Kirkuk is a highly polemic city for the Iraqi-Kurdish relations, as far as the local population is divided among the central government and the Kurdish what is linked to the ethnical composition of the city.
The real population of Kirkuk is difficult to know due to the war against ISIS, the tensions and the people who abandoned the city, but on 2011 it was close to one million habitants what makes it an important piece in the local politics.
The Kurdish who held against ISIS on 2014 while the Iraqi Army runaway took advantage of the situation and occupied the city until now, however after the battle of Mosul along with the referendum of self-determination held by Kurdish the dormant conflict has get up.
On the night of 16 October 2017 and after gathering troops from the Shia militias, the Police and the Army Iraq has launched an offensive spear headed by the 9th Armoured Division equipped w ith the best vehicles of the army: M1A1 Abrams and M-109A5 SPHs.
The United States who has been caught between two fires has forbidden Iraq to use its Air Force against the Kurdish, this is a typical restriction of armament imposed by the US to allied countries, to not use it against certain partners that in this case are the Kurdish. This mainly means that the F-16s and very likely other aircraft bought by US like the Super Tucano light attack aircraft are not going to be used what blocks an important piece of the Iraqi military advantage, however, we do not know what happens to other military equipment like the advanced Russian Mi-28NE or Mi-35 attack helicopters.
When the Iraqi operation began the fractures appeared among the Kurdish factions, because one of the most important Peshmerga groups, PUK has decided not to fight against “their Iraqi brothers” what has led to further fighting and growing tensions between the Kurdish forces.
Some politicians have successfully called the Kurdish population to mobilization against Iraqi Army, however other minorities of the city have answered with clashes inside the city in what can fastly disembogue in a civil conflict with an ethnic cleansing threat.
Kurdistan is much bigger than Kirkuk, and even the autonomous region did not originally include Kirkuk so if the war escalates this is just a small part of a whole front much important for the Kurdish, that must be taken in to account because Kurdish resources are scarce in comparison with Iraq and if in some moment they need to maintain a full-scale war they will need all of their military forces, we must never forget it in order to understand some of the Kurdish cupola decisions.
From a military point of view, the Iraqi offensive looks as a pincer movement aiming at crush the weak Kurdish positions on the roads and surround Kirkuk by taking the northern roads, because once isolated the fight will be much easier for the Iraqi forces. The other option is a left hook with the same objectives.
Iraqi Army has launched its offensive quite fastly at both flanks of the city with another objective that is to take key government installations like military bases or airports, all of them important to take the control of the town and to support the military deployment.
It must be noted that at the moment the Iraqi offensive just includes Kirkuk, and no other point of the Iraq-Kurdistan border, this can mean two things:
Because of the front with ISIS, the Iraqi government might not be prepared to fully deploy its military power against the Kurdish
They want to make a show of force by taking Kirkuk and so boosting the Iraqi position in future negotiations.
As far as we know the Kurdish have not reacted in force to the Iraqi attack, this can be due to three reasons:
They do not want to risk all of their irrecoverable military equipment and elite military units that can be needed to have a sustainable position in future negotiations.
As far as Kirkuk do not represent the hearthland of the Kurdish region nor the source of power for the Kurdish politicians they do not expect to burn their energies in such location.
The Iraqi offensive has overwhelmed them and they have not been able to move their reserves and counterattack in time against the lightning Iraqi advance who has gained around 21 Kmtrs in less than 12 hours of fighting on the left flank.
However Kurdish have militias and maybe some light infantry units inside Kirkuk, so if they are willing to really inflict casualties to the Iraqi Army they can trigger an urban warfare scenario that can cause attrition among Iraqi forces, however the lack of preparations and a bulk of force composed of low quality militias make the urban warfare option less effective than in other battles where the cities had been previously fortified.
Due to the recent self-determination referendum done with the blessing of Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdistan autonomous government has threatened to declare independence, affecting to even disputed areas out of the administrative Kurdish region, so our objective with this analysis is to elucidate if in case of war with the Iraqi State the Kurdish really have a chance to win.
