Friday, 30 January 2015

The 4th Armoured Division's armour upgrades: Products of a Four Year War

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Following local experiments with spaced and slat armour on T-72AVs and BMP-2s, the 4th Armoured Division initiated a small-scale upgrade programme for its armour in the summer of 2014. After upgrading several of its T-72M1s and bulldozers with additional armour, the 4th Armoured Division is now also operating at least one ZSU-23-4 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun (SPAAG) upgraded in the same fashion.

The goal of the upgrade programme was to increase the chances of survivability of armoured fighting vehicles by adding additional armour, which consists of spaced and slat armour, further reinforced by metal chaines. Altogether, it provides an impressive 360 degree coverage against regular RPGs. Heavier RPGs like the RPG-29, the M79 Osa or later generation RPG-7 warheads have less trouble penetrating such armour however.

The first vehicles upgraded as part of this programme were several T-72M1s, which were then deployed to Jobar in order to test the actual combat value of the new armour package. These first missions did not end well as one of the upgraded T-72M1s got stuck and was subsequently abandoned by its crew, while another was completely destroyed after entering Jobar: a tragic start for the ambitious programme.[1] [2]

This however did not deter the 4th Armoured Division from pressing on with the upgrade programme, and several upgraded T-72M1s continued to join units in Jobar, Eastern Ghouta and even Aleppo in the months that followed. The factory responsible for the programme is located in Adra, north of Damascus.

A similar armour package, developed and produced by the same factory, was applied on bulldozers in use by the 4th Armoured Division.

The bulldozer earned its position in most of the offensives taking place in the neighbourhoods of Damascus and Eastern Ghouta where they're used to transport soldiers to the frontline, clear obstacles, raise sand barriers to cover infantry and tanks and clear suspected minefields. When they were still operating without these armour packages, they were an easy prey for the rebels' anti-tank teams, anti-materiel rifles and even machine gun fire, even when equipped with locally applied DIY armour.

Apart from small factory differences or minor field modifications, two variations are known to exist. These variations give a clear indication of how the designs and production of these armour packages have progressed over time.

The example below was active in Jobar, where it was mainly used to transport troops and clear minefields. It was destroyed in late December 2014 after being caught in the open by fighters of Failaq al-Rahman, also known as the Rahman corps, while supposedly trying to clear a minefield.

The bulldozer was only immobilized after receiving multiple hits from an RPG-7 and being fired upon by an anti-materiel rifle. Failaq al-Rahman then dug a tunnel to the abandoned bulldozer, and placed a satchel charge underneath it to prevent the recovery of the vehicle. The subsequent explosion breached its hull and started a fire, rendering it useless for future use.[3] [4]

The next vehicle to receive the armour upgrade was the ZSU-23-4. Combat experience gained in Darayya showed the need for a vehicle capable of engaging high-located rebel positions in flats and apartments, almost always out of reach of the T-72s.

Following the lead of several other nations in the past, Syria began to use its large fleet of ZSU-23-4s to support tanks and infantry. The biggest weakness of the ZSU-23-4 in this role is its weak armour. Originally designed to engage aircraft and helicopters while operating behind tanks and infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) on the plains of Europe, the armour of the vehicle is anything but well suited for engaging enemy hideouts from up close. The recent capture of Brigade 82 near Sheikh Miskin serves as a heavy-handed reminder of this fact.[5]

The installation of the armour package will largely address the ZSU-23-4's vulnerability to a range of small arms and RPGs, and will allow the vehicle to provide fire-support closer to the battle than before. With its extremely high rate of fire, large calibre and a range of elevation that covers any potential target, it is the ideal city conquest support vehicle made perfect; a warmachine completely adapted to the hostile environment that has made up the Syrian battlefield for close to four years.

After the metal chaines on the front of the T-72M1s proved to be incapable of stopping RPGs, most of the upgraded T-72M1s saw their metal chaines replaced by additional spaced armour or simply a piece of metal. These conversions were done in the T-72's operational area, as the factory responsible for the armour packages strangely enough still produces them with metal chains on front of the T-72.

