Operation Inherent Resolve: The Syrian Proving Grounds

What do the terms Mole Cricket 19 and Deir ez Zor Syria have in common? Many of you have never heard of Mole Cricket 19, the 9 June 1982 air campaign over Syria’s Bekaa Valley to destroy surface-to-air missiles. People following the news closely have heard of Deir ez Zor Syria. In September of 2007, an Israeli air raid destroyed a possible Nuclear Plant built with North Korean technology and Iranian money. Deir ez Zor sits along the Euphrates River, now the boundary between Russian and Coalition forces fighting ISIS in Operation Inherent Resolve. You are going to hear a lot more about air battles and Deir ez Zor in the coming weeks and months. But first, let’s look at the historical facts.

1982 the Israeli Defense Force invaded Lebanon during Operation Peace for Galilee. Israeli ground troops thrust deep into Lebanon along the Litani River, pushing back Syrian forces and destroying Hezbollah terrorist groups. Syria began moving mobile SA-6 GAINFUL surface-to-air missile systems into the Bekaa Valley in an effort to stop the Israeli Air Force support to  ground troops. A plan was devised using the newest US supplied Fighters, the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, and the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon to destroy the SAM sites. Using unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor the SAMs, the Israelis had pinpointed the locations of all the surface-to-air missiles along the Bekaa Valley. At 2 pm June 7th 1982  Israel launched Operation Mole Cricket 19, the number of SAM sites Syria placed in the Bekaa Valley. This operation became the most lopsided air battle in history. All nineteen surface-to-air missile sites were destroyed and the Israeli Air Force shot down over eighty Syrian Air Force fighter jets. This was the first time modern US aircraft such as the F-15 and F-16 had been used in constant air battles. The Bekaa Valley War was dubbed by many the Bekaa Valley Proving Grounds for US fighter planes and weapons. They performed spectacularly.

In the summer of 2007, Israeli intelligence suspected Syria was building a nuclear power plant along the Euphrates River north of the town of Deir ez Zorr Syria. After following a Syrian nuclear scientist in London, and watching North Korean nuclear scientist visit Damascus, Israelis confirmed with Iranian money North Korea and Syria we’re building a nuclear power plant much like the one at Yongbyon North Korea. Israeli military leaders gathered a select group of pilots in the Negev Desert to practice bombing a nuclear power plant mock-up. Operation Ochard, the air strike to destroy the Nuclear Power Plant, took place on September 6th of 2007. Syria’s entire air defense system went down during the strike. An Israeli Gulfstream jet specially outfitted with electronic countermeasure equipment much like our EC-130 Compass Call, used Senior Suter and computer network attack system to cause all of the Syrian radars to project false targets on their radar screens, turning them to look the wrong direction. The Israeli Air Force strike package entered Syria from the north out of Turkey, destroyed a SAM sight and flew south to destroy the nuclear power plant. Digitalglobe pictures actually caught before and after photographs of the destruction of the power plant. Both sides remained very quiet about this nuclear plant raid.

On the night of February 7th and 8th 2018, Syrian Democratic Forces loyal to Bashur Assad and approximately 250 former Russian Special Forces mercenaries of the Private Military Company Wagner Group attacked an American and Kurdish force protecting the oil refinery near the town of Deir ez Zor. American advisors directed artillery and US air power from armed MQ-9 Reaper drones, bombers such as the B-1 and B-52, and attack aircraft such as F-15E Strike Eagles and F-22 Raptor. The attack became a humiliating loss for the Syrian and Russian forces. Rough estimates say 196 of the 250 Russian mercenaries died in the attack. One Russian tank and one armored reconnaissance vehicle survived after an American Joint Terminal Attack Controller, directing airpower assets from inside the oil refinery fence, called in the full weight of the overhead air forces. Transcripts of the Russian mercenaries involved in the attack stated they were massacred by American artillery and air power. This is not the first time American airpower has come in contact with the Russians.

In the late 2017, an American MQ-9 Reaper drone was intercepted by two Russian SU-35 Flankers operating out of Kheimemim Air Base near the town of Latakia Syria. A Google Earth view of this base shows the Flankers, Fullbacks, Fencers, and Frogfoot aircraft operating from a long runway protected by S-400 surface-to-air missile system. As the SU-35s flew off of the wings of the MQ-9 Reaper, unaware both are tracked and followed by two F-22 Raptors. As the Russians toyed with the Reaper, no doubt the Reaper’s sensor operator looking at both airplanes while doing so, the F-22 pilot made his presence known. Pulling up alongside one of the flankers, he said over a common radio frequency, “I think you boys should go home now!”

The failed attack at Deir ez Zor and the humiliating radio call for Russia’s most capable fighters to go home put Putin in a reflective mood. Discussions between Putin and his Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu must have lasted well into the night to answer these humiliations. Putin and Shoygu’s answer recently landed at Kheimemen Air Base near Latakia Syria.

