A Wrap-Up and Brief Analysis of ATGM strikes in Syria from Feb to June 2015

Posted: August 8, 2015 in ATGM, Syria
Tags: ,

THE INTRODUCTION
On February 8th, beginning with the Syrian government offensive into Daraa/Quneitirah and then the offensive into Aleppo, I began recording the use of ATGMs by opposition forces[1] (defined here as all forces arrayed against the Syrian government with the exception of Da3sh. I wanted to only focus on Syria and not touch Iraq) when their use could be confirmed by video and there was a preponderance of evidence that the strike actually hit the target. Late March, as those offensives petered off, I stopped recording (finals were approaching/ no one seemed interested) until April 20th when the government launched an aborted offensive to capture Busra al-Harir. From April 20th to June 26th I resumed recording. I promised I’d eventually do a writeup about the results of my findings, so that’s what I’m doing here. First off, big thanks to /u/naenil [2] for making the graphics for this writeup and plotting the strikes on a map. Huge thanks to /u/swordofpontus [3] for coming over and physically helping me count the length of flight for 187 separate youtube videos. And then /u/phil_sayers [4] , /u/purpleolive [5] , and all the others who sent me videos and details.
To be added to my list, I had to be able to determine group name, location of strike, date of strike, type of missile used, and target being struck. Additionally the missile had to actually strike the target in the video or there needed to be supporting evidence that it did (like pictures of the destroyed target). I removed some 20-30 videos because they either missed or you couldn’t tell if they hit. There are still a few iffy videos, but to the best of my knowledge all of the videos we analyzed are actual hits. Most of the removed videos were Jabhat al-Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham videos where they do not film the launcher so I can’t tell exactly what they’re using (usually you can figure it out from the missile flight pattern, they were mostly Konkurs/Kornet) and they cut film right at time of impact so you can effectively judge the damage or accuracy.
A few initial notes. The excessive number of TOW strikes is definitely an indicator of their widescale proliferation in Syria, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. There are roughly 15 different ATGMs being used in Syria (Konkurs, Kornet, Metis, Bastion, Malyutka, Metis-M, Fagot, HJ-8, TOW, Toophan, Falanja, Svir, Shmel, etc). But only one of those systems MUST have a video every time it is fired. The TOW missile is provided to vetted Syrian groups[6] (Credit/u/grandmuftiofreddit [7] ). These groups head to a training center in Turkey, Jordan, or allegedly one of the Gulf monarchies. They receive roughly 2 weeks of training on the BGM-71 TOW missile[8] . When they finish, they are furnished with a launcher and approximately 5 missiles (the most given at one time is believed to be 8). To remain in the program and receive missile replacements the group must video each and every strike including the following information: startup calibration sequence (necessary for accurate firing and shows the weapon is in working order), the serial number of the TOW missile being fired, a spoken declaration of the group firing it, the date, location, and target. These videos are then furnished to the program handlers along with the expended missile tubes to get new missiles. This is to prevent the launchers/missiles from being sold/traded to other groups and helps keep close tabs on what exactly is going on with missile strikes provided by Western sources. With this in mind, one should understand that 100% of TOW strikes will be recorded and so they’ll be disproportionately represented in the videos that make it to the internet. The actual breakdown of missiles will be a lot more skewed in favor of Soviet bloc ATGMs, however exact numbers are impossible to determine.

As an additional caveat, in the Syrian conflict all ATGMs being used are, for all intents and purposes, equally lethal to nearly all armor on the Syrian battlefield, especially the most common variants: Kornkurs, Kornet, METIS-M, TOW, and Milan. The major differences are relatively unimportant in the context of 40-60 year old Syrian tanks, with the greatest differences being the range of the weapons with Kornet’s on the high end capable of 5,000m strikes and Milan’s on the low end limited to 2,000m. Given the poor state of Syrian armored forces all of these ATGMs provide enough “umph” to penetrate and destroy any tank or armored vehicle on the battlefield. None of them offers any sort of supreme advantage over the others other than range.
A final note. The time of flight was averaged across all weapons systems because the majority of the data was for TOW systems. Each system is moderately slower or faster than the other, but they all have relatively similar average speeds. We used the TOW missile’s average time of flight of 187.5 meters per second across the board, but it will technically be slightly faster or slower when looking at non-TOW missiles.

