Tanks, Armor, and Airpower of the Syrian Civil War: A Brief Guide

Posted: August 9, 2015 in Airpower, Armor, Syria, Syrian Conflict, Tanks
Tags: , , , ,

Modern conflict as Western audiences are familiar with it has been marked by well marked and uniformed modern military forces, operating instruments of war traditionally reserved for nation states, such as tanks, armored personnel carriers, and air forces. More and more these warfighting capacities are co-opted by non-state actors, increasingly through capture from state actors, purchase from third parties, or as covered in a previous post by creating homegrown alternatives such as the Kurdish tanks, Hell Cannons of the Islamic Front, or the off the shelf ISRcapabilities acquired from a simple quad rotor drone equipped with a camera. At the outset of the Syrian Civil War, only the government had armored capabilities, an air force, and the means to project power beyond short lived ambushes of police and soldiers by poorly equipped opposition fighters. As the conflict approaches its fourth year of conflict, a very different state of affairs exists. Today, nearly every faction in the Syrian Civil War possesses some form of armored capacity, ISIL captured, and for a short time operated, Syrian government MiGs representing one of the few times in history that a non-state group has operated any semblance of an air force. As the capacity to wage warfare becomes less and less the purview of only the Syrian government, the monopoly on use of force erodes more and more as government weaponry is captured.

As with the first and second guides to weapons of the Syrian conflict, this one does not attempt to cover all vehicles operated in Syria, but rather aims to touch on the most commonly seen and most influential to the conflict. For more in depth reading about the armored vehicles common to this conflict, please check out the Oryx Blog series on the tanks of Syria. For the sake of continuity, as with past articles, a Wikipedia link will be attached for each entry. It is worth mentioning that a majority of Soviet armored vehicles purchased by the Syrian government are what are known as monkey models, where some of the design elements featured on the domestic versions of the vehicle have been removed for export models. This was multipurpose, both to prevent more complicated military equipment from being captured by enemies of the Soviet Union and revealing the true capabilities of their armor to the West, to save on expense, and to prevent fickle foreign governments from attaining full strength Soviet weaponry.

Main Battle Tanks

T-55/T-54 the workhorse of the of every group that has armored capabilities in Syria, the Syrian Arab Army began the conflict with roughly 2,000 of these vehicles, and it has been the most widely fielded, as well as most widely destroyed and captured, armored vehicle in Syria. Many variants of this Russian tank exist and numerous countries have offered upgrade packages to make this 60+ year old tank more survivable on the modern battlefield, but the tank itself, in stock forms, offers a 100mm rifled cannon, armor varying in thickness from 30mm to 205mm, and calls for a crew of four (driver, gunner, loader, commander). The T-55 is an exceedingly simple vehicle to operate and maintain, which gives it staying power in the conscript armies of nations who cannot afford the expensive maintenance infrastructure of more modern designs. Similarly, it makes the T-55 an ideal vehicle for insurgencies to capture, as only a rudimentary knowledge of heavy equipment repair and maintenance is necessary to keep it running. The T-55 is no contender for combat against modern main battle tanks, but it offers significant advantages when employed against lighter vehicles, entrenched infantry, or fighters behind cover offered in an urban landscape such as buildings. However, the T-55 suffers from armor that is not able to withstand even dated anti-tank weapons like the RPG-7 ‘s most basic warheads, and especially more powerful munitions such as the controversial TOW missile or Konkurs ATGM. As a result, traditional methods of ‘plussing up’ tank armor have been employed in the form of reactive armor which explodes away from the tank when struck or the much more low tech (and inexpensive) chain armor or slat armor both designed to detonate incoming anti-tank rockets and missiles prior to actual impact on the tank. Such methods are employed on nearly all armored vehicles in Syria, and are believed to have made a real difference in survivability of low tech vehicles like the T-55. The T-55 is notable for its heavy usage by ISIL forces to spearhead assaults through massed armor supporting heavy infantry forces. This ability has been degraded by the presence of coalition airstrikes, but helped catapult ISIL to prominence in 2013 and 2014.

