Waging War with Tourist Maps: Lessons in (mis)planning from the invasion of Grenada (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.

In Part 1 we explored the political roots of the U.S. invasion of Grenada as well as the planning for the invasion, known as Operation Urgent Fury, which was characterized by major failures in intelligence. In Part 2, we shall look at how the plan faired when confronted with reality and what lessons can be learned from the operation.

Parachute Landing at Point Salines
The Rangers of the 75th Regiment were in mid-flight bound for Point Salines airfield when their commander was informed that the landing strip was strewn with defensive obstacles preventing the transports from landing — and decided then and there they would have to make a parachute landing instead. Fortunately, the Ranger’s had brought their parachutes just in case. Unfortunately, the guidance system of the lead two transports failed on route, forcing them to abort mission — the headquarters unit would have to jump first!

Rangers parachute onto Point Salines early in the morning of October 25th (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense).

Rangers parachute onto Point Salines early in the morning of October 25th (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense).

On October 25th, 1983, at 5:30 AM, the MC-130 transports buzzed low over the airfield to drop the parachutists at the extremely low altitude of 500 feet to minimize their exposure to anti-aircraft fire—the first U.S. combat drop since World War II. Delta Force commando Eric Haney, who had landed in Grenada earlier by helicopter, described the sight in his book “Inside Delta Force” (p. 302f):

[…] as they [the C-130s] approached the leading edge of the airfield, the first two planes were plastered with automatic cannon fire. The lead plane broke away, but the others kept coming, and then you could see the Rangers pouring out the jump doors and into the sky. They were jumping at such a low altitude that their parachutes opened only a few seconds before they hit the ground. […] Rangers were scattered down the length of the ten-thousand foot runway, just getting out of their parachutes, when two armored vehicles rolled out onto the airfield and started firing their machine guns and heavy cannon.

Amazingly, none of the transports were shot down nor any of the Rangers hit coming down. However, they were immediately involved in a firefight with quad-.51 caliber anti-aircraft guns, Cubans positioned around the airport and two BTR-60 APCs. While fire rained down from above from an AC-130 gunship, the Rangers overran one of the anti-aircraft guns in an impromptu charge, knocked out the BTRs with 90 mm recoilless rifles, and managed to persuade over a hundred Cubans firing from the terminal to surrender.

One of the quad 12.7 mm DsHK machineguns at Point Salines (Photo by Ranger Roger Applegate, Air Liason Officer).

One of the quad 12.7 mm DsHK machineguns at Point Salines (Photo by Ranger Roger Applegate, Air Liason Officer).

However, they continued to receive sniper and mortar fire from the perimeter of the long airstrip, and still needed to clear the long, open runway of obstacles before reinforcements from the 82nd Airborne Division could land there. Lacking any vehicles of their own, a group of Rangers under John Abizaid, future commander of CENTCOM during the Iraq War, hotwired one of the Cuban bull dozers and drove it down the runaway, advancing behind it as it deflected enemy fire. By 8 AM, the runaway had been sufficiently cleared for the C-141s carrying the 82nd Airborne Division to begin landing.

Special Forces Raids
The Navy SEALs and Delta Force were less fortunate in their endeavors. Delta Force, staging on Blackhawk helicopters in Barbados, departed late on its mission and thus did not benefit from the cover of darkness. The raid to capture the commanders of the People’s Revolutionary Army (PRA) at Fort Rupert (today known as Fort George) proceeded successfully, but the lack of adequate intelligence doomed the mission to rescue the political prisoners at Richmond Hill. As the Blackhawks approached, the pilots discovered that hill was actually too steep to land a helicopter on—and that an anti-aircraft battery was located directly above the prison.

The Special Ops pilots tried to hover over the prison to lower operators in by rope instead. But one Blackhawk was so shot up it was forced to crash land in the tree line outside the prison, where it immediately came under fire which killed a crew member, while the other helicopters took so many hits they were forced to abort.

Blackhawk helicopters over Point Salines in their first operational use. At least one Blackhawk was shot down and three crashed in an accident on the 27th assaulting Calavigny barracks (Photo: Spc. Douglas Ide, U.S. Department of Defense).

Blackhawk helicopters over Point Salines in their first operational use. At least one Blackhawk was shot down and three crashed in an accident on the 27th assaulting Calavigny barracks (Photo: Spc. Douglas Ide, U.S. Department of Defense).

Siege at the Governor’s Mansion
The two Navy SEALs team were able to insert into St. George’s despite being raked by anti-aircraft fire (several were wounded and the helicopter carrying the SEAL’s radio was damaged and forced to abort), but encountered another problem: neither team had anti-tank weapons. One SEAL Team seized the Radio Free Grenada station, but was driven out under fire by BTRs after a protracted firefight. Destroying the radio they had hoped to capture, they fought their way to beach and swam away under fire. Nonetheless, a backup transmitter interrupted the station’s routine of Reggae music to transmit a call to resist the American invasion.

Meanwhile, 22 men in SEAL Team 6 managed to secure Governor General Paul Scoon at his residence after inserting via fast rope — but were immediately surrounded by infantry and four BTRs-60s, which riddled the building with machine gun fire. Intending to rescue the governor and his family, they instead were besieged for nearly 24 hours under constant fire. Because their communication equipment was on a helicopter that had aborted mission, they only succeeded in calling air support by making an international collect call (paid for with a soldier’s credit card), which ultimately summoned an AC-130 which knocked out one of the attacking BTRs.

The deteriorating situation led Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf, III to dispatch A-7 Corsair attack planes and two AH-1 Cobras to strike at the defenses around the capital. The slower Cobras were raked by flak while dueling with the anti-aircraft guns of Fort Frederick. One of them crashed near the sea shore, prompting a helicopter rescue that succeeded in saving just one of the two crewmen. While providing covering fire for the rescue, the other Cobra was struck hard and plummeted into the sea with its crew. The invasion force had just lost half of its attack helicopters.

Painting by Lt. Col Leahy of Cpt. Seagle rescuing Cpt. Matthews from their crashed AH-1 Sea Cobra in Grenada. Seagle was later killed but Matthews was rescued.

Painting by Lt. Col Leahy of Cpt. Seagle rescuing Cpt. Matthews from their crashed AH-1 Sea Cobra in Grenada. Seagle was later killed but Matthews was rescued.

The A-7s ran into other problems: while attacking an anti-aircraft gun, one bomb struck a nearby mental hospital, killing 18 patients and releasing the dazed survivors on the streets of the city. Accounts differ as to how aware the Navy was of the hospital’s position.

Surprise at True Blue
Back at Point Salines, units of the 82nd Airborne Division continued to trickle into Point Salines, but only two aircraft could land at a time on the incomplete runway. The Rangers and paratroopers began advancing in the afternoon to secure the True Blue campus of Saint George’s medical college. One lone Jeep patrol was ambushed and its crew of four killed, and another died manning a machine-gun. The Rangers eventually did secure the True Blue campus — where they were stunned to learn from the students there that majority of their number were actually staying at another campus at Grand Anse.

At 3 PM, three BTR-60s counterattacked Point Salines airport. Racing past a forward patrol, which missed with its LAW rockets, the BTRs were eventually stopped by the Ranger’s 90 mm recoilless rifles and the intervention of an AC-130 gunship. The counterattack so alarmed General Trobaugh, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, that he told Fort Bragg “Keep sending battalions until I tell you to stop.” (Six would eventually come in all).

The Marine Landings
A SEAL team finally managed to reconnoitre Pearls beach early in the morning of the 25th — and reported it unsuitable for tracked vehicles. So the Marines airlifted the E and F Company to a nearby horse-racing track, and from there they swiftly advanced to capture Pearls Airport in the face of only minor resistance. As word of the Seal Team pinned down in Governor General Scoon’s residence reached Admiral Metcalf, he deployed G Company of the 22nd Marine Assault Unit (MAU) to an amphibious landing north of Saint George in Grand Mal bay. The noise from the Marine’s heavy Amtraks and tanks seemed to scare away the opposition, and the Marines rolled south towards St. George’s. They finally arrived to relieve the Navy Seals on the morning of the 26th, and Governor Scoon was finally evacuated.

