Thursday, 10 August 2017

Sanctions Busting, SyrianAir acquires A340 passenger jet via Iran

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

SyrianAir can look back on a turbulent six years of operations serving a country thorn apart by Civil War. Heavily impacted by the implementation of sanctions against Syria in 2012, preventing the airline from buying new aircraft and forcing it to cease its flights to countries in the European Union, SyrianAir (officially known as Syrian Arab Airlines) has had to drastically scale back its operations. This marked the start of a slow degradation process that would see SyrianAir retiring ever more aircraft as spare parts became increasingly difficult to acquire.

Although some expected the acquisition of several types of Russian-produced aircraft such as the Tu-204 or even the Il-96 to replace SyrianAir's Western fleet of Airbus and Boeing aircraft, no such deliveries occurred. A sharp decrease in the operational availability of its Airbus fleet due to a lack of spare parts and maintenance checks, further exacerbated by a mid-air collision of an A320 with a Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) Mi-8/17 in 2012, meant that the airline's aging Tu-134s were now increasingly utilised to replace some of the flights previously carried out by the A320s.

This struggle went on for several years, ultimately leading to the retirement of all but two of SyrianAir's A320s, which currently remain active on some of the airline's routes to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Iraq, Sudan, Iran and Russia. Despite the fact that flights to several of these destinations occur infrequently, it still puts a high burden on a fleet of only two A320s and semi-active Tu-134s. With no replacements from Russia, the United States or Europe in sight, SyrianAir's future was looking increasingly grim.

The situation would only improve in 2016 after the Iranian Mahan Air wet-leased one of its Airbus A300-600R passenger jets to SyrianAir, which quietly entered service with the airline in August 2016, circumventing the sanctions implemented against Syria. The wet-lease of an Airbus A300 was only a temporarily solution to SyrianAir's problems, yet it allowed SyrianAir some much needed breathing space until a suitable replacement aircraft for the airline could be found. The search and subsequent acquisition of an Airbus A340 would involve countries like Iran, Chad and Kazakhstan in a deal that is a perfect example of successful 'Sanctions Busting', to the point that no repercussions have had to be endured by the involved countries as a whole to this date at all.

Before going into detail on the story of the A340, it is insightful to consider the events leading up to the acquisition of the aircraft. As already stated above, SyrianAir leased a single A300 from Mahan Air to relieve the two A320s that remained operational on some of the flights to the airline's remaining destinations. Although a relatively outdated aircraft by today's standards, the A300 is capable of flying longer distances while carrying considerable more passengers than the smaller A320.

The privately owned Mahan Air serves as Iran's second airline behind the flag carrier Iran Air, and operates a large fleet of mainly Airbus passenger jets to destinations in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. However, apart from ferrying passengers to destinations across Asia and Europe, Mahan Air also plays an active role in the Syrian Civil War, transporting Shiite fighters and their equipment from locations in Iran and Iraq to Syria. Mahan Air is also implicated in transporting weapons to Yemen's Houthis before and during the early stages of the Saudi-led intervention in this country.

It thus comes as no surprise that Mahan Air is sanctioned by the U.S. government, which has also put member states of the European Union under pressure to ban Mahan Air from operating to these countries, a ban which has yet to take place. Despite effectively acting as Iran's Revolutionary Guard's long-arm in the Middle East and possibly farther abroad, the airline is still permitted to fly to various destinations in the Europe and even increased the frequency of these flights during this summer season.

The A300 wet-lease deal with Mahan Air is not the first time Syria has leased an aircraft from an Iranian airline. In an effort to increase the transport capabilities of the Syrian Air Force, SyrianAir wet-leased at least one Il-76 from Pouya Air, which serves as Iran's Revolutionary Guards' cargo airline. In accordance with its status as a leased aircraft, the Airbus A300 only received the bare minimum of markings indicating that the aircraft belonged to SyrianAir during its career in Syrian service. Indeed, if one is not familiar with the logo of SyrianAir it would be impossible to discern the aircraft's operator from other airlines with similar logos. The airline's logo was applied to the engines and the tail of the plane.

During its service with SyrianAir, A300 'EP-MNM' is believed to not only have replaced A320s in flying commercial routes, but also to have regularly flown Shiite fighters from Iraq to Damascus. The aircraft would eventually return to Mahan Air in early 2017, just over half a year after having entered service with SyrianAir. During this period, a plan was worked out which called for the acquistion of a passenger jet with increased passenger capacity over SyrianAir's A320s at a favourable price for Syria. The aircraft had also be of a type common enough so that spare parts could be readily acquired on the open market or via friendly nations.

To facilitate the aquistion of a large passenger jet, Syria would seek the help of Iran, an expert in acquiring aircraft despite sanctions preventing them from doing so. Previously under sanctions that prevented the country from acquiring new aircraft on the open market, Iran initiated a programme that would see a large influx of mostly second-hand Fokker 100 and MD-80 series aircraft with Iranian airlines by acquiring them via various airlines in post-Soviet states.

The modus operandi of this elaborate scheme would be to use various small airlines in countries such as Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to purchase aircraft on behalf of Iran. When underway to any of these countries or other supposed destinations 'coincidentally' located in proximity to Iran, the aircraft would then report a malfunction in mid-air and divert to Tehran, where the aircraft would subsequently enter service with the Iranian airline that had purchased it. Unsurprisingly, this profitable business is believed to have been closely linked with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, which thus largely monopolised the acquisition of aircraft by Iranian airlines.

Apart from acquiring aircraft for various Iranian airlines, this elaborate scheme was also used to replace the Iranian government Boeing 707, which was originally acquired by the Shah in 1978 and in desperate need of replacement. Seeking the acquisition of a four-engined Airbus A340, Iran contracted Asian Express Airline, a small airline operating out of Tajikistan to various destinations in this country and Russia. Only operating smaller aircraft on its routes, Asian Express Airline suddenly had a requirement for a large A340 and acquired an aircraft that had previously been in service with Air Canada and Turkish Airlines. Of course, the aircraft never entered service with Asian Express Airline and instead arrived in Iran for its conversion to Iran's 'Air Force One'. The aircraft 'EP-AJA' is currently in service with Meraj Air, which operates the aircraft on behalf of the Iranian government.

