Monday, 26 September 2016

Back from retirement, Sudan's MiG-23s take to the skies

The Sudanese Air Force has operated several types of combat aircraft acquired from multiple sources since its founding in 1956. While current types such as the MiG-29SEh, Su-25 and Su-24 are well known for their involvement in the Sudanese Civil War and Operation Decisive Storm, older types such as the F-5E and MiG-23MS have been poorly documented while in the Sudanese Air Force ever since their inception in the 1980s.

Although the Sudanese Air Force (SuAF) is no stranger to Soviet-manufactured combat aircraft, the Sudan actually never ordered any MiG-23s from the Soviet Union. Instead, the SuAF received its MiG-23s from Libya, which deployed up to twelve Libyan Arab Air Force (LAAF) examples to Sudan in the late eighties. This deployment was accompanied by a large number of Libyan pilots and technicians responsible for operating the aircraft while in Sudanese service.
When the Libyan contingent departed Sudan about two years later, the Sudanese Air Force was left with aircraft it couldn't really fly nor maintain. And thus, after just several years of operations, the survivors were placed in storage at Sudan's largest airbase, Wadi Sayyidna. Here they joined an increasing number of MiG-21Ms, J-6s and F-5Es also placed in storage due to a lack of spare parts. It wasn't until two decades later when the MiG-23s resurfaced again.

Starting from the end of 2010, up to four MiG-23s could be seen parked on the tarmac outside one of Safat Maintenance Center's hangers on satellite imagery. All four aircraft were previously moved here to clear space in the hangars used by the Sudanese Air Force. But with an increasing number of projects on its hands, SAFAT soon found itself in lack of space too, forcing the technicians to move the MiG-23s outside when other aircraft had to be serviced in the hangar housing the MiG-23s.

These movements allowed one of the many Belarusian or Russian pilots and technicians present at Wadi Sayyidna to aid the SuAF with operating its fleet of MiG-29s, Su-25s and Su-24s, to pose with one of the three remaining MiG-23MS's. The aircraft shows clear traces of long-time storage, with the aircraft's roundel and flag slowly fading away to reveal the original Libyan markings. The serial number '09055' was originally assigned to this aircraft by the Libyan Arab Air Force and simply left in place by the Sudanese.

While Libya was in a state of war with the Sudan during the early eighties, mainly related to Sudan's support for Chadian rebels fighting against the Libyan Army operating in Northern Chad, it was quick to establish a close relationship with its former foe after the ousting of President Nimeiry in 1985. Having bombed Sudan's largest city Omdurman with a Tu-22 and having provided both financial and materiel support to rebels fighting the Sudanese Army in Northern Sudan and Southern Sudan, it now held talks for a possible merger between the two countries. While this merger never occured, the newly forged relationship between the Sudan and Libya would prove extremely beneficial for the Sudan, and the Sudanese Air Force in particular.

Starting from 1987, Libya began donating large amounts of military equipment to the Sudan. This mainly included desperately needed reinforcements for Sudanese Air Force, which by then was on its last breath due to a sharp decline of its operational capabilities. Within a year, the SuAF was strengthened by the addition of up to twelve MiG-23MS', as well as at least one MiG-23UB, several Mi-25s and two MiG-25R(B)s flown and maintained by Libyan pilots and technicians. This contingent was to form the core of Sudanese Air Force, and was quickly put to the test when the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) launched a series of offensives in 1987 and 1988.

In response, the Sudanese Air Force retaliated with airstrikes based on intelligence gathered by the MiG-25R(B)s, which flew reconnaissance sorties over Southern Sudan. These sorties were followed by airstrikes conducted by MiG-23MS' and Mi-25s against SPLA-held villages and camps. The skies above Southern Sudan proved particularly unhealthy for the MiG-23MS' however, with only six airframes still believed to be operational after a year of operations. After the Libyan contingent withdrew in 1989 or 1990, the four remaining MiG-23MS' were soon stored, likely to never fly again. The two MiG-25R(B)s remained Libyan possession throughout their stay in Sudan and both returned to Libya. The remaining Mi-25s continued operations until replaced by newer Mi-24s and Mi-35s sourced from Eastern Europe in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with their career ending at the military side of Khartoum International Airport (IAP). For more information on Libya's involvement in the Sudanese Civil War, click here.

Although the Libyan contingent did not prove to be particularly successful in increasing the operational capabilities of the SuAF in the long term, it set a precedent for further donations made by Libya to several air forces across Africa, which are to be covered in a future article. The partial remains of an ex-Libyan MiG-23MS '06918' that made a crash landing in Jonglei State, (what is nowadays known as) South Sudan can be seen below. The poorly applied Sudanese markings quickly washed out under the Sudanese sun, thus revealing the original Libyan markings.

