Friday, 13 May 2016

The US Slides Deeper into the War in Syria

A Special Forces Operation Detachment-Alpha soldier on patrol. Image: US Army.

This week the US Department of Defense announced that it would send an additional 250 troops to Syria to serve in non-combat support roles. These come in addition to the approximately 50 Special Forces soldiers operating in Northern Syria in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). While still small, this new deployment marks the beginning of a move away from the ‘no boots on the ground’ policy of the Obama administration towards Syria.

While not explicitly stated, it is almost certain that these 250 troops being sent to the war-town country will be serving in support of the SDF. The reason for this is that this group is the US’s only successful partner on the ground in the fight against ISIS, and the only one far enough removed from the rebel/regime conflict in order to not cause diplomatic problems with Russia and Iran.

Furthermore, the US has recently constructed an airbase located in Rimelan in SDF-held northeast Syria, and local media there has already begun reporting the arrival of these US troops.

The primary question however is not who they will support, but rather in what manner. Significantly, it remains to be seen exactly how loosely the US defines the ‘support role’ provided by the troops.

While this is mostly talked about from the perspective of training local forces and calling in airstrikes from behind the front lines, this is not always the case. Experience over the last year in Iraq has shown that US troops do occasionally involve themselves in direct fighting with ISIS, and have suffered casualties from this. Moreover, footage has emerged in recent days of western Special Forces engaged in fighting on the front lines with the SDF during their offensive on Al-Shaddadi earlier this year.

With this in mind, it would appear that the US troops announced will play a mixed role; providing training and airstrike targeting support combined with at least some combat teams spearheading key advances. All of this will come in use as the SDF plans to conduct new offensives deep into ISIS-held territory, and into areas which are predominately ethnically Arab. There, support from the local population and tribes will be critical, and US assistance will help fold more non-Kurdish fighters into the SDF, garnering it greater international (and intra-Syrian) legitimacy
Taking a wider view, the US decision to become more deeply involved in Syria comes alongside moves which suggest the country has decided on the SDF as its favored partner in the country, and the best bet to defeat ISIS. While Russia has raised some concerns with the deployment, it does not interfere significantly with its own objectives for now, and the country is in itself supporting a separate SDF pocket further west. Notwithstanding major changes in the situation on the ground, the deployment of small numbers of US soldiers to the region could become a more regular occurrence as the final push towards ISIS’s capital Ar-Raqqa picks up. 

Kaliningrad: Russia’s First Line of Defence

The Kaliningrad Oblast is a federal subject of Russia. Situated on the Baltic Coast, it is surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, two NATO members.

Formerly known as K├Ânisberg, Kaliningrad was annexed by the Soviet Union on April 7, 1946. With more than 963,000 people, Kaliningrad is one of Russia’s best-performing regional economies.

Its geographical location is ideal for an early warning system to monitor NATO movements.

Kaliningrad’s Geopolitical Situation

Surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, the Kaliningrad Oblast has no direct ground links back to Russia’s mainland. Kaliningrad is also the only Russian Baltic Sea Port that enables the Baltic Fleet to operate in the region on a year-round basis.

The Kaliningrad Oblast is a federal subject of Russia. Situated on the Baltic Coast, it is surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, two NATO members.

Formerly known as K├Ânisberg, Kaliningrad was annexed by the Soviet Union on April 7, 1946. With more than 963,000 people, Kaliningrad is one of Russia’s best-performing regional economies.

Its geographical location is ideal for an early warning system to monitor NATO movements.

Due to the proximity of almost every European NATO member, Kaliningrad is ideal to have an early warning system: the Voronezh radar.

However, Kaliningrad is not ideal to mobilize troops for offensive operations due to its geographical position. The logistical issues would be far too great for Russia to even consider deploying an offensive force to the region.

The Baltic Fleet’s Marines are able to launch seaborne operations, but it would be very unlikely due to its small size.