T-62 Developed as replacement for hte T-55, the T-62 features a larger, 115mm, smoothbore cannon, heavier armor all around, and a larger vehicle. The heavier cannon was required for field new ammunition capable of defeating modern (for the time) Western tanks. The smaller T-55 could not handle a turret large enough to field the new cannon, and thus the T-62 was born. Employed in the same manner as the T-55, and also appearing in opposition arsenals all over the country, the T-62 is similarly upgraded in various fashions to help defeat anti-tank munitions. As will be repeated theme, as with most Soviet era armored vehicles, maintenance and repair of the T-62 is relatively low level and can be conducted under austere conditions without long supply trains and logistical hubs, making the T-62 another excellent vehicle for opposition groups to field. The SAA was believed to have 1,000 at the outset of hostilities.

T-72 Arguably, the most powerful tank in the Syrian arsenal, and the most widely fielded modern Main Battle Tank in the world, the T-72 improves on previous tank generations with a larger 125mm smoothbore cannon, thicker armor than the T-62, slightly better operational range, and significantly faster. The T-72 makes extensive use of reactive armor, and is far better adapted to shrug off lighter anti-tank weapons such as the RPG-7, though still very vulnerable to ATGMs and more modern RPG variants like the [RPG-29]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RPG-29). The introduction of an autoloader removes the necessity for a crewmember dedicated to loading the main gun. Not much heavier than the previous T-62, the T-72 has the ability to operate in a variety of environments that heavier Western tanks would become bogged down in or incapable of traversing, such as light bridges. However a more complex fire control system, autoloader, and more modern powerplant make the T-72 more difficult for non-state actors to keep it maintained in functioning order. The SAA was believed to have 1.600 at the outset of hostilities

Armored Fighting Vehicles (tracked)

PTR-76 Although only lightly fielded in Syria with some 80 units in service prior to the war, the unique nature of this vehicle bears mentioning. An amphibious reconnaissance vehicle, the PT-76 would serve as the chassis basis for a number of more advanced Soviet armored vehicles. While lightly armored, relative to a main battle tank, with a 76mm cannon, the PT-76 has the ability to ford bodies of water, and functions as a light tank. Not heavily armored enough to go toe to toe with other armored vehicles or even light anti-armor weapons, the PT-76 is best used as a standoff weapon capable of delivering aimed cannon fire over a long distance. The PT-76 is an early example of a gap that existed in many armies, for a lightweight armored and tracked vehicle, with a lighter cannon, not intended for frontline combat service, but rather to ferry troops and conduct reconnaissance. Its use in Syria has not been very widespread.

BMP-1 The BMP-1, much like the PT-76, offers a stop-gap between unarmored gun-trucks and heavily armored main battle tanks. Armed with a 73mm cannon for lightly armored vehicles and troops, and a launching rail for the 9M14 Malyutka ATGM to deal with more heavily armored threats, the BMP-1 is a fast moving infantry fighting vehicle (BMP standing for Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty, Russian for: infantry fighting vehicle), thinly armored, just enough to protect the three man crew and up to eight infantry passengers from small arms and shrapnel. Not intended to go toe to toe with more heavily armored foes but rather function as a “battle taxi” shifting troops where they’re needed on the battlefield. With over 2,000 believed to be in the Syrian arsenal at the outset of hostilities, the BMP-1 constitutes the most commonly found non-tank armored vehicle and shows up in the hands of opposition groups all over the country. Earlier this month, al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra utilized a number of BMP-1s in conjunction with a few T-72s and T-55s to overwhelm the SAA defenders of Wadi al-Daif military installation in Western Syria, signalling a shift towards heavy armored operations by opposition groups to spearhead assaults and overwhelm entrenched defenders who would be difficult to otherwise defeat.