Russian SU-57 Stealth Fighter prototypes on the ramp at Kheimemim Airfield courtesy ISI

While on final approach to the Kheimemen Airfield, a Syrian national recorded with his cell phone two SU-57 PAK FA stealth fighter prototypes landing with SU-35 Flanker escorts. A couple days later two more SU-57 landed at Kheimemen, with a new crop of SU-35 Flankers and an IL-76 AWACS command and control airplane. The deployment of the SU-57 is both military and informational warfare, Putin’s way of telling the US we are in this fight with our best equipment, the SU-57s and the S-400 SAMs. Lets see how “stealthy” your F-22s really are President Trump!

Vladimir Putin walking away from an SU-57 prototype at the Moscow Airshow

F-22s have been in service for over 15 years, and all the Sukhoi SU-57  are “prototypes,” but the Russian government felt it important to send their newest fighters to the Syrian Proving Grounds. SU-57 use blended body aerodynamics and coatings for low observable flight, Russia’s newest air-to-air missiles such as the AA-11 Archer and AA-12 Adder, and anti radiation or precision guided munitions in its weapons bay. The PAK FA has vectored thrust just like the F-22 does. The SU-57 active electronically scanned array works in conjunction with an Imaging Infrared Search and Track system (IRSTS) to find, fix, and finish targets.

SU-57 during airshow display courtesy Getty Images

SU-57 pilots also wear helmet mounted display system much like our joint helmet mounted cueing system in the F-16C and F-15E, and can track targets through the helmet. The SU-57 are very capable airplanes and you can read more about them here at Dr. Carlo Copp’s Air Power Australia web page. The question I’m sure running through the Pentagon halls and ameetings with SECDEF Mattis is what will deploying SU-57 stealth fighters have in store for US Air Force F-22 and the rest of coalition airpower?

F-22 high speed pass courtesy Lockheed Martin

Some possible scenarios in the coming weeks or months are these four SU-57 stealth fighters flying missions over Syria. I do not see a Mole Cricket 19 scenario happening between the US and Russians, unless some inadvertent event takes place. There is a hotline between the US and Russian command centers in theater to talk over such inadvertent events. But Russian fighters have recently shown aggressive actions intercepting US intelligence aircraft like the RC-135 in the Baltics. Everyone asks how aggressive will the SU-57 pilots react to F-22s in their area. I would tell them ask Wagner Group mercenaries about their encounter with US ground forces. The picture below is from a Navy intelligence and reconnaissance aircraft, the Flanker within feet of the wingtip.

SU-35 Flanker flying with a few feet of a Navy EP-3E over the Baltics
F-22 intercepting a Russian TU-95 Bear Bomber off the Alaskan coast

The boundary between the Russian and US forces is the Euphrates River. You can expect at some point SU-57 approaching the Euphrates River boundary, teasing F-22’s on the other side. US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drones will surely be intercepted by the SU-57, the Sensor Operators no doubt capturing wonderful full motion video of the SU-57 flying along with the Reaper. The Reaper does have one advantage; it can fly 80 miles an hour, something the SU-57 will not be able to do. Saddam’s Air Force intercepted RQ-1 Predator drones flying over Iraq, and Sensor Operators gathered really good full motion video of the MiGs flying alongside. 

At some point in time the two rutting bucks will meet over the Syrian playground. As the SU-57 and F-22 fly alongside each other, each pilot will wonder how good their airplane really is. Raptor pilots will come back with good intelligence on the actual stealth capabilities of the SU-57, and its strengths and weaknesses when compared to the F-22 capabilities.

The next few months may cause some very interesting news cycles as our older 5th generation fighter the F-22 squares away with the Russian prototype SU-57 over Syria. Once again, Syria has become a Proving Ground for US and Russian military equipment, as in times past. A lot of dollars and rubles depend on the outcome of these potential interactions between the two airplanes.

Chrome Domes and Brass Knobs: Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

“I am addressing you for the purpose of reemphasizing the seriousness of the situation this nation faces. We are in an advanced state of readiness to meet any emergencies, and I feel we are well prepared. I expect each of you to maintain strict security and use calm judgment during this tense period. Our plans are well prepared and are being executed smoothly… Review your plans for further action to ensure that there will be no mistakes or confusion.”

   General Thomas S. Power message to Strategic Air Command, the US Air Force’s nuclear force, 24 October 1962

I was five years old and didn’t know why all the fuss. My parents were glued every evening to our black and white television as Walter Cronkite talked about some island called Cuba. Even at five years old I could tell my parents were scared and concerned.  The news coverage kept saying two words over and over again… nuclear and Cuba.