Although the lifting of international sanctions on Iran in January 2016 meant that Iranian airlines were now able to purchase Western-made passenger aircraft directly from their manufacturer, which resulted in huge orders with Airbus and Boeing, Iran's scheme for acquiring passenger aircraft via other means apparently would be used at least once more. Indeed, Iran's largest and most ambitious aircraft haul to yet was still on the horizon.

On the 13th of April 2016, an Airbus A340-300 with the U.S. designation 'N322AK' comes in to land at Almaty International Airport, Kazakhstan. The unmarked aircraft is a surprising visitor to the city, which rarely sees landings of four-engined passenger jets. This particular aircraft had previously been in service with Cathay Pacific and SriLankan Airlines before placed into storage at Orlando Sanford International Airport in Miami. The sixteen-year-old aircraft had been phased out by SriLankan Airlines in 2015, and was awaiting a buyer in the United States before its arrival in Kazakhstan.

Reports then indicated that the A340 had been acquired by Bek Air, a Kazakh airline that operates services to several cities in the country using a fleet of eight Fokker 100s. This acquisition was highly suspicious as it was unlikely that the small airline had any requirement for a passenger jet as large as the A340 for its domestic routes to cities in Kazakhstan. It would soon be revealed that Bek Air was not destined to be the actual operator of the aircraft, and that the airline actually acted as an intermediate for an Iranian acquisition of an A340 in the same scheme as detailed above.

While the parties involved in this scheme succeeded in bringing the aircraft from the United States to Kazakhstan, it appears that bureacracy prevented the transfer of the aircraft to Iran. Namely, Kazakhstan's Civil Aviation Committee refused to register the aircraft, citing that non-flag carriers such as Bek Air were prohibited from operating large aircraft like the A340s under Kazakh law. This once again reaffirms that Bek Air never intended on operating the aircraft itself, as it would be highly unlikely that Bek Air would have acquired an aircraft it wasn't allowed to operate. Having failed to comply with Kazakh regulations, the aircraft subsequently remained grounded in Almaty.

This situation subsisted until September 2016, when Melad Herfeh, a British citizen of Iranian descent, provided documents stating that the aircraft was owned by the UAE-registered ZAK AVIATION FZE. For reasons that as of yet remain unknown, ZAK AVIATION was exempted from the rule that prevents Kazakh airlines like Bek Air from registering large aircraft, and the A340 could now be registered in Kazakhstan, receiving the designation of UP-A4001 on the 20th September 2016. It is not clear if Kazakh authorities still envisioned Bek Air as the supposed operator of the aircraft at this time, or if they expected the aircraft would enter service with an airline operating out of the UAE.

Now registred as 'UP-A4001', the crew of the Airbus A340 was then said to have detailed a flight plan to Yerevan, Armenia, where the aircraft was supposed to receive further services before re-entering service as a passenger jet. While at this point it already should have been more than clear that Kazakhstan's Civil Aviation Committee was used in a bid to circumvent the sanctions preventing Syria from acquiring passenger aircraft, the A340 eventually received permission to fly to Yerevan. Taking off on the 8th of October 2016, the aircraft instead set course for Iran and after safely landing in Tehran, 'UP-A4001' was towed to the FARS aircraft hangar (seen below) for further servicing and and repainting in the colours of SyrianAir.

During this period, the A340 was removed from the Kazakh aviation register and transferred to the air operator's certificate (AOC) of the Chadian airline AirInter 1. Now operating as 'TT-WAG', the A340 departed Tehran for Damascus on the 10th of February 2017. After its arrival in Syria, the aircraft changed registration for a final time, becoming 'YK-AZA'. The A340, still registered as 'UP-A4001', can be seen at Tehran Mehrabad Airport below prior to servicing and repainting.

While the illegal acquisition and subsequent transfer of a single A340 to Syria via Iran through Kazakh territory and law was already an unfortunate blunder for the country, this aircraft was only a  part of a much larger scheme that would eventually see the acquisition of three A340s by exploiting the exact same Kazakh laws. Contrary to the previous transfer, these two A340s would directly fly to Tehran from Athens, were both aircraft had previously been stored for eight years after the bankruptcy of their former operator Olympic Airlines.

Interestingly, while the involved parties encountered problems with registering the first A340 because of the aforementioned laws that prevented Bek Air from operating aircraft like the A340, another UAE-registered company, Bright Horizon FZE, was used during the registration of the second and third aircraft, and both A340s were subsequently registered as UP-A4002 and UP-A4003 on the 30th of December 2016. Both aircraft were still in storage at Athens International Airport at this time, and their new registration allowed the involved parties to ready themselves for their departure for 'Kazakhstan'.

Contrary to the first A340 (UP-A4001), UP-A4002 and UP-A4003 were registered by a citizen of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Kairat Temirgalievich Sarinov, whose profession as a housekeeper should in the least have raised several red flags during the registration process of two multi-million passenger jets. Investigations into Kairat Sarinov revealed that he worked for Talgat Kasenov, the former Deputy Chairman of the Civil Aviation Committee. Talgat Kasenov was forced to resign in January 2016 for having accepted bribes, just two months after his appointment. The fact that his name emerged during investigations into this deal is almost too coincidental, and his involvement in this deal is therefore very likely.

Despite losing his position as the Deputy Chairman of the Civil Aviation Committee, it appears that Talgat Kasenov's influence in this organisation still reached far enough to help facilitate the transfer of UP-A4002, UP-A4003 and possibly also UP-A4001 to Iran. UP-A4002 and UP-A4003 departed Athens on the 14th and 15th of February 2017 respectively, with the takeoff of the latter being filmed. It is likely that the aircraft's flight plan called for a direct flight to either Astana or Almaty, Kazakhstan, but unsurprisingly, both aircraft changed course while over the Caspian Sea and landed in Tehran instead.

