Defining Asymmetrical Warfare: Extremists Use Retail Drones to Attack Russian Air Base in Syria

Jan 08 2018 - 19 Comments
By Tom Demerly

One Aircraft Heavily Damaged in Most Recent in String of Low-Cost Insurgent Drone Attacks.

It is the definition of asymmetrical warfare: a fast-moving, lightly armed insurgency fueled by a radical doctrine uses simple weapons to attack a larger, seemingly more capable occupying force.

Taking inspiration from the doctrines of T.E. Lawrence, Sun Tzu, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, extremists in Syria have increased pressure on Russian forces in the region with another simple, innovative attack that heavily damaged at least one Russian aircraft and likely more. Previous similar attacks in the region around January 4 were reported to have killed 2 Russian servicemen.

Recent photos surfacing on social media attributed to Russian military journalist Roman Saponkov show the tail of what appears to be a Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer attack aircraft damaged by an attack earlier this month.

Captured fixed-wing insurgent drone. (Photo: Russian Air Force)

A report that surfaced on January 6, 2018 from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that was shared in several media outlets including the BBC says that Russian forces shot down several “unmanned aircraft” near Hmeimim base near the north-western city of Latakia on Saturday in what appears to be the latest attack attempt by insurgents. In this week’s latest attack the Russians claim there was no damage to aircraft or personnel and their air defense systems were successful in intercepting the small, store-bought quadcopter drones usually used for cameras.

There has been a recent increase in attacks by improvised air-delivered weapons from remotely piloted aircraft on Russian installations in Syria. Additional insurgent attacks have been attributed to mortars. Some of the remotely piloted aircraft, in some instances commercial style quad-copter drones, have been modified to carry mortar rounds or grenades. Some grenade-bombs even used badminton shuttle cocks for improvised tail fin stabilizers. While this is not new, the frequency of the incidents and adaptability of the insurgents does seem to have increased.

According to some reports, recent attacks by insurgent drones damaged the tail of this Sukhoi Su-24 “Fencer”. Actually, initial reports stated that the cause of the damage was a mortar attack (Photo: Roman Saponkov)

This increase in insurgent attacks comes just after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of the bulk of Russian assets from Syria during a surprise visit to Hmeimim air base on December 11, 2017. Hmeimim air base is the primary launch facility for Russian tactical air operations in Syria’s Latakia province. The political move by Putin is reminiscent of the May 1, 2003 political gaff by then- U.S. President George W. Bush. President Bush made a media event out of landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) and speaking in front of a banner that read “Mission Accomplished”, acknowledging the progress of the U.S. in the Global War on Terror in Iraq. Although Bush never said the mission was accomplished in his remarks on the USS America, the event is historically regarded as premature to meaningful change in the ongoing Iraq conflict. Putin may face similar criticism if a meaningful victory in Syria does not happen soon.

The Russian success in intercepting improvised camera drones being adapted to carry weapons is at least partially attributable to what may be their most sophisticated air defense system, the Pantsir S-2 integrated missile and gun vehicle.

The Russian Pantsir S-2 gun and missile integrated anti-aircraft system. (Photo: via YouTube)

The Pantsir S-2, an advancement from the earlier Pantsir S-1, uses a combination of a high rate of fire anti-aircraft gun and surface to air missiles combined with advanced targeting radar to both detect aerial threats and target both the guns and the missiles on the Pantsir S-2.

Pantsir S-2 is armed with two 2A38M, 30mm automatic anti-aircraft guns derived from the GSh-30 twin-barrel 30mm aircraft-mounted cannon. The cannon system on the Pantsir S-2 has a very high rate of fire from 1,950 to 2,500 rounds per minute depending on the length of the burst. The 2A38M cannon can engage targets up to 2,000 meters, over 6,000 feet, altitude. More importantly in the context of the improvised insurgent threats, the 2A38M can engage targets down to zero altitude effectively, a problem older Soviet-era Russian anti-aircraft systems like the ZSU-34-4 faced since the guns could not depress below a certain elevation making it impossible to hit very low altitude targets in close proximity.

The Pantsir S-2 also carries the new highly capable 57E6-E guided surface to air missile. The missile uses a bi-caliber body in tandem, one stage in front of the next, with a separate booster stage then in-flight stage. The newest versions of the 57E6-E are reported to have range of up to 20-30 kilometers with and reported engagement ceiling of 10,000 meters (approx. 33,000 feet).

While the new Pantsir S-2 provides significant protection from what appears to be the entire threat envelope from enemy fixed wing aircraft to improvised quad-copter bombs the hallmark of the insurgent adversary is adaptability. While Russia appears to be emerging in the lead of the conflict in Syria as Putin announces their withdrawal, one has to wonder what shift in insurgent tactics will follow their drone attack campaign.

  • leroy

    ” … While the new Pantsir S-2 provides significant protection.”

    Against terrorists yes, but F-35 w/SDB will easily defeat Pantsir S-2, Buk, S300/400/500, any Russian surface-to-air missile system. By now Israel has their F-35 threat libraries loaded up with all necessary electronic signals data and ready to go vs all these Russian systems. Contrary to Russian claims, S400 cannot protect Syrian airspace. Not if Israel or the U.S. wants in. Soon that will include Turkey too, if the U.S. goes through with F-35 sales to a corrupt Erdogan Islamic government.