Nevertheless, the adjacency of NATO members makes it ideal for defensive purposes and provide Russia with a strong foothold in the Baltic Sea.

The presence of the Baltic Fleet is also one of the main reasons behind the strategic importance of Kaliningrad. According to the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation: “The main tasks of the Baltic Fleet are as follows:

• to protect economic zone and production regions, suppression of illegal production activities;
• to ensure safety of navigation;
• to fulfil foreign policy acts of the Government in economically important regions of the World Ocean (visits, ships business visits, joint exercises, peacekeeping missions, etc.)”

Kaliningrad remains one of the most vital regions for Russia’s defence against NATO. The military installations in Kaliningrad would most likely be NATO’s first targets if there was a total war against Russia.
The destruction of the Voronezh radar station would greatly weakened Russia’s ability to counter NATO attacks thus making it a target of choice.

Voronezh Radar In Kaliningrad

Based at the former Dnuyavka air base, the Pionersky Radar Station operates a Voronezh radar system. The radar was built in Kaliningrad to counter NATO’s missile defence systems and enable Russia to keep their nuclear weapons operational.

NATO is putting a lot of emphasis on this missile system to deter the launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles by Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces against their members.

The radar was deemed operational in 2014 and can cover more than 6,000 km, enough to keep Europe and part of the Atlantic Ocean under permanent surveillance. The Voronezh-DM can also simultaneously track more than 500 objects.

Due to its vulnerability, the radar site is most likely guarded by anti-aircraft systems such as the S-300 and the S-400 Triumf.

Anti-Aircraft In Kaliningrad

Surrounded by NATO countries, the Kaliningrad military installations need a solid anti-aircraft capability.

With NATO aircraft able to quickly reach the Kaliningrad military installations and ports, Russia has no choice but to deploy many anti-aircraft surface-to-air (SAM) missiles.

Russian S-300 and S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems are the weapons of choice to counter enemy aircraft. Capable of reaching 400 km with a 40N6 missile, both missile systems can be quickly deployed—under 5 minutes—and engage incoming enemy aircraft.

It is vital for Russia to keep the S-300 and S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems operational to protect the Voronezh radar installation in Pionersky. Due to its mobility, both systems can also be deployed anywhere in the Kaliningrad Oblast to counter enemy aircraft.

Russian Armed Forces In Kaliningrad

The Russian Armed Forces have different types of units deployed all over the Kaliningrad Oblast. Due to its strategic importance, Russia keeps a strong permanent military presence in the Oblast to give them a capable defensive force.
Troops stationed in Kaliningrad are under the command of the Western Military District. According to Wikipedia, the Ground and Coastal Forces of the Baltic Fleet is mainly comprised of:
  • HQ: Kaliningrad
  • 7th Independent Guards Motorized Rifle Regiment (Kaliningrad) (formerly known as the 1st Guards Motor Rifle Division)
  • 336th Independent Guards Marine Brigade (Baltiysk)
  • 79th Independent Guards Motor Rifle Brigade (Gusev) (formerly known as the 18th Guards Motor Rifle Division)
  • 152nd Guards Missile Brigade – Chernyakhovsk (Kornevo), Kaliningrad Oblast[23]
  • 244th Artillery Brigade
  • 25th Coastal Missile Brigade
  • 22nd Independent Air Defence Regiment. Not clear which missiles this regiment is equipped with. However it was announced in 2011 that two divisions (batteries) of new S-400 Ground-to-Air Missile systems will join the Baltic Fleet.[24]
  • 73rd Independent Bridge Battalion.
  • 254th Independent Radio Battalion (electronic intelligence gathering)
  • Other small units
The ground troops are mainly conducting defensive operations. However, the 336th Independent Guards Marine Brigade can be deployed to conduct seaborne operations. The 71st Order of the Red Star Landing Ship Brigade provide the Marines with landing ships and two air-cushioned landing crafts.

In fact, the 336th could launch offensive operations against Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital. However, this is very unlikely and would start a total war between NATO and Russia.