The Iraqi answer to the referendum was fast and an aerial and economical blockade was imposed over the Kurdish region along with the support of Iran and Turkey who also see the Kurdish separatism as a threat.
Military actions have also taken place: Turkey and Iran have done extensive military drills close to the borders with the Iraqi Kurdistan, but also Iraq and the own Kurdish are mobilizing their forces. Let’s have a closer look at them.
Both Iraqi and Kurdish forces are heavily influxed by corruption and a lack of professionalism that affects their respective military forces however both account with certain decent forces like the Golden Division or some small armored units on the side of Iraq and certain motorized light infantry units on the side of the Peshmerga.
In one hand the Kurdish forces are divided into three different political commands, the Ministry of Peshmergas the KDP and the PUK, in theory, all of them have gathered around 200.000 soldiers, however the combat-value of most of the units is highly questionable due to the lack of training and equipment, in the other hand Iraqi Army has a strength of 81.000 soldiers as of January 2016, but if we plus the other State forces as the Federal Police that even has its own heavy artillery units, and the special forces we reach the 147.000 soldiers, finally if we also take in to account the PMU and certain Shia militias they gather around 180.000 soldiers.
So if we put the focus just in the numbers as of 2017-2018 period we can say that in theory, the result is a draw, but it is true that if the conflict goes on Iraq can recruit much more troops, especially if they are helped by foreign states as Iran or Turkey.
From the point of view of the experience both armies have an important number of veterans from the fight against ISIS, however, it is true that the Iraqis have lost more soldiers during the last steps of the fighting against ISIS in Mosul, Al-Anbar and Niniveh.
Before continue it must be noted that at least in the middle term it is not going to be a moment when the Iraqi Army is so weak because of the casualties of veteran soldiers suffered against ISIS, probably that is why the Kurdish leaders decided to do the referendum that can be seen as the last chance for independence of the Kurdish.
One important difference between both forces is the equipment where Iraq has an obvious advantage because of the Air Force, the artillery, the heavy equipment and the foreign supply of spare parts and ammunition for all of those systems while Kurdish can mainly trust in light infantry tactics, a combination of obstacles, mines/IEDs, mortars and machine guns. It must be noted that Peshmerga also account with certain heavy equipment like more than two hundred T-54, T-55, Type 69 and T-62 tanks and even a small amount of the more modern T-72Ms, while this force is certainly inferior to the best-armoured forces of Iraq composed of T-72Ms, T-72Ss and M1A1 Abrams, it must be noted that if well commanded and with the required maintenance and logistic support the Kurdish still have an important armoured force able to represent a main threat to the Iraqi army.
The Peshmerga can field a wide variety of APCs, IFVs and towed artillery that again are inferior to their Iraqi counterparts but never the less well managed they can represent a big threat. The other face of the significative Peshmerga heavy equipment is the maintenance problem: Five types of tanks, more than seven types of armored vehicles, and more than ten types of artillery guns. Maintain this vast fleet of vehicles with so different needs is a challenge too big for a semi-professional army.
The problem of the heavy vehicles is even extensible to the lighter material. The Peshmerga were filling their depots with old material looted from abandoned warehouses of the Iraqi Army after its dissolution on 2003, also since that year the Kurdish became the best ally of the U.S and so they got Northamerican material, finally when ISIS appeared the International Community concentrated its efforts in to help the Kurdish and so new weapons flooded the Peshmergas. The results? Now the Peshmergas have weapons from China, Germany, Russia, USA, English, Czech or Romanian among others, think of the massive problems of interchangeability because of a lot of calibers, sights, and trainings needed.
While the material favors the Iraqis the terrain favors the defenders. Kurdistan is a mountainous region ideal for defense because of its chaotic and complex terrain with a lot of opportunities to hide from the enemy air force, prepare ambushes…
Carl Von Clausewitz, one of the main philosophers about the war stated that defense is generally speaking better than attack, and that is also seen in the modern armies manuals, that in the case of light infantry tactics usually recommend numerical superiority of 1:3 in favor of the attacker to have a good guarantee of success without prohibitive losses.