Since the active conflict provides a myriad of combat reports on weaknesses and strenths of various types of equipment, it is likely subsequent variants of the upgraded armour will address these issues and thus become increasingly effective.

The combat value of the armour package was believed to be minimal after two of the upgraded T-72M1s were destroyed in Jobar. This however is in no way representative of the actual combat performance of the new armour. It is possible that the new armour package gave crews a feeling of invincibility, leading to the crews taking larger risks than normal and thus resulting in their vehicles being destroyed. One image from Eastern Ghouta confirms its effectiveness in combat however, showing one upgraded T-72M1s still intact after receiving several hits from an RPG.

While it is clear that single instances of the new armour pitted against unknown types of anti-tank weaponry hardly make a case for the up- and downsides of the armour package, it is obvious the 4th Armoured Division deems it effective enough to allocate significant resources to it.

The upgrades performed on these vehicles prove the 4th Armoured Division are not running out of steam just yet. Although the installation of this armour package is impossible on T-72 'Urals' due to the location of its rangefinder, it is expected more and more armoured fighting vehicles will be upgraded in the same way.

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Monday, 26 January 2015

2K12 Kub surface-to-air missile system captured near Sheikh Miskin, valuable or not?

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The continuing rebel offensive in Syria's Dara'a Governorate saw the capture of a 2K12 Kub ''SA-6 Gainful'' surface-to-air missile system and associated radars and equipment by Harakat al-Muthanna near the town of Sheikh Miskin, also known as Sheikh Maskin or Shaykh Maskin.

The town was originally surrounded by no less than six 2K12 SAM sites, of which five were still active at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. However, the Civil War saw the total disintegration of the Syrian Air Defense Force, and with it, much of its SAM sites. Just one of the five sites was still manned in early 2014, with all other SAM sites abandoned.

This follows a pattern seen everywhere in Syria. For example, three of the four 2K12 SAM sites present around Deir ez-Zor were forced to retreat for the then advancing rebels, and one of these was destroyed while en route to Syrian Arab Army held territory. Another 2K12 site abandoned one of its inoperational 2K12 launchers, which was later captured by fighters of the Islamic State. Numerous other SAM sites also fell in the hands of rebels throughout Syria, mainly in the vicinity of Damascus.

The disintegration of the Syrian Air Defense Force mainly effected the S-75s, S-200s, 2K12 Kubs and to a lesser extent the S-125s. All ageing, eating up precious manpower and unlikely to even detect Israeli aircraft flying over Syria, let alone firing at them, most were decommissioned with their personnel continuing their career as normal soldiers instead. Many of the mobile 2K12s were evacuated to safer territory and placed in reserve while most of the static S-75s, S-125s and S-200s are now simply collecting dust.

Two of the 2K12 sites surrounding Sheikh Maskin were moved to a nearby radar site at some point in the Civil War, and this might be the location where the 'lone' 2K12 was captured. To back up this claim, Google Earth footage reveals what appears to be six 2K12 launchers present here at 5-1-2014. Two other vehicles could be the associated SURN 1S91 "Straight Flush" mobile radar stations. Without these, the 2K12s are unable to operate.

If this radar site turns out to be the true location where the 2K12 was captured, the rebels operating in Southern Syria just captured two SAM sites. However, it is not even remotely likely that the rebels would be able to operate the battered 2K12s, which require specialized training for both the launchers and radar to succesfully operate.

This contrary to the single 9K33 Osa operated by Jaish al-Islam in Eastern Ghouta, which fortunately for the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) has now run out of missiles. The 9K33 combines both the radar and launcher in one vehicle, and is easier to operate. None are stationed in Syria's Dara'a Governorate however.

Fresh tracks in the ground possible indicate the crew was still planning on leaving, or that this 2K12, numbered 95703, was still partially active.