UP-A4002 and UP-A4003, both still in their Greek Olympic Airlines livery, can be seen at Tehran Mehrabad Airport below. Although UP-A4001 was quickly flown to Damascus after servicing in Tehran, UP-A4002 and UP-A4003 still remain in in Iran, where reports indicated UP-A4003 was registered by Mahan Air. As the two A340s had been in storage for more than eight years, both aircraft still have very low-flying hours and despite their high fuel consumption are attractive aircraft for either SyrianAir or Iranian airlines. The two A340s differ slightly from UP-A4001 (later YK-AZA) by their engines, which is indicated by their designation of A340-313 (A340 300 series with CFM 56-5C4 engines).

The A340 acquired by SyrianAir is also of the 300 series, the initial variant produced by Airbus. Equipped with CFM 56-5C3 engines, the aircraft's official designation is A340-312 (A340 300 series with CFM 56-5C3 engines). The A340 has been gradually phased out by airlines around the world in favour for more fuel-efficient aircraft, which makes SyrianAir's acquisition of up to three aircraft somewhat curious. The type's fuel consumption is however offset by its purchase price, which is low compared to other aircraft in the same class due to the wealth of airlines retiring the type. Alternatively, SyrianAir acquired the A340 because of a lack of other suitable aircraft types that could be acquired via similar paths.

The illegal acquisition and transfer of three A340s to Iran and Syria is currently under investigation by Kazakhstan's National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Although it remains unknown to what extent officials from Kazakhstan's Civil Aviation Committee were involved in this elaborate scheme, the U.S. embassy in Astana expressed its concern for Kazakhstan's meddling in the scheme as per Ratel KZ, whose investigations uncovered interesting details about its involvement in the transfer of the three A340s.

These investigations have meanwhile confirmed that almost every rule in the registration, deregistration and inspection of the three A340s was either grossly violated or completely ignored. The Civil Aviation Committee stated that one of its employees, a twenty-five year old woman, was responsible for the registration and that her ignorance was the culprit for the illegal  acquisition and transfer of three aircraft through Kazakh law. An unlikely explanation given the magnitude of this scheme, as well as the signatures of several officials of the Civil Aviation Committee in the documents and the likely involvement of the former Deputy Chairman Talgat Kasenov.

It is certain that several nations have some thorough investigations to do regarding the extent of their involvement in the transfer of the three A340s, be it by mistake, complete ignorance or simply corruption. The fact that a British national, Melad Herfeh, was also involved in the transfer of the first A340 but also likely the second and third aircraft will indubitably be most interesting for British authorities.

While it currently remains unknown when SyrianAir will receive any of the the two A340s that currently remain in Iran, or if such an acquistion is envisioned at all, 'YK-AZA' currently operates daily to some of SyrianAir's remaining destinations in the Gulf and Egypt. These flights were previously only carried out by the smaller A320s and the wet-leased A300, and it is highly unlikely that the A340 is fully booked on these flights. This raises the question if the flights carried out by the A340 are profitable given the aircraft's high fuel costs.

A340 'YK-AZA' would make its inaugurational flight to Dubai on the 12th of April 2017, an event not only well attended by the press, but also by various government officials such as Syria's Minister of Transport Ali Hammoud, who stated the following:

''Today Airbus 340 is taking off from Damascus International Airport to Dubai in the first flight after it was rehabilitated by the Syrian Ministry of Transport. This big achievement is an indicator of the resilience and vigor of the Syrian people and their ability to produce solutions.''


''Steps are underway to revamp and re-equip all facilities in the airport to allow for an increase in the number of planes and more air traffic. The economic blockade imposed on Syria had badly affected our ability to repair the equipment in the airport. However, we are working with partners to secure more equipment needed to re-operate the airport. In addition to its role in securing more revenue for the state, this step is a message to the world that the air transport sector in Syria is recovering despite the relentless war being waged on Syria.''

Footage of the inaugurational flight can be seen here, here and here.

SyrianAir's A340 seats up to 300 passengers in a two-class layout, 275 economy class seats and 25 business class seats. The seats are different from those installed in the aircraft during its service for SriLankan Airlines, and appear similar to the seats in used by Mahan Air in some of its aircraft. The same seats were also used in the A300-600 SyrianAir previously wet-leased, making it likely that the current interior was installed during the aircraft's stay in Iran. To minimise costs, none of the seats have seatback TV screens, not even in Business Class. A video covering the pre-flight and in-flight services provided for passengers of the A340 can be seen here.

Although it has been speculated that the A340 will be used on new routes to China and Venezuela, it is unlikely that any new routes to these destiations will be launched in the foreseeable future, at least until more aircraft are received to relieve SyrianAir's current fleet of aircraft. Regular flights to cities in China could be attractive for Chinese companies seeking to invest in the rebuilding and economy of Syria in the long run, yet it remains to be seen if there is enough interest to launch these routes at the moment.

While Venezuela's flag carrier Conviasa previously operated flights between Caracas, Damascus and Tehran, supposedly to facilitate the transfer of officials, spies, drugs and weaponry between these countries (hence being dubbed the 'Terror Flight') it is also unlikely that passenger services or any the services above will see SyrianAir flying to Caracas on a regular basis. Indeed, while the introduction of a single but possibly up to three A340s will permit SyrianAir to launch flights to the few remaining friendly nations in the world, its focus is likely to be centered on countries in the Middle East for the years to come.

Although images of bombed out hospitals and schools (rightfully) continue to dominate headlines about Syria around the world, normal life goes on for many Syrians living in Damascus and the coastal region, their ordinary dealings and businesses contrasting starkly with the suffering of their less fortunate countrymen. Amidst an increasingly stable security situation in Damascus and what is by now a tight control of all its major population centres, the Syrian government can start to look at ways to stabilise and normalise the life of at least a part of the Syrian population loyal to the regime. Although it remains unlikely that the implemented sanctions against Syria will be lifted in the foreseeable future, at least until the Assad clan leaves power, it is certain that Syria's allies will aid the country in slowly restoring its status as an at least semi-functional nation. This recent investment in its national airline, despite its illegal nature, is a testimony to this fact, showing the resilience of a regime that more than once was at the brink of defeat during the unabating fury of the Syrian War.