If we take everything into account we can reach the next conclusions about the key elements that will decide the battle:
Level of morale and resilience to suffer casualties: If conflict evolves into a stalemate the resilience and the high morale can be of great impact on the result of the war.
Level of mobilization of both forces: This is especially important for Kurdish as far as they do not have so much population to recruit and so they need to stress their ratios of recruitment and mobilization.
Level of professionalism: A good command at the tactical level will be key especially for the Kurdish who face an obvious material disadvantage that needs to be compensated by more skilled and creative commanders at the tactical level.
Level of logistics: This will be key to mobilize both forces at their maximum strength, and particularly for the Iraqis, it will be very important to maintain in well status their heavy equipment to take advantage of their material superiority that otherwise will be unuseful.
View of future
If finally war erupts just between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army the last ones have most of the chances of win, mainly because even under a good defense prepared by the Kurdish the loses in men and equipment that Iraq can asume are enormous while the Kurdish have very limited supplies and men and so just a brilliant defensive plan along a fully mobilized society can lead to a Kurdish victory, still it is also true that the victory for Iraq can cause them a huge blow in money, lives and degradation for their armed forces.
Finally if Kurdish want to have a chance they would have to fight another hybrid warfare but this time closer to a conventional one than the battles fought against ISIS and under a huge firepower inferiority.
Strategic Situation Table
*All elements represented in this table represent just a personal view.
International support (Real support from outside Iraq)
Totally in favor of Iraq
Global power (All economical, social, military, technical Powers…)
Totally in favor of Iraq
Recruitment (Number of potential soldiers available for recruitment)
Clearly in favor of Iraq
Morale (Willing to fight)
Slight advantage of Kurdish
Professionalism (Level of training and diligence)
Logistics (Capacity to maintain in well status the men and material)
In this analysis we are going to have a closer look at the performance of the Turkish Leopard 2A4TR tanks in Syria, to do that we are going to know the machine itself, the doctrine and the environment where it has operated and other things thanks to a very detailed OSINT analysis.
In 2005 Turkey acquired 298 second-hand Leopard 2A4s from Germany, later those were called Leopard 2A4TRs and they have just a slight difference in comparison with the originals, that is the addition of improved air filters, something very important for the dusty terrain generally faced in the Middle East.
Operation Euphrates Shield, Syria
At the end of August 2016 Turkey launched an offensive with rebel groups from FSA at the north of Syria mainly against the Islamic State but with an eye kept on the Kurdish.
At first M-60Ts were deployed but after some time of rumors and Leopard 2s near the Syrian frontier on the 8th of December 2016 the first batch of Leopard 2A4TRs were seen near the town of Al-Bab firing its guns against ISIS VBIEDs.
In theory a few armored and mechanized units probably totalizing no more than two brigades were deployed in Syrian territory, but deployed is not the same as used in the offensive, because it was the FSA infantry and technicals who normally led the attack what resulted in a new hybrid warfare mixture for the Turkish army.
First of all Syrians speak Arabic, while Turkish speak Turkish even using different alphabets so the communication was not very fluent what is very important if you want to take advantage of the firepower that tanks and artillery offer, also there was lack of training and morale among FSA because this group was mainly comprised of men recruited from refugee camps in Turkey with a fickle morale to fight.
Finally but not less important as Russia or USA have done in Syria the Turkish do not use their conventional units as the bulk of the force, in spite of that they stay in reserve and just some support units are sent to the front, this is important because it means that they are far away from exploiting their full offensive potential in the battlefield.
Let’s see what Heinz Guderian, the father of the so called Blirzkrieg can tell us from his book Achtung-Panzer! first published in Germany on 1937.
“This force [in reference to armored forces and tanks] that actually has the biggest offensive power has also the right to use this power under its own rules, and so anywhere it is empoyed it will be the main force and the others will depend on them ”
The tank is normally the central piece of the ground warfare but to fully exploit its firepower, mobility and protection it must have an accompanying force to reach all the possbilities that it offers.
