The U.S. Air Force Can Build a Drone Base in Less Than a Month

by Joseph Trevithick, a freelance journalist and researcher. He is also a regular contributing writer at War is Boring and a Fellow at This article was first published at War is Boring and re-published by David Axe’s permission — thank you!

The 3rd Special Operations Squadron’s deployed Predator taxis back to its hangar. (U.S. Air Force photo).

The 3rd Special Operations Squadron’s deployed Predator taxis back to its hangar. (U.S. Air Force photo).

“Any time, any place.” That’s the official motto of U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). And there’s no better demonstration of this maxim than the command’s proven ability to set up a bare-bones drone base pretty much anywhere in the world — and super fast.

In 2013, the 3rd Special Operations Squadron (3rd SOS) quickly deployed — apparently to a country in Africa — a single MQ-1 Predator drone and the airmen to support it. Three weeks later, a tiny drone base was up and running. “The hangar[‘s] dirt foundation and temporary plywood taxiway enabled hangar use during concrete pouring,” explains an Air Force briefing dated March 20, 2013. “Ensured continuous operations despite loss of access to host nation hangar.” War is Boring obtained the unclassified and unredacted briefing through the Freedom of Information Act. The briefing does not specify the host country, nor does it state the drone’s mission.

But here’s a clue. The 3rd SOS named their site “Camp Shughart,” apparently after U.S. Army sergeant Randy Shughart, a Delta Force operator who died in the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993.

The Pentagon has deployed drones and manned spy planes to Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya as part of its ongoing campaign targeting Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia.

As of May 2013, the Pentagon had positioned one Predator, along with a larger MQ-9 Reaper drone, at a small airstrip in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, according to briefings The Intercept released as part of its “Drone Papers” investigation.

The shots of “Camp Shughart” don’t seem to resemble recent satellite images of the Ethiopian base. But that doesn’t mean the 3rd SOS’s pop-up base wasn’t in East Africa or somewhere else nearby on the continent.

The facility’s aforementioned wooden pathway rested on top of four to six inches of sand and led to a hard mud ramp and into the single hangar, the briefing notes. The presentation also depicts tents, generators, fuel tanks and other supplies surrounding the hangar.

"Camp Shughart" as seen through the Predator’s camera. (U.S. Air Force photo).

“Camp Shughart” as seen through the Predator’s camera. (U.S. Air Force photo).

The operations tent contained a control station for a two-person drone crew — a pilot and a sensor operator. Typically, the drone pilots at a remote, forward base only launch and land the robot using line-of-sight radio. Operators at bases in the United States take over for most of the drone’s potentially daylong missions, controlling the pilotless warplane via satellite. The austere base’s ops tent also held a command center and a sleeping area. Some of the photographs show American troops and contractors playing football with local guards on what looks like arid, sub-Saharan terrain.

The “rapid reaction” concept took nearly eight years to refine, according to the 27th Special Operations Wing’s (27th SOW) official history for 2013. The 27th SOW oversees the 3rd SOS. “The package ‘provides Air Force Special Operations Command the only mobile, alert-type ISR in the world,'” the historians wrote, citing a conversation with one member of the 3rd SOS and using the acronym for “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” missions. “Planners designed it ‘to respond globally, in an extremely short time frame.'”

On Sept. 12, 2012, AFSOC put into practice the speedy-setup concept the 3rd SOS had helped to create. Militants had just attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. AFSOC sent a Predator to the U.S. Navy base in Sigonella, Italy. From there, the drone immediately began flying missions across the Mediterranean to Benghazi. The whole process took less than a day.

That’s fast. So fast, in fact, that it’s possible the Sigonella drone wasn’t just following the 3rd SOS’s playbook — it actually belonged to the squadron, whose members had already established themselves as rapid-deployment specialists. Sigonella is a big, modern facility. That surely helped AFSOC get its drone up and flying without delay that day in September 2012. It’s obviously much harder setting up an operation in a remote, undeveloped area. When AFSOC sent the 3rd SOS’s solitary Predator to Africa a few months after Benghazi, it expected the drone team would need seven weeks to get established on the ground. But the 3rd SOS’s airmen “moved in” in less than half that time. No doubt taking lessons from the Libya incident, the Pentagon appears to have attached the new facility to an existing airport or air base.