While the civilian nature of this article is somewhat of a departure from the regular postings found on this blog, significant interest in these articles could see the coverage of more subjects in the field of aerospace industry and airlines. Further articles will be released to give better insight in the operations and current status of SyrianAir's fleet.

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Thursday, 15 June 2017

Syria Rearms: Russian deliveries of BMP-2s and 2S9s arrive

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

After the first delivery of T-62Ms and BMP-1s to the Syrian Arab Army earlier this year, new imagery coming out of Syria has now revealed that more types of armoured fighting vehicles have recently been sent to the country onboard Russia's 'Syria Express'. These new deliveries come as government forces are currently making major gains in Eastern Homs against the fighters of Islamic State, and the new vehicles will likely be deployed here to bring the fight back to the Islamic State once and for all.

The delivery of large amounts of weaponry and vehicles is part of the de-facto re-establishment of the Syrian Arab Army, with the aim of creating a unified army incorporating some of the many militias that are currently active throughout Syria. The driving force behind this process is the newly established 5th Corps, which is to serve as a counterweight to the increasing strength of the aforementioned militias that have largely taken over the role of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) in the past six years.

In accordance with Russia's role in the reinstatement of the Syrian Arab Army, it is also Russia that is responsible for training and equipping the new force. Although this led some to believe that Syria would soon receive additional T-72s, T-90s or even BMP-3s, all of which would be more advanced than the current armour composition of the regime forces, the deliveries until thus far have mostly included older weaponry excess to requirements or no longer in service with the Russian Army itself.

Nonetheless, many of these delivered vehicles and weaponry are ideally suited for the Syrian Arab Army in their current operations against the many factions fighting over control of parts of Syria. In addition to the delivery of small arms and large numbers of Ural, GAZ, KamAZ and UAZ trucks and jeeps, other deliveries so far have encompassed T-62Ms, BMP-1(P)s and 122mm M-1938 (M-30) howitzers, and now also including BMP-2s infantry fighting vehicles and 120mm 2S9 self-propelled mortars.

The delivery of BMP-2s and 2S9s is of interest as previous deliveries to the 5th Corps amounted to less advanced equipment such as BMP-1s and World War 2-era 122mm M-30 howitzers. The fact that more advanced equipment is now arriving in Syria might be a sign that Russia deems the rearmament programme a success, and could potentially step up the delivery of more advanced equipment as the conflict continues to develop in favour of the current government.

Despite the relative scarcity of the BMP-2 in footage and images of the Civil War, this vehicle is certainly no stranger to the Syrian battlefield. Indeed, Syria continues to operate the survivors of the around 100 BMP-2s it had previously acquired in the late eighties, all but a few of which are in service with the Republican Guard in operations mostly in and around Damascus. In addition to the BMP-2s already in service since the 1980s, a limited number of BMP-2s along with T-72Bs and BMP-1s were received from Russia in 2015 to take part in operations near Tadmur. At least one but possibly two of these BMP-2s were subsequently destroyed here.

The vehicles that are currently being delivered can easily be discerned from the BMP-2s already operating in Syria by their dark green camouflage and more importantly, by the presence of anti-radiation lining installed on the turret, which is only present from the BMP-2 Obr. 1984 variant and onwards. The BMP-2s that Syria had previously received in the late eighties were of the older Obr. 1980 variant and lack such anti-radiation lining, as well as other incremental improvements.

The BMP-2 improves significantly upon the capabilities of the BMP-1, which has served as the Syrian Arab Army's main infantry fighting vehicle ever since its introduction in the 1970s. Originally designed for use on the plains of Europe, the armament of the BMP-1 was quickly found to be inadequate for supporting infantry and incapable of targeting heavily armoured armoured fighting vehicles. In addition, the BMP-1's mediocre gun elevation, lack of armour and inability to fire accurately while on the move makes it woefully outdated for use in today's conflicts.

Incorporating many of the lessions learned from the BMP-1, the BMP-2 does away with several of these serious drawbacks. Most notably is the replacement of the 73mm 2A28 cannon with a fast-firing 30mm 2A42, which is very well-suited for supporting infantry and suppressing enemy positions thanks to its high elevation. The BMP-2 also comes with an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) launcher for the 9M113 Konkurs as opposed to the BMP-1's unwieldy 9M14 Malyutka, which is rarely fitted let alone used.

The delivery of the 2S9 is also notable as this vehicle was previously not in service with the Syrian Arab Army, which had until thus far has never operated any type of self-propelled mortars. The 2S9 is armed with a 120mm breech-loaded 2A51 mortar that can lob shells over a distance of eight kilometers with conventional ammunition, and over 12 kilometers with a rocket assisted projectile. A guided mortar round has also been developed for the 2S9, but is unlikely to have been deployed to Syria.

While the Syrian Arab Army continues to operate large numbers of 122mm 2S1s and 122mm BM-21s in addition to several types of towed artillery guns for artillery support, the high elevation of the 2S9 makes it perfect for engaging entrenched Islamic State positions on mountains and ridges regime forces are currently facing in Eastern Homs. While some might be quick to note that the 2S9 is air-droppable, it is unlikely that any will be sent to Deir ez-Zor this way. As the 2S9 is the first of its type to have entered service with regime forces, it is likely that crews will first have to be trained on the vehicle, which is true for the BMP-2 as well (albeit to a lesser extent) so it might take some time before they show up on the frontline.

As regime forces are currently making major gains, mainly against the Islamic State, Russia appears intent on affirming its support for the Syrian government, further consolidating its stakes in a conflict that has so far seemed to continue on endlessly. For Syria, the actual delivery of these vehicles is possibly much less significant than the trend it represents. With an ally that is essentially capable of indefinitely replenishing the Syrian Arab Army's stocks and that despite economic hardships is willing to pay the checks required to bring about its return as a coherent fighting force, eventual victory for the pro-regime forces seems likely, barring any unexpected twists and turns in the future course of the war. Whatever the case, the current developments are certain to affect the strategic balance between force battling over Syria significantly, and could well have far-reaching consequences for the ultimate outcome of the Syrian War.