If a high intensity campaign would have been done against ISIS the mechanized or armored forces would have been comprised of the next accompanying elements: Mechanized infantry, engineers, self-propelled artillery and air support, all of them used at the same time, in high numbers and at the key points of the ISIS defenses to break their lines and continue the advance cutting their rearguard until Raqqa, but this has never happen, but why? Because as we said Turkey is acting like Russia or the USA and they just do not want to do that kind of high intensity but also high losses warfare, in spite of that they prefer to use their tanks as a mere support for the FSA avoiding to use them in the attack to deeply penetrate ISIS lines alongside a combined arms force.
This is the first main reason for the Leopard 2A4s losses in Syria, they are not being used as tanks must be used, they can not be just mobile guns to support rebels because for that purpose a cheap T-55 captured from SAA depots or even a technical would be nearly as useful as an expensive Leopard 2.
But what else did Heinz Guderian told us 80 years ago? Let’s have a look:
“The rights claimed result in the next tactical needs:
Surprise was not reached in Al Bab and in fact it is the opposite, the Turkish low profile performance letting most of the weight of the fight to fall on the FSA and doing just a slow advance was not going to result in any surprise.
The massive employ was not reached because tanks were used in small units, normally just platoons of three or four tanks and sometimes even individually.
Suitable terrain, the only thing that did not depended on the Turkish High Command was given by the nature of the Syrian terrain with a lot of plains and ground with just some snow during the winter.
Teacher Guderian said “The high speed of the armored attack is essential to determine the results of the combat”
Most of all of the basic rules about the use of armored forces were not applied by Turkish military planners probably due to political pressure to avoid losses and because the chief of the operation, the Lieutenant general Zekai Aksakallı is from SF so he is not very familiar with the usage of armored forces.
So what was the only way of use of the Leopard 2A4TRs in Syria? Just go to one position overlooking the area and give some fire support with the help of a link officer between the FSA and the tanks or just by the own capabilities of the steel monsters.
The lack of ground reconnaissance and link with the rebels ultimately led to the Leopard 2A4 crews to take some bad deccissions and place their tanks at vulnerable positions, those ones were observated by ISIS and its experienced tank hunter units equipped with ATGMs that ultimately were able to hit the MBTs on the exposed flanks.
While we will have a closer look about protection in the section “Does the cat have a thick fur?” first of all we want to point a few things.
Most of the missiles that hit the Leopard 2s probably were 9M113 Konkurs that attacked from the flanks, anyone with some knowledge about this subject knows that there is no modern MBT able to resist these kind of missiles at the sides if they have no ERA or cage armor attached. Apart from that German designers relied in isolate the most sensible compartments that could led to a catastrophic explosion in case of perforation, especially thinking about fuel and ammunitions.
If a tank like a Leopard 2A4 get an ATGM impact on the side the damages are unavoidable but limitable thanks to automatic fire supression systems, heavily protected ammunition boxes, fireproof garments for the crew etc At this point we can say that Leopard 2A4 resisted well those terrible impacts taking in to account that heavy damages are mostly unavoidable in a situation with these characteristics.
Details about Leopard 2s in Syria
Before being sent to the frontline most of the Leopard 2s were painted with a new arid scheme camouflage but a few Leopard 2s even maintain their old green scheme as we can see in the images.
While Syria is in general a dry country the north gets some snow and very low temperatures during the coldest months of the winter but in fact that is not a problem for the Leopard 2s that are very well suited for low temperatures.
Also the Leopard 2 can mount a 7,62 mm MG-1 or MG-3 on the turret in front of the commanders hatch, those MGs tend to use an AA sight but in this case it wouldn’t have sense for Turkish crews and so they probably use the normal sights. This machine gun is especially famous because of its deadly rate of fire around 1.200 bullets per minute. However it is a feature that we have seen just in a few cases while most of the turret MGs have been removed.