The now declassified report “Strategic Air Command (SAC) Operations in the Cuban Crisis of 1962” states Fidel Castro’s Cuba was under air surveillance seven months before Major Richard Heyser departed Edwards Air Force Base late in the evening 14 October on a U-2 photographic reconnaissance mission nicknamed BRASS KNOB. Landing seven hours later at a SAC airfield called McCoy Air Force Base (now Orlando International Airport!) his camera film was transported to a secret CIA analysis facility on the second story of a used car sales lot in Washington DC. Those pictures gave irrefutable evidence Russia had lied to President Kennedy. Russia placed nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in Cuba, capable of reaching as far north as Philadelphia and west to San Antonio.

High altitude photo of San Cristobal Ballistic Missile site taken on the first U-2 overflight of Cuba

The threat President Kennedy faced delivering his address to the world on 22 October was from twenty-four medium-range missile launchers at six locations, twelve intermediate range launchers at three locations. Twenty-two of twenty-four air defense surface-to-air missile sites were also operational. Sea search missions provided more evidence of additional material coming into Cuban ports on Russian freight ships. That October night, President Kennedy announced the US would begin a naval quarantine of Cuba to intercept Soviet ships and continue monitoring Russian movements until they pulled all offensive weapons off Cuba.

Blue Moon low level photo of San Cristobal Ballistic Missile site taken by Navy Commander Bill Ecker

Observing growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula between President Donald Trump’s Administration and Kim Jong Un’s regime, several lessons can be learned and hopefully not observed from events fifty-six years ago. Here are a few coming to mind after reading two books: One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs and Blue Moon over Cuba by Navy Captain William Ecker which translate well to the current North Korea situation.

Persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) of Cuba gave the US a distinct advantage. President Kennedy mastered the use of photographic evidence in the diplomatic and informational arenas during the crisis with high and low-level reconnaissance images of the Russian buildup on Cuba. Adlai Stevenson used low-level photographic evidence to make the US case against Cuba and Russia in the UN. The military intelligence collection tools available to President Trump are quantum leaps beyond what was available to President Kennedy in 1962. Remotely piloted vehicles such as Global Hawk can stare for days at North Korea, sending images and other intelligence products to coalition civil and military leaders. There should be terabytes of photographic evidence showing North Korean nuclear and WMD facilities and build up of their submarine ballistic missile capability. Many times I’ve had a piece of photo intelligence in my hands and wished the American people could see it help them understand situations better.

North Korea's Mayang-Do shipyard with Romeo-Class submarines courtesy Google Earth

I’ve feared war in Korea since being stationed on Okinawa in the early 1990s. I’ve always been more concerned with the number of artillery pieces pointed at Seoul than North Korean ballistic missiles. Even on a limited scale, military opportunities in North Korea are messy, may involve North Korea using chemical or biological weapons, and will disrupt the economies of China, Japan, and Korea. Any full-scale war in Korean would have a catastrophic loss of life on possibly several sides, Korean, Japanese, and American, assuming the Chinese do not get involved. The US, South Korea, and Japanese Coalition have implemented some military deterrent options, like bomber flights and exercises, to keep the situation from escalating. We are now at the point where North Korea openly defies the world. Transferring oil from one ship to another is a good reason for a naval blockade, denying material from entering North Korean ports. But there must be a serious discussion on rules of engagement with vessels friendly to North Korea.

North Korean test of multiple mobile ballistic missiles courtesy of Reuters

Backdoor diplomacy, not brinkmanship, saved the world from going to war in 1962. During the naval blockade, the Americans and Soviets remained in regular communication. Communications channels directly from the US to Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang are none existent, but we know President Trump has a Red Phone to Vladimir Putin and Li Keqiang. China has been North Korea’s closest ally since the 1950 Korean War. Expressing our concerns and possible negotiable terms with the Li Keqiang government may produce results like Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin were able to hammer out in October 1962. Any moves to pressure Kim Jong Un into absolute terms may cause him to feel there is no other options but his military arsenal.

All players must find areas for compromise. Robert Kennedy met with Anatoly Dobrynin the day after two events almost brought both sides to war. They both settled to remove missiles threatening each country. This meeting was so clandestine many in the Kennedy Administration did not know it happened. Khrushchev withdrew missiles from Cuba when the US negotiated the removal of obsolete missiles from Italy and Turkey. Exploring areas of compromise with the Kim Jong Un regime may potentially create a better atmosphere for some settlement to a truce going on since the 1955 end of the Korean War. There must be some diplomatic, informational, or economic compromise which can bring everyone to the table to an agreement. The upcoming International Olympics may be a vehicle for finding some way to diffuse the situation.