Inter-service Meltdowns
Meanwhile, communications, logistical problems and interservice bickering accumulated between the Army, Marines, and Navy. Trobaugh, the ground commander, could literally see the ship Admiral Metcalf was on — but his radio couldn’t communicate with it. A Marine commander had to be threatened with court martial by General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. before he agreed to put Army soldiers on Marine helicopters. The Navy didn’t trust the Army helicopters to land safely on their ships to evacuate casualties, and then didn’t want to pay for refueling them. (Also, the fuel hoses turned out to be incompatible.) Ground  troops were not given adequate rations and dozens passed out from the heat and lack of water.

The Battle at “Little Havana”
By the morning of the 2nd day, the troops of the 82nd Airborne Division at Point Salines were already moving out to attack the Cuban compound at “Little Havana” near the airport, hoping to diminish sniper fire. While conducting a reconnaissance at 5 AM to make up for the poor maps, Captain Michael Ritz, commander of B Company, was shot and killed when he ran into a Cuban ambush. The main Cuban position was then hit by a heavy air and ground bombardment, as well as sniper fire, and hundreds surrendered, some immediately, and others after an intense firefight.

The Cuban compound as seen from Goat Hill, which was occupied by U.S. snipers (Photo by Ranger Christopher Marks).

The Cuban compound as seen from Goat Hill, which was occupied by U.S. snipers (Photo by Ranger Christopher Marks).

The camp’s commander, Colonel Orlando Matamoros Lopez later recounted in an interview the resistance he and Colonel Pedro Tortolo Comas put up:

At dawn, they threw mortars, aviation, cannon, machine guns […] at us. It was the fourth mortar shell that injured me […] Tortoló got to where I was, intending to evacuate me, [and] at the same time a grenade killed Carlos Diaz [Cuban Communist Party official] and another companion who was with him. Then I told Tortoló not to wait any longer, to retreat, that they were going to destroy us, that they should take advantage of a cloud of dust and smoke […] I kept on shooting until I ran out of bullets.

In all 16 Cubans were killed and 86 captured, while 8 soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division were wounded, and another died while attempting to disarm an SPG-9 recoilless rifle.

In the town of Frequente, the Army uncovered an arsenal of thousands of 1950s era bolt-action rifles, submachineguns and carbines that Communist countries had sent to Grenada. A platoon of four Jeeps armed with recoilless rifles ran into another Cuban ambush shortly after — but the jeep’s return fire, supported by a mortar unit, killed four attackers for no loss of their own. Cuban resistance on the island thereafter came largely to an end. Colonel Tortolo Comas later sought asylum at the door of the Soviet Embassy in Saint George. When he returned to Cuba, he was disgraced, busted to private and sent to fight in Angola — a fate more lenient then that accorded to the Cuban general in Angola, who was executed after his defeat in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

“Rescue” at Grand Anse
That afternoon, Trobaugh was told that he needed to move faster to evacuate the medical students at Grand Anse, three miles away. Accordingly, at 4 PM he embarked the Rangers on Marines CH-46 helicopters, and they stormed into the university campus, receiving some incoming fire that wounded one pilot, while another CH-46 crashed while landing after its rotor got tangled in some trees. The Rangers swiftly neutralized resistance, and found some of the medical students, 233 of whom were then loaded into CH-53 heavy transport helicopters and flown to Point Salines. The pictures of the jubilant students were well received by the U.S. public — though the students also revealed there were still more students spread out across the island. The operation was completed in 26 minutes, but the Army either “forgot” or “lacked enough helicopters” to evacuate one eleven-man Ranger squad guarding the perimeter; left behind, they escaped the campus by sea and their rubber raft were picked up by the USS Caron at 11 PM.

Jubilant medical students boarding transports heading back to the U.S. Images such as these led to domestic support for the invasion (Photo: Department of Defense).

Jubilant medical students boarding transports heading back to the U.S. Images such as these led to domestic support for the invasion (Photo: Department of Defense).

Fiasco at Calavigny
By the October 27th, the troops of the 82nd Airborne Division were fanning out, closing in on the capital of Saint George and occupying Grand Anse (where they discovered additional foreign students they had missed the day before), encountering only scattered resistance. However, after receiving sniper fire, a Navy liaison team accidentally called an A-7 strike down on the headquarters of the 2nd Brigade, wounding 17 (one of whom later died of wounds). The 82nd Airborne Division finally linked up with the Marines of the 22nd MAU, and narrowly avoided opening fire on them. Likewise, the Venezuelan embassy was spared a bombardment after a Marine thought to ask the “enemy stronghold” to surrender first.

U.S. intelligence suggested that PRA army units were assembling at the Calavigny training barracks, three miles away from Point Salines airport. General Trobaugh intended to approach it on foot the next day, but received orders in the morning from Washington to seize it more quickly. An air assault by the 1st Battalion of the Rangers was quickly improvised, preceded by a heavy preparatory bombardment from the USS Caron, A-7 Corsairs, AC-130s, and the 82nd’s 105mm howitzers. The howitzer unit, however, had forgotten to bring its aiming circles, lacked topographical maps of the island, and couldn’t communicate with forward observers, so the howitzer shells almost all fell into the sea.

After the storm of fire, the Blackhawks descended upon Calavigny at high speed in anticipation of enemy flak. They were going so fast that the third, fourth and fifth Blackhawks collided with each other while landing in the space of 20 seconds. Shrapnel and spinning rotors were sent flying in all directions. While medics worked frantically to treat the wounded, it was discovered the Calavigny barracks had been abandoned. While accounts contradict each other on whether there was any resistance at all (one theory is the U.S. forces fired on each other), the fact remained that 3 men and 3 helicopters were lost assaulting empty barracks.

American troops guarding suspected members of the PRA (Photo: Matthew Naythons).

American troops guarding suspected members of the PRA (Photo: Matthew Naythons).

There was no meaningful combat after the 27th. Guerilla resistance failed to materialize, and an amphibious landing on the island of Cariciao led to the prompt surrender of its garrison. A new government was swiftly installed, the Cuban engineers were repatriated a few weeks later, and the Cuban and Soviet embassies were expelled. 45 Grenadian soldiers, 24 civilians, and 25 Cubans were counted among the dead, as well as 19 U.S. soldiers. (At least 9 deaths from enemy fire, 4 from accidents, and 1 from friendly fire. However, there is some controversy as to whether this casualty total is accurate). Urgent Fury was over.

Conclusion

The elephant in the room remains that the invasion and overthrow of a sovereign state was in no way necessary to the extraction of the students (who had not been taken hostage), instead of pursuing a peaceful, and far less costly, resolution. The invasion itself put the students, and Scoon, in far more danger than the PRA ever did. The threat posed by the airfield was greatly exaggerated, either dishonestly or from poor analysis. Though Grenada was indeed building up weapon stockpiles, they were old weapons that did not allow it to project power against neighboring islands or meaningfully supply nearby insurgencies, as a CIA report concluded. These reasons were simply pretexts for replacing Grenada’s Cuban-allied government with one aligned with the United States.

Ronald Reagan himself later implied a connection to the Beirut Bombing in a speech: “The events in Lebanon and Grenada, though oceans apart, are closely related.” Moscow, he continued, had “encouraged the violence” in both countries through a “network of surrogates and terrorists.” Some see Grenada as the first use of the ‘preemptive war‘ doctrine later invoked in the Iraq War.

What of the purely military aspects of the invasion?

What Worked

  • The US troops were often met with genuine support by Grenadian civilians tired of the violence and chaos from Coard and Hudson’s coup. As a result, insurgency and guerilla warfare never took hold.
  • The Marines of the 22nd MAU steamrolled through the island, their armored vehicles dissuading PRA opponents from offering all but token opposition. They managed to secure the peaceful surrender of a number of Grenadian units, rather than resorting to preparatory bombardments and charging in guns blazing.
  • The landing at Point Salines took the defenders by surprise, who had prepared for an invasion by sea. It is possible that by deploying so aggressively in the heart of their positions, the Rangers and paratroopers disrupted the PRA defenses before they could solidify
82nd Airborne Division soldiers, Grenada, 1983.

82nd Airborne Division soldiers, Grenada, 1983.