About the ammunition used, as far as what has been released we have seen M325 HEAT-MP-T (Multipurpose Tracer) rounds along with advanced Turkish (MKEK) copy of the KE German rounds DM-43 or DM-53 and Israeli KE APFSDS M322 or M328.
KE or APFSDS – Kinnetic Energy (Only against very well protected targets)
HEAT – High Explosive Anti Tank (Multipurpose)
HE – High Explosive (only against soft targets)
In theory the DM-43s or DM-53s of the last group of images don’t exactly match with a German produced round, in our opinion those are DM-43 or DM-53 rounds produced by MKEK because we have find 120 mm APFSDS-T KE rounds produced by MKEK as we can see on the image below, but these rounds do not appear in the MKEK webpage.
The use of HE and HEAT rounds should be the rule in Syria as far as they are the best suited to deal with personal behind field fortifications or walls, and the HEAT can even engage some armor that ISIS could rarely deploy, like BMP-1s or certain outdated tanks.
The KE APFSDS are penetrators designed to pass through the armor of advanced tanks like T-72s or T-90s and they are no effective against buildings, technicals or lightly armroed vehicles, for example during 1991 Desert Storm we saw that M829 or M829A1 KE rounds were able to penetrate from side to side of a T-72 and left the tank without destroy anything, so if they can go across all the vehicle and get out whithout affecting it, why deploy them in Syria?
As we all know ISIS has been making a massive use of SVBIEDs mounted in armored civilian vehicles moving at high speed, those are pretty destructive and difficult to hit targets while HEAT and HE projectiles could deal with VBIEDs armors their trajectories are much parabolic because of their lower muzzle velocity in comparison with KE rounds which are around 1.600 m/s in comparison with around 1.000 m/s of HEAT or HE rounds.
This is important for several reasons, for example the DM-53 (KE) is much faster than the M325 (HEAT) and so it has a much more flat and easy to aim trajectorie what leads to a higher level of accuracy and rate of fire both very important capabilities to deal with VBIEDs. But at this point the sharpest might argue that as I have said before this rounds tend to penetrate all the armor and leave the vehicle without cause any important damage, while this is true we must remember that VBIEDs are loaded with huge amounts of explosives and so the probability that the projectile hits one of them during the perforation is very high.
In most world doctrines including the Turkish, tank platoons are comprised of 4 tanks each with one leading tank, however sometimes some especial forces use platoons of three tanks each, this is for example more typical in expeditionary forces like marines or naval infantry units.
What is strange is that at some point we have observed what appears to be Turkish tank units of 3 tanks each while it would have sense because you do not need to mass a lot of vehicles to fight ISIS but rather be flexible with the vehicles you have, but anyway we are far from absolutely sure about this point.
Leopard 2s on the stage
Almost all of the fighting where the Leopard 2s have been involved was linked to the battle for Al-Bab town, and especially about the clashes for its hospital located at the west of the town.
For recovery purposes the main vehicle is the M88A1 originally based on the M-48/M-60 powerplants, while the A1 is an improved version with a more powerful engine.
We do not know the numbers of M88A1s deployed but what is sure is that they have not done or they have not been able to do a good job at certain times, because we have been able to see how Leopard 2A4s destroyed or heavily damaged were not recovered event a mptnh after the event, what says a lot about coordination and maybe about the ISIS pressure in the area.
At the moment we have been able to verify the existence of 43 Leopard 2A4TRs deployed in Syria along two batches: The first one was comprised of 18 tanks that were seen on 8/12/2016 while the second batch included 25 tanks that were sent on 10/12/2016 this numbers suggest a deployed force equivalent to an armored brigade and as Christian Triebert published in Bellingcat the license plates of the Leopard 2s corresponded to the 2nd Armored Brigade from the First Army.
But how are they normally operated?
Normally they fire from hastily constructed field fortifications originally intended for the infantry and built with soil walls, they are not specifically designed for tanks because otherwise they would have much higher walls covering their sides and fronts. If they would have enough time and resources they would have dug firing positions for the tanks because those protect them much more than those walls made with soil.