US Ambassador Nikki Haley voting at the UN Security Council

Accidental circumstances may escalate the situation very quickly. Any misfire, hangfire, or stubbed toe may cause conditions to increase out of control. Both the US and Russia almost came to nuclear war on Saturday, 27 October 1962. Late that morning, the U-2 flown by Major Rudolf Anderson was shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile. Hours later, Soviet submarine B-59 is depth charged in an attempt to bring it to the surface. Captain Valentin Savitsky ordered a nuclear torpedo armed and loaded for firing at the US ships dropping depth charges. His second in command, Vasili Arkhipov persuaded Captain Savitsky to surface instead. Each nation involved on the Korean peninsula is under tension, and the slightest incident could lead to a dangerous exchange. Its okay to turn and retreat from a situation if a commander feels any action would potentially provoke North Korea into acting irrationally.

A US Navy Burke-Class Destroyer fires an SM-6 missile during testing

Writer and philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Reviewing our nation’s involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic maneuvering the Kennedy Administration used on the world stage is an excellent starting point to review possible avenues for dealing with North Korea. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, being the warrior monk of military history, has probably looked at 1962 historical events to pull lessons the Trump Administration can use dealing with Kim Jong Un. There are many similarities I see between the Cuban Missile Crisis and our engagement with Kim Jong Un we can hopefully use as lessons learned, not lesson observed.

The Rockets of Musudan-Ri: North Korean Ballistic Missile False Alarms

Cable news networks reported for thirty-eight minutes, the citizens of Hawaii lived in fear. Messages were broadcast ballistic missiles were inbound from North Korea to Hawaii. Mothers put their children in storm drains. One woman claims her husband had a heart attack because of the stress of knowing he was about to meet nuclear obliteration. All of these alarming messages turned out to be a false alarm. Someone pushed the wrong button in some Command Center. Really?

Watching and a listening to these broadcasts of nuclear annihilation false alarms bewildered me. I have been involved in ballistic missile intelligence collection and formulating war plans dealing with theater ballistic missiles in North Korea. Thirty-five minutes after coming into work on March 20th 2003, I was diving under my desk as sirens went off at the Combined Aerospace Operations Center south of Riyadh Saudi Arabia because Saddam launched missiles toward Kuwait.

In under a minute, we knew where Saddam launched the missiles from and what their target was. That information passed to an Army Patriot missile defense unit, engaging both missiles shortly thereafter. Since Desert Storm, the US has spent a lot of time and resources on how to find, fix, track, and engage ballistic missiles. Some of these tools are very cosmic, and some of them are just brute force. Here are my thoughts on these ballistic missile false alarms in Hawaii. The military has several tools to help locate, track, and target theater and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Surface warships watch off the coast of North Korea, Pave Paws radars in Alaska scan the Pacific skies, and interceptor missiles in California all work together creating a pretty good picture of ballistic missile activity. With Rocket Man Kim Jong Un’s continued rhetoric, we have really good intelligence on North Korean missile activity.

There is now an entire government agency whose sole job is defending the United States from missile attack. The Missile Defense Agency, or MDA, says it’s mission is “to develop, test, and field an integrated, layered, ballistic missile defense system (BMDS) to defend the United States, its deployed forces, allies, and friends against all ranges of enemy ballistic missiles in all phases of flight.” I have a hard time believing an entire government agency whose sole purpose is defending the United States from missile attack, didn’t know there wasn’t an attack. With all of the resources the Missile Defense Agency has in their tool kit, they must have known there were no missiles inbound to Hawaii. Did anyone in Hawaii think to call MDA?

Missile Defense Agency crest

Thirty-three US Navy Aegis Cruiser and Destroyer have the capability of tracking and targeting theater and intercontinental ballistic missiles with interceptor missiles in their decks. Seventeen of these ships are stationed in the Pacific. The Japanese Navy’s four KONGO-class Aegis Destroyers have the same capability. During the Iraq invasion, two Aegis destroyers were part of the ballistic missile defense of the Middle East region. One Destroyer steamed off of the coast of Kuwait City. The other Destroyer steamed off the coast of Tel Aviv, because we felt Saddam would once again launched ballistic missiles toward Israel like he had during Desert Storm. Interceptor missiles the Cruisers and Destroyers carry are capable of intercepting a ballistic missile in the boost phase of flight. The Navy has demonstrated this capability on numerous occasions. Navy Cruisers and Destroyers currently steaming off the coast of North Korea would have known immediately intercontinental ballistic missiles were not heading toward Hawaii.

USS Lake Erie firing SM-3 missile to intercept Ballistic rocket

The United States Air Force has an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platform specifically designed for missile and space intelligence collection. It even has a nifty name, “the Darkwing Duck,” because the right wing is painted flat black. The RC-135 Cobra Ball mission according to the US Air Force fact sheet is to collect optical and electronic data on ballistic targets. Due to classification, I cannot tell you how the Cobra Ball performs these functions, but I can tell you it’s extremely accurate. Cobra Ball is really good at determining ballistic missile flight paths. If the North Koreans were launching missiles toward Hawaii, I’d make a hundred dollar bet Cobra Ball knew about it.