The MiG-23MS is a prime example of the so-called 'monkey models'; downgraded equipment sold by the Soviet Union to friendly nations in the Middle East and Africa. These 'monkey models' included everything from tanks to naval ships and aircraft, which had sensitive equipment removed, lacked modern weaponry or had inferior armour compared to their Soviet counterparts. In order to create an export derivative of the MiG-23M, the Soviets went to entire new lengths to create what many deem the worst combat aircraft ever to have been made, basically resulting in a powerful engine with an aircraft built around it. Equipped with electronics already deemed useless after years of conflict in the Middle East and armed with the infamously incapable R-3S air-to-air missile, the aircraft proved both a nightmare to fly and maintain.

While the air forces of Egypt, Iraq and Syria, left without an answer to the Israeli F-4E Phantom II, were eager to get their hands on new aircraft matching the F-4E's performance, they were less than impressed with their new mount. When Libya began its search for large quantities of weapons during the 1970s, the Soviet Union soon offered the MiG-23MS to Libya. But contrary to the delivery and training of Iraqi pilots on the MiG-23MS, which spend most of their time on the ground instead of flying the aircraft to its extremes, the Soviet Union not only marketed the aircraft as an adversary to the F-4 Phantom, but also to the F-14 Tomcat. The LAAF was angered by the gap between promised capabilities and reality, and invested considerable time and resources into increasing the combat capabilities of the squadrons operating the MiG-23MS. The delivery of MiG-23MS was amongst the reasons for the break of relations with the Soviet Union.

Despite its abysmal records, there is still some argument to make for the MiG-23MS' reintroduction into the Sudanese Air Force. Having enjoyed the fruits of the large oil reserves present in Southern Sudan, the Sudan lost its primary means of income after the separation of South Sudan in 2011. This not only meant the Sudan had less to spend on its military, it also meant the Sudan was now unable to buy weaponry in exchange for oil. With no significant financial boost in sight, the SuAF is unlikely to amass sufficient funds to acquire more modern combat aircraft in the near future, and has to soldier on with what its got.

Furthermore, the establishment of the Safat Maintenance Center (more commonly known as the Safat Aviaton Complex, part of the larger Safat Aviation Group) allowed the Sudan to overhaul an increasing number of aircraft and helicopters locally. Although most of these projects are undertaken with foreign technicians and help, it is considerably cheaper than transporting these aircraft to the Ukraine, Belarus or Russia for overhaul there. This means the Sudan can overhaul aircraft that would otherwise be deemed not worth the effort due to the costs involved in transporting these aircraft back and forth from maintenance centers abroad.

With this in mind, the SuAF began looking to overhaul several types of aircraft previously in storage. Once thought to have been grounded for the rest of their days, the MiG-23s were to receive an extensive overhaul after decades of storage. As the Sudan never truly operated nor maintained the MiG-23MS, SAFAT lacked the technical expertise to overhaul the MiG-23 all by itself, which forced it to look for assistance abroad. A partner was found in neighbouring Ethiopia, whose Dejen Aviation Industry proved capable of performing the required maintenance.

Dejen (formerly known as DAVEC, Dejen Aviation Engineering Complex) is responsible for the overhaul of a wide range of aircraft in service with the Ethiopian Air Force, and is one of the few maintenance centers to be fully qualified in overhauling the complex Su-27. Dejen, then still called DAVEC, was originally founded to allow Ethiopia to maintain its fleet of Soviet aircraft (mainly MiG-23BNs, MLs and UBs) locally, and thus has plenty of experience in overhauling this type of aircraft. The Tumansky R-29 engine of one of the four MiG-23s after undergoing revision at SAFAT can be seen below.

For the purpose of overhauling the aircraft at least ten Ethiopians from Dejen were present at Sudan's SAFAT, and Ethiopia also provided the pilots for the flight testing of the newly refurbished airframes, stressing the large role it played in bringing the MiG-23MS back to operational status. Additionally, as no Sudanese are currently believed to be trained in flying the MiG-23, it is likely Ethiopia will also provide training and spare parts (such as the new cockpit canopies already installed) for the aircraft.

The choice of armament for Sudan's MiG-23MS' is limited, consisting of several types of unguided bombs and UB-16 and UB-32 rocket pods for 57mm rockets. Although the SuAF once possessed stocks of R-3S air-to-air missiles for its MiG-21Ms, it is unlikely that any of these missiles still survive. Although theoretically Libya's donation of the aircraft to Sudan could have been accompanied by R-3S air-to-air missiles from Libyan stocks, the shelf-life of these missiles ran out decades ago. Thus, the MiG-23MS's role is restricted to fighter-bomber in Sudanese service. While the delivery of weapons by the MiG-23MS is unlikely to be even remotely accurate, a lack of accuracy has never posed a problem to the SuAF during the decades long conflicts ranging in the country.