We have not seen any well prepared dig in fire position for the tanks what suggests a low participation and low coordination with engineer units who would have build much better positions an effort that in the end could have saved a lot of vehicles and crews.
This is a well fortified position
This is a hasty fire position
Look at the images above and just compare the levels of protection offered by the fortifications done in both firing positions for tanks, on the left one a M1 Abrams during some drills, on the right one a Leopard 2A4TR in Syria.
Normally Leopard 2s stay behind the soil walls and provide fire support from positions overlooking ISIS territory and firing the main guns and the coaxial machine guns, however we do not know their level of coordination with the FSA.
We also think that apart from the own abilities of the tank, the Turkish are using their Cobra OTOKAR light wheeled vehicles to support fire control of the MBTs during the operations, this technique is also used by other armies like for example the French AMX-56s along the VBLs.
It is also interesting to note that there are a lot of photos of Turkish soldiers with relatively rare and specialized weapons like the AIAW sniper rifle posing with the Leopards, these kind of rifles would be just used in very specialized sniper units particularly from the SFs a kind of forces that you would not normally expect to be operating with armored units, this gives us an idea about how hybrid the warfare is where the Turkish Leopard 2s are acting.
As the Leopard 2s are normally acting as mere means of fire support and not as part of purely offensive and advancing forces they are not probably expected to need fire support and so probably the artillery and mainly the 155 mm SPH T-155s are not acting primarily under the tank units requisitions what is always a defect.
However we are still speaking about a low-intensity operation and so the tanks deployed do not act in a normal way and in the end they are being used such as during urban fighting, that is disperse tank units and decentralize at a certain degree the command, so for example if tanks are needed at some area they do not deploy even a single squadron but just one or two tanks to provide fire support, this is because ISIS has so low numbers of troops deployed that you do not need the whole unit to be participating during the fire support phase.
While in a normal situation Turkish armored units would be coordinated with jets, helicopters, artillery and other assets, in Syria they just look to be coordinated with small units of mechanized infantry mounted on ACV-15s (a heavily improved Turkish version of the M-113 APC) that in our opinion normally act as security elements for the small tank units.
Most times the true spearhead of the OES is the FSA units supported by tanks and by the artillery provided thanks to the SFs accompaining the FSA and using recognisment technics, the air force looks to be operating both attacking predetermined objectives and providing immediate air support.
But the main problem is that the FSA that in theory is supposed to be the infantry spearhead has a different language (Arabic) a lot of times they have no experience, low moral and a low level of training, and finally they are mainly a light force without their own heavy material what in the end and in spite of the Turkish heavy material supporting them does not compensate their deficiencies.
Also it must not be underestimated the high proficiency that ISIS tank hunter units have reached in Al-Bab, a sophistication never seen before in Syria or Iraq with even simultaneous double ATGM strikes and a good coordination to attack from different sides, and a good knowledge of the terrain that has allowed them to take some advantages and produce some small but jazzy successes.
Does the cat have a thick fur?
While some have argue that the tanks were hit by TOW-2A ATGMs we find it very unlikely, first of all because throughout the war just a few TOWs have end on hands of ISIS, and secondly because ISIS has plenty of Soviet/Russian ATGMs, some of them captured and some of them bought to rebel groups.
Those ATGMs are mainly 9M111 Fagot, 9M113 Konkurs, 9M133 Kornet and 9M115 Metis, the last one depending on its variant 9M115 or 9M115-1 has a medium range from 1 to 1,5 km, also all of them work with HEAT warheads and the less powerful one is the 9M111 with a penetration capability around 400 mm of RHA.
In theory the frontal armor of the Leopard 2A4 would resist the Fagot, could resist the Metis and the Konkurs and would not resist the Kornet.
However the sides is another story, maybe at the frontal part of the sides of the Leopard 2A4 where the heavy skirts are situated we might be speaking about a 40% of the armor on the front, while in the other parts of the sides it would probably be even less.
