Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The ISIS Science Project

Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon reports that ISIS has launched project to develop an improvised surface-to-air missiles, in an effort to counteract increasing coalition airstrikes:

Islamic State terrorists in Syria, assisted by western experts, are trying to develop improvised anti-aircraft missiles following stepped up airstrikes against its forces, according to U.S. officials and reports from the region.

The effort was disclosed by an anti-ISIS social media account that revealed the anti-aircraft arms development Dec. 15 on Twitter.

According to the Twitter user @Raqqa_SL, the new missiles are being developed in a desert area north of Raqqa, the ISIS headquarters. The terrorists have tried linking five bomb detonators and explosives to captured anti-aircraft missiles to enhance their explosive power against aircraft.

The added explosives are linked to walkie-talkies that are used to detonate the additional explosives in an attempt to create a larger fragmentation blast that ISIS hopes will impact bombing aircraft

A spokesman for the Pentagon, Colonel Steve Warren, told the Beacon that U.S. officials are "aware" of the ISIS program, but "have no concerns."

The terror group's efforts to build their own air defense systems tells us several things about their capabilities--and their vulnerabilities to allied air attacks.  

For starters, it's very obvious that ISIS' current anti-aircraft weapons are having no affect on coalition air strikes.  The terrorists captured literally thousands of man-portable surface-to-air missiles (MANPAD SAMs) as they gained territory in Iraq and Syria, along with heavy machine guns (such as the ZU-23, often mounted on trucks) and perhaps radar-guided SAMs once controlled by the Bashir al-Asad's forces.  

But U.S. and allied aircraft are operating with impunity; there has been only one recent report of an aircraft being downed by an air-to-surface weapon in recent months--a Syrian rescue helicopter sent to recover the crew of a Russian SU-24 attack aircraft which was blown out of the sky by a Turkish Air Force F-16.  The Syrian chopper was reportedly downed by an RPG, fired by anti-regime rebels backed by the U.S. government.  

The jihadis and their "experts" clearly believe that a bigger frag pattern will improve their chances of knocking down fixed or rotary wing aircraft--and there's a certain truth behind that theory.  Unfortunately for the bad guys, most of our bombing runs are conducted with precision weapons from medium altitude, at the upper limits of the MANPAD SAM envelope.  As for anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), most of the weapons used by ISIS are optically guided and pose only a marginal threat, at best.

Making matters worse for the terrorists, many of the MANPADs they've captured are older, Russian-built SA-7/14 weapons.  Like other shoulder-fired SAMs, they're battery-operated and when "powered up," the gunner has a very limited window to acquire a target, lock-on and shoot.  If the battery goes dead before the sequence is completed, it must be replaced.  There's no word on the size of ISIS's MANPAD battery stockpile, and the group has no capability to build its own.  

Additionally, MANPAD launchers, missiles and related hardware require periodic maintenance to extend their service lives.  ISIS probably has personnel who can perform rudimentary maintenance, but more complex repairs, servicing and upgrades may prove challenging.  That's why the "viability" of MANPADs controlled by terror or insurgent groups tend to decline over time.  If the maintenance schedule isn't followed, the grip stocks and missiles will cease to function at some point.  ISIS efforts to "build their own" suggests that a growing number of their MANPADs are no longer operational.  

Additionally, coalition pilots are very familiar with the air defense weapons being employed by the terrorists.  Over the years, we've had the opportunity to "study" these systems in great detail and develop effective counter-measures. And thanks to the miracle of modern electronics, self-protection systems on U.S. and coalition aircraft can be quickly reprogrammed to counteract changes in enemy capabilities.  

This is not to say ISIS is completely defenseless against air attack.  They have reportedly captured a small number of advanced MANPADs from Syrian forces, notably the SA-18 and SA-24.  And some of the older systems are very rugged and may actually remain operational long beyond their advertised shelf life.  But the vast majority of those weapons are affected by the maintenance and logistics issues which plague the terror group's air defense efforts.  And, if the group is struggling to keep relatively simple weaponry in service, they have no chance of maintaining radar-guided systems which may have been captured from the Assad regime, including the SA-2 and SA-6.  

In fact, the current ISIS effort is beginning to resemble the infamous Iraqi "science projects" that appeared in the no-fly zones during the 1990s.  Saddam Hussein was determined to defend his airspace and drive Allied fighters from the skies.  But after the first Gulf War, he wasn't willing to risk his dwindling Air Force (except on rare occasions), so the job of challenging the coalition fell to his SAM units.  

Initially, the Iraqis would deploy a radar-guided SAM system into the no-fly zone.  The battery would attempt to engage a U.S. or British fighter and would be promptly destroyed by a High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) or other precision weapon.  

In fact, one of the funniest video bits I ever saw came from an F-15E that took out an Iraqi SA-3 radar van, using a GBU-15.  The weapon was guided to the target by the WSO in an F-111 or F-15, using the TV picture from the bomb to make corrections.  As the GBU-15 neared its target, the radar van grew bigger and bigger in the field of view.  

Then, at the last moment, a door popped open on the side of the van and a single Iraqi crewman tried to sprint away.  An Air Force general I worked for used the clip in one of his presentations and labeled the unlucky radar tech as the "fastest guy in Iraq."  Our consensus, based on the speed of the GBU-15, warhead size and blast pattern, was that the Iraqi didn't complete his getaway.  Post-war debriefings revealed that Iraqi SAM crews usually left only one guy in the command vehicle and/or radar van if they thought SEAD assets were in the area.  The hapless soul left to "man the fort" was typically the lowest ranking guy in the crew.  

As the Iraqis began to lose more SAMs, they began experimenting with (and deploying) various air defense contraptions that left us scratching our heads.  In some cases, the new "weapon" was an unguided, short-range ballistic missile, modified to fit on a SAM launcher.  Think massive bottle rocket or huge RPG and you've got the idea.  The Iraqis would light off their newest creation (which would miss coalition aircraft by a vast distance), and we'd destroy it.  Over the course of a decade, the cycle repeated itself many, many times.  

It's a fair bet that a number of ISIS SAM "technicians" will meet similar fates in the months ahead.  Indeed, it's rather curious that the terror group is using a Dane and an Chechen to head up their air defense development efforts when there many Iraqis in their ranks, and some were probably involved in the science project days.  If they were lucky enough to survive that debacle, they may not be anxious to press their luck again, even with the promise of virgins and treasures in "paradise."                                       


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