Special thanks to Wael Al Hussaini.

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Thursday, 8 June 2017

Flying under the radar, Syria's 'Special Purpose' Mi-17s

The Syrian Arab Air Force's Hip fleet is perhaps best known for its leading role in the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas across Syria with what have popularly become known as barrel bombs, an act that has defined the usage of aerial assets during the Syrian Civil War. While the role of makeshift bomber currently remains one of the main tasks of Syria's Mi-8/17s, other roles the Hip fleet has carried out during the past six years of brutal war have been severely underreported.

Perhaps the most significant role of the Hip fleet is that it represented a lifeline between regime-held Syria and besieged army garrisons across Syria, which had been completely cut off by road for sometimes up to several years. The Mi-8/17s could, contrary to transport aircraft, land to bring in reinforcements or transport the wounded to hospitals. Indeed, the city of Deir ez-Zor is now completely dependant on Syria's fleet of Hips for bringing in reinforcements and evacuation of civilians and wounded, as Deir ez-Zor's airport is too close to the fighting.

In addition to its role as a transport helicopter and makeshift bomber, several of Syria's Hips have been upgraded for tasks that remain largely unknown to the general public. While it is unclear if some of these helicopters continue to see service in their new configuration, it is certain that they represent an interesting albeit underreported chapter of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF), which will be the subject of this article.

Before going into detail on Syria's upgraded Mi-17s, it is of interest to mention that the first 'Special Purpose' Hips had already arrived in Syria in the early 1980s, shortly after the conclusion of the main phase of the 1982 Lebanon War. The SyAAF and Syrian Arab Air Defence Force (SyAADF) had suffered severe losses to the Israeli Air Force during aerial combat over the skies above Lebanon, where Israel fully exploited its superiority in electronic warfare. Unable to respond in a similar fashion with any of the equipment Syria then operated, Hafez al-Assad turned to the Soviet Union for assistance.

Eager to test its Mi-8 electronic warfare variants, the Soviet Union subsequently deployed up to eight Mi-8PPAs, Mi-8MTP/Us and Mi-8SMVs to Syria, where they were based at T4 airbase with regular detachments to Mezze airbase, located closer to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. These helicopters were tasked with jamming the guidance radars of enemy surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs), and might have been pitted against Israeli MIM-23 'Hawk' SAM sites during peacetime before they returned to the Soviet Union at the end of the eighties, ultimately ending up in a helicopter boneyard.

Back to Syria, where the vast majority of the SyAAF's Mi-8s and Mi-17s continue to operate in their original configuration, often with their rear doors removed to allow for easy loading and dropping of so-called barrel bombs (which by today's standards actually consist of more sophisticated designs that have little to do with barrels). The fact that several of the SyAAF's Hips had been upgraded was first hinted at shortly after the capture of Taftanaz airbase on the 11th of January 2013, resulting in the loss of more than a dozen Mi-8/17s and Mi-25s.

Taftanaz was the second heliport to be overrun by the rebels, following the capture of Marj as-Sultan heliport on the 25th of November 2012. Despite frantic efforts for a last ditch evacuation with some of the helicopters located here, the loss of Taftanaz represented the first major blow to the SyAAF, losing almost as many Mi-8/17s as there are operational airframes today.

Careful examination of the airframes captured here revealed the addition of an electro-optical system under the fuselage of one of the Mi-17s. Later footage from Taftanaz would also show a dismounted electro-optical system and its associated control panel. Another image taken in 2013 at Mezze airbase would also give us the first good view of the armoured panels protecting each side of the cockpit. Interestingly, this relatively simple addition aimed at increasing crew survival has only been applied to a small number of helicopters.

As these upgraded helicopters have only been sporadically sighted during more than six years of war, it is likely that only a few Mi-17s were upgraded to this new standard before the outbreak of the Civil War. Differentiating these upgraded Mi-17s from other non-upgraded Mi-17s helicopters remains difficult however, as is witnessed by this example. It might be easy to mistake this helicopter for one of the regular Mi-17s in use with the SyAAF's helicopter forces, but the hardly visible armoured panels on the cockpit and electro-optical turret serve to differentiate it as one of the upgraded examples.

While Syria's Mi-17 already come equipped with three hardpoints on either side of the fuselage, allowing for the installment of rocket pods, bombs or as in the case above, a 23mm UPK-23 gun pod, the addition of an electro-optical system would significantly increase the helicopter's capabilities in target acquisition and threat identification. In turn, the armoured panels installed around of the cockpit increase the survivability of the helicopter crew, a welcome addition to the anti-aircraft weapon rich environment of Syria.

It is highly likely that these upgrades were carried out by the SyAAF's overhaul and maintenance facility 'The Factory' at Neyrab/Aleppo IAP, which has also been responsible for the design and production of the indigenous chaff/flare launchers mounted on nearly all of the SyAAF's Mi-8s and Mi-17s. The electro-optical system seen in detail below and the armoured panels are believed to have been acquired from Iran, which has carried out similar upgrades on its helicopters.

Other specialised Mi-17s have been used for less lethal tasks, such as the transportation of very important persons (VIPs) across the war-thorn country. As movement from one side of Syria to the other by road has meanwhile become impossible or too time consuming to allow for rapid deployment across the country, Suheil 'The Tiger' al-Hassan nowadays make use of a Mi-17 configured as a VIP transport to allow him to swiftly cross long distances.

The SyAAF already operated several Mi-8Ps (identifiable by the rectangular/square windows instead of the round windows found on normal Mi-8/17s) for VIP transport, but had already retired these before the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Bashar al-Assad makes use of two VIP helicopters of his own, which will be covered on this site in a later article alongside his other transport aircraft.