All of the information collected from these assets feeds into a command center on Hawaii. Listening to the audio broadcast, I heard Pacific Command gave warning there was a ballistic missile inbound. How could this be? Pacific Command has a Combined Air and Space Operations Center similar to the one I worked in in Saudi Arabia. There is an entire group in the CAOC whose sole job is monitoring ballistic missiles. I would think this group at the Hawaii CAOC is very keen on any North Korean missile activity. They would have known of a missile launch in a matter of moments. I have seen how this system functions on that Thursday morning in 2003. As I mentioned above, within 60 seconds we knew where Saddam had fired the missiles from and where they were going in the CAOC.

Combined Air and Space Operations Center at Tyndal AFB Florida

The US Air Force Weapons School as part of its Advanced Integration phase of training has a scenario where the students must plan and execute a ballistic missile defense engagement. It is based on the World War II Operation Crossbow, the hunt for German V1 and V2 missile sites in France and Belgium. In the years I taught at the KC-135 Weapons School, the students found the three to four mobile SCUD ballistic missile Transporter Erector Launchers out on the Nellis Test and Training Range. This is an extremely tough battlefield scenario, but when you have all of the tools available the US does to find, fix, and finish stationary and mobile missile launchers, the force found and killed the SCUDs on the range in three hours.

North Korean Ballistic Missile transporter

All of this has made me wonder if there isn’t some other backstory to this false missile warning. I do not believe we have the full story yet. I cannot believe somebody would push such an important button more than once causing the entire system to light up and send out messages to Billboards across highways. I still don’t believe there is such a system with one push an entire population gets a text message warning them of their impending nuclear doom. It will be interesting to see what the investigation finds about this false missile warning in Hawaii. From my experience, I have a hard time believing one push of a button caused 38 minutes of panic across the Hawaiian Islands without somebody knowing there wasn’t a threat.

About the author, Mark Hasara

Author of Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit, Mark Hasara is a retired US Air Force pilot with 24 year in the KC-135 airborne tanker. He is a speaker and aviation industry consultant in campaign planning and cockpit architecture. Follow his weekly newsletter “On the Nations DIME”.

Israel’s Security: Iranian Drones and Hezbollah SAMs threaten IAF air operations

Early Saturday morning 10 February, Israelis along the Golan Heights awoke at 4 am to air raid sirens. An Iranian Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or drone entered Israeli airspace and flew south for a minute and a half. The intruding drone was followed by an Israeli Apache attack helicopter, permitted to engage and destroy the drone. Syria and Iran have repeatedly stated the drone did not fly into Israeli territory. But the wreckage landed on Israel’s side, appearing on TV later that day.

Something is very unusual about this Iranian drone. Back in 2014, a Lockheed RQ-170 high altitude Sentinel drone wandered into Iran and crashed. The Iranians made big news about how they electronically captured the Sentinel’s control link and flew it into Iranian airspace. The Drone engaged by the IDF Apache helicopter looks amazingly like the RQ-170 drone, made famous for collecting full motion video of Osama bin Laden walking in his Abbottabad compound. The picture below taken from Iranian TV shows the RQ-170-like drone. 

Iranian copies of the Lockheed RQ-170 UAV drone

It did not take long for the Israelis to retaliate. Within hours of the drone’s incursion, eight Israeli warplanes took off for southern Syria. Four F-16I Sufas took off carrying precision guided bombs and four F-15I Ra’ams protected the Sufas from Syrian and Russian fighters, hitting targets scattered throughout Southern Syria. One of those targets was the command-and-control trailer for the Iranian drone. The control van was attacked with a television-guided munition, the IDF releasing footage of the weapon coming down on the trailer.  Rafael Delilah long range cruise missile is a perfect weapon for the drone command trailer, and is tv guided. IDF fighters destroyed all twelve Syrian air defense and control facilities targets during this raid, one of the biggest since the 1982 Mole Cricket 19 air campaign over the Bekka Valley.

But the Israelis did not leave Syrian airspace unscathed. An Israeli Air Force F-16I Sufa was engaged and damaged by a very sophisticated surface-to-air missile. The Sufa aircrew made it out of Syrian territory, ejecting from the stricken airplane over the Netofa Valley north of Nazareth. One of the crew members was seriously injured either by the missile or the ejection. He remains in serious but stable condition at an Israeli Hospital

Crash site of the Israeli F-16I hit by the SA-17 GRIZZLY Surface to Air Missile (SAM)

News reports on Syrian TV stated the reign of Israeli superiority is over. But many questions remain as to how a very sophisticated F-16 containing the latest generation of electronic countermeasures equipment could be engaged by such an advanced surface-to-air-missile.