BTR-50 Similar to the PT-76, and built on the same chassis, the BTR-50 is an amphibious armored personnel carrier designed to carry large numbers of troops to and from the battlefield. Lightly armored to withstand small arms and shrapnel, the BTR-50 lacks a heavy weapon at all, either going unarmed, or with some combination of medium and heavy machine guns manned by the crew. In Syria, some BTR-50s have been modified to accept a ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft gun on top of the hull, but this arrangement is not a common modification. The vehicle can carry up to 20 combat troops, both over water and on land, and is often reinforced by sandbags and bolt on metal armor for additional protection. In service primarily by the SAA, BTR-50s have shown up in various opposition groups. The SAA was believed to have 550 at the outset of hostilities.

Armored Fighting Vehicles (wheeled)

BTR-60 Where previous vehicles discussed have all been tracked, the next three are notable for being wheeled. Where tracks offer many advantages especially in terms of cross country ability, if a single track is disabled a vehicle is dead in the water and unable to continue moving. In contrast, the eight wheels of a BTR-60 allow the vehicle to continue moving even if several tires or deflated or destroyed. The BTR-60 is a lightly armored vehicle intended to ferry troops to and from the battlefield, much like the BTR-50. In contrast, the BTR-60 fits fewer troops (up to 14), moves much faster than tracked vehicles, and has a 14.5mm heavy machine gun turret mounted on the roof. Armor is minimal and only frontal armor will stop small arms fire at all rights, with the thinner side and rear armor being susceptible to penetration by small arms fire at close range. As such, the BTR-60 is best employed shuttling troops to the battlefield, then quickly withdrawing before attracting heavy fire. The SAA was believed to have 650 of these at the outset of hostilities.

BTR-152 Essentially the predecessor to the BTR-60, the BTR-152 borrows heavily from Second World War designs, and was the brainchild of Soviet analysts who concluded the reason they suffered such disproportionately high rates of infantry casualties was a result of a lack of armored personnel carry to move troops to the battlefield. The result was the BTR-152, a very thinly armored, open top, six wheeled vehicle, equipped with a single machine gun, requiring only a crew of two, and capable of moving 18 passengers. Numerous variants of this vehicle were produced, including command and communications, anti-aircraft with quad machine gun mounts, and mine-laying variants, and most of these variants have been seen in Syria. A major vulnerability is the open top, leading to extreme threat to those inside from grenades, or gunfire from an elevated position. Home-brewed fixes such as bolt on armor and angled canvas siding to cause grenades to roll off have met with some success, but this dated platform is not much more efficient than the technicals and armor plated trucks of the opposition. The SAA was believed to have 300 of these at the outset of hostilities.

BRDM-2 Separate from the aforementioned armored personnel carriers, the BRDM lacks any troop transport capability and is instead essentially a lightly car with turret for 14.5mm heavy machine gun on top. With a crew of four, the BRDM-2 is meant to provide reconnaissance on battlefield condition, too lightly armed and armored to do much on the battlefield as even the lightest anti-armor weapons will destroy it. It’s employment in Syria is analogous to the “technicals” employed by the opposition: fast moving, all terrain, capable of moving a heavy machine gun to a position of tactical advantage while offering slightly more protection than a dismounted infantryman. The SAA was believed to have 700 of these at the outset of hostilities.

Combat Helicopters

Gazelle The French production Gazelle is a light helicopter adapted to scouting and light attack roles, sometime operating as a host for the remaining stores of smart munitions for targeted operations against key targets, transport officials, and provide a light attack capability in support of SAA offensives. Originally intended to be armed with anti-armor missiles and employed against Israeli tanks in the event of an invasion, the Gazelle can carry medium machine guns, guided missiles or dumb rockets, and can carry three passengers. The SyAAF is believed to have 30 of these craft.