What Went Poorly

  • Lack of intelligence and rushed planning: There was nothing secret about the multiple school campuses, the topography of the country, the steep nature of Richmond Hill’s slopes, or the condition of beaches. Yet, even though Grenada’s poor relationship with Washington had been known for years, the military and intelligence services were lacking all of these basic items. Furthermore, commanders failed to obtain vital information about the beaches and airfields they intended to land upon, and time and time again had to change their plans literally on the fly when condition was found to be unsuitable.
  • Poor Consideration of Force Protection: The planners of the Urgent Fury repeatedly sent out small numbers of vulnerable assets deep into hostile territory without adequate intelligence — decisions which cost lives:

    • A lone unarmored jeep dispatched on a reconnaissance patrol in dense terrain ambushed and its crew of four killed.
    • Four Navy SEALS drowned after being air dropped into a sea squall, a scenario they had never trained for.
    • Blackhawk helicopters sent charging into a hail of anti-aircraft fire around Richmond Hill and St. George’s — and both of the Cobras sent to aid them shot down.
    • Special Forces teams inserted in small numbers in a hostile city.

    Dispatching vulnerable scout teams and pitting helicopters against anti-aircraft guns might be warranted in situations of urgency, but under the condition at Grenada, a more methodical and prudent approach — such as made by the Marines columns — could have yielded the same results. In short, the U.S. plan over-estimated the need for haste, and underestimated the damage their opposition — or even the weather — could do.

  • Lack of armor and anti-armor weapons: Both Navy SEAL raids were foiled by a lack of anti-tank weapons, even though the presence of armored vehicles should not have come as a surprise. Furthermore, the deployment of air-transportable armored vehicles, such as M113 APCs or even the M551 Sheridan tank, might have diminished the losses suffered by the Army around Point Salines. This leads to another point…
  • Slow Tempo: While the Marines advanced at steady rate in the north, the Army spent three days advancing just four miles. Resistance was undeniably heavier in the Army’s sector, but if they had employed armored vehicles, they might have advanced more swiftly and securely, and not been forced to resort to the helicopter raids at Grand Anse (just 2 miles away) and Calavigny.
  • Poor inter-service cooperation: The services failed to coordinate and cooperate at the highest levels, high level commanders were unable to communicate with each other, and the troops at the low level suffered from it.
  • Poor Media Management: The Army denied journalist access to Grenada until the third day, leading to widespread criticism and doubts of the management of the conflict.
A CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter shot down by anti-aircraft fire on October 25 during Operation Urgent Fury.

A CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter shot down by anti-aircraft fire on October 25 during Operation Urgent Fury.

The Legacy
Urgent Fury evoked swift condemnation even from the United States’ own allies, who were not informed until after the attack had commenced. The United Nations voted 109 to 8 to pass a resolution “deploring” the invasion. But the intervention was supported by 71% of the public at home, and some on the right still see it as having “put […] the ghosts of Vietnam to rest”.

The 1986 Clint Eastwood film “Heartbreak Ridge” depicted (not entirely accurately) some of the episodes in the conflict, and was turned down for funding from both the Army and the Marines.

The military did not fail to grasp the seriousness of the snafus in Urgent Fury, and in 1986 Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichol Act which streamlined and centralized the chain of command of the Joint-Chiefs of Staff, and required officers appointed to those positions to have experience in inter-service cooperation. The intent was clear: the different services needed to learn to work together.

Grenada did not fare poorly after the conflict, nor did it prosper brilliantly. The U.S. occupation proved relatively brief, and life on the island returned to normal by most accounts, though scars from the conflict remain. The airport at Point Salines was completed one year after the invasion. In 2009, it was renamed to Maurice Bishop International Airport after the Communist revolutionary who briefly brought the tiny island into the international spotlight.

Posted in English, History, International, Sébastien Roblin, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Drone Activity in Iran

by Dan Gettinger. He is co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. This article was first published there and re-published by Dan’s permission — thank you!

The Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman have, for several years, been a nexus for Iranian military drone activity. At no time was this more evident than on January 29, the day Iran claimed that it had flown a drone over an American aircraft carrier. In a review of drone activity in the region, we have found that there are reasons to both doubt the legitimacy of the January 29 video and to believe that Iranian drone activity is more expansive than previously thought. Here’s what you need to know!

Iran-Drone-bases

Background on Iranian Drone Bases
Iran has a long history of drone development stretching back to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Over the past few years, Iranian drones have been spotted at four airfields along Iran’s southern coastline. In June 2013, the now-retired OSIMINT blog reported that Iran was building a drone base on Qeshm Island. In April 2015, the Daily Beast reported that Iran was flying Mohajer drones out of Bandar Jask, approximately 150 miles (approx. 240 km) to the south of the Strait of Hormuz. Later that month, Bellingcat (remark by offiziere.ch: actually it was Chris Biggers) found that a small airstrip in Konarak, a coastal town near the border with Pakistan, was likely home to another Mohajer UAV. Satellite images confirm the probable deployment of drones at each of these bases.

A February 29, 2016 investigation by Galen Wright, an Iranian military specialist and author of The Arkenstone blog, for offiziere.ch into a video of Iranian drone strikes in Syria found that some of the scenes in the video had been filmed at Tactical Air Base 10, the much larger Iranian air force base in Konarak approximately 7 miles (approx. 11 km) to the north of the airstrip housing the Mohajer. The scenes showed a Shahed 129, an advanced Iranian military drone that resembles the American Predator or Reaper, taking off and landing at the airbase.

In addition to Qeshm, Bandar Jask and Konarak, two other airstrips in south-eastern Iran have either served as drone bases in the past, or will in the future. The first is an airstrip outside of Minab, a town approximately 40 miles (approx. 64 km) to the south-east of Bandar Abbas. It was here when, in April 2010, the Iranian military flew an early version of the Ababil-3 drone in support of the Great Prophet 5 military exercises. According to Wright this exercise was the first documented operational flight of the Ababil-3 drone in Iran. A video of the event contains coordinates that place the drone in the approximate area of the Minab airfield, as well as other topographic and structural similarities to satellite images.

Iran-Test-Site

The second airstrip is located outside the Jakigur, a village near the border with Pakistan and approximately 90 miles (approx. 145 km) north of Konarak. The Jakigur region has been the scene of clashes between Iranian forces and Baluch militants. In February 2014, militants with the Jaish al-Adl Iran, a Sunni insurgency, captured five Iranian border guards. On October 10, 2015, the Iranian Ministry of Housing and Urban Development announced that local officials had attended the opening of a “UAV runway” outside of Jakigur. The announcement was followed by reports in Iranian state-run media outlets. Satellite photos from December 11, 2015 confirm the presence of a newly-constructed runway, but do not reveal any drones.

An Ababil-3 drone taking off from Bandar Abbas during the Velayat-4 military exercises in December 2013.

An Ababil-3 drone taking off from Bandar Abbas during the Velayat-4 military exercises in December 2013.

Drones at Bandar Abbas
There is a strong likelihood that Iran operates drones out of another location, Bandar Abbas, a coastal city on the Strait of Hormuz. According to satellite imagery analysed by the Center for the Study of the Drone, the Iranian military has flown drones out of an airfield at Bandar Abbas for at least two years. The drones first appear in an April 6, 2014 DigitalGlobe satellite image of Tactical Air Base 9, Bandar Abbas International Airport. They appear again in satellite images from January 10, 2015, November 8, 2015 and January 10, 2016. Drones may have indeed been operating from this location as early as 2013. Although no publicly available overhead imagery confirms the presence of drones at Bandar Abbas prior to April 6, 2014, a still photo reportedly shows an Ababil-3 drone taking off from Bandar Abbas during the Velayat-4 military exercises in December 2013 (see the image above).

The drones in the satellite images also match the description of the Ababil-3. The aircraft in the images have 16-18-foot (4.9 – 5.5 m) wingspans and are 11-13 feet (3.4 – 4.0 m) long. Unlike the rail-launched Mohajer drones that have been spotted at other Iranian airfields, the aircraft pictured at Bandar Abbas are wheeled, which means that they take off from a runway. With twin-boom tails, the drones are similar to the American-made RQ-2 Pioneer.