The Russian Baltic Fleet is permanently headquartered in Kaliningrad. In 2015, 3 submarines and 55 warships are under the Baltic Fleet’s command. The main naval port is Baltiysk and a second port is also in Kronstadt, located in the Gulf of Finland.

The Baltic Fleet’s Kilo-class submarines are known to lurk around Latvia’s territorial waters. However, the Russian submarines stay in the international waters, which is perfectly legal.
The 128th Surface ship Brigade is the largest formation of the Baltic Fleet. Composed of anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare warships, the 128th is the first line of defence of the Russian Navy against NATO warships.

The Future Of Kaliningrad

Russia is slowly deploying new Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. The Iskander missile is a tactical weapon and can be launched up to 500 km. It could be employed as a pre-emptive strike weapon to disrupt enemy forces on the borders of Kaliningrad.

The Baltic Fleet will most likely receive new ships in the near future, especially to conduct littoral operations. Having said that, the Baltic Fleet is one of the most important fleets of the Russian Navy due to its geographical location.

As for ground troops, I think an additional motorized rifle brigade could be deployed to Kaliningrad to provide a quick reaction force in case of a NATO attack.

Tensions between Russia and NATO are quickly escalating and we’re on the verge of a new Cold War. Nevertheless, a total war between Russia and NATO is highly unlikely. Russia will continue to mass troops on their borders and launch aerial reconnaissance mission around NATO airspaces.

Although more large-scale drills will be conducted to test the Russian Armed Forces readiness, Russia will also focus on keeping its fleets fully operational. The Russian Navy, especially the Baltic Fleet, is vital for them to gain more influence on the world stage and having a strong presence in their waterways.

As for Kaliningrad, I believe Russia will fortify the region while pouring money to further stimulate the thriving regional economy.

Iran Begins Receiving the S-300 Air-Defense System

Nearly a decade after initially signing a contract with Russia, Iran has finally begun to take delivery of the S-300 air-defense system. On April 11, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari announced that “the first phase of the [S-300] contract has run its course.” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin confirmed that the deliveries had occurred, noting that the deal would be complete before the end of the year.

The delivery is likely to have taken place from Russia’s Astrakhan across the Caspian Sea to Bandar-e-Anzali in Iran. Though Ansari did not identify the type of S-300 that Iran had received, Rostec CEO Sergei Chemezov noted in an interview with the Wall Streeet Journal last month that Iran would be receiving the S-300 PMU-1. Given that Russia suspended production of the S-300 and export variants in 2014, it is believed that the ones sent to Iran are from Russian stores and were upgraded prior to delivery

The sale of the S-300 to Iran has long been plagued by issues, prompting skepticism right up to this first delivery. In 2007, Moscow and Tehran reached an agreement regarding the missile system, wherein Iran would receive five battalions of S-300s, at a cost of around $800 million.

Despite Iran making a down payment for the S-300s, Russia never delivered them. Three years later, in 2010, then-President Dmitry Medvedev announced a freeze on the export, in line with a new arms embargo unveiled by the United Nations Security Council. In retaliation, Iran initiated a $4 billion lawsuit against Russia. Tehran also began moving forward with a locally-produced answer to the S-300, called the Bavar 373, which is due to enter service in March 2017.

Russia’s S-300 export ban remained in place through last April, when Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to lift it, citing progress in nuclear negotiations with Iran. After Russia removed the freeze – and particularly after the nuclear deal was concluded – Moscow and Tehran entered a new round of discussions over the S-300 and “fundamentally solved” the issue in August 2015.

However, disputes between the two continued to delay finalization of the contract. Crucially, Iran’s $4 billion lawsuit still remained in place. Though Moscow wanted the lawsuit removed prior to deliveries, Tehran was adamant that the lawsuit would not be rescinded until after the first delivery had been made. After negotiating on this matter, Russia finally agreed to Iran’s demands.