Unfortunately for the SuAF, one of the four overhauled MiG-23s made a crash-landing at Wadi Sayyidna shortly after a test-flight. The aircraft caught fire and was subsequently dumped into a corner of the airbase. While not even back in operational service, the SuAF was already one MiG-23 down. It remains unknown if the airframe was a UB or a MS, but the loss of their only MiG-23UB would force the SuAF to purchase another airframe from abroad, making this project significantly more expensive.

While the overhaul of the MiG-23s provided the SuAF with four airframes at only marginal costs, the complicated nature of the MiG-23MS raises the question if it was really worth the effort. Already one aircraft down due to a crash-landing, and with more airframes sure to be lost in flying this highly complex aircraft, the MiG-23MS's second career in Sudan could turn out to be a short one.

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Monday, 8 August 2016

Photo Report: The Syrian Arab Air Defence Force

The Syrian Arab Air Defence Force, once a proud independent service of the Syrian Armed Forces, has suffered tremendously under the five-year long Civil War. While losing dozens of surface-to-air (SAM) and radar sites to the various factions fighting for control over Syria was already a serious blow to its capabilities, Syria's poor financial situation and the transfer of large numbers of personnel from the Syrian Arab Air Defence Force (SyAADF) to the Syrian Arab Army and National Defence Force effectively gave the killing blow to the SyAADF.

The following images were taken during a large-scale exercise involving all branches of the Syrian Armed Forces in 2012. This exercise was carried out amid an increasingly deteriorating security situation in Syria, leading to calls from the international world for an intervention similar to the one seen in Libya. In response, the Syrian Armed Forces launched a several day long exercise to show its strenght to the outside world.

The 9K317E Buk-M2E, which together with the Pantsir-S1 is the pride of what once was the Syrian Air Defence Force. The 9A317 transporter-erector-launcher and radar (TELAR), seen below, is capable of independent operations thanks to its 9S36 radar. Several of these systems are deployed around Damascus and Syria's coastal region. Although the arrival of highly modern air defence equipment from Russia was much anticipated after an Israeli airstrike on a suspected nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor in 2007, the newly arrived Buk-M2Es, Pantsir-S1s and Pechora-2Ms proved just as incapable of shooting down Israeli aircraft as the systems they replaced.

A 9M317 missile speeds off after having been launched from a 9A316 transporter-erector-launcher (TEL). The 9A316 carries four reloads instead of a radar, which means it's incapable of operating independently. Under normal circumstances, a Buk battalion consists of six TELARs and three TELs, which can be further divided into three batteries with two TELARs and one TEL each. Every battalion also included a target acquisition radar, a command vehicle and trucks carrying more reloads.

A Pantsir-S1 fires off one of its twelve 57E6 surface-to-air missiles. As with the Buk-M2E and Pechora-2M, these systems are mainly concentrated around Damascus and Syria's coastal region. In order to better blend in with their surroundings along the coast, many Pantsir-S1s have traded in their desert-environment finish for locally applied camouflage patterns.

The 2012 exercise provided the first visual confirmation of Syria operating the 9K35 Strela-10. Opposed to many other Strela-10 operators, Syria placed these systems around airbases instead of providing ground forces with a mobile SAM system. Although most 9K31 Strela-1s were placed into storage, all of Syria's 9K35 Strela-10s are still believed to be in active service.

Having never retired any SAM system, Syria continues to operate both the dual and quadruple S-125 launchers. The more modern quadruple variant is more common, and can be found located  throughout Syria. The dual launchers were mainly concentrated around Damascus, where one site was overrun by Jaish al-Islam in 2012.

In addition to operating both the dual and quadruple S-125 launchers, Syria also acquired several Pechora-2M surface-to-air missile batteries from Russia at the turn of the decade. This system combines a quadruple S-125 launcher (albeit with two missiles) on a Belarusian MZKT-8022 chassis, with greatly improved performance against enemy aircraft and cruise missiles. Several sites housing the Pechora-2M have been identified around Damascus and in Syria's coastal region, where they frequently relocate to different sites in order to keep an element of suprise.