Inside Camp Shughart’s operations tent (U.S. Air Force photo).

Inside Camp Shughart’s operations tent (U.S. Air Force photo).

Over the span of 2013, the 3rd SOS flew at least three different Predators from three separate bases around the world. This combination of so-called “remote split operations” and small, quick deployments seems to have become the norm for both the Air Force and the U.S. Army.

In May 2014, the Pentagon sent around 80 airmen and contractors to Chad to manage another Predator hunting for the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram. The month before, the militants had kidnapped 280 girls from the town of Chibok.

More than a year later, Washington announced it had sent a similar detachment to Cameroon, again targeting the Nigerian group. As of February 2016, the Army — likely with help from private contractors — was still flying some of its Gray Eagle drones out of a small site attached to Cameroon’s Garoua International Airport.

When the Air Force finally shut down its Arba Minch site in January 2016 — a decision that the Pentagon described as “mutual” on the parts of the United States and Ethiopia — it might simply have shifted the facility’s two drones to another one of its small “instant” bases, possibly even the one the 3rd SOS set up in 2013 (see also Chris Biggers, “Repaving Begins at Niger’s Agadez Airport“,, 14.01.2016). Or, airmen could have quickly established a brand-new site. These days, it’s just that easy for the Air Force to build a drone base.

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What the Death of the Mastermind of Sudan’s Civil Disorder Means for Darfur

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.

Hassan al-Turabi

Hassan al-Turabi

The Third Sudanese Civil War continues to eat the margins and peripheries of Africa’s once-largest state. A stalemate between rebels and soldiers along the South Sudanese border remains, yet the Sudanese government started this year by launching another offensive well to the west, into the heartland of Darfur’s uprising. Meanwhile, Hassan al-Turabi, a Sudanese politician accused of masterminding Sudan’s civil disorder, died March 5, 2016.

The two strongest paramilitaries in Darfur, the Sudanese Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SLM/A), started in the early 2000s to defend the region’s black tribes from Khartoum’s perceived racism. Both movements have since declined into infighting, however. JEM has overextended itself by trying to deploy fighters outside Darfur while the SLM/A’s best commanders continue to defect and its chairman refuses to leave Paris. The Sudanese government won a decisive victory against JEM last year, and the SLM/A is struggling to resist yet another violent offensive from Khartoum. The prospects for these movements look grim.

Darfur’s rebels have found allies in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army–North (SPLM/A–N), the Sudanese affiliate of South Sudan’s ruling party. Together, they formed the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF), which has joined the country’s political opposition in trying to overthrow or reform the Sudanese government. The relationship between Sudan’s Arab politicians and black rebels has long been ambiguous, corrupted by distrust and history.

JEM’s critics claim it to be the military affiliate of the Popular Congress Party (PCP), al-Turabi’s political front organization. In the opinions of these detractors, al-Turabi mobilized his followers in the west of the country to overthrow the Sudanese government after it ousted him from power in 1999. Khartoum interprets JEM’s history in this way, citing the circumstantial evidence provided by al-Turabi’s opponents and ignoring the rebels’ grievances unique to Darfur.

After 2003, when JEM and the SLM/A announced themselves to the world by attacking a Sudanese military airbase and started one of the twenty-first century’s bloodiest civil wars, both movements have adapted, contracted, and expanded. In 2008, JEM assaulted the Sudanese capital — the country’s only revolutionary movement to succeed in such an attack since the 1880s. The Sudanese government arrested al-Turabi and other PCP members and blamed them for the assault.

Tens of thousands of newly displaced persons fled their villages due to the ongoing clashes between the government of Sudan forces and armed movements which began in mid-January 2016 in the Jebel Marra area, North Darfur have sought refuge in a safe zone adjacent to UNAMID's team site in Sortoni.

Tens of thousands of newly displaced persons fled their villages due to the ongoing clashes between the government of Sudan forces and armed movements which began in mid-January 2016 in the Jebel Marra area, North Darfur have sought refuge in a safe zone adjacent to UNAMID’s team site in Sortoni.
Some 63,000 people — mostly women and children — are now living here and lack essential facilities, such as water, food, health, sanitation, education and shelter. UNAMID’s peacekeepers, as per their core mandate, provide protection and safety to these civilians through 24/7 confidence-building and routine patrols. The Mission is also facilitating the UN Country Team, such as United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP), as well as international and national nongovernmental organizations to provide humanitarian assistance. Lack of adequate drinking water remains a major challenge despite the efforts by UNAMID, UNICEF and other partners to provide approximately 330,000 liters of water per day (Photo by Mohamad Almahady / UNAMID).

The PCP’s more or less imagined relationship with JEM soon became apparent through the movement’s ideological pragmatism. JEM worked for and with whichever country backed and supported it, not al-Turabi and the PCP. In part because of the attack on Khartoum, Chad in 2010 deported JEM’s leadership to Libya, where observers alleged it to received money and weaponry from Tripoli. The Libyan Civil War caused JEM founder Khalil Ibrahim to return to the Darfuri countryside. An airstrike in 2011 killed him in not Darfur but Kordofan, a central region bordering Khartoum and well outside JEM’s established territory. Khalil’s brother and successor Gibril Ibrahim has focused on quashing defectors and recruiting non-Zaghawa, including Arabs. JEM leader and spokesman Gibril Adam Bilal comes from an Arab tribe, and the movement has even enticed former members of the Janjaweed.

The Sudanese rebels have managed to stalemate the Sudanese government. After over a decade of brutality, it has failed to end the insurgency in Darfur, yet JEM, the strongest of the Darfuri revolutionary movements, has suffered from defeats and defections since its spectacular assault on Khartoum. Even the SPLM/A–N, which controls large areas of territory, has struggled to advance north. The SRF lacks the ability to destroy the Sudanese government, so they must negotiate.

56e5429d4867fAl-Turabi might have provided an opportunity in negotiations with the Sudanese government. The movements of the SRF portrayed him as one of the most important men in Sudanese politics when they mourned his death. “The deceased was one of the most prominent thinkers in the Muslim world, and played a prominent role in Sudanese politics for more than half a century,” said SLM/A spokesman Muhammad Abdurrahman al-Nair. “God bless Dr. Hassan al-Turabi’s mercy, patience, and fortitude,” SPLM/A–N spokesman offered in an official epitaph. He later told Offiziere: “It’s Sudanese tradition to honor the dead even if we disagree with them. Political differences between us, him, and his regime still exist.” Al-Nair agreed. A former member of the SPLM/A–N, Hadi Eissa, presented a more-practical perspective: “My personal opinion is that Sheikh Hassan was the closest to the government among the opposition. He engaged in a national dialog from the inside and believed in reform from within. He might have convinced the government to remove Sudan’s structural and cultural violence.” Viewing al-Turabi as a potential mediator would likely be the most accurate interpretation of his relationship with JEM and the other revolutionary movements.

JEM’s responses to al-Turabi’s death ranged from vague to violent. “Turabi’s death is the death of a Sudanese who made positive and negative personal contributions,” claimed JEM leader Muhammad al-Bashir Abu Darak. “He was reliable in persuading the regime to engage in the process of national dialog and reconciliation.” Dr. Abdullahi Osman el-Tom, another JEM leader and a lecturer at Maynooth University, seemed happy with al-Turabi’s death: “He died but his destructive ideas are still with [sic]. What is certain is that Sudan is better without him.” Whatever JEM’s past relationship with al-Turabi, working with him before his death seemed to interest the movement only in passing. With his passing, JEM has forever escaped the notoriety of Sudan’s best-known Islamist.

Posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, English, Sudan | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Just how flexible are the America and Russia’s Middle East expeditions?

During Russia’s much publicized drawdown from Syria in mid-March (see Video below) Maria Dubovikova argued in Al Arabiya that Russia was “withdrawing [from Syria] in order to stay”. The apparent contradiction in that witty formulation echoes what a US officer told AP’s Peter Arnett concerning the destruction of Bến Tre, the capital city of Bến Tre Province, in the Mekong Delta area of southern Vietnam, in 1968, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” (Ralph Keyes, “The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When“, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006, p. 43).

From the get-go the Russians have taken clear steps not to end up embroiled in the complex conflict in Syria. Setting-up base in Syria’s west in late September 2015, they proceeded to rely heavily on air power to target and bombard Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents to enable his forces on the ground to advance on various battlefronts. In the short-term they bolstered and shored up their Syrian ally and gave him a stronger position from which to negotiate an end to that five-year-old conflict. In the long-term, however, they may well have to remain to secure and lock-in these successes.

Six weeks after the so-called “draw-down” began, it’s clear that Russia has withdrawn the bulk of its Su-25 and Su-34 strike aircraft, likely for some much needed maintenance. In their place the Russians are relying more on helicopter gunships and artillery to give close air support to the Syrian military and its allied militias. A small ground contingent of special forces also remains and helped coordinate the successful campaign against ISIS in the ancient city of Palmyra late last month.

All of this may be indicative of a much more protracted long-term Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict, especially if a political solution is not reached and the Kremlin risks seeing the tide turn against Assad once again (just as it had done up to the point of the Russian intervention when Assad was on the defensive in multiple fronts) in the near future, if they completely withdraw their forces, which could in turn see all their recent battlefield gains rendered worthless in the long-term.

So the Russians remain to ensure their recent gains are not reversed. Russian gunships are still operating in Syria and Moscow has said it will support future Syrian operations, be they in Aleppo or Raqqa.

Pilot by a Russian MI-8AMShT cargo and attack helicopter at the Hmeimim air base.

Pilot by a Russian MI-8AMShT cargo and attack helicopter at the Hmeimim air base.

Similarly since the Americans returned to Iraq following Islamic States’ blitz across that country’s north in the summer of 2014, they have found themselves becoming more and more directly involved. While US President Barack Obama repeatedly pledged that there would be no “boots on the ground” in neither Iraq nor Syria increasing numbers of advisors and trainers have been deployed to Iraq along with special forces. Delta Force has been deployed and is ready to carry out raids against ISIS positions in either Iraq or Syria.

Just this week Obama said another 250 special forces personnel will be deployed to Syria to advise and assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — America’s only real ground ally in Syria against ISIS — in addition to the other 50 special forces soldiers already there. Furthermore it was revealed last month that the US Marine Corps has established an artillery firebase manned by 200 Marines on the Makhmour front against ISIS. While that ground contingent is there solely in order to provide heavy supporting fire to Iraqi and Kurdish military forces battling ISIS the deployment is nevertheless noteworthy and indicates that the US is incrementally becoming more involved in what is an increasingly protracted war against ISIS.

Also Apache helicopter gunships are set to enter the fray to give the Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces more direct close air support in the upcoming offensive into Mosul. But even if Mosul is liberated within the next year or so the US may find itself remaining nevertheless to ensure that the area is substantially stabilised to ensure that ISIS isn’t soon replaced by yet another Sunni Islamist group.

Both these recent interventions share many characteristics: They both aim to spearhead the advances of established central authorities against armed militants by playing a supporting role, albeit supporting roles which have exponentially grown over time. Their efforts may well prove to be just a vain attempt to avoid inevitably becoming embroiled in the deep morasses that are modern day fractured states of Iraq and Syria.

U.S. Marines with Task Force Spartan, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), on Fire Base Bell, Iraq, fire an M777A2 Howitzer at an ISIS infiltration route March 18, 2016. The Marines fired upon the enemy infiltration routes in order to disrupt their freedom of movement and ability to attack Kurdish and Peshmerga forces. (Photo: Cpl. Andre Dakis / U.S. Marine Corps).

U.S. Marines with Task Force Spartan, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), on Fire Base Bell, Iraq, fire an M777A2 Howitzer at an ISIS infiltration route March 18, 2016. The Marines fired upon the enemy infiltration routes in order to disrupt their freedom of movement and ability to attack Kurdish and Peshmerga forces. (Photo: Cpl. Andre Dakis / U.S. Marine Corps).

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Battle for the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution

by Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter; original published in German). Björn is journalist in Berlin focusing on security policy and geopolitics.

Antonov-124 on the SALIS hub at Leipzig Airport (Photo: Markus Kutscher / CC License / Wikipedia).

Antonov-124 on the SALIS hub at Leipzig Airport (Photo: Markus Kutscher / CC License / Wikipedia).

NATO is currently running the bidding process for a continuation of the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS), beginning in 2017. European countries organise military air transport via a private company with this project. Since SALIS was launched ten years ago, RUSLAN SALIS GmbH has provided transportation services with Antonow-124 aircraft. The GmbH is a 50/50 joint venture of the Russian company Volga-Dnepr and the Ukrainian State company Antonov. That is now finished – in the current bidding process, these thus far partners have entered as competitors against each other. Until 9 March of this year, interested parties could submit their SALIS bids to the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA); between late April and early May, the decision will be made as to who will carry out the business in the future.

Essential for air transport
Although the exact contract amounts for SALIS are not known, interest in the contract is likely to be high. SALIS is more than a nice-to-have in military air transport. Launched in 2006, SALIS was initially meant to bridge the lack of capacity until the A400M was up and running. However, this transitional solution became a de facto essential pillar of air transport in the alliance. Whether it is used for medicines or tank howitzers — little air transport to European armies occurs without SALIS. The German Bundeswehr indicates that 70 percent of their total transport is carried out by civilian contractors, of which half is through SALIS. In 2015, that amounted to more than 4,000 tons of cargo and 65 flights. Use of SALIS is also planned for the transport of material and units of the NATO Response Force and the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, according to the German Federal Ministry of Defence.

Causes of the breakdown in cooperation
Why Volga-Dnepr and Antonov can no longer make common cause is not entirely clear. The current partnership began with a 2006 contract, which was initially extended, and they then won the last tender in 2012. There are however indications of why the break occurred.

Firstly, the Ukraine-Russia conflict played a role. Antonov has now been incorporated into the state armaments group UKROboronPROM. In the defence sector Ukraine has adopted sanctions against Russia, which also apply to Antonov. Their aircraft are still conceived primarily for military needs and the Russian market. As a result of the sanctions, Russia had to adjust the licensed production of the Antonov-140; the environment was not conducive to business between Ukrainians and a Russian company and vice versa.

What is likely to have been strained the cooperation: According to an industry insider, the joint venture of Ukrainians with the Russians is a so-called societas leonina. That is, formally both partners hold equal shares in the company; however the managing director is always a representative of Volga-Dnepr and decides what is defined as cost/profit in the GmbH. Thus, the Russians were in the comfortable position of receiving the lion’s share of the profits, while the Ukrainians received just enough to keep them in line.

Antonov An-124 on the apron of Cargo Area South at the Leipzig/Halle Airport.

Antonov An-124 on the apron of Cargo Area South at the Leipzig/Halle Airport.

Decision of the SALIS partners
It is likely that for the 2017 SALIS reissue that Volga-Dnepr or Antonov will be awarded the contract. Both are the world’s largest commercial providers of Antonov-124 machines (Volga-Dnepr: 10 / Antonov: 7). European forces will continue to need exactly these large-capacity transporters. A spokesman for the German Federal Ministry of Defence discussed the interests of the German Armed Forces in the context of the SALIS re-tendering:

The German Armed Forces needs to change the secure way of strategic air transport of oversized and heavy cargo. For this purpose, two types of aircraft are appropriate. These are the ANTONOV AN-124 and the American C5M GALAXY, which is operated only militarily. A national and multinational search was conducted for possible solutions to fill this capability gap. A commissioned study by the European Defence Agency (EDA) also came to the conclusion that there is no alternative to the entire AN-124 for secure commercial availability.

It will be exciting to see how the decision plays out and how the individual SALIS partner nations will position themselves. Although the NSPA in Kapellen/Luxembourg is implementing the bidding process, ultimately the 14 SALIS partner countries will decide with their shares of votes, corresponding to the size of their transport quotas. Germany stands here in the first place and is the lead nation.

It is conceivable that opposition in NATO on the proper containment strategy towards Russia will have an effect on SALIS. For the policy of Germany, the main representative of the strategy “pressure plus assistance”, it would be fitting to involve a Russian company. By contrast, the SALIS-nation of Poland with their “hard balancing” course against Russia, will be more interested in a Ukrainian or non-Russian company for the contract. It will also be interesting to see how the previous GmbH is phased out.

