Syrian Chase

From the perspective of the Kremlin, Syria has been a great success. Following the surprisingly successful organisation of a transatlantic response to the Russian invasions of Crimea and the Donbas, the Russian intervention in Syria not only managed to prop up the Assad regime and reverse the course of the civil war, it also made sure that the Russian Navy would get a naval base in the Mediterranean. And most importantly: it forced the West to again talk directly with the Kremlin.

This was not only a case of Russia playing a rather mediocre hand very well, but also of several events outside of Putin’s control lining up favourably. These include both Iran and Hezbollah intervening, as well as the Turkish turn-around following the failed coup of 2016. The introduction of Russian long-range air-defence system, including the S-400, into Syria caused further alarm amongst western observers, with some going as far as stating that no assets in theatre beyond the F-22 Raptor “has any ability to operate and survive” inside the 400 km range of the system’s 40N6 missile.

Red: Iskander-M ballistic missile range (700 km). Blue: S-400 with 40N6 SAM-range (400 km). Source: Wikimedia Commons/VictorAnyakin

I have earlier on the blog cautioned against drawing rings on maps and stating that they are any kind of steel domes inside which anything and everything will be shot down, and this is very much the case for the SAM’s at Khmeimim Air Base as well. The latest strikes on targets in western Syria, including those well-within 100 km of Khmeimim AB, showed that coalition aircraft can strike presumably protected targets without issue. And not only that, if one looks closely at the map, the 400 km range extends well beyond Cyprus. The very same Cyprus which was the base of the RAF aircraft participating in the strikes. In other words, British aircraft took off and landed inside the stated range of the system, and all cruise missiles, both ship- and air-launched, penetrated the bubble without seemingly any of them having been intercepted.

The short answer is that Russia, according to Washington, didn’t try. There is said to have be no indication that the S-400 was fired against anything, and most likely this was a political decision. However, it does tell you something.

If Russia had the magical steel dome that some lay out A2/AD to be, why didn’t they at least swat down some of the cruise missiles, even if they decided to leave the aircrafts themselves (or rather, their pilots) alone? At the crucial moment, Russia decided not to try to protect the assets of their ally. Whatever the reason, the result is a razed block in the Syrian capital.

However, while there without doubt are intelligence services around the world plotting the decision as yet another data point, the immediate outcome isn’t necessarily too dramatic. As TD noted, the West will continue to act like Russia didn’t blink, and Russia will continue to claim that they control the skies over (western) Syria.

The problem is that while Russia might be the great power on location in Syria, the other actors, including Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah, all have their own agendas as well. More importantly, it is highly doubtful that any of them would hesitate to jump the Russian ship if they saw more benefits to be gained elsewhere.

Enter Israel, which is likely the western state that has been cooperating most effortlessly with Russia. In part this stems from a pragmatism that is a strong part of Israeli foreign policy, but it should also be noted that current defence minister Lieberman (and a sizeable Israeli minority) is in fact born in the Soviet Union. By most accounts the Israeli-Russian deconfliction agreement is working nicely, with Russia more or less accepting Israeli strikes on targets in Syria.

Israel has on the whole tried to stay out of the Syrian conflict, in no small part likely based on the experiences from the Lebanese civil war. However, a red line has always been drawn at the “transfer of advanced weaponry” from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. What exactly constitutes “advanced weapons” is left open, but it is usually taken to include long-range rockets and ballistic missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-ship missiles. The Israeli answer to transfers has been air strikes, often carried out with stand-off weaponry from Lebanese or Israeli airspace.

As the war has been dragging on, the Israeli involvement has deepened at the same time as the Iranian impact on the ground has increased. While Assad constitutes a know quantity, Israel has been extremely wary of the long-term impact of allowing Iran a foothold in the region. And while brig. gen. (res.) Shafir of the Israeli Air Force a decade ago confidently could say that Iran is isolated in the Muslim world, recent developments have opened up avenues of approach for Teheran on a broader scale than has been seen before. The recent downing of an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace and the following air raids (including the first downing of an Israeli fast jet in a very long time) has increased the temperature further.

A very worrying detail was the fact that Israeli media claims that the aftermath of the raid left Israeli prime minister Netanyahu with the impression that Russia has no real ability to contain Iran in Syria. The problem here then is that the logical conclusion is that Israel will have to deal with the Iranian presence in Syria alone, and while I doubt that anyone inside the IDF is dusting off the plans for a drive to Damascus just yet, a more comprehensive air campaign aimed at severely crippling the Iranian forces in Syria might be in the cards.