    Take note. As reported here by The Aviationist, U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs will be deploying to the CENTCOM AOR in 2018. That theater includes Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen and Afghanistan. Should be interesting. Let’s see what happens!

    • Srg720

      Can the f35 with SDB do anything to protect the US from 1700 nuclear warheads?? Come on Leroy, your cheap childish trolling ain’t fooling anyone. Find yourself a woman or real hobby or something.

    • Srg720

      Corrupt erdogan Islamic govt? What’s the matter Leroy? Are you changing your rhetoric on such a staunch and valiant NATO ally such as turkey?? Say it isn’t so!

    • Srg720

      That , Leroy is something you can’t comprehend.. that a conventional attack is an escalation into the unknown with a nuclear twist.. something you often seem to forget.

    • OR

      So do you really think russkies programmers are not smart enough to not have dynamic settings in there systems too?..

    • Z’ing Sui

      Would an SDB really have smaller RCS or optical footprint than a small drone? I remember seeing a video a couple years back that was probably meant to advertise Pantsir by shooting at a toy drone, but what I thought when I saw it was that Pantsir had some initial difficulty finding and engaging a stationary toy quadcopter, like the ones ISIS seem to be using these days. I actually think it’s possible that part of the planning that went into this attack was done by people that saw that video and also thought that previous versions of Pantsir are surprisingly vulnerable to small commercial drones. Which is sort of logical for a system that is designed to be effective against cruise missiles, but still is a really obvious flaw that can be exploited.

      So I would say SDB would better fit a typical Pantsir target profile.

  • Richard Elwin

    Improvised precision guided munitions are now a thing.

  • Nikolay Chilikov

    Su-24 damage photos are old, not related to NYE incident, even Roman Saponkov admitted.

    • OR

      Doesn’t matter now. This is a war including the information aspect.. The chain of events makes sense if looked at bigger picture specifically what is going on in Idlib

    • Mykola Banderachuk

      any proof?

  • leroy

    The nature of warfare for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Inferior forces always find a way to improvise, adapt, confuse and surprise in order to inflict pin-prick damages on the enemy. Then, death by a thousand cuts.

    Human ingenuity knows few bounds! Russia and their Iranian proxies are going to be the target of Syrian insurgents for a very long time. If for no other reason than the U.S. and Israel will see to it. Putin has his second quagmire (Ukraine is the other). Hope he enjoys it!

    • Srg720

      Leroy admits he’s on the same side as Isis and nusra front! Btw Ukraine is it’s own quagmire, but watching foxnews from your dingy basement or reading defense one/stratfor 24/7 you wouldn’t know that.

    • OR

      you might be surprised to fnd out who is behind this attack..)

    • Holztransistor

      So you’re saying that the noble and democratic beacons of civilization and human rights (U.S. and Israel) will support terrorists to fight a proxy war for them? Again?

      That human rights are just used as an instrument in foreign politics can be read here:

    • Chris Ó Luanaigh

      You peace loving americans obviously love your quagmires of iraq and afghanistan… and the child of iraq’s quagmire – ISIS. Hope that you enjoy your sons and daughters coming home either in body bags, or as broken human beings that you then proceed to ignore and mistreat (how many veterans are homeless there?)

      How big a hit have those wars made upon your nation’s economy? In the trillions if I remember…

      Oh and who owns a lot of that debt? Yah, China… awesome.

  • Richard Elwin

    Improvised precision guided munitions are now a thing!

  • This is a very alarming situation.

  • Black Eagle

    The Su-24 No. 29 wasn’t damaged by drone attack, nor the damaged occured in Syria. Originally it was reported that it occured on evening, 31 December 2017 during a mortar attack on the Hmeimim air base but this later appeared to be not true.

    It is clearly visible the photo was taken during rainy weather conditions, what would be pretty normal but the problem is there was no rainy weather in Latakia province on 31 December 2017 and 1 January 2018 when this event reportedly took place.

    Here is the archive of weather over Latakia, it can be seen the precipitation on 31 December 2017 and 1 January 2018 is approximately 1mm, in other words nothing comparable with what can be seen on the photo.

    Moreover, what completely refuses this is the video report of television network Russia 24 made on 5 January 2018 at the Hmeimim air base where the Su-24 No. 29 is clearly visible taxing without any damage.

    As for the drone attack, here is the official statement of the Russian MoD.

    “Six small-size air targets were intercepted and taken under control by the Russian EW units. Three of them were landed on the controlled area outside the base, and another three UAVs exploded as they touched the ground.

    Seven UAVs were eliminated by the Pantsir-S anti-aircraft missile complexes operated by the Russian air defence units on 24-hours alert.

    The Russian bases did not suffer any casualties or damages.”

  • Z’ing Sui

    Newer pictures of drones better demonstrate their complexity. It appears the drones can carry as many as 10 munitions over a long range and deliver pre-programmed strikes while being at least partially resistant to jamming. However crude these drones appear, before this attack, this was the sort of capability that only relatively few nation-states possessed.