We estimate that the armor of the chassis would be between 3 to 8 cm thick of conventional steel depending on where are we speaking while at the low part of the chassis we should add the wheels and the light skirt acting as spaced armor what adds an unknown protection, but still the most exposed parts are the sides of the turret and the high part of the chassis because there is no extra armor on both.
However Leopard 2s are designed to also protect the critical flammable or explosive components inside the tank, and overall the ammunition racks wich are protected and even every round has its own plated container.
The tank has two main ammo racks, the first one with 27 rounds storaged at the front of the chassis at the height of the gunner, that one is very well protected but it could be vulnerable to mines that hit the low glacis or beneath the hull, the other rack is at the left-back part of the turret and it has 15 ready to use rounds, these ones are by far the more exposed, especially to hits on the sides of the turret.
It is not necessary to say that every ATGM would be able to penetrate the side of the Leopard at almost any place and after the penetration just the protection measures and the luck in some way foreseen by the designers will allow the tank and its crew to survive.
Also it must be said that normally just one penetration is not able to destroy a tank but rather to cause it heavy but repairable damages including heavy wounds and even some deaths to the crew.
In the case of Syria all of the hits documented were on the right side of the Leopard 2s leading to one of the worst situations, also some tanks were captured and utterly destroyed by ISIS or by Turkish airstrikes.
Let’s have a look at the image below, it shows an absolutely annihilated Leopard 2A4, everything that could have exploited did it, but let’s have a closer look at the front of the chassis because that part is the one that has suffered more damage, for example the ammo rack of the turret has also exploited but it has not meant that the turret has been cut in to pieces, while the chassis has been. In our opinion what these evidences suggest is that such damage can just had been done by an air launched missile, in the case of the Turkish Air Force probably an AGM-65 Maverick, because the frontal chassis is very hard to destroy as it has been done in this case.
Also during the ISIS video about the captured Turkish positions with a few Leopard 2s apparently they were all well preserved and so posterior images of Leopard 2s could have been taken after those captured ones were destroyed by ISIS or the Turkish. In the end those are too complex and unknown vehicles for ISIS and they are as useless as those M1 Abrams captured by Daesh in Iraq that were later destroyed.
Disgracefully we have not been able to establish the conncetion between any of the ISIS ATGM videos and other tank photos, with the exception of the next group of images where we can see an attack on two Leopard 2A4s, thanks to Christian Triebert for help us at this point.
In this case the ATGM was more likely a Soviet 9M111, 9M113 or 9M133, at the position attacked there were two Leopard 2s and one T-155 SPH. The position was comprised of a soil wall divided in two spaces at the front where both vehicles were situated to fire, for the protection of the sides they mistakenly trusted in to a civilian wall that did not cover even the taller part of the chassis.
The after effects of the engagement can be seen on this image.
While both tanks suffered a brutal impact the second one got completely burnt off, judging the angle for the ATGM we can clearly see that the most exposed part of that tank was the rear turret, where the ready to use 120 mm rounds were placed, the weaker spot of the tank. The impact led to a catastrophic kill that probably disembogued in the death of some members of the crew.
The first tank resisted much better the impact, as we can see on the images of the strike and the images above the tank chassis was very angled and also the missile hit the heavy sideskirts what might have helped to decrease the power of the shaped charge once it entered inside the tank, while some damage and injuries may have been caused the crew still was able to turn back the turret, this hit could have also been close to affect the main 120 mm rack storage but it looks like it wasn’t able to reach it what shows why German designers added those heavy sideskirts at the flanks, to protect that side where a powerrful hit could ultimately reach the main 120 mm storeroom.
Also it is interesting to note that on the image above we can see how the upper part of the turret where the 120 mm ammo rack is has been opened, in theory this part of the tank was deisgned to blown up to direct the explosion of the cartridges outside the tank, that is why it is very typical to see that part of the Leopard 2 turret blown up in cases of penetration.
On the sequence of images ATGM 1 and ATGM 1.2 we can see the impact of a powerful 9M115-2 Metis-M medium range ATGM with a high penetration capability on the side of the Leopard 2 again a very weak spot for a powerful ATGM as the Metis-M is.