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S-300PMU-2 TEL. Source: Vitaly Kuzmin

While this kind of Israeli-Iranian showdown is bad enough in and by itself, the big kicker is how that would reflect upon Russia. Having two gangs fight it out on what should ostensibly be your backyard does not leave the onlookers with the feeling that you are in control, no matter how often you say so. In addition, if Russia goes through with the idea to supply the S-300PMU-2 to Assad, this opens up further risks of losing face. While the S-300 is one notch below the S-400, the system is vastly superior to anything currently in operation by the Syrians themselves. As such, it would likely be a prime target in any Israeli air campaign, and echoing the aerial battles of 1982, it would likely be destroyed sooner rather than later.

This all would leave Russia in a bad light, and erase much of the gains in prestige and diplomacy that the Syrian intervention has so far given Russia (in certain places, one should add, as others are less impressed by people regularly bombing hospitals and supporting dictators who use chemical weapons). While attempts at predicting Putin’s next moves are notoriously hard, it is safe to say that he has not shown an inclination to count his losses and leave the table. Instead, when the rest of the players believe him to have overplayed his hand, what usually happens seems to be that Putin will press on regardless. And there’s no telling whether his next move would come in Syria, or somewhere else.

 

F-16 down in Israel

News broke this morning that during the night an Israeli two-seat F-16 had come down in Israel (pictures). This chain of events started with an UAV entering Israeli airspace, which was then intercepted and shot down by an Israeli AH-64 Apache (‘Peten’/‘Saraph’ being the local designations for the AH-64A and D respectively). Four Israeli two-seat F-16’s then launched a retaliatory strike against targets in Syria, said to be the “Iranian control system” responsible for launching the UAV. Most reports seem to agree that this was located at the Syrian T4 airbase, which has played a prominent role in the Syrian war.

So far the official Israeli reports seems to avoid the use of the phrase “shot down”, instead opting for a more general “crashed”. However, while not impossible, it does seem unlikely that the F-16 would have crashed due to other reasons.

The official Israeli statements also include references to Iran being responsible. 20 minutes after the tweet above, IDF spokesperson Lt.Col. Conricus stated that “accurate hits of Iranian UAV control facility confirmed.”

The site of the Israeli crash site is located in the northwestern parts of the country (not close to Golan as some early reports indicated), at the eastern entrance to Kibbutz Harduf. The kibbutz is approximately midway between Haifa and Nazareth, and just 10 kilometers north of the major Israeli air base of Ramat David. One of the squadrons at the base is the 109th “The Valley Squadron”, which flies two-seat F-16D ‘Barak‘. While the crashed aircraft certainly could be from the squadron, it should be remembered that Israel is tiny, and the plane could easily be from another base as well.

Update 11:00 GMT +2: The aircraft is in fact a F-16I ‘Sufa‘, the highly modified Israeli version of the F-16D Block 50/52. This is clear following the publication of AFP pictures by NRK.no.  The F-16I is the IDF/AF’s aircraft of choice for long-distance strikes against ground targets, and the air force operates around 100 fighters of the version (out of an original order for 102). For the past ten years it has been a mainstay of Israeli strikes in Gaza and abroad, and is likely to be the most advanced version of the F-16 in operation anywhere when it comes to the air-to-ground role. That it was chosen for the raid against T4 does not come as a surprise.

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An F-16I ‘Sufa’ in the colours of the 107th “Knights of the Orange Tail” squadron at the Israeli Air Force Museum. Source: Own picture

Syria has earlier been happy to throw up anything they got against Israeli strikes over their territory (including the obsolete S-200), but so far the only tangible results have been the downing of some guided munitions/missiles. Crucially, it seems that the Russian air defence systems have not taken part in the defence of Syrian territory, and that Israel and Russia in fact have a rather working de-escalatory system in place. While intervention by Russian systems can’t be ruled out, a more likely explanation is that throwing up “massive amounts” of anti-aircraft fire and possibly some older SAM’s eventually got lucky.

Edit 12:06 GMT+2: Haaretz journalist quoting anonymous Israeli sources stating that it was a Syrian surface-to-air missile that brought down the F-16I.

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F-16D ‘Barak’ from The Valley Squadron. Source: Aldo Bidini via Wikimedia Commons

In retaliation to the downing of the Israeli aircraft Israel struck 12 targets inside Syria, describing them as including both Syrian air defence installations and Iranian military targets. The nature of the strikes are not described in detail, and could potentially include both ground-based systems (artillery and surface-to-surface missiles) as well as air strikes. While this certainly could escalate, it is unlikely that Syria and/or Iran are interested in a full-blown war with Israel at the current time, considering that the Syrian Civil War is still going on at a quite intense pace. However, as has been seen before, wars can happen despite no one really being interested in them. On the positive side, the fact that both pilots are safe inside Israel probably triggered a significantly more limited retaliation than what would have been the case if they had come down inside Syria and been captured there.