THE DATA
I have all the strikes broken down as I described above in an excel doc (not sure how to host), as well as posted here[9]. /u/naenil [10] provided some nifty infographics including a breakdown of strikes by province and by target, located here[11] (PDF warning).
Strikes by month and Time of Flight
  • Feb: 21 11.7 seconds / 2193m
  • March: 8 14.4 seconds / 2700m
  • April: 38 13.3 seconds / 2493m
  • May: 63 13.4 seconds / 2512m
  • June: 57 12.8 seconds / 2400m
  • Total: 187 13.1 seconds / 2456m
Strikes by month
  • Feb: 21
  • March: 8
  • April: 38
  • May: 63
  • June: 57
  • Total: 187
Strikes by Governorate:
  • Aleppo: 45
  • Idlib: 54
  • Quneitirah: 6
  • Daraa: 28
  • Rif Dimashq: 8
  • Suweida: 1
  • Hama: 37
  • Latakia: 6
Strikes by targets hit:
  • Tank: 66
  • BMP: 10
  • ZSU-23-4 “Shilka”: 10
  • Other Armored Vehicles: 6
  • Fuel/Ammunition/Supply/Command Trucks: 12
  • Bulldozer: 11
  • Artillery piece: 9
  • Anti-Aircraft Cannon: 32
  • Heavy Machine Guns: 10
  • Technicals: 6
  • Rocket Launchers: 4
  • ATGM Launcher: 2
  • Bunker/Checkpoint: 8
  • Unknown: 1
Strikes by missile type:
  • US BGM-71 TOW: 150
  • Russian 9M113 Konkurs: 15
  • Russian 9M133 Kornet: 7
  • Russian 9K111 Fagot: 1
  • Russian 9M14 Malyutka: 2
  • Russian 9K115-2 Metis-M: 7
  • French MILAN: 2
  • Chinese HJ-8 Red Arrow: 3

THE ANALYSIS
The proliferation of ATGMs in Syria has hit critical mass. In the early years of the war missiles would be captured piece meal, five here, five there. Gradually larger quantities got captured, with approximately 1,000 missiles captured atMahin in 2013 [12] , another 250 captured later that summer [13] , and other caches found elsewhere. Gradually ATGM strikes became more and more a reality of war and less a rare occurrence with unskilled operators. More missiles meant more shots and more shots meant greater experience with the system and more hits. In 2014 the introduction of the TOW missile program meant trained operators were firing missiles and scoring more and more hits. But ATGM strikes remained most heavily utilized in a harassing manner. Seeking targets of opportunity, groups would setup their system, fire at a resting tank or BMP, pack up shop and flee before a response could be formed. A gradual shift away from this began just prior to the recording of this data. The assault on Wadi al-Daif/Hamidiyye that resulted in a collapse of government forces, the loss of two well equipped military bases, and tremendous quantities of military equipment and supplies, saw a very close integration of ATGM teams (including a TOW missile fired right next to a Jabhat al-Nusra position, for the first time) working in tandem with recoilless rifle teams and tanks to rapidly and systematically shred all government armored forces on the defensive lines before tank supported infantry assaults began.
Looking over the data from February onward, we see a repeating of this. Strikes spike during periods of major cross-group defensives (notably Aleppo and Daraa) and are used particularly effectively in support of major offensives (especially Hama and Idlib, with notable presence in the assault on Brigade 52 in Daraa). This should not be surprising as any major military operation is going to furnish a greater number of targets for both defenders and attackers then in the static battlelines elsewhere. However, it is a relatively new phenomenon to see ATGMs so closely integrated into the opposition doctrine. Armor has long been the greatest strength of the government (along with airpower) and the raw application of massed armor has been a key tenet of government doctrine, making positions that would be otherwise difficult to defend by traditional infantry into veritable mobile fortresses with tanks acting as bunkers, artillery, hardened machine gun posts, and observation/listening posts. The ability to place a tank or two on a hill and have “Fire control” over several thousand meters around that hill dominated government doctrine for much of the early war. ATGM proliferation became a gradual problem for this, but never to the point that it’s at now.
Any major offensive in Syria conducted by the Syrian opposition will have ATGM integrated at the front lines to hunt down and destroy exposed armor that would otherwise stall out or repel traditional offensive forces. With a high concentration of ATGM gunners, Syrian government forces are stuck between remaining in place and being softer targets but providing the deterence necessary to prevent ground assault, or in moving to tertiary positions and essentially surrendering those initial defensive positions. What winds up happening is that the armor continues to move backwards into positions of greater defensive strength but in the process that new position becomes compromised when ATGM gunners and opposition forces take up position in the previous strongpoints. A chain reaction of retreats to new positions weakens the non-armored defenders and leads to routs like seen in the Idlib salient. As the armor is destroyed or withdraws the major firepower advantage is lost and opposition armor and infantry can often overwhelm individual checkpoints until nothing is left.
The consolidation of ATGM forces into broader coalitions like Jaish al-Fateh, Fateh Haleb, Southern Front, etc etc shows an adaptation to battlefield conditions that has previously evaded opposition forces. Jaish al-Fateh[14] is one of the best examples of this, crossing ideological borders for common goals, incorporating less-extreme factions into their overall battle plans. Utilizing ATGM teams as active initiator’s of offensive action instead of only as a reaction to targets of opportunities allows Jaish al-Fateh to deprive SAA defenses of their greatest land combat advantage, which facilitates the manpower infantry assaults that have overrun so many government positions in the past half a year.
Ultimately, ATGM proliferation cannot and will not win or lose the war. But it can absolutely set the conditions for a loss or win. By depriving the Syrian military of their greatest combat strength (on the ground) in conjunction with coordinated assault the armed opposition in Syria has adopted tactics that allow them to circumvent the numerical strength of the SAA and counteract their firepower advantages. If the Syrian military does not adapt to the current threat environment and either seek to counter anti-armor weapons teams, or reduce their armored footprint in favor of alternate styles of warfare, they will soon find themselves at a point where they can no longer replace their armored losses without dipping into reserves and weakening the heartland’s defensive posture.
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