants could easily fire rockets over it and send sniper rounds through it. Instead of sending its soldiers out on patrol in a hostile territory, Israel chose to keep them in reserve on their side of the fence and turn to new technology to help deter attacks.

The new technology included the automated Sentry Tech weapons system, a modified version of the Samson RWS manufactured by the Israeli firm Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) mounted Sentry Techs armed with .50 cal/12.7mm machine guns to hardened towers every few kilometers along the length of 60-meter Gaza fence. Retractable domes on top of the towers conceal and protect the sentries when they are not in use.

The sentry towers are linked together and connected to a command center by fiber optics. From there, operators — who are exclusively female IDF soldiers aged 19 to 20can draw information from cameras, long range electro-optical sensors, ground sensors, manned aircraft, and overhead drones, as well as radar. Women operate the sentry guns in order to avoid the cultural “taboo” of risking their lives in combat (see also the video below).

Though operating the systems has been compared to playing a video game, it is no easy task. It presents considerable intellectual, psychological, and ethical challenges. “From the advanced surveillance equipment in the operations room, each woman gains up-close knowledge of a certain block of land along the fence,” Anshel Pfeffer reports for Haaretz . “She also learns to recognize the Palestinians who live and visit there, and she must be able to distinguish between who is an innocent civilian and who, by their gait and what they are carrying, might be a terrorist.” That’s a lot to expect from a 19 year old.

“It’s very alluring to be the one to do this. But not everyone wants this job,” said one operator stationed at the Kissufim base on the Gaza border. “It’s no simple matter to take up a joystick like that of a Sony PlayStation and kill, but ultimately it’s for defense.”

To help avoid hasty decisions that could be a matter of life and death, a second person is required to authorize a kill. A battalion commander determines whether or not to authorize to fire on a suspected militant. The procedure to authorize a kill is supposedly “complex,” but nevertheless takes less than two minutes to carry out.

There are other options for the operators. Sometimes an order is given to fire warning shots or merely open the tower dome to expose the sentry gun in order to scare off anyone in the area who might pose a threat. As one operator explained, “The Palestinians have already learned what to expect afterward.”

For better or worse, the sentries effectively establish a nearly 1,500-meter-deep no-go zone around Gaza. And that distance might expand soon. In the past the IDF Southern Command has considered adding Gill or Spike anti-tank missiles to extend the no-go zones to several kilometers, which would substantially increase the range and lethality of its Sentry Tech system.

South Korea Has Deployed at Least Two Automated Sentry Guns Along the DMZ
The DMZ separating North Korea from South Korea is a sprawling, 2.5-mile wide no-man’s-land of barbed wire and minefields that stretches coast to coast across the peninsula, running roughly along the 38th parallel. Manned guard posts speckle both sides of the DMZ.

Despite the facts that the DMZ is intimidating to cross and that the two Koreas have not fought since the armistice of 1953, tensions often still run high for those tasked with securing the area. North Korea may be impoverished and its weaponry antiquated, but it still commands a formidable military headed by an impulsive dictator.

Patrolling a border as long as the DMZ is an expensive and labor intensive proposition. Perhaps taking a cue from Israel, South Korea announced plans to deploy sentry guns along the DMZ back in 2007. Those plans were delayed and Seoul didn’t actually do so until 2010, when the military installed two Samsung Techwin SGR-1s at a “central sector” of the DMZ on a “trial basis.” Samsung Techwin, formerly the security branch of Samsung Electronics, has since become part of the South Korean Hanwha conglomerate.

The SGR-1s cost $200,000 each and are remote-operated sentries equipped with cameras, radar systems, and heat and motion sensors. They can issue verbal warnings and commands via audio and video. If they must engage a perceived threat, they do so with 5.5-millimeter machine guns and 40-millimeter automatic grenade launchers (see also the video below).

If introduced more broadly, the weapons could reduce the number of soldiers needed to patrol the DMZ and cut down on human error. “Human soldiers can easily fall asleep or allow for the depreciation of their concentration over time,” Huh Kwang-hak, a Techwin spokesman, told Stars and Stripes in 2010. “But these robots have automatic surveillance, which doesn’t leave room for anything resembling human laziness. They also won’t have any fear (of) enemy attackers on the front lines.”

If Seoul does opt to expand its robot sentry force, the SGR-1 has some competition. Last year South Korean defense firm DoDaam Systems started pushing harder for its Super aEgis II to be introduced to the DMZ as well. The BBC described the Super aEgis II, first introduced in 2010, as “one of a new breed of automated weapon, able to identify, track and destroy a moving target from a great distance, theoretically without human intervention.”

DoDaam refers to the Super aEgis II as a “Total Security Solution.” The automated system can target and fire on a threat at a distance of 3 kilometers (1.8 miles). It uses a 35x CCD color camera, a dual field of view FLIR camera, and a laser range finder as sensors. It is capable of operating in low light and and can even identify a human target at distances up to 2.2km in complete darkness.

The Super aEgis II throwing fire down range. Image: YouTube/DoDAAM promotional video.

The Super aEgis II throwing fire down range. Image: YouTube/DoDAAM promotional video.

As with many traditional RWS, the Super aEgis II is highly versatile in terms of the weapons it can be fitted with. A 12.7mm machine-gun is standard, but the system is compatible with most weapons in the South Korean arsenal, including grenade launchers and surface-to-air missiles. It offers both a fully automatic mode, in which it can target and fire on humans without being commanded by an operator, or in “slave mode,” which requires a human operator to fire the weapon.