    Reports from the raid are the SA-17 Grizzly surface-to-air missiles engaged the Sufa. The Russians call SA-17 the ‘BUK.’ Curiously, this is the same surface-to-air missile which brought down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine. What’s even stranger is the terrorist group Hezbollah operated the system when it engaged the F-16I Sufa.

     There are a lot of questions from this raid and engagement. The first is how a terrorist organization like Hezbollah came into the possession of Russia’s most sophisticated tactical air defense missile systems? The Russians are allied with the Iranian regime in the fight against ISIS. From many news reports, the Russians sold SA-17 BUK air defense system to Assad’s regime. The Assad regime for decades is aligned with the Shiite Muslim Iranian leadership in Tehran. The SA-17 BUK system was flown from Russia to Damascus, where the Assad regime gave it to the Hezbollah organization.

The BUK SAM brings up the second question. How did Hezbollah obtain the BUK system and who trained them how to use it? Such a sophisticated system would require Russian training. The Assad regime does not own or operate SA-17 BUK systems in their integrated air defense system, some outside entity pushing the FIRE button. In September 2007, an Israeli strike package destroyed a suspected nuclear complex built by the North Koreans near Deir az Zour Syria. Their entire air defense system went “down” for twenty minutes, the period the Israeli strike force was in Syrian airspace. Did Russian advisors train Hezbollah terrorists how to use the SA-17 BUK system? No one knows, but folks are trying to find out. Below is a picture of the SA-17 BUK surface-to-air missile system. The first thing you notice is the tracked vehicle, meaning the BUK has mobility and can relocate within minutes.

Russian SA-17 GRIZZLY Surface to Air Missile system like the one which engaged the Israeli F-16I

For a detailed description of the SA-17 BUK system go here .

Here is a Google Earth overlay created by the folks at “Above Top Secret” website showing all the active Syrian SAM systems near Damascus where the Israeli air raid took place. This photo is NOT a Defense Department slide; you can download the overlay and search SAM sites by country!

Google Earth map of Syrian Surface to Air Missile sites courtesy "Above Top Secret" website

The third and most crucial question many are asking is why the Israeli Air Force did not send their spanking new F-135I Joint Strike Fighters or JSF to accomplish the mission? The Golden Eagle 140th Squadron was recently declared operational, flying the fifth generation Adir fighter which is designed to operate in threat environments like southern Syria with SA-5 GAMMON long-range surface-to-air missiles and advanced detection system made by the Russians. The JSF bread and butter mission is going into high threat environments like Syria and destroying defensive systems and their supporting infrastructure such as command and control facilities and control systems for drones.

An Israeli Air Force F-16I Sufa flies in formation off the right wing of a 140th Squadron F-35I Adir

More information will be released when the investigation into the raids is analyzed. US Air Force intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms such as the E-3B AWACS and RC-135 Rivet Joint were undoubtedly collecting information while these events were taking place.

About the author, Mark Hasara

Author of Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit, Mark Hasara is a retired US Air Force pilot with 24 year in the KC-135 airborne tanker. He is a speaker and aviation industry consultant in campaign planning and cockpit architecture. Follow his weekly newsletter “On the Nations DIME”.

Return to Zulu Alert: The Cold War Returns

Spike, my former KC-135 Aircraft Commander, had a good friend who was an instructor pilot in the RC-135W Rivet Joint electronic intelligence aircraft. The Rivet Joint is commonly seen throughout the world off country borders, collecting information on our potential adversaries. It was very common during the Cold War for the Rivet Joint, and it’s sisters the Cobra Ball and the Combat Sent, to be intercepted by adversary fighters. This Rivet Joint pilot commonly took his 8mm video camera with him and recorded all of these intercepts. He shared with me one day a VHS tape from the late 1980s which had numerous Russian aircraft intercepting his Rivet Joint during their missions. The video showed all kinds of Russian aircraft… Mig-23 Floggers, Mig 25 Foxbats, even the brand new Mig-31 Foxhounds and the Su-27 Flankers. In every case, Russian planes carried live air-to-air weapons. This aerial rutting went on for years; Russia intercepting our aircraft, the US intercepting theirs of the Atlantic coast where I lived.

Rivet Joint aircrews knew Russian fighters would visit every mission. Spike’s buddy, we’ll call him Rob, even said so on videotape. He began a new 8mm tape by saying “We’re up here at 28,000 feet, waiting for our first visitor.” They did not have long to wait. A never-ending stream of Russian fighter jets appeared outside their cockpit windows, butting heads with Rob and his Rivet Joint crew. During one intercept a Mig-31 Foxhound got real close. Rob’s Copilot zoomed in on the aircraft, and you could see the pilot looking down from his wingtip perch position at the Rivet Joint crew. You could hear the Mig-31 engines spool up as it passed close to the window, the engine nozzles open up, and giant tongues of flame protrude from the big Tumanski engines. The Foxhound flew directly in front of the Rivet Joint, disrupting the flow of air over the wings and through the engines, and causing the airplane to roll. It’s like two big Whitetail bucks in the forest, defending their harem and territory during the rut.