While the tasks of the aforementioned helicopters are relatively straightforward, the SyAAF also operates at least two Mi-17s that have been converted for as of yet unknown tasks. First seen during a large-scale Syrian Arab Air Force exercise in July 2012, this Mi-17 was seen equipped with two oddly shaped containers installed on either side of the fuselage.

Although some argued that these boxes could be part of an active protection system against man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), this helicopter was already seen well in advance of any MANPADS threat in Syria, and it is unlikely that the SyAAF would sacrifice six hardpoints for these contraptions. The authors' best guess at this time is that these containers in part serve as a panoramic observation system, although its use may extend beyond that. This helicopter can also be seen in the header, where it is parked behind one of the Mi-17s upgraded with an electro-optical system and armoured panels at Mezze airbase.

Arguably the most interesting helicopter conversion to have served in the SyAAF is also the most mysterious; just one example is believed to have been converted to its new role before the project was cancelled, after which the helicopter was returned to its original configuration. This Mi-17 '2981' was only seen once: General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub, the Chief of the General Staff of the Syrian Arab Army, examined it during a visit to Bley airbase in July 2015.

This helicopter stood out because of its newly applied camouflage pattern, which has not been seen on any other Mi-8/17 in Syrian service. The green square on the right side of the fuselage was also of interest, and appeared to have been closed at some point after the helicopter received a new camouflage pattern. Interestingly, inquiries about the nature of this conversion revealed that the helicopter might have been a test platform for a remote weapon station, with the opening in the side housing a 7.62mm GShG-7.62 or 12.7mm Yak-B rotary machine gun. The only other instance that SyAAF Mi-8/17s were armed in such fashion was in 2012, when several helicopters were believed to have been fitted with a 12.7 mm DShK firing out of the rear of the helicopter.

As the Syrian Civil War has entered its sixth year, the SyAAF's Mi-8/17s Hip fleet remains at the forefront of the regime's aerial campaign against its opponents. While the effectiveness of these helicopters as makeshift bombers can be questioned, the Hip has once again proved to be the reliable workhorse it is well known for. Although the number of operational airframes continues to shrink, with just fifteen airframes believed to be operational at any given time, the adaptability and multifunctionality of the Mi-8/17 airframe ensures it will remain in use until the very end, possibly even outlasting the Syrian War.

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Probe-and-drogue, the story of Libya's ill-fated in-flight refuelling programme

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Probe-and-drogue, the story of Libya's ill-fated in-flight refuelling programme

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Libya's aerial refuelling programme has only been rarely reported on since its inception in the late eighties, and suffered from a series of setbacks that ultimately led to the abandonment of the programme. Nonetheless, this ambitious project has definitely left its traces within the Libyan Air Force, and aircraft once playing a key role in the in-flight refuelling programme are still flying amidst the increasingly deteriorating security situation inside the country today.

The former LAAF (Libyan Arab Air Force) has been split into two air forces for several years now, each operating various types of fighter aircraft and helicopters. While a unity government is supposed to act as Libya's new government, the division of the country between several warring factions effectively continues. Libya Dawn, once loyal to Libya's unrecognised parliament, and the Libyan National Army (LNA), fighting for Libya's internationally recognised government are the strongest forces on the ground.

Although both are mainly focused on fighting Islamic extremism such as the Islamic State, sporadic clashes and bombings between the two continue at an increasing rate. This is an unfortunate result of the chaos that followed after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, mainly caused by a greed for power on the side of Libyan factions and a lack of support on the side of NATO, which played a major role in the ousting of Gaddafi but provided inadequate support in helping Libya to develop itself into a functioning democracy.

With a limited number of operational airframes divided between two air forces, both Libya Dawn and the Libyan National Army have scrounged the divided country for aircraft that could be made operational with relatively little effort or by cannibalising other airframes. Aircraft previously thought to have found their final resting place are now repurposed and restored to operational status and with Libya's lax rules when it comes to photographing sensitive equipment on most Libyan airbases, images of these airframes leak regularly. This peculiar situation provides the ideal footage for a review of Libya's ill-fated aerial refuelling programme, which has remained unknown to many until this date.

Libya's large surface area makes aerial refuelling tankers a coveted asset that allows aircraft to cross long distances to reach their targets without frequent stopovers or forward deployments to airbases closer to the target. This was especially true during the Gaddafi-era, when Libyan aircraft frequently struck targets in Chad, Sudan and even Tanzania in support of Libyan forces deployed to Chad and Uganda, or simply as an act of retribution.

Libya's shadow war in Chad can be seen as a defining period for the Libyan Air Force, facing off against not only the Chadians but also the French, which deployed to Chad in support of Hissène Habré fighting against the Libyans and proxies present in the country. As most Libyan airbases were located in the North of the country, the LAAF forward-deployed its aircraft to the remoteness of Southern Libya or even in Northern Chad. Both locations would prove to be extremely vulnerable to strikes by the French Air Force and Chadian incursions, the latter raiding Maaten ar-Surra airbase in Southern Libya and even capturing Wadi Doum airbase in Chad, leading to severe losses on the Libyan side.

It is likely that the experiences gained in Chad and monitoring the developments worldwide were decisive factors in Libya's decision to acquire aerial refuelling tankers. Although by the mid-eighties the Soviet Il-78 was already in production, Libya instead turned to the West to help set up an aerial refuelling project of its own in a similar way Iraq would. Although the reasons for this decision remain unknown, it is possible that Libya was simply not permitted to acquire the Il-78 at the time.

In 1987, Libya contracted the West German company Intec Technical Trade und Logistic (ITTL) to set up an in-flight refuelling programme in Libya itself. Despite being a staunch opponent of the West, Libya had no problems contracting Western companies for all sorts of deals, including defence-related ones. On the delivering end Western companies, eager to profit from Libya's oil wealth, had no problems working for Libya either. Interestingly, ITTL began with acquiring in-flight refuelling (IFR) probes from France in addition to designing one of their own, which were subsequently installed on at least three MiG-23BNs and a single MiG-23UB.