Mi-8/Mi-17 The Mi-17 Hip is a variant of the Mi-8 transport helicopter. Syria is known to possess both, and while exact figures are not clear, it’s believed to be between 80 and 130 combined. Designed as a transport helicopter it is often repurposed as a gunship, but it is infamous in the Syrian Civil War as the primary host of improvised “barrel bombs”, discussed previously our guide to unconventional weapons. Flying above conventional anti-aircraft fire range, the Mi-17 opens its rear cargo door and simply rolls the barrel bombs out the back when approximately over the target area, leading to an incredible lack of control over where the several hundred pound crude bombs explode. Capable of carrying up to 30 troops, 12 stretchers, or nearly 9,000 lbs of cargo, the Mi-17 sees work as a troop shuttle, air ambulance, and rapid resupply capability in addition to being adapted as an impromptu bomber.

Mi-25 The export variant of the Soviet Mi-24 Hind, the Mi-25 is perhaps most famous for its role in Soviet-Afghan war where it was the chariot of the Soviet infantry and functioned as heavily armored and armed air support. The Mi-25 hosts an enormous amount of weaponry, including a mixture of 12.7mm, 23mm, and 30mm cannons in single and dual configurations, winged mounted rocket and bomb pods, and window mounted machine guns, with in excess of 3,000 lbs of ordnance that can be carried on external hardpoints. Due to the nature of this aircraft’s mission and the need to be at relatively low altitude for gun strikes it is vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire, though unique in that the fuselage is armored enough to withstand 12.7mm heavy machine gun fire. The Mi-25 is capable of hauling 8 soldiers, can travel 280 miles and has a top speed of 208 miles per hour. Syria is believed to have just over 30 of these gunships.

AIRPOWER

The presence of the Syrian Arab Airforce (SyAAF) has long been attributed to the staying power of the SAA as opposition forces lacked the means to challenge SyAAF airpower initially, and even now only possess minimal anti-air capabilities, which the SyAAF has responded to be altering its operations in favor of higher flight altitudes (resulting in lower accuracy). As the war wears on, more and more Syrian aircraft have been down by anti-aircraft artillery like the ZU-23-2, captured MANPADS, and using ATGMs like the TOW missile to strike parked aircraft at government installations. Pre-war figures of 555 combat airplanes and 36 attack helicopters are decimated and it was reported in September of this year that those numbers had sunk to 295 and 25 respectively, although with no official word from Syria, it is difficult to confirm such numbers. It is likely that Russian and Iranian sources have been slowly replenishing destroyed aircraft stocks, but the SyAAF cannot continue to sustain such losses. A Syrian government victory is predicated on continued mastery of the air and the ability to reinforce and provide support for troops on the ground when besieged by opposition groups. This section will focus on Syrian government aircraft only, and will not attempt to delve into the aircraft used by coalition partners in airstrikes against ISIL.

Drones

Mohajer 4 The rise of drones in use by military forces generally covers their use in combat firing Hellfires and other guided missiles at insurgent targets in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is rarely covered is their extensive use by nearly every modern military force to gather real time intelligence via direct video feeds, and to give commanders strategic flexibility by being able to observe their forces in totality and gain better insight on what to do and where to move. In Syria, Iranian supplied Mohajer 4 drones deliver a reconnaissance capability the government previously did not have short of using valuable combat aircraft to perform time and manpower consuming reconnaissance missions. The Mohajer 4 is capable of 7 hours continuous flight time and can reach a flight ceiling of 15,000 feet, with a range of 150km, giving significant coverage, and able to reach well above anti-aircraft fire range, though at unknown cost to visibility and optics. Several have been downed in Syria, though whether by enemy fire or technical mishap is unknown.

Yasir Very little hard data is known about the Yasir drone, but it is reputed to be a reverse engineered copy of the US “Scan Eagle” reconnaissance drone, boasting loner range (200km) and greater flight time (8 hours) than the Mohajer 4, with a similar flight ceiling. It’s presence in Syria has not been confirmed, but with the uptick in Iranian military involvement, it is believed to be operated within Syria, possibly by Iranian controllers.