A video uploaded on the 27th of January 2015 confirmed the capture of at least one 1S91 mobile radar station, associated equipment and more than a dozen 3M9 missiles used by the 2K12.

It is yet to be seen if Harakat al-Muthanna indeed managed to capture all the equipment intact and in working order. Whatever the outcome may be, the 2K12s surely won't have any impact on the push on Damascus.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Onwards to the front, Syria's BMPs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty (Infantry Fighting Vehicle), better known as BMP and often incorrectly called BMB throughout the Middle East, remains the most prolific infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) series in the world. Syria acquired two products of this series, the BMP-1 and BMP-2. Syria used its (at the time brand-new) BMP-1s during the 1973 October War and by doing so became the first nation to deploy the BMP-1 in a real conflict.

Syria reportedly ordered no less than 2300 BMP-1s from the Soviet Union in 1977, with deliveries continuing until 1989.[1] Not only are both the date of order and delivery impossible due to the fact that Syrian BMP-1s already had their combat debut in 1973, the given figure is also greatly exaggerated. The actual number of BMP-1s received by Syria is believed to be closer to 1000. Syria acquired its last batch of BMP-1s in the late eighties. Contrary to the other BMP-1s, these late BMP-1s were equipped with 81mm 'Tucha' smoke grenade launchers at the back of their turret.

The BMP-2, despite the fact that only modest numbers were acquired, remains Syria's most iconic infantry fighting vehicle. Although indirectly, Syria has had a large stake in the development of the BMP-2. The 1973 October War saw the combat debut of the BMP-2's predecessor, the BMP-1, where it performed below expectations. Although this was partly because of badly trained crews and wrong usage of the BMP-1, which was used as a truck instead of actually supporting the infantry, Soviet teams responsible for the development of IFVs were sent to Syria to evaluate the performance of the BMP-1 in this war to see in what ways the design could be improved.

The lessons learned from the evaluation of the BMP-1 in the October War greatly helped the replacement program for the BMP-1, the product of this program of course being the BMP-2. So by deploying the BMP-1 in combat, Syria unintentionally took part in the development of the BMP-2.

Syria reportedly ordered 100 BMP-2s from the Soviet Union in 1987, which were delivered between 1987 and 1988.[2] The actual number of BMP-2s acquired is believed to have been slightly lower however. Almost all were subsequently assigned to the Republican Guard, which operated them alongside their T-72As (later upgraded to T-72AV standard). Syria's BMP-2s gained fame during the Republican Guard's operations as part of the Rif Dimashq offensive, especially in the neighbourhood of Darayya. The Republican Guard also has access to a limited number of BMP-1s in Deir ez-Zor.

The late eighties also saw the delivery of several BREM-2 armoured recovery vehicles (ARV) from the Soviet Union. Syria was one of the few non-Warsaw Pact countries to receive this type of ARV. Designed to both perform repairs and recover other BMPs, the BREM-2s joined the Syrian Arab Army only in limited numbers. All were detached to divisions already operating the standard the BMP-1. The Syrian Civil War saw the disintegration of these divisions and the BREM-2s were thus collecting dust until a decision was made to arm them, which will be covered later in this article.

Large numbers of AMB-S armoured ambulances were also acquired from Czechoslovakia. The AMB-S has provision for four stretchers to evacuate the wounded. In Syria the vehicle sees active use with the Republican Guard, which mainly uses it to deliver supplies to the frontline. The vehicles in service with the Syrian Arab Army have seen little use in the Civil War, and often remain stored at their bases.

The advantage of the BMP-2 over the BMP-1 is undoubtedly its 30mm 2A42 cannon. The BMP-1 uses the slow-firing 73mm 2A28 Grom, which although quite effective against armoured vehicles, is inadequate to provide fire-support to infantry. While originally designed to support infantry on the plains of Europe, the armament of the BMP-1 was focused at combating enemy armoured vehicles. The BMP-1's 2A28 cannon is also unable to fire accurately while on the move due to a lack of stabilisation, and its maximum gun elevation of just 15 degrees makes it impractical for operating in an urban environment to say the least.