Bandar-Abbas

The Ababil is one of Iran’s most prolific drones. Variations of the drone have been spotted in Sudan, Venezuela, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. Unlike the much smaller airfields at Qeshm, Bandar Jask and Konarak, Bandar Abbas is a major civilian and military airport at the heart of a city that is also home to Iran’s largest naval base. The Ababil-3s are slightly larger and more capable than the Mohajers that have been deployed at the other bases. According to Wright at the Arkenstone, the Ababil can carry three types of payloads, including a downward-facing camera for surveillance and a forward-facing camera for navigation. With a flight range of around 100 kilometres, the Ababils could handily surveil traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. The continued deployment of the drones at Bandar Abbas indicates Iranian drones are likely to become a familiar sight over this critical maritime juncture.

The Aircraft Carrier Video
On January 29, Iranian state-run news agency IRINN released a video purporting to show an overflight of a U.S. aircraft carrier by an Iranian military drone. This video was picked up by the Associated Press and circulated widely. The video shows a drone taking off, before cutting to aerial images of the aircraft carrier. Concerns about the accuracy of the video were first published on Twitter not long after the video was released. Twitter user Raj Kumar noted that the timestamp at the beginning was different from the timestamp later on the video (see below). Kumar placed the drone at Konarak, the same airstrip where Bellingcat found the Mohajer drones in 2015, based on topographical similarities.

A deeper look into Kumar’s initial observations suggests that the video is indeed a mash-up of two different videos, neither of which were taken by a drone on January 29.

  1. Date Discrepancies: According to a Mehr News Agency interview with Iranian Navy Deputy Commander Rear Admiral Seyed Mahmoud Mousavi, the drone overflight occurred on the “third day of Velayat-94 drills.” Velayat-94, a massive Iranian military exercise, began on Wednesday, January 27, putting the overflight on January 29, the same day that the video was released. Meanwhile, U.S. Navy spokesperson Commander Kevin Stephens told the Associated Press that an Iranian drone had indeed overflown the USS Harry S. Truman and a French warship, but that the incident had occurred on January 12, weeks before the Velayat-94 drills. The video that was published on Fars News Agency (see above) contradicts the Iranian and American timelines, as well as each other. The first segment, from the scene where the drone is taking off, contains the timestamp January 22, 2016; the second, from the aerial footage of the aircraft carrier, contains the timestamp December 26, 2015.
  2. Aircraft Type: Commander Stephens told the Associated Press that the drone that overflew the USS Harry S. Truman on January 12 was a Shahed 129, the advanced Iranian drone. This claim was reinforced after the Navy released video footage of what appears to be an S129 UAV to the Associated Press on February 10. The drone in the Iranian overflight video, however, is clearly not an S129. The video shows a drone on a rail launcher, meaning that it is a much smaller drone than the S129. It is most likely a Mohajer-2, the small reconnaissance drones that have been previously spotted at the Qeshm, Jask and Konarak airbases.
  3. Airfield Location: Based on the opening scenes of the video, the drone appears to be taking off from the airstrip outside Konarak. The absence of runway threshold or number designation markings and the short centerline markings on the runway suggest that the runway does not belong to a major airport. The proximity of the airstrip to the water, the placement of vegetation and nearby access roads, and the presence of a perimeter fence evident in the video correspond to satellite images of the Konarak airstrip from December. Missing from the satellite images are the short centerline markings which may have been painted in the time since the picture was taken.

    Konarak-Comparison-768x281

  4. Aircraft Carrier Location: The still image from the second segment of the drone video identifies the aircraft carrier at 25°25.44’N and 57°02.13’E. This places the vessel in the Gulf of Oman, roughly 210 miles west of Konarak and 130 miles south of Bandar Abbas. According to Stratfor’s U.S. Naval Update Map from late January and early February, the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier was in the Persian Gulf, where it was supporting the air campaign against the terror organisation “Islamic State“. If the drone did indeed come from Konarak, the location of the carrier according to the coordinates would be outside the flight range of a small, rail-launched drone like the Mohajer-2. The Stratfor U.S. Naval Update Map does put the USS Harry S. Truman as transiting through the Gulf of Oman on its way to the Persian Gulf in the last week of December 2015. This would coincide with the location and date in the second still image from the video.

Summary
It is possible that two events took place and neither involved an Iranian drone overflight on January 29. The first event may have been an Iranian overflight by either a manned or unmanned aircraft of the USS Harry S. Truman as it was travelling to the Persian Gulf on December 26. The second event may have been the January 12 overflight of the USS Harry S. Truman by the Iranian Shahed 129 drone. Based on the available information, however, there are reasons to doubt that the January 29 video of the aircraft carrier is an accurate record of events or even a video from a drone at all.

Posted in Dan Gettinger, Drones, English, Intelligence, Iran | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Niger: Agadez Airport Imagery Update

CSBiggers (20MAY2016) Agadez Annotations

New satellite imagery available in Google Earth shows progress being made refurbishing the airfield at Aérienne 201, otherwise known as Mano Dayak International Airport. Space snapshots acquired in May by Astrium show milling efforts complete as well as the runway and turnarounds fully repaved since the project began in September. Previous imagery shows that surface repairs and runway remarking activity has occurred incrementally which has kept the airfield operational and minimized downtime. Various surveillance and transport aircraft were noted on the parking apron during the previous construction period.

A probable hangar or temporary shelter measuring 20 x 25 meters was noted on the south side of the runway. It’s thought to be associated with a contract to support the Cessna 208 Caravan at the airfield. However, it appears workers may have encountered some difficulty finishing the structure. For example, the shelter’s roof was in place by March, but imagery in May shows sections removed. In October, the US presented the country with two more Caravan adding to the two received in 2012.

Other infrastructure includes a new roadway running adjacent to the shelter. The road width and probable hangar placement may suggest it will double as an aircraft taxiway. The roadway stretches out straight for approximately 1,850 meters. Extending south from the runway, the road leads to a bermed bivouac site which was initially established in late 2013. This site is believed to be part a part of Aérienne 201. Imagery from April suggests additional US troops have deployed as indicated by additional internal security and the erection of 40 new shelters. They may have arrived as troop labor to support the construction of an additional runway as reported in the Air Force’s Military Construction Program Budget Estimates. Their arrival comes just a few months after US sent about thirty instructors to help train local forces at the desert city.

DG (28APR16) Niamey

In the meantime, the US drone apron over in Niamey has shown some recent expansion with a new tension clam-sbell shelter deployed since March. We noted that there were additional plans for the area back in April 2015. Imagery continues to show ongoing leveling and paving activity currently underway.

More information

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Thailand’s Security Forces Are Worsening the Southern Insurgency

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.

20120505_ASM966The insurgency in Southern Thailand has confounded analysts and journalists for over a decade. The inhabitants of Patani, an Islamic historical region on Thailand’s border with Malaysia, have maintained an ambiguous relationship with the government in Bangkok for centuries. Rebels from Patani spent many of the years after World War II battling Thai soldiers in the country’s south. Only in the early 2000s, however, has the religious aspect of the conflict gained more attention. The Thai government has tried to depict it as part of the Global War on Terror, noting that the current generation of Muslim rebels claim to fight Buddhist, Thai infidels. The reality seems more complex.

The insurgents are the most-mysterious part of the battle for Southern Thailand. Observers agree on the rebels’ separatist ideology, which pushes for Patani’s independence. Nevertheless, the insurgents rarely speak to journalists, so few understand how the insurgency works or who leads it. As I wrote for War Is Boring, two theories attempt to explain the current uprising in its historical context: some argue that the rebels are continuing what their twentieth-century predecessors started, others that younger rebels, displeased by older rebels’ leadership, have adapted the insurgency to modern methods of asymmetric warfare and terrorism. Violence has become commonplace and routine in Southern Thailand. “The awareness of continual murders, bombings, and arson attacks became the acceptable norm for the locals so long as the violence did not occur in their immediate (geographic or emotional) vicinity,” Michael K. Jerryson wrote in “Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand“. “This was their coping mechanism for dealing with their fears.” The rebels have attacked civilians and soldiers, Buddhists and Muslims. They even bombed a popular local hotel twice. The anarchy and mystery of Southern Thailand have deterred many analysts and journalists from delving into its subtleties.