The Russian Germany network
As it stands, Volga-Dnepr tendered its bid for SALIS 2017 through Ruslan SALIS GmbH. This company under German law is involved with the bidding process, as shared with the author by Ivan Strelnikov, Commercial Director of the GmbH. The answer to the question as to whether the offer came about with compliance of Antonov and whether it reflects the interests of the Ukrainian partner in the GmbH, was not answered. If two companies have a fifty-fifty joint venture, can one use it then for their own offer? According to a specialist lawyer for procurement law, whose firm also manages German Armed Forces projects, that is possible because the “internal relationship” of the company for participation in the bidding process does not matter.

That Volga-Dnepr made its SALIS offer for NATO through the German company shows that the Russians in the company have the final say. The commercial registry excerpt of Ruslan SALIS GmbH states, “If only one managing director is appointed, he shall represent the company alone.” Since the beginning of SALIS 2004, that person has been the Volga-Dnepr man, Valery Aleksandrovich Gabriel. His deputy has also always come from the Russian company, until recently. But now the Russians are converting the GmbH for the period after the Ukrainians depart. According to the Leipziger Volkszeitung, the German Dierk Näther is now Vice Managing Director of Ruslan SALIS. Näther was Director of the Leipzig airport until 2015. Thus the Russians are building their network in the SALIS lead nation, Germany. The legal representative of Volga-Dnepr for SALIS is Elmar Rauch, former Undersecretary at the German Mission to NATO in Brussels. Rauch retired from the service voluntarily in 2001, and was hired by Volga-Dnepr. In industry circles, Rauch is regarded as the designer of the recent SALIS joint ventures. Moreover, Volga-Dnepr lobbied its interests with the German-Russian Economic Alliance, whose council includes a representative of the Leipzig airport.

The Antonov An-225 Mriya

The Antonov An-225 Mriya

The Ukrainian-Polish alliance
The Germany network of the Russians is seen by the Ukrainians as a threat. According to Ukrainian sources, the upcoming SALIS service provider no longer needs to provide six AN-124s as per requirement the NSPA catalogue, but seven or eight. The Ukrainians suspect the lobbying by Volga-Dnepr is behind this. While the Russian competitor can muster ten AN-124s, Antonov with its seven machines of this type would already be at the limit. To compensate for this shortcoming, Antonov has designed its SALIS bid as follows: through an agreement with Maximus Airlines from the United Arab Emirates, the Ukrainians will procure two additional AN-124s. To get the job, the Ukrainians are offering NATO the only AN-225, the largest cargo aircraft in the world, for use by SALIS at the price of an AN-124. While the Russians are putting their stock in Germany, the Ukrainians are relying on Poland. Currently, both sides are negotiating the formation of a consortium between Antonov and companies in the Polish aviation industry. The goal: to make the Antonov aviator independent of Russian components. In addition, the Ukrainian aircraft builders want to diversify their portfolio for the 21st century. Between Antonov and the Polish defence company WB Electronics there is a memorandum for the construction of drones for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Posted in Björn Müller, English, International, Russia, Security Policy, Ukraine | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Islamic World’s Tectonic Plates

by Major Chad M. Pillai. He is a Strategist in the U.S. Army who received his Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He has published articles in Infinity Journal, War on the Rocks, Small Wars Journal, The Strategy Bridge, Military Review, and Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).

20160109_woc948The Middle East and North African (MENA) and South and Central Asian (SOCA) regions of the Islamic World, despite sitting atop vast energy (oil and natural gas) resources, remain in a cycle of perpetual instability. The once hopeful Arab Spring turned into the Arab Sorrow where conflict rages, refugees pour across the borders of Europe, and where a medieval and evil form of political Islam, in the name of the Islamic State (IS), has taken root. Understanding the various causes of the region’s instability requires viewing them as a confluence of factors, best described as tectonic plates, where recent seismic activity point to a convergence and collision at a single point – the Muslims of the MENA-SOCA. As the study of geology demonstrates, when tectonic plates suddenly collide with each other, the results are destructive. The Islamic World, like our earth’s geology, is experiencing a violent transformation as three tectonic plates (sectarianism, ethnic conflict, and reaction to modernity) collide.