The fast-firing 2A42 on the other hand is extremely well suited for supporting the advancing infantry. Not only can it fire up to five-hundred rounds a minute for a short amount of time, the gun is also stabilised, allowing it to fire accurately while on the move. The 2A42 also has a maximum elevation of 75 degrees, which makes it highly useful for operating in an urban environment. The BMP-2 also comes with an ATGM launcher for the 9M113 Konkurs on the roof opposed to the BMP-1's 9M14 Malyutka.

Given the BMP-1's drawbacks concerning its armament, it is quite surprising no decision has been made to remove the the slow-firing 73mm 2A28 Grom and install a 14.5mm ZPU-4, a 23mm ZU-23, a 37mm M1939 61-K or even a 37mm Type 65 instead. Such a vehicle would be an excellent addition to the Syrian Arab Army or National Defence Force (NDF). This type of conversion has proven to be extremely popular in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the Greek Army recently converted a part of its BMP-1 IFVs to fire-support platforms armed with a 23mm ZU-23.

Relatively few BMP-2s have been lost in the almost four-year-long war, especially when compared to the Syrian Arab Army's BMP-1s. The number of actually confirmed destroyed BMP-2s amounts to less than a dozen. This is mostly due to the superior tactics and skill seen in the Republican Guard.

The situation is quite different with the BMP-1 fleet, of which a large part has been destroyed due to bad tactics employed by the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) and poorly trained conscripts manning the BMP-1s. At least 350 BMP-1s have been destroyed, with another 175 captured by the various groups fighting for control over the country. While in service with the SyAA, the BMP-1 was often used as a tank or battering ram charging through cities and villages without any tank or infantry support, thus being an easy prey for the rebels' anti-tank weapons.

The Republican Guard on the other hand operates the BMP-2 in conjunction with T-72AVs, which are high on the rebels' anti-tank teams target list. The presence of the T-72AVs thus draws away the attention from the BMP-2s, which are often carrying infantry, wounded personnel or supplies to the frontline.

Also an important factor in the BMP-2s low attrition rate is the superior skill and competence of Republican Guard's BMP-2 crews. These crewman are all well-trained, actually operate as a team and coordinate their operations with other vehicles nearby. The Republican Guard's personnel are also often more motivated and dedicated to their mission than the conscripts often comprising the SyAA's crews.

The BMP-2s have been present in every Republican Guard offensive in Damascus, its suburbs and villages close to Damascus such as Yabroud. However, none are operated by the Republican Guard's 104th Brigade operating in and around Deir ez-Zor. The contingent deployed here was supplied with a limited amount of older T-72 Urals, T-72M1s, a couple T-72AVs, BMP-1s and some ZSU-23s taken from other units instead.

Despite this, the 104th uses its limited amount of armour to its full potential. Its BMP-1s are used in their intended role and covered by infantry, T-72s and ZSU-23s. The infantry carried inside the BMP-1s disembark and clear the buildings, again supported by BMP-1s, T-72s and ZSU-23s and this process gets repeated again and again. Footage of such a operation can be seen here.

One of the BMP-2's current area of operations is Jobar, although their operations here are on a more limited scale than was seen in Darayya.

Surprisingly, several BMP-2s were assigned to the Syrian Arab Army shortly after their arrival in Syria. The SyAA stationed these vehicles in Aleppo, where limited numbers likely continue to see action. Two BMP-2s were captured by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) when they overran Aleppo's Infantry School and another was destroyed in the fight for Aleppo's Central Prison.[3] [4] Neither were sighted in use with the FSA and were likely left here. The last confirmed sighting of BMP-2s near Aleppo was on the 13th of June 2013. The vehicle in question, together with a BMP-1, can be seen in the header image.

As often seen with vehicles operated by the Republican Guard, some BMP-2s have been decorated with the head of Hafez al-Assad on their searchlights. The Republican Guard was founded on the orders of Hafez al-Assad, and all of its members still hold him in high esteem.