Smoke rises as two 9M33 missiles are fired from a 9K33 Osa SAM system. While Syria already fielded the 9K33 in Lebanon during the eighties, the system was thrown into the spotlight after Jaish al-Islam captured several launchers in Eastern Ghouta in 2012. These 9K33s were then, and are still being used, to engage SyAAF helicopters flying over Jaish al-Islam held territory.

The 2K12 surface-to-air missile system gained legendary status while in service with Egypt during the 1973 October War (Yom Kippur War), which used them against the Israeli Air Force with great success. In fact, the system was so feared it quickly earned itself the nickname 'Three Fingers of Death'. The system was less successful in Syrian service however, and was completely outplayed along with the rest of the SyAADF and SyAAF during during Operation Mole Cricket 19 over Lebanon's Bekaa valley in 1982 and during Israeli Air Force raids into Syria over the past years.

An article covering what remains of the Syrian Arab Air Defence Force, its equipment and organizational structure will be published on this blog at a later date.

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Friday, 5 August 2016

Photo Report: The Syrian Arab Navy

The Syrian Arab Navy is without a doubt the least well known branch of the Syrian Armed Forces, largely due to its marginal role in the Syrian Civil War. It however operates an interesting mix of ships most of which already long retired by other naval forces around the world. This photo report shows various Syrian Arab Navy vessels and units that participated in the 2012 exercise. This exercise featured all branches of the Syrian Armed Forces and was aimed at showing the outside world Syria was a force to be reckoned with.

A Syrian Arab Navy Petya III class frigate, two of which remain in service. Although the largest combat capable vessels of the navy, the Petya III class was designed almost exclusively for anti-submarine warfare. As a result, the capabilities of these ships against anything other than submarines is marginal. This is worsened by the introduction of newer types of submarines by the Israeli Navy, which already renders these ships next to useless in their original role. While still officially operational, both ships spend most of their time rusting away at their pier in the port of Tartus.

The now de-facto disbanded Syrian Naval Infantry in front of the cadet training ship 'al-Assad'. This ship has a dual role of training future naval personnel and acting as a landing ship for the Syrian Naval Infantry, which then disembark and make their way to the coast in dinghies.

A Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) Ka-28 performing a flyby over Syrian Naval Infantry. Four Ka-28s were delivered to the SyAAF in the late eighties to replace its aging Ka-25s. At least two examples were overhauled in the Ukraine shortly before the start of the Syrian Civil War. All four were previously based out of Hmeemeem/Bassel al-Assad IAP before diverting to a new heliport to make way for the Russian Air Force contingent arriving at Hmeemeem in September 2015.

The launching of a 4K44 Redut missile from its associated SPU-35V launcher. Syria operates several coastal defence systems (CDS), including the modern K-300P Bastion-P. These CDS's present the most modern systems in the Syrian Arab Navy, which largely had to do without new acquisitions over the past decades.

The Osa class missile boats still represents the mainstay of the Syrian Arab Navy. Together with the Korean People's Navy, Syria is the only remaining country to operate the Osa I class missile boat. The ship below is of the more advanced Osa II class however, which can be discerned from the Osa I by its tube-shaped launchers opposed to the box-shaped launchers of the Osa I.

Syrian Arab Navy personnel standing at attention. Unsurprisingly, the average age of navy personnel is much higher than seen in other branches of the Syrian Armed Forces. This age gap is likely to only grow larger as conscripts are almost exclusively drafted into the National Defence Force and what remains of the Syrian Arab Army since the start of the Civil War.

The most recent addition to the Syrian Arab Navy consists of six Iranian TIR II (IPS 18) missile boats delivered to Syria in 2006. Based on a North Korean design, these boats can be armed with two C-802s (or the Iranian-produced copy by the name of Noor) anti-ship missiles and normally operate out of Minat al-Bayda naval base located North of Lattakia.

This photo report is to be followed by an article covering the history, inventory and current status of the Syrian Arab Navy later this year.

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Thursday, 4 August 2016

Photo Report: Syrian Armed Forces Calendar 2015

Although many military enthusiasts and analysts spend hours scrounging social media pages for any interesting images of Syrian Arab Army, Air Force or Navy equipment, it now appears that a wealth of never-before-seen images has been uploaded to the official page of the Syrian Armed Forces. Most of these images, taken over the past six years, have gone completely unnoticed to the general public.

While you can be sure to find plenty of articles with a better balance of visual content to text on this blog, the sheer amount of images, their high quality and the fact that most of the images were never seen before allow for an exception to the rule. We can only hope that more of such photo reports will released in the future.

We'll be kicking off with the Syrian Armed Forces Calendar for 2015, which, although little under two years late, still makes for an interesting bundle of high-definition images.













Special thanks to SyrianMilitaryCap from Syrian Military Capabilities.

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