1st Tectonic Plate – Sectarianism (Sunni vs. Shia)
Sectarianism, like the San Andreas Fault, is the best known tectonic plate in the Islamic World. The Sunni-Shia Schism began around 680 AD and has resulted in conflict ever since. The excellent Council of Foreign Relations Info Guide on the Sunni-Shia Divide states:

An ancient religious divide is helping fuel a resurgence of conflicts in the Middle East and Muslim countries. Struggles between Sunni and Shia forces have fed a Syrian civil war that threatens to transform the map of the Middle East, spurred violence that is fracturing Iraq, and widened fissures in a number of tense Gulf countries. Growing sectarian clashes have also sparked a revival of transnational jihadi networks that poses a threat beyond the region.

The fault line of the sectarian plate is presently manifested by the Saudi Arabian and Iranian competition and proxy conflicts across the region. Saudi Arabia, the de facto leader of the Sunni World, has been sponsoring Sunni groups in Syria seeking to overthrow the Shia Alawites; prevent the takeover of Yemen by Shia Houthis; and supporting the Sunni tribes against IS and the Shia led government in Iraq. Iran and the Iran Threat Network (ITN; a term also used by the U.S. Department of State) represents the counter-balance force of Shia-ism within the Islamic World. Iran sponsors Shia groups in Iraq, Yemen, Western Afghanistan, and Lebanon. The growing influence of Iran since the toppling of Saddam Hussein was dubbed by the Jordanian King Abdullah II as the Shia Crescent, symbolism for the rise of Shia power across the Islamic World at the expense of the Sunnis (“Jordan’s Abdullah concerned Iraq may tilt toward Tehran“, NBC News, 08.12.2004). Sectarianism is not the only driver of instability and conflict. Ethnic Conflicts within and between religious sects also contribute to tensions; some that predate the rise of Islam.

Distribution of Shia and Sunni Muslims across the Middle East (by Dr. Izady / Gulf/2000).

Distribution of Shia and Sunni Muslims across the Middle East (by Dr. Izady / Gulf/2000).

2nd Tectonic Plate – Ethnic Conflicts (Arabs vs. Turks vs. Kurds vs. Persians vs. Others)
The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran exposes another tectonic fault line – ethnic conflict that in many cases predates the rise of Islam. Prior to Islam, the dominate powers in the MENA-SOCA were the Persians (Modern day Iranians) and Egyptians, who competed with the Greeks and Roman Empire. The rapid rise and spread of Islam can partially be contributed to the ongoing super power wars between the Eastern Roman and Persian (Sassanid) Empires. Despite their conversion, the Persians (Iranians) and other groups always maintained a sense of superiority against the Bedouin tribes of Arabia Desert. Since the split between the Sunnis and Shia, ethnic groups across the region have been divided. One could ask are all Sunni Arabs and Shia (Persian) Iranians? Are Libyans really Arabs or are they descendants of the Berbers, and are both sects represented? Do Egyptians, whose ancient civilization and contributions predate the rise of Islam, really believe they are Arabs? How do the Turks, the descendants of the Ottoman Empire and last Caliph, react when they are mistaken as Arabs? Do the Pashtu Pakistanis see themselves as their fellow Punjabi Pakistanis despite their religious commonality?

These are some of the difficult questions one encounters in the Islamic World. Iraq is a microcosm of this conflict. Both Sunni and Shia Arabs, despite their mutual hostility, view the Kurds with suspicion. And the Kurds themselves are divided between the Sunni and Shia sect, something the Iranians and Turks both use to their advantage as they compete for influence. And the Turks view the Kurds in Syria and Northern Iraq, despite being fellow Sunni Muslims, as a threat. Likewise, Iraqi Arab Shia views the Iranian Shia with suspicion despite accommodating them for near-term gains against their Arab Sunni enemies. Some groups, like IS are willing to attempt genocide to purge ethnic groups, despite being fellow Muslims, they view as inferior. The convergence of the Sectarian and Ethnic Tectonic Plates colliding is known as Ethno-Sectarian Conflict.

Ethnic groups of the Middle East -- traditional Western view (by Dr. Izady / Gulf/2000).

Ethnic groups of the Middle East — traditional Western view (by Dr. Izady / Gulf/2000).