Despite all its features, the Super aEgis II it might be a tough sale. There are restrictions on the amount and types of weaponry that can be deployed along the DMZ, so it remains to be seen whether or not South Korea will deploy more robot sentries there. The Super eAgis II is also expensive, with each integrated defense system costing more than $40m apiece. That probably won’t help DoDaam’s case.

If the North decided to launch a full-scale assault, it’s doubtful whether or not the automated sentries would be much help anyway. “Stationary light-machinegun posts would be easily taken out by company or battalion-level weapons–let alone tanks, artillery, or air support,” one writer noted when South Korea first acquired the SGR-1s. “The SGR-1 would be useful principally as a sacrificial tripwire in the context of full-on combat, rather than as a warfighting system.”

Things Could Get Scary In The Not So Distant Future
The sentry guns being used by Israel and South Korea employ only machine guns as lethal weapons and are operated by humans, for now. As previously mentioned, however, they are capable of incorporating additional weaponry and being switched to a fully-automated mode.

In fact, when Israel first introduced Sentry Tech weapons to the Gaza fence, the idea was to ultimately have a “closed-loop” system that required no human intervention. In this scenario, the weapons themselves would spot a potential threat, assess it, and then determine whether or not to engage. The IDF appears to be waiting until commanders are satisfied the system can effectively and consistently distinguish between civilians and combatants before making the move to fully-automated.

The SGR-1 also has an automated mode that allows it to fire on perceived threats without an operator. It is even capable of verbally commanding a potential enemy to surrender and recognizing a person raising his arms as a sign of surrender. The Super aEgis II can theoretically act without human command as well.

Staring down the barrel of the Super aEgis II. Image: YouTube/DoDAAM promotional video.

Staring down the barrel of the Super aEgis II. Image: YouTube/DoDAAM promotional video.

This raises some serious concerns. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, delegates met for a panel hosted by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots (CSKR) to discuss the future of automated weapons systems and their potential risks.

Sir Roger Carr, chair of BAE Systems, a global leader of security and aerospace development, warned that fully automated weapons systems would be “devoid of responsibility” and have “no emotion or sense of mercy. […] If you remove ethics and judgement and morality from human endeavour whether it is in peace or war, you will take humanity to another level which is beyond our comprehension,” Carr said.

The discussion in Davos came in response to a recent open letter authored by CSKR calling for a ban on “killer robots.” Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and more than 3,000 other leaders in the fields of science and robotics signed the letter.

If history is any indicator, their concern may be justified. The Sentry Techs guarding the Gaza fence have already proven lethal, even with their human operators controlling them. In December of 2009 two Palestinians were killed and a third was wounded. In March of 2010 another Palestinian was killed and four more wounded.

Israel claims that only militants are targeted by the weapons, but Humans Rights Watch and other organizations have criticized the program, questioning whether or not some of those killed or wounded were innocent civilians attempting to harvest crops from farmlands in the area.

B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, reports that “at least 284 Palestinians near the Gaza Strip perimeter fence. At least 117 of the fatalities were civilians (including twenty-three minors) who were not taking part in the hostilities.”

It’s difficult to determine how many Palestinians have been shot or killed by the sentry guns. Accounts vary by source. On the high end, it’s estimated that “dozens” of Palestinians have been “hit” by the weapons.

These shootings have occurred while procedures have been in place to require not one but two humans—an operator and a battalion-level commander—to confirm that a target is a threat. These individuals have the options of firing warning shots or simply leveling the guns at potential threats to scare them away. Without human operators, these options, which could potentially save lives, might not be in play. Considering that humans will program any automated systems to determine when to shoot and when not to, a good deal of the ethical weight of engagement would fall back on human shoulders anyway. That’s where the true problem may lie.

“For use on the DMZ, the sentry bot doesn’t need to distinguish friend from foe,” reads a report on the SGR-1 from Global Security. “When someone crosses the line, they are automatically an enemy.”

Some in the IDF command share a similar sentiment regarding the area around the Gaza fence. “Nobody has any business approaching our border fence,” said one unnamed Israeli official when questions were first raised about Sentry Tech. “It’s well-understood that this area is off-limits, and this new technology will make it easier for us to prevent the next kidnapping or terror event.”

If these perspectives prevail, and certain areas are considered “kill zones” by the humans who program the automated weapons systems guarding them, then the future of robotic weaponry could truly be frightening.

In the meantime, one thing is certain: Robotic warfare is going to play an increasing role in conflict. DoDAAM claims to have sold more than 30 Super aEgis II units, primarily to countries throughout the Middle East. The system is being used at three air bases in the United Arab Emirates, the Royal Palace in Abu Dhabi, an armory in Qatar, and “numerous other unspecified airports, power plants, pipelines and military airbases elsewhere in the world.”

There are also over 30 countries currently using human-supervised autonomous weapons, such as the Phalanx Close in Weapon System (CIWS), as a last line of defense against missiles and rockets. The US, UK, China, Israel, South Korea and Russia, currently developing automated weapons systems like Sentry Tech capable of identifying firing on targets without a human operator.

Posted in Darien Cavanaugh, International, Technology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment