Tag Archives: Russia

Everything We Know About The Delivery of Russian S-300 Missile Systems to Syria

Let’s analyse if and how the Syrian scenario is going to change after the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to Assad.

Images and video of the first Russian S-300 battery being delivered at the Khmeimim Air Base in Syria have been shared by the Russian MoD starting on Wednesday Oct. 3. The announcement of the successful delivery of the long-range missile systems had arrived on Tuesday but the photographs and clip showing the missile tubes, radar and control vehicles provided a visual confirmation of the claims.

The S-300s were delivered in response to the Israeli air strike on Sept. 17 that led to the accidental downing of a Russian Air Force Il-20M Coot spyplane mistakenly shot down by a Syrian S-200 (SA-5) missile. Although the details and real causes of the downing are still controversial, Moscow made it clear it would boost the Syrian air defense, a dense system relative to the country’s size but whose backbone is a variety of old Soviet-era SAMs. Russia threatened to  impose electronic countermeasures over Syria’s coastline, suppressing satellite navigation as well as radar and communication systems of combat aircraft attacking targets on Syrian territory.

The S-300 is a mobile air defense system that couples a radars capable to track multiple targets with long-range missiles to hit aerial targets at a distance of 150 km and an altitude up to 27,000 meters. Although well-known to the western air forces, it remains a lethal SAM system.

Syria wanted the S-300 as far back as the 1980s after the first Lebanon war, but it was forced to make do with the S-200 (SA5) system, an older system still capable to bring down an advanced F-16I Sufa on Feb. 10, 2018, when several SA-5 and SA-17 missiles were fired at seven Israeli fighter jets returning from an airstrike on the T-4 military base near Palmyra in central Syria, from which the IDF said an Iranian operator remotely piloted an Iranian drone into Israeli territory an hour earlier. In that case, the IAF determined the loss of the Sufa was caused by a “professional error”: although the on-board warning system of the F-16I alerted the crew of the incoming threat, the pilot and navigator failed to deploy countermeasures.

As commented back then, the last time an Israeli Air Force jet had been shot down dated back to the first Lebanon War at the beginning of the ’80s and the air strikes did not cease after the Sufa loss. However, it must be remembered that Israel hasn’t had a real freedom of action over Syria since late 2015, when Russia decided to install an S-400 Triumf missile defense battery able to track the Syrian airspace as well as the vast majority of Israeli airspace. In fact, since then, Israel has coordinated its activities in Syria with Moscow.

According to Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu the delivery of S-300 systems has been concluded. “It included 49 pieces of equipment, including radars, control vehicles and four launchers,”  the MoD said to TASS News Agency. “We have finished personnel recruitment and have begun to train them,” said Shoigu, adding that it would take the Syrian army at least three months to learn how to use the system. It’s fair to assume that the Russians will operate the S-300s during the training period and remain for some tipe supervising operations.

The new systems were delivered by means of AN-124 Condor flights. An unusual frequency in heavy airlifter missions to the airbase near Latakia was monitored and tracked online in the days before the official announcement, suggesting an air bridge was in progress to deliver the components required to install the first S-300 batteries: as many as 6 flights between Sept. 28 and Oct. 1.

On paper, the addition of the new SAM batteries should not affect the Israeli ability to strike Syria. Thanks to stand-off weapons, the Israeli Air Force continues to be able to hit its targets as well as the SAM sites themselves in what is called a DEAD (destruction of enemy air defenses mission) if needed.

The Israeli Air Force has already gathered knowledge on the Russian defense system when it trained against the S-300PMU-1 surface-to-air missile system stationed in Crete during INIOXOS-2015, one the largest annual exercise of the Hellenic Air Force, during which 10 Israeli Air Force F-16I Sufa were able to test evasion tactics during simulated attacks against ground targets protected by S-300 batteries.

Moreover, if conventional aircraft can be theoretically tracked (or as some media outlets stated “locked on”) by Syrian air defenses shortly after take off from their airbases in Israel, the IAF can commit its radar-evading F-35I Adir to the Syrian air strikes. Indeed, the IAF F-35s have already carried out attacks in Syria, as the Israeli Air Force Commander, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin unveiled earlier this year. “The Adir planes are already operational and flying in operational missions. We are the first in the world to use the F-35 in operational activity,” he said showing also a famous photograph of an F-35I flying off Beirut (with radar reflectors).

This is what the Author wrote back then about the F-35 Adir’s involvement in the air strikes on Syria and the inherent risks. It still applies at the current situation:

“[…] the heavy presence of Russian radars and ELINT platforms in Syria cause some concern: the Russians are currently able to identify takeoffs from Israeli bases in real-time and might use collected data to “characterize” the F-35’s signature at specific wavelengths as reportedly done with the U.S. F-22s.

In fact, tactical fighter-sized stealth aircraft are built to defeat radar operating at specific frequencies; usually high-frequency bands as C, X, Ku and S band where the radar accuracy is higher (in fact, the higher the frequency, the better is the accuracy of the radar system).

However, once the frequency wavelength exceeds a certain threshold and causes a resonant effect, LO aircraft become increasingly detectable. For instance, ATC radars, that operate at lower-frequency bands are theoretically able to detect a tactical fighter-sized stealth plane whose shape features parts that can cause resonance. Radars that operate at bands below 300 MHz (lower UHF, VHF and HF radars), such as the so-called Over The Horizon (OTH) radars, are believed to be particularly dangerous for stealth planes: although they are not much accurate (because lower frequency implies very large antenna and lower angle accuracy and angle resolution) they can spot stealth planes and be used to guide fighters equipped with IRST towards the direction the LO planes might be.

For these reasons, in the same way the U.S. spyplanes do with all the Russian Su-35S, Su-30SM, S-400 in Syria, it’s safe to assume Russian advanced anti-aircraft systems are “targeting” the Israeli F-35s and its valuable emissions, forcing the IAF to adapt its procedures and leverage the presence of other aircraft to “hide” the “Adir” when and where it could theoretically be detected. “This has created a situation in which the IAF is adapting itself to the F-35 instead of adapting the jet to the air force. The goal, they say at the IAF, is to use the F-35 to upgrade the fourth generation jets that will fly around the F-35,” commented Al-Monitor’s Ben Caspit.

Meanwhile the Israeli F-35s will probably see some action, validating the tactical procedures to be used by the new aircraft, fine tuning the ELINT capabilities of the “Adir” to detect, geolocate and classify enemy‘s new/upgraded systems, as well as testing the weapons system (and the various Israeli “customizations”) during real operations as part of “packages” that will likely include other special mission aircraft and EW (Electronic Warfare) support.

But only if really needed: the Israeli Air Force “legacy” aircraft have often shown their ability to operate freely in the Syrian airspace, using stand-off weaponry, without needing most of the fancy 5th generation features; therefore, it’s safe to assume the Israelis will commit their new aircraft if required by unique operational needs, as already happened in the past (in 1981, the first Israeli F-16s took part in Operation Opera, one of the most famous operations in Israeli Air Force history, one year after the first “Netz” aircraft was delivered and before all the F-16As were taken on charge by the IAF).”

That said, it’s highly unlikely that Israel would attack the S-300 batteries until the Russian military operate or have those weapons under their direct control. The problem is not the system itself, but the fact that it is flying the Russian flag for some time now.

Someone has recently asked me if the presence of the S-300 is making accidental downings less likely in the crowded Syrian airspace.

The answer is: most probably yes, especially considering that Russian personnel will probably operate more modern systems (even after they are officially handed over they will probably help the Syrians) and care will be taken in properly identifying targets before firing SAMs at them (the use of “transit corridors”, reviewed radar and radio procedures will be probably implemented among the Russian-Syrian teams as well). At the same time, advanced notifications will be probably used wisely, in order to prevent other incidents that could escalate tensions even more.

That said it must be reminded that the situation over Syria will remain volatile.

Yes, there are far busier areas in the Middle East as well as the rest of the World, where the concentration of civilian aircraft is higher. Open Source analysis on flight tracking websites or apps (using ADS-B/Mode-S as I have often explained here) can just give a rough idea of the situation because it provides insights into the civil part of the story. If you observe the traffic flying over Syria using Flightradar24 at any time (you can use the playback feature to monitor flights on a large period of time with speed up to 120x) you will probably only spot some civilian traffic flying in the southwestern part of the country/east of Damascus: the airspace is mainly interested by airliners belonging to the Syrian Air, Iraqi Airways, Fly Baghdad and Cham Wings Airlines flying to/from the Syrian capital. Sometimes you’ll see an airliner crossing the airspace to the North of Damascus: these are usually civilian flights heading to Beirut. Another corridor, mainly used by aircraft heading north departing from Damascus roughly runs along the country’s eastern border. You can have an idea of the corridors used by civil traffic these days here.

Using OSINT tools we don’t get a sense of how many military flights operate over there. Besides the Russian airlifters trailing other aircraft or delivering “goods” to Latakia, and the spyplanes that operate in the eastern Med off Syria and Lebanon, little can be tracked on Flightradar24.com or other public domain flight tracking websites. But we know that there are other tactical as well as intelligence gathering (manned and unmanned) aircraft flying over Syria, both Russian, Syrian and belonging to the US-led coalition. And we also know that, every now and then, combat aircraft from different countries, not operating/cooperating under the same management/coordination and possibly using different procedures as well as ROE (Rules Of Engagement), operate in proximity one another (or close to civilian aircraft).

Deconfliction hotlines between US and Russia and between Russia and Israel have helped avoiding direct clashes (although there have been some tense close encounters in the near past before the Il-20 was downed) but the risk of human-induced accidents remains.

Top image credit: composite created using IAF/Reddit/Russian MOD/FR24.com images

Will Russia Ever Develop an Equivalent to the U.S. Light Attack Experiment?

Could Russia Develop A Turboprop Light Combat Aircraft? Most probably, no. But discussion brings some weird concepts to light…

An obscure Russian language news story briefly appeared in social media earlier this week that raised an interesting question: why isn’t Russia more vigorous in developing their own light attack aircraft program, especially for export? The article featuring conceptual renderings of Russian light attack concepts was published on the Russian language website “Aviator.Guru” on July 16, 2018. It was shared on the Russian aviation Facebook page “BKC России”.

The Aviation.Guru article showed renderings of what early developmental concepts for Russian manufactured light attack aircraft could look like. Although fictional, the images are interesting set against the backdrop of Russia’s involvement with anti-insurgent warfare in Syria, increasing need for defense export products and the U.S. Light Attack Experiment.

Counterinsurgency aircraft concepts like the one shown in this rendering have appeared on the Internet recently (Credit: AviatorGuru)

While images of Russian conceived light attack aircraft have been circulated among design schools and even aircraft manufacturers for five decades, Russia has never funded or progressed a large-scale project beyond the conceptual design/illustration phase. This seems odd, given the country’s increased emphasis on military export to countries with smaller defense budgets involved in anti-insurgent campaigns. Perhaps the trend is about to change.

Russia has been more conspicuous about very large aircraft projects, most notably the PAK-FA development that yielded the Sukhoi Su-57, a program that, as confirmed by several sources, including a July 12, 2018 report by Business Insider’s Alex Lockie, has now been scaled back considerably from full production. Russia has even teased an ambitious “PAK-DA” stealth bomber concept, even less likely to reach full-scale development than the now reportedly-struggling Su-57 program given budgetary concerns. Both these fiscally driven scale-backs seem to point the direction of Russia’s growing export tactical aircraft industry in the direction of light attack.

Light attack has been a big trend for western defense manufacturers. After ambitious progress in the U.S and operational deployment of Afghan light attack aircraft, the U.S. recently halted their ongoing Light Attack Experiment conducted largely from Holloman AFB in New Mexico. The effort was intended to evaluate not just new aircraft for the light, counter-insurgency role but also to assess new ways for the Air Force to streamline some future acquisition programs. The project was put on hold pending an investigation into a fatal accident on June 22, 2018 that claimed the life of U.S. Navy pilot Lt. Christopher Carey Short. The U.S. Air Force has said they remain dedicated the to the light attack concept.

Light attack aircraft, especially turboprops, are conspicuously absent from both Russia’s own air force and their export offerings to nation states that buy tactical aircraft from Russia. Given Russia’s involvement in the Syrian anti-insurgency and the influence of the Russian military aviation industry throughout Africa and Asia, an inexpensive, easily maintained light attack turboprop counterinsurgency aircraft that could operate from austere forward airfields could theoretically be a good seller for Russia’s growing export military aviation industry.

Russia’s current light strike capability is distributed across rotary wing assets like the Kamov Ka-50/52, Mil Mi-28 and the venerable Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters and two jet types, the successful Sukhoi Su-25, more analogous to the large U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt II, and the more modern Yakovlev Yak-130, currently employed by Russia as an advanced trainer but also suited for the light attack role.

Russia’s Yak-130 advanced jet trainer has been demonstrated with heavy weapons load and could be employed in the light-attack role (Image credit: Irkut)

The July 16, 2018 “Aviator.Guru” article initially discusses a need for easily maintained light attack aircraft to be used after a larger, primarily jet, air force is degraded in a large scale nuclear conflict. The article goes on to suggest, [translation]:

“If you correlate the date of the appearance of the program and the requirements for it, it becomes clear that [it is not] a post-apocalypse attack plane, but an ordinary anti-guerrilla aircraft (also COIN – a coupon-insurgency aircraft). Representatives of this class of aviation showed themselves well in Vietnam and over Latin America. No less useful they would be for the USSR in Afghanistan.”

One of the most bizarre renderings featured a pusher contra-rotating propeller system. (Credit: Aviator.Guru)

It would appear that the renderings featured originally in the article were prepared as concepts in a design school and/or think-tank feasibility study. Portions of the study date back to the Soviet-era during the 1980s:

[Translation] “Various late versions of the LVSH [“Light Attack Experimental Program”] of the late 80’s and early 90’s: The flying prototype of the LVS never started to be built – neither in the late 80’s, nor even more so in the early 90’s. With the collapse of the Union, all the chances for the appearance of this machine in metal disappeared, but the flow of creativity could not be stopped. The models of storm troopers [aircraft concepts] surprised visitors of various exhibitions with courageous decisions – but they did not cause any interest. Too expensive, too complicated to manufacture and operate. There was no money for them in their home country.”

The translation suggests that budgetary concerns limited the former Soviet Union’s exploration of a light attack/reconnaissance/forward air control turboprop analogous to the U.S. OV-10 Bronco and A-1 Skyraider of the 1950s and 1960s.

One version of a Russian light attack aircraft did reach production though. The Khrunichev T-411 Aist or “Stork” first flew in November 1993. It is a light, high-wing utility/surveillance/light attack/counter insurgency aircraft developed by the Russian company Aeroprogress and eventually put into production by the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center. There was even a version sold to the civilian general aviation market in the U.S as the Aeroprogress T-411 Wolverine powered by a Continental TSIO-550-B turboprop engine. It was even offered in kit form as the Washington T-411 Wolverine. There is little information about the production numbers or outcome of the Khrunichev T-411 program, which suggests it was largely unsuccessful.

Given the legacy of some of Russia’s rugged design concepts that have made their way into aircraft like the WWII Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik anti-tank aircraft and the later Sukhoi Su-25, the country’s design bureaus seem uniquely qualified to produce a rugged, simple to operate, highly capable light attack aircraft. But to date, other than interesting conceptual renders and a possible increase in conversation, little appears to be happening in Russia to parallel the U.S. Light Attack Experiment. At least for the moment.

Top image credit: Eugeny Polivanov/Commons

Ukrainian Su-25 Frogfoot Jet Flies At Ultra-Low Altitude Over The Sea Of Azov

A Ukrainian attack jet almost “buzzed” bathers on a beach at a popular resort town in southeastern Ukraine amid growing tensions with Russia in the Sea of Azov.

Su-25 attack jets are particularly comfortable at very low altitudes and the Ukrainian Frogfoots often fly at low-level as part of their Close Air Support training.

Indeed, we have published many videos showing the Ukrainian Su-25s involved in treetop navigations and ultra-low level flyovers in the past. Here’s a clip reportedly filmed last Friday by vacationers at Kirillovka, a resort town on the Sea of Azov, in southeastern Ukraine, some 65 km from the border with Russia in Crimea in the southwest, and about 140 km southwest of the breakaway Donetsk region.

According to Sputnik News media outlet, the attack aircraft was involved in Ukrainian border guard drills in the Sea of Azov, a region of raising tensions with Moscow: in March, Ukraine’s border guards detained a Russian fishing boat. Russia accused Ukraine or ‘state piracy’ and last week, Russia detained two Ukrainian fishermen accused of poaching, the Russian State-sponsored reported.

By the way, the short video proves the Su-25 is a really quiet jet aircraft, isn’t it?

Actually, low level flying is not only a Frogfoot jets prerogative. Take a look at the following episodes of the “Ukrainian low level activity saga” we have posted here at The Aviationist: a Ukrainian Mig-29 overflying pro-Russia separatist blocking rails; an Ilyushin Il-76 buzzing some Su-25s (and the Frogfoots returning the favor while buzzing the tower); here’s an Mi-17 helicopter flying among the cars on a highway and another fully armed Mig-29 Fulcrum in the livery of the Ukrainian Falcons aerobatic display team flying over an apron at an airbase in Ukraine; here’s a Su-25 flying low over the heads of a group of female soldiers posing for a photograph and then performing an aileron roll; and here you can see a Su-27 performing a low pass after take off.

H/T Lasse Holmstrom for the heads-up!

This Updated Chart Shows (Most Of) The Assets Involved in Apr. 14 Air Strike On Syria

This revised chart provides a good overview of the assets that took part in the Trilateral strikes on Syria last month.

As our readers already know, in the night between Apr. 13 and 14 the U.S., UK and France launched air strikes against Syria. By means of an OSINT analysis, we were able to determine the presence of most of the aircraft which took part in the operation, most of those could be tracked online via information in the public domain, hours before their involvement was officially confirmed.

Based on the “picture” we have contributed to build up, the popular one-man site CIGeography has prepared an interesting chart to visualize the type and number of the assets that have taken part or supported the strike. Although this is a revised version of an original chart posted on Apr. 29, it still contains some inaccuracies: for instance, just 6 out of 8 French C-135FR tankers are shows; at least 11 US tankers supported the American aircraft at various times; two RQ-4s are shown in the chart although we have tracked just one example [#10-2043 – a serial that is still subject to debate] and no other Global Hawk is known to have been committed, etc. Moreover, little is known about the aircraft that operated from the UAE and Qatar bases (including the EA-6B Prowlers, known to have supported the B-1s) and whose presence and number could not be determined by means of online flight tracking; still, it represents the only available chart that summarizes the types, the airbases and the weapons used to attack Syria last month.

Make sure you follow @CIGeography on Twitter and Facebook. You can also buy one of the posters based on this and other charts CIGeography has produced here.

Why Is A Swedish ELINT Aircraft Operating Off Lebanon and Syria These Days?

A Swedish Air Force heavily-modified Gulfstream IVSP aircraft used to perform ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) missions has joined the long list of ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) platforms operating in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

On May 1, 2018, a Swedish Air Force S102B Korpen has started operating in the eastern Med.

The aircraft is one of two SwAF’s S102B Korpen aircraft, heavily-modified Gulfstream IVSP business jets used to perform ELINT missions. These aircraft have been in service with the Swedish Air Force since 1992, when they have replaced the two TP85s (modified Caravelle airliners formerly belonging to the SAS airline) that had been operated for 20 years since 1972. They are equipped with sensors operated by ELINT personnel from the FRA (the Radio Establishment of the Defence), capable to eavesdrop, collect and analyse enemy electronic emissions. As we have often reported here at The Aviationist, the Korpen jets routinely conduct surveillance missions over the Baltic Sea, flying high and fast in international airspace off the area of interest. The most frequent “target” of the S102B is Kaliningrad Oblast and its Russian installations. For this reason, the Swedish ELINT aircraft are also frequently intercepted by Russian Su-27 Flankers scrambled from the Kaliningrad exclave’s airbases.

Anyway, it looks like the Swedish airplane has now pointed its sensors to the Russian signals in Syria, deploying to Larnaca, Cyprus: the example 102003/”023″, using callsign “SVF647”, was tracked, by means of its ADS-B/Mode-S transponder, twice on May 1, flying off Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt, more or less in the very same way many other aircraft (U.S. Navy P-8s, U.S. Air Force RQ-4 and RC-135s) have been doing for some weeks.

Here’s the first mission in the morning on May 1:

Here’s the second mission, later on the same day (21.40LT):

Considered the quite unusual area of operations, one might wonder why the Swedish S102B is currently operating close to the Syrian theater, so far from home. We can just speculate here, but the most likely guess is that the aircraft is collecting ELINT off Syria to acquire new baseline data for assets that are deployed there and which may either be currently or imminently deployed in Kaliningrad. Possibly surface vessels too, which might add to the Baltic Electronic Order of Battle. “I think they are just acquiring ELINT that is unique to Syria and might have applications in the Baltic,” says a source who wishes to remain anonymous.

For sure, with all the Russian “hardware” deployed to Syria, often referred to as a “testbed” for Moscow’s new equipment, there is some much data to be collected that the region has already turned into a sort of “signals paradise” for the intelligence teams from all around the world.

Top image: Peter Bakema/Wiki and @ItaMilRadar