Throughout the end of 2015 and into early 2016, a number of false starts occurred. The two countries initially reported that deliveries were beginning in late November and early December. This was later changed, to January. After January passed with no S-300 transfer, Iranian media reported in February that the deliveries were imminent as Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan traveled to Russia – only to have the Kremlin reveal that Iran had not completed its payment for the contract.

The S-300 deal grew more bizarre in March, when Kuwaiti news agency Al-Jarida reported that Russia had suspended the delivery once more. Al-Jarida claimed that Moscow canceled the S-300 sale in response to an alleged transfer of Pantsir S-1s from Iran to Hezbollah. Iranian officials denied these allegations.

Finally, on April 8, Rogozin stated that the contract had been concluded, indicating that payment had been completed (and no further cancelation had occurred). Interestingly enough, the delivery timeframe between the two countries may still not have been clear, for on April 9 Ali Akbar Velayati said in a televised interview that the delivery would take some time, even though the initial batch arrived less than two days later.

Now that Iran has begun receiving its S-300s, the country is likely to try to move forward with acquiring other items on its military shopping list. The list’s contents vary – ranging from tanks to missiles to fighter jets – and could be worth up to $8 billion.

Iran, however, is likely to find these procurements similarly tricky to complete. Russia has ruled out financial assistance for Iranian military acquisitions, and the U.S. has already stated it intends to block the sale of Su-30s to Iran, which can be done through the U.N. Security Council for the next five years, per Resolution 2231. In other words, the S-300 deliveries may have begun, but Iran’s post-arms embargo shopping spree still has a ways to go before the country will begin upgrading its forces with new hardware.

Kazakhstan Launches New Patrol Vessel Equipped with Belarusian Turret

Late last month, Kazakhstan officially launched the fifth vessel in the Project 0300 Bars (Leopard) class of patrol ships. The ship, called Sarbaz (205), has a displacement of 250 tons. The length of the ship is 42 meters and its width is 7.8 meters.

Sarbaz was launched on April 29 by Kazakhstan’s Zenit Uralsk Shipyard.  Once the ship is operational, it will be operated by the National Security Committee’s Border Service.

Kazakhstan already has four other vessels of the Project 0300 class, named Sardar, Sakshi, Zhenis, and Semser. All of these were launched over the last decade and carry out patrol work on Kazakhstan’s Caspian Sea coast. Additionally, Kazakhstan has three Project 0250 Bars MO rocket and artillery boats, which are based on the Project 0300 vessels.

Notably, Sarbaz comes equipped with a remote-controlled turret made by Belarus, a distinction between it and the other Project 0300 vessels. The Kazakh Ministry of Defense had initially noted in its press release on the vessel’s launching that it had a remote-controlled combat module, but did not specify the type.

A week after Sarbaz was launched, Belarus’ State Military Industrial Committee announced that Sarbaz is operating the Adunok system, a remote-controlled weapons platform. The Adunok turret is typically found on land systems, but has a naval variant as well. It features a 12.7mm NSVT machine gun and a targeting system comprising three sensors: a video camera (2,000 meter range), a thermal vision camera (1,000 meter range), and a laser rangefinder (2,500 meter range). It has an effective engagement range of “not less than 1,000 meters.”

Though Sarbaz is the first Project 0300 vessel to be equipped with the Adunok, Belarus has supplied the system’s naval variant to Kazakhstan previously. The Project 0210 vessel Karagandy (308) – also produced by Zenit Uralsk Shipyard – was launched in 2014 with the Adunok turret.

The continuing cooperation between Belarus and Kazakhstan in the defense sector is beneficial to both of their military industries, and particularly for Belarus’ industry as Minsk seeks to expand its client base. Kazakhstan’s Zenit Uralsk Shipyard has orders at least through 2017, raising further possibilities for Astana and Minsk to work together. 

Tuesday, 29 March 2016


FACT - This map together shows the 35% increase of the "Argentine Platform". It doesn't include Falklands, Georgias, Sandwich and Antarctica. Only the northern section beyond the 200 miles was considered by this UN committee.