Edit 21:36 GMT+2: So far a number of pictures claimed to show missile debris have appeared, including the ones above. These show a missile fired by some version of the 2K12 Kub (SA-6), a system which scored major successes in the Yom Kippur War 1973, but which was decisively defeated by the Israelis nine years later in operations over Lebanon 1982.

The pictures above, though said to show a S-200, are most likely from S-125 (SA-3 Goa), an even older system which was introduced in the early 1960’s. If either of these two systems were involved in the downing there was probably a significant amount of luck involved. One possibility is that the Israeli aircraft simply ran out of energy trying to dodge a large number of missiles, some sources have stated that more than 20 missiles were fired against the strike package.

Interestingly enough, Israeli sources stated that the air defence sites targeted were S-200 and Buk-sites, though so far no pictures of Buk-missiles have so far surfaced (at least not to my knowledge).

IDF has released video said to show the downing of the Iranian UAV as well as the destruction of the command vehicle. In addition, pictures of parts of the wreckage have also been released. The wreck matches the UAV shown in the released video, and is serialled either ‘006’ or ‘900’.

While the downing of an Israeli aircraft in itself won’t change the balance of the air war, this was shown clearly by the massive wave of strikes against a variety of target following the downing, it is still a significant propaganda victory for Syria/Iran/Hezbollah. As such, the greatest danger is that it could potentially cause one or several of the actors to try and push their luck further, causing a downward spiral no one really want at the moment.

Vampire

And so it seems the Houthis have scored perhaps their most spectacular success to date.

Normal disclaimers apply, we do not currently know that the video is real, but as this is in line with the earlier demonstrated capability of the Yemeni rebels to launch successful attacks against shipping, I am prepared to tentatively accept the video as real until more evidence surfaces (it always does).

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The first shot of the vessel, showing its starboard side. Note long and thin mast, tilted rear part of the stack, and Crotale-launcher on rear superstructure, all of which are characteristic for the Al Madinah. Note also helicopter on deck.
The vessel in the video is a Al Madinah class frigate. Four of these 2,000 ton (2,600 fl) frigates were built by French yard CNIM in La Seyne for the Saudi Navy during the first half of the 80’s, having been entered service between 1985 and 1986, and undergoing a major refit in France between 1995 and 2000. The crew consists of a total of 179 persons. The vessel is largely defenceless against modern anti-ship missiles, the sole air defence being an 8-shot Crotale launcher (with reloads) and two 40 mm Bofors guns (mounted amidships with relatively poor firing arches).

Based on the video, the attack seems to have followed the same modus operandi as the attack on Swift. If this is the case, the missile is most likely an Iranian-supplied C-802/Noor fired from a truck-based TEL, with the vessel having been tracked by shorebased radars and potentially shadowed by smaller vessels (note that the opening clip shows the vessel from starboard, while in the later clips it is travelling in the opposite direction). As said, this is based on the assumption that the attack seems to be modelled after the one on Swift, the short clip here gives very little to go after.

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Still from the video, showing the moment of impact. Note that it is well to the rear and below deck-level.
The single missile seems to have impacted the very rear of the vessel. This has likely destroyed the stern-mounted 533 mm torpedo tubes, variable depth sonar, and the helicopter pad, but should not be a fatal strike if the watertight compartments are properly secured and the ensuing fire is brought under control. It is however entirely possible that this has caused damage to the hull which would cause the propeller shafts to become misaligned, significantly reducing or completely ending the ships ability to move under her own steam. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a picture of the Al Madinah showing the hull below the waterline, and thus we can only guess the location of the propellers and their supports.

The frigates sport a helipad capable of handling the Saudi Navy’s AS.365 Dauphin-2, and the vessel seems to have had a helicopter aboard during the attack.

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Iranian-made Noor/C-802 anti-ship missile being fired. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Erfan Kouchari
On the whole, while this is certainly one for the history books, successful anti-ship missile attacks are surprisingly rare considering their level of proliferation, in operational terms it won’t affect the Saudi-led war. The frigates have a very limited effect on what is for all practical purposes a land war, and while the damaged frigate is likely to need a significant overhaul (if the shaft line has been damaged it might be deemed uneconomical to return to service), the long term impact boils down to two questions:

How will this affect the Saudi naval expansion program? The long-winded modernisation program is centred around the so-called LCS-frigate, but also includes smaller 2,600 ton vessels. The need for modern warships with a solid self-defence capability might suddenly become more urgent in the minds of the Saudi leadership.