3rd Tectonic Plate – Modernity (Secularism vs. the Faithful)
The third tectonic plate is modernity, or the struggle with modernity, within the Islamic World. Fouad Ajami, a former scholar at the Hoover Institute and at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), provided the most concise summary of this fault line in his 2014 Hoover Digest article where he wrote:

In the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, and North Africa, mainstream Sunni Islam is ascendant. The fault line that bedevils those lands is between secularists, who want to keep the faith at bay, and Islamists, who have stepped forth in recent decades to assert the hegemony of the sacred over the political.

Since the end of European Colonialism at the end of World War II, the nations of the MENA-SOCA have been ruled by Autocrats (Secularists or Monarchists). As a result, a generation of potential wealth was squandered as the people of the region remain poor, highly uneducated (or highly educated but underutilized), and outside of energy, are increasingly disconnected from the globalized economy.

The ranks of the secular autocratic rulers range from Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and currently Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Qaddafi and Mubarak were swept from power during the Arab Spring; however, the aftermath in both Libya and Egypt has been less than euphoric. Assad appeared near imminent collapse until the Russian intervention in Syria strengthened his position against the opposition.

The monarchists consist of the Gulf Kingdoms (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirate), Jordan, and Morocco in Northern Africa. Saudi Arabia, like its fellow Gulf Kingdoms, has lived off its oil wealth to pay off its people, and made a bargain with the devil by accommodating the Wahhabist. The Wahhabist not only enforce conservative Islamic rule domestically, but have exported their harsh brand of Islamic throughout the MENA-SOCA as seen in Madrassas in Pakistan.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, represented the Shia Monarchist model until his overthrow by the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini and his theocratic Shia regime – the first modern fundamentalist regime in the Islamic World. Ironically, the Iranian theocratic government faced a major threat in 2009 when it appeared the pendulum was swinging in the opposite direction as the Green Movement challenged its authority.

Muslim majority countries classified by constitutional role for religion (Graphic by NuclearVacuum, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

Muslim majority countries classified by constitutional role for religion (Graphic by NuclearVacuum, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

The Autocrats face an existential threat at the hands of the fundamentalist. This group consists of various elements ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, and most recently IS. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban are Fundamentalist Insurgencies seeking to overthrow a government or occupying power. The Muslim Brotherhood has been attempting to overthrown the Egyptian Government for decades and has recently faced a crackdown by the el-Sisi regime. The Taliban defeated the Soviet puppet regime in Afghanistan, was removed in 2001 and has fought an insurgency primarily against the United States (The Government of Afghanistan is viewed simply as a puppet state of the U.S.) ever since to regain control of Afghanistan.

On the extreme end are Al-Qaeda and, its main rival, the Islamic State. Both groups are revolutionary movements with affiliates across the MENA-SOCA seeking to upend the existing order in the Islamic World by forcing a complete withdrawal of the West and a return of the Caliphate. Both have sought and expressed a willingness to use Weapons of Mass Destruction to achieve their aims. The major differences between the two are their strategic approaches to waging global Jihad, and the Islamic States’ apocalyptic prophetic belief that its objective is to bring about the end of times.

Caught in the middle between the autocrats and fundamentalists are the reformers. Ayaan Hirsi Ali eloquently stated in hers 2015 Foreign Affairs article that “a battle for the future of Islam is taking place between reformers and reactionaries, and its outcome matters. The United States needs to start helping the right side win.”

Consequences of Seismic Activity
All three tectonic plates are colliding and causing violent struggles in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and even in Pakistan. The U.S. and its western allies can partially contain the problem within the region and attrite the elements that directly threaten their interests. However, only the leaders and people within the MENA-SOCA can solve the consequences of the seismic activity whether through a reformation or some other mechanism of reform. Without reform, the Islamic World may find itself a victim of another seismic event similar to the European Age of Sail. The period when the Europeans to bypassed the Middle East using sea routes to the markets of India and China leading to the gradual decline in economic vitality and competitiveness. The new seismic event led by the likes the U.S. fracking industry will be energy independence as the U.S. and other global powers transition to more renewable forms of energy and greater transition to ever greater energy efficiency that will once again leave the Islamic World behind. Unless the Islamic World addresses its instability and creates a reason for the world to stay engaged, it will find itself facing an earthquake it will not recover from – the end of oil.

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Kampf um die Strategic Airlift Interim Solution

von Björn Müller (Facebook / Twitter; English version). 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.

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 227mm 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“,, 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