SU-27 Flanker off the wing of the RC-135 over the Baltic Sea

But there have been two recent intercepts over Syria causes concern. One was denied by the US government, only to have the real thing happen days later. The demarcation line in Syria between the Russian area of responsibility and US Coalition is the Euphrates River. Near the town of Abu Kamal Syria, two F-22s intercepted two Su-25 Frogfoot attack airplanes. The F-22 intercepted the Frogfoot attack planes, hindering them from accomplishing their task. One Su-25 flew so close to the Raptor the pilot took evasive action. This event got a little dicier when to Su-30 Flankers showed up to protect the Su-25s. In a maneuver we call a “headbutt,” the F-22 Raptor dispensed missile decoying chaff and flares, hopefully causing the Su- 30s to take their Frogfoot comrades home to Latakia Airfield near the Mediterranean Sea.

SU-27 Flanker showing its air-to-air weapons near USAF RC-135

Latakia Airfield is the Russian Air Force’s primary operating base in their fight against ISIS. In 2015, Latakia went from a bear base to a full up working airfield in the space of 10 months. Below is a picture of the airport taken from Google Earth on the 21 January 2015. You can see the lily pads where Russian helicopters land on the west side of the runway. There are no significant buildings for maintenance support, command and control facilities, or even housing aircrews.

1 January 2015 photo of Latakia Air Base illustrating the bareness of the base just two years ago.

Fast forward to November of 2015, and the base looks completely different. There are modern facilities for housing maintenance and air Crews, hangers for doing any Support, and a considerable ramp space for parking Su-22 fitters, and you can see in the picture below Su-30 Flankers and Su-35 Fullback attack aircraft. The difference between the two images is stark. This base went from what we would call barebones to a fully functional military airfield in the space of 10 months.

Latakia Air Base just ten months later, November 18 2015, showing the fighter ramp with Su-24 Fencer and Su-25 Frogfoot attack aircraft and Su-30 interceptor planes. The S-400 SAM site is directly north of the main fighter ramp area.
December 28, 2017 Google Earth photo of Latakia Air Base Syria. Su-24 Fencer and Su-30 Flankers can be seen on the fighter ramp. The S-400 facility is located north of the ramp, the missile launchers now covered by camouflage netting in two revetments.

The S-400 system was delivered to Syria after Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 Fencer violating their airspace. S-400 missiles have a range of 250 km or about 160 nautical miles. Its footprint covers almost all of Syria and Incirlik Air Base outside Adana Turkey to the north, home of the 447th Fighter Group flying missions against ISIS.

Photo of the S-400 system at Latakia Airfield showing the missile launchers and tracking radar

By looking at the picture above, you can see the Russians have sent their most sophisticated fighters and air defense equipment to Syria protecting their interests. Their primary interest is keeping the Bashar al-Assad regime in place. But these head-butting events are going to continue as long as the Russians and the American coalition remain in the area.

ISIS is almost without form, but no one seems willing to leave the area just yet. Operations from Latakia are why you will hear additional intercept reports in the news. With the Russian and American fighter planes flying strike missions in the same airspace over Syria and Iraq the Cold War rut has returned. 

About the author, Mark Hasara

Author of Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit, Mark Hasara is a retired US Air Force pilot with 24 year in the KC-135 airborne tanker. He is a speaker and aviation industry consultant in campaign planning and cockpit architecture. Follow his weekly newsletter “On the Nations DIME”.

The Nine Line of Beijing: China’s South Sea Fortresses

If you ask American citizens on the streets why there’s a dispute between the US and China in the South China Sea, they probably wouldn’t know an answer. Even though there has been some very tense moments between the two militaries, most people can’t answer the question why the US and China have a disagreement in this sea. The dispute actually goes back to the end of World War II. In November of 1946, the Republic of China sent naval ships to the South China Sea after the surrender of Japan, creating what is now called The Nine Line. This imaginary territorial line goes through the entire South China Sea claiming those waters and Islands for the Chinese. When the Communists took over mainland China, the line was adopted by the new government. Problem was the area was also claimed by Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and The Philippines. But why are nations so anxious to claim this area?

An estimated five trillion dollars of economic trade passes through the South China Sea each year. Oil tankers from the Arabian Peninsula pass through the Straits of Malacca and transit the South China Sea on their way throughout the Pacific Rim. Airliners flying between the Middle East, India, and the Far East pass through the South China Sea in the thousands. I have flown through the South China Sea numerous times. Philippine Airline Boeing 747 passed overhead while a Qatar Airways Airbus A340 past underneath me. I could look down from 28,000 feet and see numerous large crude oil tankers passing through the area. What would happen if the People’s Republic of China shut off the entire area?