The other question is Iran. The missile was certainly not something made in the basement of a local warlord, but has been imported from abroad, most likely from Iran. An Iranian supplied weapon has now put a major Saudi surface vessel out of action, and quite likely caused losses amongst its crew. How will Riyadh react to this?

With the eyes of the world on Syria (and Trump), Yemen is steadily shaping up to be the tinderbox that might cause a major regional war.

*’Vampire’ is the brevity code for a hostile anti-ship missile.

Update 31 January 2017:

A Saudi press release on the incident has been published, which contradicts the version above by claiming the attack was made by three ‘suicide boats’, one of which impacted in the stern and leading to two dead sailors. The RSAF would then have chased of the other two (the frigate does feature Link 11 for communicating with aircraft).

I find this version somewhat hard to believe. To begin with, the opening video does seem to show a missile, and not another boat. Secondly, while the frigate lacked missile defenses, it has perfectly adequate weapons to fend off three boats,  including deck guns and small arms of the crew. This is especially true given the longer reaction time available in the case of a boat versus a missile closing in. Naturally, the ship might have been at low readiness and been caught by surprise, but some kind of reaction would seem logical. The only vessel besides the frigate on the video is also the camera platform, which apparently got away.

All in all, while I don’t completely rule out the Saudi version, I still believe a missile to be the more likely version.

One ‘intermediate’ version would be that the closing vessel(s) would have fired an anti-tank missile, which would have caused a fire and potentially a secondary explosions amongst the torpedoes.

Update 06 February 

A leaked video claiming to show the flight  deck at the moment of impact has appeared, showing a white vessel approaching and then detonating. The video seems to be real, it featuring an AS365/565 on the helicopter deck, painted in the colors used by the Royal Saudi Naval Aviation, and the camera angle is the expected one for a camera watching the flight deck.

There has also appeared pictures showing the frigate entering port. The vessel sports the pennant number 702, identifying it as the lead ship of the class, ‘Al Madinah’, with visible damage being very light, and consistent with an external explosion caused by a light craft VBIED. Most likely the vessel will be back in service within weeks, as opposed to months.

The Attack on Swift

During the night of 1 October, the UAE operated vessel Swift was attacked outside the Yemeni coast. News of the attack quickly spread on social media, and the first indication was that the vessel had been attacked by an anti-ship missile launched from land, which struck the ship and caused a fire, with some reporting the vessel to have sunk.

The official reports downplayed the incident, referring to it as an “accident“, and claiming that the attack on a civilian MEDEVAC ship caused no casualties. Later this was reclassified as a terrorist attack, but that the naval and air units operating in the area had chased away the terrorists boats without own losses.

The vessel in question was the 98 m long wave-piercing catamaran Swift, built by Incat Tasmania in 2003. Together with a number of other vessels, she was built as a proof of concept for the US Joint High Speed Vessel-program, which eventually became the Spearhead-class. The vessel is based on the yard’s civilian fast ferries, and built to civilian standards. This is important to remember when assessing the damage done, as the damage control requirements differ between civilian and military vessels, especially with regards to external sources such as battle damage. The Swift was owned by Sealift Inc. and chartered to the US Military Sealift Command for a number of years with the pennant HSV-2 (High-speed vessel). After this the vessel spent some time back at the yard, presumably for a refit, before heading to UAE where the National Marine Dredging Company leased the vessel.

The vessel has since been a frequent visitor to Yemeni waters, where she has been making round trips between the Ethiopian port Assab and the Yemeni ports of Aden and Al-Mukalla, the later which have been a key battleground during the ongoing war. The exact nature of the operation is uncertain, as is the question whether or not she is operated as a naval vessel or simply chartered as a civilian transport. It is however crucial to note that regardless of whether the crew is consisting of civilian or naval sailors, the vessel is in essence a grey-painted fast ferry. According to coalition press releases, she has operated in the humanitarian role, bringing food and supplies to Yemen and evacuating wounded and sick people on the return trip. This is to the best of my knowledge neither confirmed nor disproved by independent observers.

Apparently the rebel forces/Houthis/Ansar Allah have kept their eyes on the vessel for quite some time, as evident by the opening shot of the Swift in daylight and the close shot of the missile striking the Swift. After nightfall they then tracked it by radar after nightfall, until firing what seems to have been a single C-802 anti-ship missile. The C-802 is a Chinese radar-seeking missile, the first of which where developed with some help from France in the mid-80’s. Production has since switched away from foreign components, including the original French TRI-60 engine (the same one used by e.g. Saab’s RBS-15/MTO-85), and to Chinese equivalents. The missile is roughly corresponding to the Exocet when it comes to behaviour, size, and performance. Crucially, the Iranians have developed their own version called the Noor.