Numerous other groups in Syria also continue to operate the BMP-1, of which the Islamic State is the largest operator with at least twenty-four BMP-1s captured in Syria and another four in Iraq. The examples captured in Iraq were all immediately destroyed after their capture however. The BMP-1 has been present in nearly all of the the Islamic State's offensives in Nothern Syria, and two were used as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED).[5] [6] The latter was used in an effort to clear out the remaining defenders of Mennegh in the assault on this heliport.

Three BMP-1s were later modified by the Islamic State. One BMP-1 was spotted with a 12.7mm DshK and associated magazine over its main gun which can be fired from the inside. This BMP-1 saw action against the YPG in Nothern Syria.

A BMP-1 spotted in Azaz had its armour strengthened by the addition of metal piping, similar as seen on one of the VBIED BMP-1s used by the Islamic State South of Azaz, at Mennegh.

Another modification was spotted in Deir ez-Zor, where this particular vehicle was captured by the NDF. The BMP-1's turret has been removed and a shielded 23mm ZU-23 was installed instead. The vehicle is also protected by a combination of slat armour and several pieces of metal alligned around the body and turret. The back of the BMP-1, which actually holds two fuel tanks has also been reinforced by slat armour. Sandbags on the front complete the upgrade.

The Ansar al-Haq Battalion was seen using a BMP-1 armed with just a single 14.5mm KPV a couple of weeks earlier. The vehicle participated in the assault and capture of Wadi Deif, where the BMP-1 charged to the frontline giving cover to members of the battalion on foot. 

Ahrar al-Sham meanwhile 'reinforced' the armour of one BMP-1 by adding several Kontakt-1  explosive reactive armour (ERA) blocks from two T-72AVs to its body and turret.

While this seems like an effective way to reinforce the BMP-1's paper thin armour, which can even be penetrated by heavy machine guns, applying ERA on any BMP-1 or BMP-2 actually achieves the opposite. Namely, tests conducted by the Soviets showed that the explosion of the Kontakt-1 shattered the thin hull armour of the BMP-1 and would actually inflict heavy injuries to those inside.

The BMP-1 modified by Ahrar al-Sham was destroyed shortly after the first photo was taken. Unsurprisingly, the Kontakt-1 tiles did not save the vehicle.

First seen in Libya, several Syrian rebel groups installed the BMP-1's turret on a range of other vehicles, such as the Toyota Land Cruiser.[7] [8] As the 73mm 2A28 Grom has little to no recoil, it makes an ideal weapon for such conversions. One rebel group was also seen operating a truck with only the 2A28 cannon installed.

Numerous BREM-2s, lacking any weapons by design, were also subject to several modifications in order to increase their usefulness in the Civil War. The rear end of the hull was cleared to make place for a platform used to mount an anti-aircraft gun on. The example below, armed with a 14.5mm ZPU-4 was captured by Jaish al-Islam at Battalion 559, one of the Syrian Arab Army's tank depots. No machine guns were installed on this BREM-2 at the time of capture.

Another ZPU-4 armed BREM-2 was seen in action near Mleha, Eastern Ghouta. This BREM-2 had a protective shield around the gun to cover the otherwise extremely exposed gunner and also had its now pointless crane removed. One of such vehicles was captured by the Sham Unified Front, part of the Free Syrian Army, near Sheikh Miskin. Only two of the ZPU-4's guns were installed, a common sight in Syria as the need for these guns for installment on NDF technicals is now higher than ever.

The Republican Guard's and NDF's offensive near Mleha also featured a BREM-2 armed with a single 37mm M1939 61-K. These anti-aircraft cannons were all in storage before the Syrian Civil War began, but are now re-entering service due to the high need for such weapons. This particular vehicle was later seen driving through Mleha after the capture of this town.

On the other side side of Mleha, Jaish al-Islam converted its only AMB-S to an armoured personnel carrier armed with one 14.5mm KPV.