A Thai government checkpoint in Pattani.

A Thai government checkpoint in Pattani.

Neither the rebels’ vague ideology nor their terrorist methods lend themselves to conflict resolution, conflict transformation, peacebuilding, or peacekeeping. Back in 2006, The Bangkok Post reported that the Thai military struggled to negotiate with the rebels because the “army still [had] no idea who the enemies really” were. Little has changed since then. In another article for War Is Boring, I observed that the Thai military and police have often contributed to the problems in Thailand’s southern provinces. Non-government organizations have accused Thai policemen and soldiers of disappearing Muslim civilians sympathetic to the insurgency. Because the security forces view themselves as participants of the War on Terror, the Internal Security Operations Command (responsible for operations in Southern Thailand) has modelled itself after the United States Department of Homeland Security. “The Royal Thai Army […] is a uniformed bureaucracy that does not fight wars,” Duncan McCargo said in “Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand“. “Unlike other powerful militaries in Southeast Asia — notably the Burmese and Indonesian armies — it never waged an independence struggle and has never repelled invaders in modern times.” The Thai military and police failed to comprehend counterinsurgency, fuelling the insurgency with their tactics, operations, and strategies. McCargo added, “The core pursuits of the Thai military are playing politics and engaging in business activities (including illegal activities, such as smuggling); when the occasion arises, commanders are not averse to killing are few dozen unarmed civilians.” The Thai security forces are endangering civilians, themselves, and their mission with their counter-productive counterinsurgency in Southern Thailand.

Jihad Witthaya Pondok, a closed Islamic boarding school and alleged rebel training camp in the Pattani countryside (Photo: Austin Michael Bodetti).

Jihad Witthaya Pondok, a closed Islamic boarding school and alleged rebel training camp in the Pattani countryside (Photo: Austin Michael Bodetti).

The insurgency has been worsening since earlier this year. According to the Voice of America, “attacks across Thailand’s southern border provinces have raised fears of an escalation in insurgent violence, even as the Thai government has stepped up security operations and reports progress in its efforts to hold peace talks. Human-rights advocates are calling for an investigation into claims of torture against detainees, including a death in custody.” These problems have been endemic and persistent. Though the Thai military and police assert that they can achieve peace — through negotiation or war — apparent war crimes and crimes against humanity may prevent Southern Thailand from seeing peace or security. “Historically, the southern region of Thailand […] had served as a dumping ground for corrupt and/or incompetent civilian and military officials,” determined Global Security. “Additionally, daily life there, particularly in urban areas, was continually plagued by a higher level of common banditry and lawlessness, more so than in the Kingdom’s other regions, making it very difficult for authorities to differentiate between criminal lawlessness and terrorist acts commissioned by domestic Thai terrorist or Muslim Separatist groups.” The anarchy in Southern Thailand has as much to do with Bangkok’s contemporary and historical failures as with the insurgency. The military and police have ignored the rights of local civilians, human rights in particular, and inspired the insurgents.

As Thailand’s shadowy Muslim insurgents return to the battlefield, the uprising in the country’s south offers an example of the War on Terror’s underappreciated dilemmas. Focusing on the responsibility of rebels for terrorism but refraining from blaming the governments that war against them, such as Thailand’s, seems to excuse counterterrorist security forces from their war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Thai military and police have, in fact, worsened the insurgency.

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

Waging War with Tourist Maps: Lessons in (mis)planning from the invasion of Grenada (1/2)

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.

In October 25th, 1983, the Caribbean island of Grenada would be subject to an aerial and amphibious invasion by the U.S. military as a result of a highly unusual set of circumstances. In this first of a two-part series, we will examine the troubled military planning and political justifications behind the U.S. invasion of Grenada (Operation Urgent Fury). The second part will look at the execution of this complex air, naval and ground operation, the many shortcomings of which still offer relevant lessons for today.

Paratroopers storm a building in Grenada, October 27th, 1983 (Photo: Jean Louis Atlan).

Paratroopers storm a building in Grenada, October 27th, 1983 (Photo: Jean Louis Atlan).

Grenada is a small Caribbean island nation and former British colony one hundred miles off the coast of Venezuela, which in 1983 had a population of 91,000 of primarily African descent. St. George’s University, located on the main island, was popular with foreign students and contributed 10-15% of the island’s GDP. In 1978, a Communist government under Maurice Bishop came to power in a coup which overthrew its increasingly violent predecessor, Sir Eric Gairy. Under Bishop, the island allied itself with Cuba and began a number of ambitious social and economic projects, including the construction of a major new international airport with the assistance of hundreds of Cuban engineers.

Maurice Bishop (middle) with Fidel Castro (right) and Daniel Ortega (left).

Maurice Bishop (middle) with Fidel Castro (right) and Daniel Ortega (left).

However, on October 13th, 1983, Bernard Coard, a hardline rival in Bishop’s New Jewel Movement, launched a coup and imprisoned Bishop. On the 19th, protesters broke Bishop out of prison, who led them on a march to the main barracks of Fort Rupert (today known as Fort George), where dozens were cut down in a hail of gunfire from three Soviet-made APCs. Bishop was then recaptured and summarily executed, and an island-wide curfew was instituted by the military, which seized power under General Hudson Austin.

Probable causes of U.S. invasion on October 25th, 1983
Depending on who you ask, the cause of the U.S. invasion of Grenada was either because the island had chosen the wrong side in the Cold War, that its Communist government had been violently deposed by hardliners and order needed to be restored, or that the foreign students attending medical school there were in need of evacuation. Some would even argue that the true cause was a mixture of domestic politics and an incident thousands of miles away in the Middle East.

  • The Air Strip: Enter the Reagan administration, which had long nursed a grudge against the Communist government. In particular, they complained that the long runaway of Point Salines airfield was being built to accommodate Soviet and Cuban cargo planes. Of course, there is another reason a developing island country might want an international airport: to receive tourists in their large airliners. And the airport had first been planned back in 1954 while the island was still under British rule…

    Point Salines International Airport (Photo: Edgar F. Raines Jr.).

    Point Salines International Airport (Photo: Edgar F. Raines Jr.).

  • The Cuban Engineers: Reagan had another axe to grind: the 600 Cuban engineers, whom Washington insisted were actually soldiers training local forces. The Army history of the conflict plays up the threat the “military trained” engineers posed (military training is probably a common thing in a country with mandatory conscription) and “loosely organized into military units” (or in other words: not actually part of regular military units). Though armed, Bob Woodward wrote in his book “Veil” that a post-invasion CIA report concluded that “the Cubans construction engineers were not combat troops in disguise”. In fact, Castro was angered by Bishop’s killing, and ordered the Cubans in Grenada only to fire in self-defense; but he also sent Colonel Pedro Tortoló Comas on October 24th to organize their defenses in the event of an invasion.
  • The Medical Students: Initially, the U.S. military first became involved while contemplating the evacuation of the six to eight hundred U.S. medical students at St. George’s University. On October 19th, the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed contingencies for their non-combat evacuation — but just in case, it was proposed that a Marine battalion should deploy there to make a show of force. Or, it was suggested, the airport at Point Salines could be seized to facilitate the evacuation — after all, the 82nd Airborne Division was a rapid-reaction unit trained in airport seizures. Early in the discussion, then, military capabilities began to drive the thinking of planners.

    The students in question were confined to their dorms (sensible given the prevailing instability) with guards outside, a move perceived as evidence of Grenadian perfidy — even though the entire island was under curfew. But the students were never taken hostage. Some even departed by plane in the days before the invasion, though passage out became difficult as a result of the coup. Nor did the United States seriously attempt to negotiate their peaceful evacuation.

    Evacuation of students from St. George’s University School of Medicine on Grenada during Urgent Fury.

    Evacuation of students from St. George’s University School of Medicine on Grenada during Urgent Fury.

  • Restoring order and regime change: Reagan did receive a request from the Organization of East Caribbean States (OECS) to intervene, as well as the governments of Barbados and Jamaica. Grenada’s military build-up and current instability had alarmed other Caribbean nations. After the invasion, Reagan also produced a letter requesting intervention from Governor General Paul Scoon, the British representative — though rather curiously, Scoon later claimed he was given the letter by the Americans on October 27th (though Scoon remained a supporter of the invasion). And it turned out that the U.S. State Department literally wrote the letter requesting the intervention that was given by the OECS states… When Reagan met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on October 21st, he declared he was leaning towards an invasion, and told them to begin planning for one, though the final go-ahead was still his to make. The planners settled on October 25th — Operation Urgent Fury would have to be planned very urgently.