Despite having bad experiences with the MiG-23MS, and also encountering more of the same problems with the MiG-23BN, the MiG-23BN proved to be a valuable asset for it sturdiness and weapon payload in Libyan service. Therefore, the decision to install in-flight refuelling probes on this fleet in particular so as to expand their range was not surprising. In addition to adding IFR-probes to its MiG-23BNs, the Libyan Arab Air Force could also count on the remainder of sixteen Mirage F.1ADs it had previously acquired from France; arguably the most capable aircraft in the Libyan inventory and already capable of being refuelled in mid-air.

ITTL proceeded with converting one of the LAAF's C-130s to the in-flight refuelling role by installing aerial-refuelling pods under both wings, which would have allowed for the refuelling of two aircraft at a time. Unfortunately, the C-130 proved less than ideal for this task when attempting to refuel the MiG-23, which was unable to adjust to its relatively slow operating speed. Although the Mirage F.1AD was capable on refuelling from the C-130, Libya already operated a far more suitable platform at this time: The Il-76.

As such, Il-76TD '5A-DNP' from Libyan Air Cargo (itself a de-facto part of the LAAF) was modified for the in-flight refuelling role by ITTL technicians. Despite their efforts, ITTL was forced to abort its operations in Libya when their involvement in Libya's in-flight refuelling programme became publically known. While their withdrawal would ultimately herald the end of this ambitious programme, it is believed that Libya continued the project for several years on its own, eventually ceasing all further efforts in the mid-nineties. Interestingly, footage of the project was documented on film and can be viewed online.

Around the same time as ITTL commenced work on Libya's in-flight refuelling programme, Libya entered negotiations with the Soviet Union to replace its fleet of Tu-22 bombers with up to 36 Su-24MKs supported by a fleet of six Il-78 tankers. This combination of Su-24s and Il-78s was to act as the LAAF's long arm, replacing the Tu-22 in this role. While the Tu-22s were able to cross long distances from their base at al-Jufra, the operational career of these aircraft was coming to an end at the late eighties, and they had to be replaced.

The Su-24MK brought with it a wide array of air-to-ground missiles and guided bombs that allowed for precision strikes, a capability the Tu-22 lacked. Indeed, during a bombing sortie against a target in Tanzania, the Libyan Tu-22 crew not only missed the target, but the entire country as well, with the bombs landing across the border in Burundi instead! Unfortunately for Libya, disagreements over payment and the UN arms embargo in effect since 1990 prevented the LAAF from receiving the desired amount of aircraft, and only six Su-24MKs and one Il-78 would eventually find their way to Libya.

It remains unknown however if this sole Il-78 was ever used in the in-flight refuelling role since its inception in 1989 or 1990, although it is certain that the aircraft spent the majority of its career as a cargo aircraft, still equipped with its three UPAZ pods aerial-refuelling pods attached. Wearing commercial Jamahiriya Air Transport (Libyan Air Cargo) titles, the Il-78 was first seen in early April 2005 coming in to land at Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport (IAP) after having been overhauled at the 123 ARZ repair plant in Staraya Russa, Russia between 2004 and 2005.

Due to its extremely rare sightings, the Il-78 is perhaps the most elusive aircraft to have ever entered service with the Libyan Air Force. Only rarely sighted throughout its career, the aircraft became even more elusive after the conlusion of the Libyan Civil War, resulting in the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi. Remaining grounded at al-Jufra airbase, Libya's sole Il-78 was thought to have met its final resting place before the aircraft resurfaced at Misrata airbase in late 2015, confirming the ill-fated aircraft had re-entered service.

Forgoing the sophisticated capabilities that are its raison d'être, the aircraft continues its short career in the cargo rol. In accordance with its new owners, the Gaddafi-era Jamahiriya titles in English and Arabic were painted over, and the new Libyan flag applied over the Jamahiriya green. The aircraft bears heavy traces of wear on the aircraft's windows, and the front windows have likely been replaced.

As the Libyan Civil War continues with no cessation of hostilities in sight, military equipment is brought back to operational conditions in an effort to reinforce the arsenals of the warring factions wrestling for control over Libya and its resources. Although the dreams of a dedicated aerial refuelling fleet to support a long-gone professional air force capable of undertaking international sorties have faded from memory long ago, Libya's skies remain abuzz with the remnants of this past age, as the aircraft that played a vital role in the programme are slowly consumed by the unabating demands of war.

Special thanks to Tom Cooper from ACIG.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Exotic Armour, an inside look at Sudan's armour repair facility

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Sudan is arguably one of the most interesting countries when it comes to the variation of military equipment in use with its army, owing to its diverse range of suppliers ever since the country's independence from Great Britain in 1956. Originally trained and equipped by Egyptians and the British, Sudan then began receiving large shipments of Soviet military equipment, followed by Chinese deliveries of arms. In recent years, Sudan has bought large numbers of weaponry from nations such as Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, which along with the Chinese and Iranians are now the lead suppliers of weaponry in Sudan.

In addition to the countries already listed, Sudan has also received weaponry from nations such as Germany, Libya, Czechoslovakia, France, US, Saudi Arabia, Czechoslovakia, Eastern Europe, and of course, North Korea. Operating such a diverse fleet of armoured fighting vehicles is nothing short of a logistical nightmare, and specialists from several of these countries are present in Sudan at any given time to help maintain these vehicles. To help ease this process Sudan established an armour repair workshop and the Elshaheed Ibrahim Shams el Deen Complex, the latter of which is also involved in the production of several types of armoured fighting vehicles.

The armour repair workshop solely focusses on the repair of main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) however, and falls under the command to the Sudanese Army. This opposed to the Elshaheed Ibrahim Shams el Deen Complex, which is part of the Military Industry Corporation (MIC). The armour repair workshop is located in the heart of Khartoum, which is certainly an interesting location to set up such a facility.

Walking through the many armoured fighting vehicles littering the complex, some in various states of decay, are not only Sudanese personnel but also several Eastern Europeans aiding with the maintenance and overhaul of Soviet-era AFVs. Most of the images in this article are from one of such advisors, many of which photograph their work during their stay in Sudan. This particular person has previously served in Uganda and Yemen, also aiding with the training of personnel here.