The People’s Republic of China now has the means to enforce the Nine Line territorial boundaries in the South China Sea. They have taken small reefs and made them into larger islands with 10,000 foot runways, sophisticated radar detection systems, and modern air defenses. Some of the buildings on the islands are four stories tall, looking identical to military headquarters buildings. But the Chinese still dispute they are militarizing the islands. Good intelligence from open sources tells a completely different story. The Chinese are militarizing the islands with their sophisticated military equipment. Let’s take a few moments and look at what Google Earth shows us. Let’s examine Woody Island in the northwest area of the South China Sea.

Woody Island on 5 January 2012. There is not much here. It has a long runway but there's no facilities around it. Most of the buildings are relatively small.

The next picture was taken on 25 April of 2016. I want to focus on just a few areas. Again this is just one island out of four with a 10,000 foot runway, long range radar, and Surface to Air Missile or SAM sites. Our first close look will focus on the north end of the runway.

Woody Island in the South China Sea on 25 April 2016

A close up of the north ramp clearly shows two People’s Liberation Air Force Su-27 Flanker interceptors on the ramp. One sits behind a Quick Reaction Alert hanger, and a second appears to be in a maintenance area, possibly for engine runs. Twelve aircraft can be housed in this long facility.

China's Woody Island north fighter ramp and Air Defense Alert facility

A second quick reaction alert facility is at the southwest end of the runway. These facilities allow armed Flankers to be housed away from the weather, but be able to take off within minutes of incoming US bombers or fighters.

Woody Island south fighter ramp and Zulu Alert facility

One very interesting thing I noticed looking at these pictures was a parking area in the middle section of the runway. You can see a helicopter parked there, notice the rotor blade shadows. Parked right of the helicopter is a Remotely Piloted Aircraft or RPA. The long wings of the RPA tell you this vehicle is meant to stay up for long periods of time. Look at the wings of our Global Hawk RPA and the U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane, they are what we call high aspect ratio wings. These long wings are made for endurance; staying airborne for long periods of time. This RPA is probably used to fly long endurance missions over the South China Sea collecting electronic and video intelligence.

Peoples Liberation Air Force Helicopter and long range UAV parked on Woody Island

A mere 440 meters from the Flanker parked in front of the Quick Reaction Alert Facility is a large weapon storage area. You can tell it’s a weapon storage facility by the shape of the concrete bunkers and the blast doors. This area is fenced in with a posted guard at the entry point to the ramp. Alamo and Archer air to air missiles arming the Flankers can be transported from this weapon storage area to any aircraft in a matter of minutes.

Woody Island Weapons Storage Area for aircraft armamnent

At the very north end of the island there is a large concrete pad. Several vehicles can be seen out in the open. Many of these vehicles appear to be part of a Surface-to-Air Missile system, parked there to defend the island. In this picture you can see three vehicles out in the open.

Possible Surface to Air Missile system on Woody Island

Just a little farther south of the pad is a series of antenna towers. You cannot see what is contained inside the towers, but you can tell they have been built high for a better look across the horizon. One tower is clearly three times the height of the others.

Woody Island air search radars

China created other artificial islands in the South China Sea. In September of 2015 a Navy P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol aircraft flew within miles of Fiery Cross Reef. Fiery Cross Reef is another man-made islands with a 10,000 foot runway and defenses. While collecting photographic intelligence of the island, the Chinese Liberation Navy made radio warnings for the P-8 to move away from the island. The photographic intelligence collected by the P-8 clearly showed construction of a long runway Chinese bombers could use and numerous buildings under construction. Days after the P-8 made this flight, the Chinese issued a very stern warning to the US about flying close to the island. their foreign minister made stern warnings about being close to the island. They mentioned several times that these flights could be considered acts of war.

In October of 2015, the Arleigh Burke-class Destroyer USS Lassen sailed within twelve miles of Subi Reef. In July 2017 two B-1 bombers from Guam flew a long range mission around the disputed islands. These events incensed the Chinese. The Navy P-8 Patrol planes gathered excellent intelligence of the build up on the islands, while recording warnings to leave the area form the Chinese Navy. It’s obvious to even the most casual observer these islands are going to be used for military purposes. Any ship or air traffic could be stopped through this region by airplanes and surface ships supported from these islands in the South China Sea.

I hope in some way this gave all of you an military analysts look at why the dispute in the South China Sea is so important to us and world economic interests. The Chinese will continue to tell the world they have peaceful intentions in the South China Sea. Recorded photographic and recorded radio traffic evidence would tell us otherwise.

About the author, Mark Hasara

Author of Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit, Mark Hasara is a retired US Air Force pilot with 24 year in the KC-135 airborne tanker. He is a speaker and aviation industry consultant in campaign planning and cockpit architecture. Follow his weekly newsletter “On the Nations DIME”.