A Russian Tactical Air Strike in Al-Bab, Syria Kills Three Turkish Soldiers: What May Have Gone Wrong?
Wire services report that a Russian tactical air strike in Al-Bab, Syria, 40 kilometers northeast of Aleppo, has resulted in a “fratricide” (“friendly fire”) incident that took the lives of three Turkish ground troops and wounded another eleven personnel on the ground.
It is inherently dangerous for ground troops to operate in close proximity to airstrike targets. Minor miscalculations in aircraft weapon release point, malfunction of weapon release equipment on the aircraft, weather conditions such as wind and poor visibility, guidance malfunctions on precision guided weapons and problems with communications and coordination between ground troops and attack aircraft can all contribute to incidents of fratricide from air strikes.
Google Earth screengrab of the target area.
During the intense ground battles that have characterized much of the insurgent war in Syria troops have often been in close contact in urban areas. The overhead cover of buildings, the narrow streets and nearly identical appearance of many buildings in urban areas make accurate targeting of air strikes increasingly difficult on the urban battlefield.
Russia has most frequently employed non-precision guided weapons in tactical strikes in Syria. If this is the case in today’s Al-Bab incident it may have been a contributing factor.
While technical details of the strike were not released media photos from Khmeimim Air Base (also called Hmeimim Air Base) frequently show the Russian Su-25 Frogfoot used in a similar role as the U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt II for ground attack and close air support. Although unconfirmed, it may have been an Su-25 that launched today’s mistaken strike.
Su-25 pilot at Latakia airbase (Ru MoD via RT)
One factor that may have contributed to the incident is possible communication problems between Turkish ground forces and Russian close air support assets. U.S. forces traditionally employ specially trained and equipped personnel called “Forward Air Controllers” or “Tactical Air Control Parties” (TACPs) to coordinate air strikes in support of ground troops. It is possible the Russians may have assigned their own personnel, in some cases attack pilots with airstrike experience in the region, to help with targeting and coordination. But if there were no Russian air strike coordinators on the ground with Turkish troops, this could have been a contributing factor.
Russia’s precision-guided weapons have traditionally been larger munitions, while smaller bombs such as the 100kg and 250kg have not been guided. This is contrary to the U.S. development of small precision-guided weapons like the recent GBU-53/B small diameter bomb, a GPS/INS guided 250lb (approx. 113kg) bomb that has been employed by the F-22 in strikes in Syria. Russian precision guided munitions appear to be larger than 500kg including the FAB-500 high-explosive bomb and the “bunker busting” AB-500 bomb used on reinforced concrete targets.
Russian guided weapons relying on satellite targeting may be inherently less accurate than their U.S. counterparts since they update targeting and guidance data from the GLONASS GPS satellite constellation. According to Russia Insider the GLONASS satellite constellation “is fractionally less accurate in low latitudes than [western] GPS”. This suggests the Russian systems may be optimized for striking targets in northern areas.
Analyst for the Japan Times, Robert Burns, wrote, “The skies over Syria are increasingly crowded — and increasingly dangerous. The air forces of multiple countries are on the attack, often at cross-purposes in Syria’s civil war, sometimes without coordination. And now, it seems, they are at risk of unintended conflict.”
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter expressed early concern over a year ago about the possibility of “inadvertent incidents and lack of communication” with Russian aircrews. Part of then-Secretary Ash’s concern stemmed from a relative lack of sophistication with Russian communications systems and their use of non-precision, unguided air delivered weapons.
We can’t say whether it happened by accident or on purpose, but a U.S. unmanned spy aircraft broadcast its position for everyone to see while flying a long mission over northern Libya.
It’s not a secret that U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk UASs (Unmanned Aerial Systems) belonging to the 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4th of the U.S. Air Force deployed to Sigonella, Italy, from Beale Air Force Base, California, have been flying ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) missions in support of EUCOM, AFRICOM and CENTCOM theater mission tasking since 2011.
The Global Hawks of the flying branch had their baptism of fire on Mar. 1, 2011, and were the first to fly over Libya to perform high altitude Battle Damage Assessment sorties on targets located in regions with a residual SAM (Surface-to-Air Missiles) and MANPADS threat after Operation Odyssey Dawn was launched on Mar. 19, 2011.
From their deployment bases in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and from Al Dhafra, UAE, the HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) drones are regularly tasked with intelligence gathering missions over North Africa, East Europe and Middle East: in March 2015, the U.S. Air Force acknowledged the involvement of the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft in the air war on ISIS not only as an IMINT (Imagery Intelligence) platform but also as Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) platform, that replaces the imagery sensor package normally installed in the aircraft, to support ground ops by relaying communications between people and aircraft as well as enabling airstrikes on the Islamic State militants.
Like all the other spyplanes, during their (long) sorties, these strategic ISR drones typically tend to keep a low-profile: they operate in “due regard” with transponder off, with no radio comms with the ATC control, using the concept of “see and avoid” where the pilot flying is responsible for avoiding all traffic conflicts, much like a VFR flight plan without flight following. For this reason it should not be possible to detect RQ-4s on clandestine missions using “simple” commercial receivers like those feeding online flight tracking systems such as Flightradar24.com, PlaneFinder.net or Global ADS Exchange.
But Global Hawks could be tracked online over Ukraine beginning on October 2016 and, for the very fist time, while conducting a 21-hour mission over northwestern Libya on Feb. 4, 2017.
Indeed, yesterday an RQ-4 could be tracked on FR24.com taking off from Sigonella airbase around 1.30AM UTC, climb to 46,000 feet over the sea then head towards Libya where it circled for several hours.
Tracking while heading southbound (screenshot from FR 24.com)
Flying over northwestern Libya (screenshot from FR 24.com)
Skirting Tripoli southeast bound (screenshot from FR 24.com)
We have informed the U.S. Air Force and other air forces that their planes could be tracked online, live, several times, but our Tweets (and those of our Tweeps who retweeted us) or emails have not had any effect as little has changed even though this author has received several emails from USAF pilots and aircrew members who wanted to say thank you for raising the issue.
Sometimes the reason for making an aircraft visible on FR24 can be deterrence: they purposely broadcast their position to let “the others” know a spyplane hunting terrorists is there. Was this the case? Hard to say.
H/T to the always alert @CivMilAir for the heads-up!
The three Eurofighters, two single-seaters and a two-seater (along with a photo-ship, perhaps another Typhoon) flew near the Admiral Kuznetsov in what was just a show of force: the British multirole aircraft have no real anti-ship capability nor carried any armament.
Based on the photographs, only one Typhoon FGR4 ZJ927 had at least one (dummy) ASRAAM (Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile) on the outer port pylon.
Here’s an interesting clip filmed by the RAF jets during their flying activity in the vicinity of the Russian carrier.
Image credit: Crown Copyright
Russia’s MoD claimed the British performed a useless escort. Here’s Russian Defence Ministry comment on the statement of the British Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon concerning the escort of the Russian carrier group by the British ships off the coast of Great Britain:
“We have paid attention to the statement of the British Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon concerning the Russian carrier group which is passing the English Channel on its way home after combat task performance.
The goal of such statements and show concerning the escort of the Russian ships is to draw the attention of the British taxpayers away from the real state of affairs in the British Navy.
First, the Russian combat ships do not need escort services; they know the fairway and the course.
Second, Mr. Fallon is recommended paying more attention to the British fleet all the more there is every reason for it according to the same British press.“
The Russian MoD also highlighted that the British newspaper Sunday Times reported about a failed launch of a ballistic missile from submarines of the British Navy recently.
According to a Royal Navy spokesperson “Remaining at a respectful distance, but keeping the Russian warships clearly visible, Royal Navy sailors keep watch on every movement through their binoculars and use state-of-the-art radars to track the course and speed of the ships as they pass close to the UK.”
BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Beale says Typhoons may have used their sensors to try to detect the Russian’s air defence systems but the Eurofighter ESM (Electronic Support Measures) capabilities are quite limited if compared to other specialized aircraft (including the RAF E-3D or the Sentinel R1, whose presence in the same “surveillance operation” can’t be ruled out) that could gather much more significant data (if any, considered that the Russian aircraft carrier has been closely monitored while operating in the Med Sea with all its systems turned on….) from (safe) distance.
The precision strategic long-range strike crossed Iranian and Iraqi airspace and, according to the Russian MoD, the targets (terrorist group’s command centers, weapon stockpiles and armored vehicles) were completely destroyed.
The primary bomber aircraft on the strike are the latest version of the TU-22 “Backfire” series bombers. Production of the aircraft ended in 1993 but updates to targeting and avionics have likely continued.
Based on an examination of the BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment) and targeting strike video, it would appear that the weapons employed were, as usual, unguided “dumb” bombs released under precision sighting from the Russian bombers. The weapons appear to be one of the Russian FAB series unguided bombs, either the FAB-250 (500 lb) bombs or the larger FAB-500 (1,000 lb) bombs.
Unguided bombs employed using precision strike technology from the bombers themselves have the advantage of not requiring time-consuming targeting data often required by laser designated, GPS-guided or optically guided air-delivered weapons. As a result the Russian forces can prosecute targets more quickly since fewer targeting assets in the region are required.
No intelligence was released indicating how targeting was achieved for the airstrikes.
The Tu-22M3 is internally equipped with the Leninets PNA-D precision ground attack radar for targeting and the SMKRITS RORSAT Targeting Datalink Receiver (Molniya satcom) for remote target designation. The aircraft is also equipped with an OPB-15 remote optical bombsight. The strike video may have been shot using the aircraft’s onboard AFA-15 strike camera.
The strikes appeared to have been conducted from medium to high altitude based on the videos.
In 2010, the Russian Air Force operated 93 of the Tu-22 bombers in several versions while Russian Naval Aviation flew 58 Tu-22’s according to public sources.
Although Russia did not officially name the units involved it is most likely the raids were flown by aircraft from the 52nd Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment at Shaykovka and/or the 840th Heavy Bomber Regiment at Soltsy-2 in Novgorod Oblast, Russia.
This follows a similar raid on strategic targets in Syria flown earlier this week on Saturday.
In a massive two-aircraft nighttime precision strike supported by at least one armed drone U.S. Air Force stealth bombers have killed over 80 ISIL insurgents south of the coastal city of Sirte, Libya.
As already reported, two U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit bombers from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base carried out a precision air strike on Daesh training camps in Libya on Jan. 18, 2017.
DoD officials characterized the strike as a “huge success” in a statement issued on Jan. 19.
The multiple terrorist camps struck on Wednesday were once an ISIL stronghold in Libya. The targets were hit with 108 precision-targeted, air-delivered weapons. There was no indication of how the targeting data was provided. Following the airstrike by B-2s at least one remotely piloted vehicle (MQ-9 Reaper according to some sources, MQ-1 Predator according to others) launched supporting strikes using AGM-114 Hellfire missiles against ISIS fighters trying to run to safety.
“In conjunction with the Libyan Government, the U.S. military conducted precision airstrikes Wednesday night destroying two ISIL camps 45 kilometers southwest of Sirtem,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters.
This continuation of U.S. air action over Libya further extends U.S. combat operations in the region bringing the number of airstrikes by U.S. forces to nearly 500.
This latest round of heavy strikes was authorized by outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama, indicating that the targets were of significant strategic value to the conflict. The camps were established by ISIL insurgents following a protracted combined ground and air campaign by a coalition of nations including Libya to eliminate the terrorist influence in the region.
The strikes were flown from the continental United States directly to Libya and back but, unlike what happened in 2011, during the opening phases of Operation Odyssey Dawn, the raid was far from being unnoticed: the aircraft flew under radio callsign CLIP11 (93-1087) CLIP12 (89-0129) and CLIP13 (82-1068) with the latter one being the spare aircraft.
According to some sources, a fourth B-2 was involved in the raid but only three were monitored by airband listeners and this would be coherent with the standard Spirit procedures that usually involve a single spare aircraft.
ATC clearence for USAF B-2A (cs Clip11flt). 4750n50w 4750n45w 47n3640w 47n35w 4609n30w 4514n25w 44n22w 4130n20w DETOX and back on cource. pic.twitter.com/C3jn6P1GZC
A total of 15 tankers (KC-135 and KC-10) participated in the operation, enabling the B-2s to fly the more than 30 hours round-trip to the target from their home base in Missouri.
According to the U.S. Air Force, planners at 18th Air Force and the 618th Air Operations Center at Scott AFB coordinated the tanker mission.
The 305th Air Mobility Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, was one of the units that contributed tankers to the refueling mission. Then, after crossing the Pond, the B-2s were refueled off Gibraltair by KC-135s belonging to the 100th ARW launched from RAF Mildenhall, UK, whose racetracks could be tracked online by means of ADS-B.
The USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) and USS Porter (DDG-78), both Arleigh-Burke class guided missile destroyers, supported the operation as they steamed north of Libya on station in the Mediterranean.
According to Defense journalist Babak Taghvaee, ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) and post-strike BDA (Battle Damage Assessment) were conducted by U-28A aircraft from 319th SOS even though the participation of USAF RQ-4 Global Hawk drones, that have often conducted missions over North Africa and Syria seems to be quite likely.
Airmen from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri prepare B-2 Spirit stealth bombers for operations near Sirte, Libya. In conjunction with the Libyan Government of National Accord, the U.S. military conducted precision airstrikes Jan. 18, 2017 destroying two Daesh camps 45 kilometers southwest of Sirte. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joel Pfiester)
A B-2 Spirit stealth bomber lands at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., Jan. 19, 2017. Two B-2s returned after an approximate 30-hour sortie in support of operations near Sirte, Libya. In conjunction with the Libyan Government of National Accord, the U.S. military conducted precision airstrikes Jan. 18, 2017, destroying two Daesh camps 45 kilometers southwest of Sirte. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joel Pfiester)
The B-2 Spirit is operated by the legacy 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB in Knob Noster, Missouri. The 509th Bomb Wing was originally formed in late WWII expressly to conduct the first operational nuclear strikes on Japan in 1945. The unit operated a modified version of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress and launched two operational nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only active use of nuclear weapons by a nation in warfare.