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A Noor being fired from a truck mounted launcher during an Iranian exercise. Note the search radar. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Mohammad Sadegh Heydari

The Noor has seen action in the Middle East earlier as well, most famously during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when two or three missiles where fired at Israeli vessels outside of Beirut. The target was the corvette/light frigate INS Hanit, which was hit by a single missile. The other missile sank the small Egyptian/Kampuchean freighter MV Moonlight, while a third missile apparently exploded upon or shortly after launch. It seems highly likely that the missiles where operated by Iranian forces, and not Hezbollah themselves. The attack gives valuable clues to how the attack on Swift was conducted. The following is based largely on Commander Ville Vänskä’s Merisota and Christopher Carlson’s Attack on INS Hanit.

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Sa’ar 5-class vessel. Note the white ‘R2-D2’ dome in front of the bridge, housing the CIWS. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Israeli Navy Spokesperson

At the time of the attack, INS Hanit was stationed approximately 10 nautical miles of the Lebanese coast (~18.5 km), and her movements had been followed for quite some time by the Iranian/Hezbollah forces operating the missiles. The INS Hanit is equipped with an automatic CIWS system, but due to unconfirmed reasons it did not intercept the missile. One reason is that the missile struck straight from the rear, another that it seems that Israeli intelligence was not aware of the fact that the enemy had anti-ship missiles in the area. It also seems that the system was not operating in automatic mode, due to the INS Hanit conducting air operations at the time of the attack. In fact, it seems like the spotters had observed the vessel for a long time, and waited for air operations to take place before launching. The missiles received targeting data from an commercial off-the-shelf navigational radar mounted on the truck functioning as the TEL, as such not alerting the electronic warfare personnel on the INS Hanit to its sinister nature. The missiles where then launched in sequence, apparently with different flight profiles and seeker settings to maximise the probability of scoring a hit. It seems the missile that hit actually hit a robust steel crane situated on the flight deck behind the superstructure (not mounted in the picture above), which saved the vessel from far worse damage that would have been the case if the missile had been able to penetrate the aluminium hull or superstructure and detonat its 165 kg warhead inside. In the end, INS Hanit came away relatively lightly, suffering moderate damage but still being able to continue under own power and return to service in only 10-20 days after the attack. Four Israelis died as a result of the attack. The missile that hit was the second of the salvo, with the first said to have overflown the INS Hanit before locking onto the unfortunate MV Moonlight, which sank within minutes of being hit, but luckily without any loss of life.

The attack against Swift is likely to have followed the same pattern, with the spotters tracking it visually and with the help of a standard navigational radar. It seems that it was more or less ambushed near the straits of Bab el-Mandab, where the southern Red Sea is at its narrowest. As the vessel lacked any kind of self-defense systems, and most likely any specialised electronic countermeasures or early warning systems, detecting the missile visually in darkness must have been virtually impossible. Most likely the first indication that something was wrong was when the missile impacted in the starboard side of the bow.

The detonation caused a fire, which rapidly engulfed the bridge. Unlike in the case of the INS Hanit, the vessel was put out of action, and despite the preliminary report of no fatalities, it seems likely that the missile and fire would have caused considerable loss of life, especially if the vessel was serving in a MEDEVAC-role. It is a testimony to the seamanship of the crew that they were able to extinguish the fire and save the ship. However, this is also an indication that the warhead of a modern anti-ship missile isn’t necessarily large enough to sink even a moderately sized vessel. As noted earlier, the vessel is aluminium built to civilian specifications, and as such fires are notoriously difficult to put out. That the fire is a greater danger the warhead themselves is also evident in the case of the HMS Sheffield (D80), probably the most famous instance of a warship being hit by an anti-ship missile. The HMS Sheffield was sunk after a single Exocet hit it during the Falkland’s War, and while it seems the warhead failed to detonate, the engine caused a fire that eventually sank the ship. Modern warships are often built of aluminium due to the weight savings it brings, but in case of fire this causes additional problems compared to steel. Of note is that the Royal Navy as a rule require aluminium used to be in annealed condition (O-temper), giving it lower strength but the highest ductility possible, giving  a better ability to withstand battle damage compared to the more usual higher strengths grades used in the civilian sector.

The long-term effect of the attack remains to be seen, but as said, it seems that unlike in the case of the INS Hanit, only a single missile was fired. Quite possibly there are two missiles left on the TEL, and a battle-proven crew waiting for the opportunity to strike again.