Non-Military Drones: While the Syrian government and its allies hold a monopoly of on military airpower in Syria, that has not stopped opposition groups from purchasing off the shelf “drones” in the form of remotely controlled quadcopters. Equipping them with GoPros and other off the shelf camera equipment, one can spend less than $800 on Amazon and acquire their own ISR capability in the form of products listed as “toys” like the DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter. Thirty minutes of flight time and able to reach several hundred feet up, such “drones” have been employed by numerous factions in the conflict, most notably by ISIL, featured in their propaganda videos over the Kurdish city of Kobani. As non-state actors co-opt this technology, the monopoly on standoff reconnaissance begins to shift in favor of smaller groups operating cheap, easy to acquire, civilian legal “drones”.

Fixed Wing Combat Aircraft

MiG-21 In conjunction with the MiG-23, the MiG-21 forms the bulk of the Syrian Arab Airforce, with over one hundred in service. A fighter plane, the MiG-21 has been repurposed as a ground attack, close air support, and reconnaissance platform, operating in support of SAA offensives, to bomb opposition strong points, and to relieve pressure on besieged SAA bases. As a need for fighter craft in Syria has dwindled, and with neighboring Israel conductingairstrikes in Syria almost unopposed, the bulk of Syrian combat aircraft have been adapted into a support role for the SAA. The MiG-21 carries a 23mm cannon for strafing ground targets, and can employ slightly over 2,000 lbs in bombs, rockets, or a combination of both. The rarity of smart munitions means that the bulk of air support relies on pilot skill and accuracy, both of which are severely limited by the high altitudes pilots must fly at to avoid anti-aircraft fire and MANPADS. The MiG-21 was first rolled out in combat operations during the Syrian Civil War in July of 2012. August 21st of the same year marked the first SyAAF combat loss as a MiG-21 was shot down on takeoff by enemy anti-aircraft fire. Another MiG-21 was shot down two weeks later, by heavy machine gun fire.

MiG-23 Representing the second most plentiful combat aircraft in the Syrian air force (95 pre-war), the MiG-23 is utilized in a similar fashion to the MiG-21, fulfilling a ground attack role to support SAA offensives and relieve beleagured SAA troops. It features a 23mm cannon for strafing and can carry nearly three times the ordnance of the MiG-21, with 6500 lbs of mixed bombs, rockets, and anti-air weapons. It’s unknown if any have been shot down by the opposition, but one MiG-23 was shot down by Turkish F-16s when it strayed near Turkish airspace.

MiG-25 A high speed reconnaissance and interceptor aircraft, the MiG-25 is used by the Syrian government as an ISR asset to gather imagery of enemy formations, and forms the bulk of the remaining SyAAF capability to counter any aerial assault by another country, combining extremely high speed with anti-air missiles.

Su-24 The SyAAF possesses a limited number of true ground attack aircraft, believed to be roughly twenty by pre-war estimates supplementing its aging fleet of some fifty Su-22 fighter bombers. The Su-24 is a two man aircraft with a pilot and weapons officer, supersonic capable. that carries a 23mm cannon and up to nearly 18,000 pounds of ordnance, making it the aircraft most capable of providing sustained support to troops on the ground, through a variety of munitions, guided and unguided, with a mixture of rockets, bombs, and missiles. The limited number of Su-24 makes their employment a strategic consideration that likely requires senior SyAAF approval to be saved for named operations or to prevent bases from being overrun.

L-39 (trainer) As the Syrian war has shown, necessity is the mother of invention, or in the case of the SyAAF, the mother of adaption. The L-39 is a jet trainer aircraft that has been repurposed as a light ground attack aircraft, capable of hosting a 23mm cannon and close to 3,000 lbs of ordnance. Designed to teach pilots to fly, smaller air forces have adopted the aircraft for this purpose and then retrofitted it to host anti-aircraft missiles, bomb pylons, and cannons. Syria is believed to have 40 of these aircraft, though at least two have been destroyed by ATGM attacks on Syrian airports by opposition groups.

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