A badly damaged T-72AV, also known as the al-Zubair-1 in Sudan, awaiting repair of its destroyed 125mm 2A46 cannon or alternatively to be used as a source of spare parts. Sudan bought the last remaining stock of T-72AVs from the Ukraine, which previously supplied these tanks to several other nations worldwide, many in Africa. The Sudanese purchase of T-72AVs is noteworthy as South Sudan had previously bought a large number of T-72AVs just a few years earlier. This deal was arranged via Kenya, and became the subject of international debate due to the hijacking of the MV Faina cargo ship, which carried 33 T-72AVs on their way to South Sudan.

While Ukrainian instructors became responsible for training South Sudanese soldiers on operating the T-72AV, it appears the country had no problem selling the rest of its T-72AVs to Sudan, which quickly deployed them in Southern Sudan against the SPLA-N. This deal led to a peculiar situation where during the plausible event of renewed hostilities both the Sudanese Army and the South Sudanese Army would deploy their T-72AVs with identical camouflage against each other, which will almost certainly lead to confusion and possibly friendly-fire incidents on the battlefield.

The venerable Alvis Saladin armoured car, still in pristine condition awaiting repainting outside one of the facility's maintenance halls. Despite the Saladin's age, several countries continue to operate the vehicle, with even Indonesia looking to upgrade its remaining examples. It is unknown if the Sudanese Army continues to operate the vehicle or intends to display its remaining Saladins as gate guards.

The same Alvis Saladin after receiving an interesting camouflage pattern, which one could argue has somewhat diminished the original looks of the vehicle. At least two vehicles have received the new paintjob, although the second vehicle suffers from serious damage to the front, further enhancing the perception of poor looks.

The Ferret armoured car is another British staple that has seen service in Sudan, and is one of the first armoured fighting vehicles to have served in the ranks of the Sudanese Army. This vehicle too has been repainted, and is missing its M1919 Browning machine gun. One of the front tires of the repainted vehicle has deep cuts, making it likely this vehicle is no longer intended for combat use. A row of seemingly decommissioned Chinese Type-62 light tanks can be seen in the first image, a few of which remain in active service.

A BMP-1 upgraded with a 30mm 2A42 Cobra one-man turret, replacing the ubiquitous 73mm 2A28 Grom armed turret normally installed on the BMP-1. A joint development between Belarus and Slovakia, Sudan also operates several BTR-70s upgraded with the Cobra turret. The coaxial 7.62mm PKT is missing on this example. One of Sudan's few BMP-2s can be seen in the background, which operate alongside a similarly small number of Iranian-designed Boragh Armored Infantry Combat Vehicles (AICV), itself a copy of the BMP-2.

A French Panhard M3 VTT (Véhicule de Transport de Troupes) APC among a hodgepode of other vehicles in the background, including a Soviet BMP-2, a Chinese WZ-551, a Chinese Type-59D and two Iranian Safir-74, Type 72z, T-72Z or ''Shabdiz''. This Panhard M3 was deprived of its 20mm autocannon, and is unlikely to ever see service again. Similarly, the fleet of French AML-90s is believed to have suffered the same fate.

Sudan operates an extremely diverse fleet of BTR variants, including the BTR-70, Belarusian upgraded BTR-70s, Ukrainian upgraded BTR-70s, BTR-80s, BTR-80As and BTR-3s amongst others. In addition, the Sudanese Army also has a large inventory of Chinese WZ-551s and WZ-523s APCs and what remains of the Czechoslovakian OT-64A fleet delivered in the early seventies. The turret of a BTR-80 can be seen being installed in the second image.

A Soviet BRDM-2, which the Military Industry Corporation markets as the Amir-2 reconnaissance vehicle, still in mint condition. Although the design of the BRDM-2 dates from the early sixties, the Sudanese Army is believed to have continued receiving more examples from Belarus in the 2000s, which joined the already existing fleet of BRDM-2s in service with the Sudanese Army.

The Amir-2 was recently also showcased at IDEX 2017 in the United Arab Emirates, which led some to believe MIC was offering newly-build BRDM-2s for the international market. Despite MIC's confusing marketing strategies, the Amir-2 is actually an upgrade for the BRDM-2 for nations that continue to operate the vehicle. This upgrade sees the replacement of the BRDM-2's original 140hp GAZ-41 engine with the 210 hp Isuzu 6HH1 engine, which offers increased mobility and fuel-efficiency. Although several African nations continue to operate the aging BRDM-2, it is unlikely that any of these countries would be interested in upgrading these.

Three Chinese WZ-551s in one of the armour facility's maintenance halls. The WZ-551 was previously offered by the Military Industry Corporation as the Shareef-2. Although it is unknown what the MIC actually was offering by simply listing the WZ-551 among their products, it is likely that this referred to the overhaul of the WZ-551s in Sudan. Adding to the confusion, the WZ-523, another Chinese product to have reached Sudan, is currently offered as the Shareef-2. This apparent lack of understanding what MIC actually offers is reflected among many of their products, but likely means the MIC is capable of overhauling both the WZ-551 and WZ-523 in this particular case.

Although primarily acquiring second-hand armoured fighting vehicles from Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian stocks, the Sudanese Army also possesses Russian BTR-80As in addition to a limited number of Ukrainian BTR-3s, one of which can be seen below. A BRDM-2 (or Amir-2), a BMP-1 and a T-72AV can also be seen in the background. More interestingly however is the row of decommissioned M60s, only a few of which are still believed to be in operational use with the Sudanese Army.

An instruction room filled with the weapon systems of various Russian APCs and IFVs in service with the Sudanese Army. Two 14.5mm KPVs with a coaxial 7.62mm PKT for the BRDM-2, BTR-70 and BTR-80 can be seen on the left while two 30mm 2A42/2A72s cannons for the BTR-80A and BMP-2s can be seen on the right. Also note the complete BTR-80A module for the training of BTR-80A gunners seen in the back. The Russian flag leaves no doubt on the Russian influence on the training of Sudanese crews.

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