Operation Urgent Fury arose amidst all those circumstances. The invasion of the tiny Caribbean island by a vastly superior U.S. force was trumpeted as a success, but revealed such glaring deficiencies in inter-service cooperation, operational planning and intelligence gathering that it led to a major congressional reform of the military. The slippery political rationalization for the operation remains contentious to this day. The best that can be said is that if you were not one of the 113 people who lost their lives in this “lovely little war“, the long-term consequences were not materially dire.

Grenadian Forces
Grenada’s People’s Revolutionary Army mustered between 300-600 regular soldiers and less than 1,000 poorly-trained militia in October. They had received over 8,000 largely outdated rifles and carbines from Cuba and the Warsaw Pact, and between 8-10 each 82mm mortars, PKM machine guns and 73mm SPG-9 recoilless rifles. More importantly, they had twelve ZU-23 twin-barreled 23mm anti-aircraft guns and a number of quad-barreled 12.7mm DsHK machine guns — both low-tech anti-aircraft weapons dangerous to low-flying aircraft. They also were the only Caribbean country with armoured vehicles: eight Soviet-made BTR-60PB wheeled APCs, and two BRDM-2 armoured cars. These had light armour for protection against rifle bullets, and were armed with heavy machine guns. Note, however, the absence of truly modern weapons, or the naval equipment necessary to threaten neighbouring islands.

Two knocked out Grenadian BTR-60 APCs. These would have a surprising impact on the first day of the invasion.

Two knocked out Grenadian BTR-60 APCs. These would have a surprising impact on the first day of the invasion.

US Forces and Operational Plans
The United States forces arrayed against the Communist government of Grenada were overwhelming in numbers (the initial landing counted just 1,000 troops, but eventually 7,600 would arrive in all) and in training — but they still needed to find a way to get on the island, and also achieve the operational objectives.

The limited available time, and the secrecy surrounding Urgent Fury complicated U.S. military planning — for example, the 82nd Airborne Division was not allowed to include its parent formation, the XVIII Airborne Corps, in the planning of the mission. Its soldiers were readied on October 22nd, but would only learn they were going into combat on the airport tarmac the night before the invasion. The Army and Navy bickered whether General Trobaugh or Schwarzkopf should be in charge, and the Marine Corps was informed at the last minute that its role had been downsized. And it turned out no one had accurate topographical maps of Grenada or current intelligence as to the status of its defenses nor the accessibility of its beaches or airports. Operational planners and pilots alike made do with tourist maps.

A team of twelve Navy Seals was dispatched on the night of October 23rd to reconnoitre the beaches and observe the airport to determine their suitability. But four of the air-dropped Seals tragically drowned in the rough seas, and the other eight were forced to abort mission after encountering a combination of patrol boats and stormy weather. So the United States remained blind as to the actual conditions on the island.

(click on the map to enlarge)

(click on the map to enlarge)

The lynchpin of the invasion was to be the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, which were to take Point Salines by landing at the airport at dawn. Once the airfield was secured, a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division would land at the airfield, including an artillery battalion, as well as a 350-man Caribbean Peace Force detachment. The 82nd Airborne Division and 75th Ranger Regiment were both light infantry units whose only combat vehicles were jeeps, some of which mounted anti-tank recoilless-rifles. Together, the Rangers and the 82nd Airborne Division were to rescue the students at the nearby True Blue campus of St. George’s University, only one mile away, and overcome the Cuban elements near the airfield. Support would be provided U.S. Navy A-7 Corsairs strike planes from the USS Independence, naval gunfire, and Air Force AC-130 gunships.

Simultaneously, the Marines of the seaborne 22nd Marine Assault Unit (MAU) would either land by sea, or if the beaches were unsuitable, by helicopter, to capture the island’s other airport, Pearls Airport. The 22nd MAU included helicopters — four AH-1T Sea Cobra attack helicopters, and CH-46 and CH-53 transport helicopters, as well as 900 marines of the 1st Battalion/8th Infantry Regiment. The 22nd MAU also had at its disposal amphibious AAV-P7 amphibious vehicles and four M60 Patton tanks.

Finally, on the day of the invasion, Navy Seals and elite Delta Force commandos, supported by the 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment flying MH-60 Blackhawk helicopters for the first time in action, were to launch four additional special operations in the vicinity of the capital St. George’s, all of which relied upon helicopter insertion and extraction. These included…

  • a SEAL mission to extract Governor General Scoon, under house arrest in Saint George;
  • a Delta Force mission to rescue political prisoners held in Richmond Hill;
  • a Delta Force raid to arrest leaders of the People’s Revolutionary Army in Fort Rupert;
  • a SEAL mission to capture Radio Free Grenada in order to broadcast anti-Communist propaganda.

By midnight on October 24th, the Rangers were flying towards Point Salines airport, the Marines were waiting in their ships to seize Pearls Airport, and Delta Force and Navy SEAL operators were scrambling aboard helicopters in Barbados to embark on their raids.

The U.S. forces flying over the Caribbean were about to be confronted with a number of hair-raising epiphanies. For starters, there were numerous anti-aircraft guns positioned around Saint George and Point Salines, and the runway at Point Salines airport, which the main force intended to land upon, was littered with defensive obstacles preventing aircraft from touching down. Furthermore, the majority of American students they were going to evacuate were not located at the True Blue campus, but at a second campus a few miles away Grand Anse. Lastly, the special forces team inserting into the capital of St. George’s would soon realize that they had not taken any anti-tank weapons to counter the numerous Grenadian APCs stationed around the capital.

In part 2 we will look at how the U.S. plan faired, given these unpromising foundations.

Posted in English, History, International, Sébastien Roblin, Security Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

China Deploys UAVs to Woody Island

ISI Woody Island

In case you missed it, over the US Memorial Day weekend new satellite imagery was published showing some new developments on Woody Island, China’s important governing outpost for its claimed islands in the South China Sea. The space snapshots acquired during April by ImageSat International (ISI) show new drone deployments to the expanded island adding to the arsenal of J-11 fighters, HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles and YJ-62 anti-ship missiles.

The panchromatic imagery dated 12 April 2016 shows a single Harbin BZK-005 parked just outside the base’s aircraft hangars. This is the same drone we reported patrolling the East China Sea from China’s dedicated drone facility on Daishan Island in June 2015. The deployment in the South China Sea continues to support orders that would see the Asian giant deploy drones to monitor it’s perceived maritime territory.

Unfortunately, at this time we were unable to acquire a copy of the imagery to do an independent analysis. ISI did not break out any associated ground control equipment to suggest the UAV is operated from the airbase. However, it is believed that the drone is fitted with a satellite communications system allowing for real-time data transmission and control from extended ranges.

The BZK-005’s primary mission appears to be long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. An armed version of the drone has not surfaced on satellite imagery or in handhelds. It is believed that the UAV can be equipped with electro-optical, infrared, synthetic aperture radar, and signals intelligence payloads.

BZK-005a

Reports of the drone first came to light in an Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) promotional video featured at the 2006 Airshow China in Zhuhai. The Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics began developing the apparent naval drone as early as 2005 in conjunction with the Hongdu Aviation Industry Group. By late 2009, photos appeared on the Chinese internet showing the UAV on the tarmac at what has now been identified as Shahezhen.

According to analyst estimates, the UAV has a flight ceiling of 8,000 meters, a max range of 2,400 km and a maximum endurance of 40 hours. The drone made big headlines in 2013 when it flew close to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands beyond the country’s exclusive economic zone. Japan scrambled F-15 fighters to intercept as a result.

While such UAVs won’t be sinking ships or hitting ground targets, its deployment continues to reify China’s intent to put unmanned eyes in the sky to monitor nearby territory it wants to control.

Posted in China, Chris B, Drones, English, Intelligence | Tagged , | Leave a comment

From where will Tehran acquire modern fighter jets?