But much more impressive are the upgrades performed on its BMP-1s so far. When still operating under the name of Liwa al-Islam, it bought two BMP-1s along with two T-72s from a corrupt officer within the Army's elite 4th Armoured Division, and captured several others. The use of armoured fighting vehicles by Jaish al-Islam, compared to other rebel groups in the Syrian theatre, can be seen as revolutionary, being the only group which operates various types of armour and infantry in a mechanised force, fully exploiting their potential. Jaish al-Islam operates its own armour school and armour repair shop, both located in Eastern Ghouta.

The first upgrade was seen in one of Jaish al-Islam's armour convoys, and consists of several blocks of Kontakt-1 ERA aligned around the turret and two new steel contraptions installed over the normal doors holding fuel tanks. Although the turret of the BMP-1 is the heaviest armoured part of the vehicle, the alignment of the ERA blocks is just as dangerous as on the example operated by Ahrar al-Sham.

Another version saw a better alignment of the ERA blocks, giving the BMP-1's turret almost 360 degree coverage. A steel plate behind the blocks decreases the chance of the explosion of the Kontakt-1 literally backfiring into the turret. This vehicle was also equipped with the steel contraptions, albeit looking slightly different than seen above. The vehicle also has provision for extra armour on its sides, although none was installed at the time of recording. This BMP-1 can be seen in action here.

A more heavily modified variant still sports the ineffective ERA blocks on the turret, but its armour was enhanced by the addition of spaced and slat armour in combination with rubber side skirts. The wide gap between the slat armour and BMP-1 also allows for the fitting of numerous sandbags, further increasing the chance to deform incoming warheads. The ability to fire through the BMP-1's firing ports was made impossible due to these additions however. The front of the vehicle also sports slat armour and a new mudguard. The steel contraptionsover its doors are also once again present. This vehicle can be seen in action here.

The ultimate modification fielded so far looks much like its predecessor, but features some small improvements. Most notably, it doesn't feature any ERA blocks on its turret, with slat armour providing protection instead. The slat armour on the hull, again backed up by sandbags was also installed in a different pattern, decreasing the chance of any RPG grenade slipping through. Further changes include longer rubber side skirts and the addition of four smoke grenade launchers taken from a T-72. The vehicle also comes with the steel contraptions over its doors and inability to fire through the BMP-1's firing ports.

The number of modified BMP-1s operated by the Syrian Arab Army is not as high as seen with the rebel groups, with just one simple upgrade spotted. The vehicle below, seen in Damascus during the the early days of the Syrian Civil War, had its armour locally improved by the addition of several tires filled with sandbags, all held together by several pieces of rope.

A limited number of BMP-2s that lost their sideskirts also received improvised armour additions during their operations. These armour additions are installed in the BMP-2's operational area, are quite rudimentary and vary between each BMP-2. As of now, no nation-wide upgrade program for the BMP-2 has been initiated, but such a program can't be ruled out for the future.

The first upgrade seen on the BMP-2 consists of rudimentary spaced armour filled with bricks. As the RPG enters the first layer of armour, the warhead will be deformed and slowed down, giving it a smaller chance to enter the second layer of armour (bricks) and ultimately the armour of the BMP-2 itself.

The second upgrade consisted of the installment of even more rudimentary slat armour. This variation is easier to produce and install and thus more common than the spaced armour.

The BMP-1, despite its numerous weaknesses, can still turn out to be valuable asset in the Syrian Civil War: upgrading them with anti-aircraft guns and slat armour will turn them into effective fire-support vehicles. It depends on the willingness of the Syrian Arab Army and National Defence Force to make such modifications, and that decision will have a large impact on the BMP-1's future in Syria.

As the Republican Guard is slowly mopping up what's left of the rebel presence inside Damascus and its neighbourhoods, it will undoubtedly set it eyes on other battlegrounds in Syria. Future operations undertaken by the Republican Guard outside Damascus will likely see the involvement of BMP-2s, which proves their career in the Syrian military is far from over.

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