An enthusiast with an interest in vintage American warplanes would doubtlessly enjoy the skies over Tehran during Iran’s annual Sacred Defense military parades. After all, where else in the world today can you actually see a flying F-14 Tomcat? Nowhere, bar Iran. Which before the 1979 revolution the only country ever allowed to buy that highly advanced jet. Despite the best efforts of Washington to try and ground those hi-tech jets following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 many of Iran’s F-14’s have remained operational until the present day. This has been in spite of American efforts to ground them through an arms embargo and the general paucity of spare parts and costs pertaining to the basic maintenance of the jets ageing engines and air frames.

Iran’s Air Force today is a notably diverse one. It’s inventory consists primarily of older American jets, planes and helicopters bought before 1979, when the U.S. implemented an arms embargo on the country. In addition there are some Soviet and French made jets which fled Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and were consequently confiscated by Tehran and integrated into their air force.

To this day French-made Dassault Mirage F-1 jets – which were previously used by the Iraqis to, among other things, fire Exocet missiles at Iranian ships in the Gulf – have been used by the Iranians to fly drug interdiction raids near Iran’s often volatile frontiers with Afghanistan and Pakistan. One was lost to SA-14 MANPAD fire while flying in that role. An air base near the major Iranian city of Mashhad, Shahid Nasser Habibi TFB.14, is named in honour of the pilot who lost his life in that incident.

Iranian briefly attempted to beef up its beleaguered air force after its lengthy eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980’s by purchasing some MiG-29 Fulcrum interceptor jets from Moscow (it’s worth bearing in mind that Russia is the only country to have officially sold Iran combat aircraft since the 1979 Iranian revolution).

Amusingly one reason they never bought so many of those jets, according to Tom Cooper’s excellent history of the Iranian Tomcats, was apparently because their older F-14’s (which were the earlier ‘A’ models with highly unreliable engines and fatigue from just under a decade of war with few spare parts to keep them operational) were invariably able to defeat them in war games.

Since the onset of the 2000’s however there were interesting attempts by the Iranians to acquire additional jets for their highly diverse air force. Many, many rumours about imminent arms deals to speculation about sources Tehran would procure arms from. Not unlike last years rumour that Russia was about to delivery highly-sophisticated MiG-31 ‘Foxhound’ high-altitude interceptors to their embattled ally in Damascus there were rumours back in 2007 that Moscow and Tehran were negotiating an arms contract which would see the latter purchasing up to 250 advanced Russian Su-30 Flanker air superiority fighters along with 20 accompanying Ilyushin Il-78 Midas long-range tanker planes.

Two F-14 and one F4 refuelled by a Boeing 707 at the Iran’s 2016 Sacred Defense military parades.

Two F-14 and one F4 refuelled by a Boeing 707 at the Iran’s 2016 Sacred Defense military parades.

Other, primarily baseless, rumours about Iran purchasing Chinese clones of such Russian jets have had brief forays on the rumour mills over the years. The Venezuelan military under the late President Hugo Chavez considered Venezuela’s ageing fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons to Tehran. Something which saw Washington warn Caracas off trying to sell their American-made jets on to a third country. Interestingly enough the rumour about a massive Iranian purchase of Russian Flankers came shortly after Russia negotiated the delivery of such jets to Venezuela. Which did ultimately materialize.

Even though most of Iran’s air force consists of ageing American made jets it is highly doubtful that Iran will be purchasing anything produced General Dynamics or Lockheed Martin or the likes anytime soon. Especially since Washington’s biggest consumers of hi-tech American weaponry in the region, namely Israel and the Sunni Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, justify their military build-ups on the pretext they are necessary to defend against, and combat, Tehran.

While China and Russia are the most likely sources (indeed Moscow has begun to honour its contract to send Iran advanced S-300 air defense missile systems and possibly even Su-30 Flankers) France was also another potential source of advanced jets. While Tehran has successfully maintained and operated older French-made Mirage F-1’s for two-and-a-half decades now military analysts are doubtful that Tehran would jump at the opportunity to purchase newer Mirages to expand and modernize its air force since it would require hefty and costly investments in both arms and supporting infrastructure for such a multi-role fighter-bomber.

An option more congruent with the present make-up of the built of Iran’s air force would be the purchasing of additional Russian interceptors and perhaps ground attack planes, like the aforementioned Frogfoot, followed by a gradual phasing out of the older jets which have served a lot longer, and endured a lot more, than neither their builders nor operators likely imagined.

Posted in English, International, Iran | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Algeria: Mers El Kebir Imagery Update

CSBiggers (18FEB2016) Mers El Kebir

The latest commercial satellite imagery available in Google Earth shows some new developments at Mers El Kebir, Algeria’s second military region naval base subordinate to HQ in Algiers. Space snapshots acquired in February 2016 show the completion of a renovated Kilo berthing area now sporting three finger piers. The Kilo had relocated to two of the piers at the time of capture. The third pier will probably host the two pending Kilo ordered in 2014 from Russia’s Admiralty Shipyards. According to Russian media reports, the St. Petersburg-based shipyard will deliver the Project 636M boats by 2018, fulfilling a contract valued at more than $1.2 billion.

Algeria’s existing Kilo fleet is comprised of two Project 636M and two Project 877EKM. The latter were refitted in 1993 and 1996 and included upgrades to the sonar which should extend their service lives near the end of the decade. New Kilo orders bring their total submarine numbers to six.

Despite issues with smuggling and illegal immigration, Algeria’s expansion of its submarine capability is a significant development. Sources close to the Russian talks say that “Algeria’s decision to buy more Russian subs was caused by growing regional tension because of the ‘Arab Spring‘ events.” It should be noted that the Kilo have a minelaying capability and can carry up to 24 mines at the expense of torpedo carriage. Mers El Kebir is Algeria’s closest naval base to the Strait of Gibraltar, an important maritime chokepoint.

CSBiggers (18FEB16) Kalaat Beni Abbes LHd

Beyond the Kilo, Algeria’s new Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD), the Kalaat Beni-Abbas, made an appearance at the naval base. The largest boat in the Algerian fleet with an 8,800 ton displacement and a length of 143 meters, the Italian-made LHD was delivered in March 2015. Imagery captured the vessel at port in Algiers upon initial delivery; it’s currently unknown where the vessel will be homeported. Mers el Kebir also hosts a shipyard which acquired the tender for constructing three Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP) for the new boat. The Algerian LHD may have arrived to test the LCVPs. Unfortunately, we lack information on their build status.

The Kalaat Beni-Abbas, based on the Italian Navy’s San Giusto-class, features an internal floodable dock which can accommodate 20 meter long landing craft. Without the landing craft, the vessel can carry 15 main battle tanks or 30 light tanks or armored personnel carriers. Hangar space can support up to five helos. Armaments includes Aster 15 missiles, a single OTO Melara 76 mm gun mounted forward and two 25 mm cannons. Electronics include Selex Sistemi Integrati EMPAR radar, SCLAR-H chaff/flare decoy launchers and the Athena-C combat management system.

The LHD can carry up to 600 people including the 152 crew complement and has a maximum speed of 20 knots.

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Iraq’s Oldest Militia Is Its Most Worrisome

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.

Head of the Badr Organisation Hadi al-Amiri looks over military plans in Anbar province in May 2015.

Head of the Badr Organisation Hadi al-Amiri looks over military plans in Anbar province in May 2015.

Iraq’s Shia militias have earned notoriety as some of the country’s most-potent but least-welcome allies in the war against the terror organization “Islamic State” (IS). The militias fall into three categories: the first generation, which challenged the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein during the Iran–Iraq War; the second generation, which fought Western soldiers during the Iraq War; and the third generation, which is resisting IS in the north of the country. The Badr Organization, the oldest of Iraq’s Shia militias, has built a legacy fighting all Iraq’s perceived occupiers from Saddam through the Americans to IS.

Hadi al-Amiri, an Iraqi politician, has led Badr for decades. He has maintained a close relationship with the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (also known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; IRGC), the religious vanguard of the Iranian military. “I love Qassem Suleimani!” al-Amiri told The New Yorker. “He is my dearest friend.” Suleimani commands the Quds Force, which conducts the IRGC’s operations in the Middle East and the rest of the world. Badr and the IRGC share a long history. While the Iranian Revolution propelled Iran’s Shia clergy to power 1979, Iraq’s militant, restless Shia minority benefitted from its larger neighbor’s revolutionary know-how. The IRGC started arming and training the future members of Badr as early as 1983. According to Stanford University, “the Badr Organization is heavily influenced by Iran. At its inception, the organization operated out of Iran for two decades. The organization still receives funding and ideological guidance from the country.” From the start, Iran has used Badr to fight its proxy wars in Iraq and later Syria.

Like Iraq’s other Shia militias, the Badr Organization has done little to contain sectarianism. In fact, many of its members — no longer constrained by Saddam’s police state — used the anarchy of the Iraq War to enact retaliatory violence on the country’s Sunni minority. Journalists uncovered files documenting a paramilitary prison holding Badr’s Sunni enemies. “The documents show how Washington, seeking to defeat Sunni jihadists and stabilize Iraq, has consistently overlooked excesses by Shi’ite militias sponsored by the Iraqi government,” reported Reuters. “The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have both worked with Badr and its powerful leader, Hadi al-Amiri, whom many Sunnis continue to accuse of human rights abuses.” Since the start of the war against IS, Badr has joined the People’s Mobilization (Hashd), an umbrella organization for the Shia militias. Amnesty International asserts that paramilitaries have been abducting and executing Sunni civilians, blaming them for the power of the terrorist organization that has overtaken much of Iraq’s north and west. Badr’s history implies that it has likely partaken in these sectarian abductions and executions.

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qasem Soleimani uses a walkie-talkie at the front line during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba, Iraq, March 8, 2015.

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qasem Soleimani uses a walkie-talkie at the front line during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba, Iraq, March 8, 2015.

Despite military and paramilitary notoriety, Badr has always remembered the importance of politics. The Globe and Mail noted at the end February 2015, that the militia had twenty-two of its politicians in the Council of Representatives of Iraq. The Washington Post observed that — as irony would have it — the Iraqi government appointed in October 2014 a Badr member to chair the “the Human Rights Ministry”. Badr’s political ambitions have managed to endanger not only Sunnis but also the stability of the country, for the Shia militias are competing for power in a government that depends on them.

Badr has struggled to distinguish its military goals from its political ones: “I worked for four years every day [as an politician] and people never recognized that. Now, just four months as a fighter and all the people are talking about is Amiri. […] It’s because people love the one who defends them,” al-Amiri told Foreign Policy. If al-Amiri seeks to resolve all his problems on the battlefield, he may face new difficulties. Earlier this year, the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has his own militia in the Hashd, almost crippled the Iraqi government when he encouraged protesters to breach the Green Zone and assault the Council of Representatives. Badr assembled its militiamen to protect Baghdad during the chaos. An extremist militia, meanwhile, threatened to attack Kurdish security forces and destroy a truce between Badr and the Kurds if they refused to return disputed territory to Baghdad. As Badr tries to balance its Iranian relationships with its Iraqi ones, the goals of different militias in the Hashd may contradict one another. Diplomats fear that, once the Shia militias have confronted the Kurds and defeated ISIS, they will use their Iranian weaponry against one another. Badr will need to decide where it stands.

The competition for authority in Iraq extends from the quiet proxy war between America and Iran to the subtle discord between the country’s Shia militias. Whether al-Amiri and al-Sadr will clash or, as politics demands for now, oppose each other in secret but support each other in public, remains a mystery. Till Iraqi security forces retake Mosul, the war against IS will unite them. Al-Amiri and Badr, however, have worrisome ambitions and goals for the future of Iraq.

Supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr storm parliament in Baghdad's Green Zone at the end of April, 2016.

Supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr storm parliament in Baghdad’s Green Zone at the end of April, 2016.

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Turkey’s growing domestic arms industry

Cartoon by Tjeerd Royaards.

Cartoon by Tjeerd Royaards.

Back in 2013, after Turkey was criticized for the police brutality employed during its crackdown of demonstrators, there were international calls to suspend shipments of tear gas to Turkey, since police were using them against unarmed crowds, sometimes causing casualties. In response to this attempt to, albeit mildly, sanction it for its behaviour Turkey considered domestically produce tear gas, so it would not be susceptible to outside pressure to amend its policies.

This was an interesting reaction. Since the war began in Syria, Turkey has made many questionable moves, in its bid to bring the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad to bear Turkey backed many questionable Islamist groups. Indeed for quite some time it acquiesced to the rise of the likes of Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra since they were opposed to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)-affiliated Syrian Kurdish groups and were also believed by Ankara to be a lesser evil to that group and the Assad regime. Indeed it didn’t even join the US-led campaign against ISIS until July 2015, just under a year after that campaign began.

Its shooting down of a Russian bomber last November has seen it pay a heavy price in loss of business with a hitherto major trading partner — the vast majority of Turkey’s gas, for example, was imported from Russia. The instability caused by increased ISIS attacks on its cities, coupled with renewed war with the PKK, arguably caused by Ankara’s unwillingness to go the extra mile to bring about a lasting peace arrangement, has also alienated tourists and further damaged Turkey’s economy and its image. However the more Ankara feels the pressure the more it perceives itself to be the victim. Which is why it is stubbornly determined not to amend its policies, even if those policies cause it harm.

There is a good chance that the recent deal between Turkey and the European Union aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Turkey to the latter, in return for Brussels granting visa-free travel to Turkish citizens, could fall through given the fact Turkey doesn’t want to reform its anti-terror laws which are ambiguous and sweeping and seen as Ankara’s way of legalizing crackdowns on dissent.

The 2013 tear gas story is worth referring to and may give some indication to broader Turkish efforts in the future. Rather than amend its questionable domestic policies Turkish officials sought to ensure that outsiders could not pressure it to use less brutal tactics by producing the necessary tools to do so.

There is a hidden civil war going on in the southeast region of Turkey after a two-and-a-half-year-long peace process between the Turkish government and various Kurdish insurgent groups failed. During a military operation by the Turkish Armed Forces against PKK fighters, which started in December 2015 and lasted for months, several houses in the in the southeastern town of Cizre in Sirnak province were heavily damaged.


There is a hidden civil war going on in the southeast region of Turkey after a two-and-a-half-year-long peace process between the Turkish government and various Kurdish insurgent groups failed. During a military operation by the Turkish Armed Forces against PKK fighters, which started in December 2015 and lasted for months, several houses in the in the southeastern town of Cizre in Sirnak province were heavily damaged.

On the military front it appears this may become also soon turn out to be the case. Perceiving itself to be threatened by terrorists on the home front and viewing itself as the destined and rightful regional power, Turkey cannot be seen as dependent on outside powers to arm its military, which may be one reason why its pursuing the domestic production of a variety of armaments.

Turkey is producing the Altay main battle tank. It hopes to put it into service in the Turkish Army by 2018 and also export other models. Next year they will begin building 250 of the tanks which will cost around $2 billion. Two similar sized batches are likely to be in the pipeline too. Mass production of these tanks could gradually replace Turkey’s inventory of US-made M48 (according Military Balance 2016 around 2’850 pieces) and M60 tanks (about 930 pieces) and its European Leopard tanks (397 Leopard 1 and 325 Leopard 2).

In the sky Turkey has plans to build a fifth-generation air superiority fighter jet called the TAI TFX. It is expected to gradually replace Turkey’s US-made fleet of F-16’s (about 260 aircrafts). In this case however there are doubts the plane will fly by 2023.

When Turkey perceives itself to be right and the world to be wrong when it comes to its policies its willing to alienate the latter, which is what it did when it intervened forcefully in Cyprus in 1974, an action which led to the US imposing an arms embargo on Ankara. No matter, it got to pursue a policy it believed to be right regardless of what the outside world thought about it … and of course if you have an arms industry which can produce weapons and ammunition that significantly lessens the impact of an arms embargo. As Turkey grows more forceful and aggressive in pursuing policies it deems to be justified possessing a largely domestic military arsenal could well prove to be a major asset and enabler for its controversial military and police policies, both foreign and domestic.

Posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Security Policy, Technology, Turkey | Tagged , | 2 Comments