In similar hits in T-72 series tanks in Syria where the better frontal armor of the Leopard 2A4s is not an advantage because the T-72s have around 80 mm of steel in the sides probably nearly the same as the Leopard 2s, we have been able to observe that catastrophic kills are much rare in the German tanks.
Some tanks were destroyed by IEDs or mines, the fact is that normally AT mines are designed to disable the tank by destroying the tracks but not to completely blow them of, however IEDs which are “homemade” and can be produced with different amounts of explosives can be very powerful, especially if common 152 mm or 155 mm HE artillery rounds are used.
In the next image we can see a totally destroyed tank whose number plate was “195 | 526” and according to some sources it was disabled by an IED or a mine.
If we have a closer look at the paper from an unknown source that has proven itself very accurate the tanks that revceived heavy damages had a “Ağır hasarli” (heavy damage) note, while those with very light damage did not have any indication as we can see in the original paper by comparing it with those tanks in the videos released by ISIS.
But the “195 | 526” tank appeared with no damages measure and in theory it was affected by an IED or a mine, so why the images show exactly the opposite? In our opinion it is just part of the ISIS propaganda, also the turret does not look to have suffered a prolonged fire of its 120 mm ammunition but rather a huge explosion after the ammunition was taken out, what explains the lack of burning marks and how the terrorists would have placed the explosives on the floor of the tank.
In the end it is very likely that this tank suffered a mobility kill because of a mine and later ISIS was able to loot and then put some explosives inside it to prevent the Turkish from recover their cat.
For example the Leopard 2 that appears below looks to have step over an AT mine or an IED because the right track is destroyed while the other one is in well state, and also it has not caused the destruction of the tank because it would not have been able to reach the main racks, this matches with the description given about the tank with the number plate 195 | 541.
Also the next one looks like the 195 | 537 tank because in the description it was said that it was “under the wall”.
In social media it is claimed that it was loaded with a bomb and the fired with a M82A1 Barret what caused its destruction.
Interestingly almost a 100% of the hits of mines, RPGs and ATGMs over the Leopard 2s happened on the right flank of the tanks, this has a lot of sense as far as the position of ISIS was in Al Bab, and Turkish tanks were approaching from the west while approximately two kilometres at the south were placed the ISIS AT positions within range to fire the long range ATGMs two kilometres inside FSA-Turkish held territory to hit the Leopard 2s that were aiming at Al-Bab letting their flanks exposed as the next image explains
Final analysis & recommendations
Improve the coordination with FSA or even mix them with mechanized units would lead to a better level of effectiveness in te battlefield while it would also help to strength the FSA forces.
A much high level of coordination with the engineers for recovery missions and to build better protected firing positions for the tanks would help a lot to prevent ISIS from detect and hit Turkish tanks, while also the Leopard 2s should take more advantage of their mobility and do not stay in the same position after a few shots it is important to speed up the fire support processes tor reduce detection, engage and fire by ISIS AT weapons against Turkish armor.
About the recovery missions they are very important because some of the tanks captured by ISIS were taken because they have small mobility problems that could have been solved by repairing them or by evacuating them from the frontline before ISIS took the position, also some destroyed tanks that should also be taken out from the battlefield were abandoned and stayed in the same places even one month after they were destroyed.
Better use of ground reconnaissance assets in this kind of low intensity hybrid warfare is vital, it is needed a major use of armored vehicles and infantry survey to find places to be attacked by the tanks in ISIS lines and to determine what firing positions are best suited to protect the tanks from ISIS AT weaponry, along with the reconnaissance the use of more anti-mine warfare equipment and even vehicles would be useful to prevent some dangerous situations.
The organization of self-destruction air units 24/7 ready to destroy enemy tanks captured by ISIS could be a good idea to prevent them to use those tanks as propaganda or give us disgusting susprises in the future.
Also some of the actions of ISIS able to take some small positions where the Leopard 2A4TRs were stationed shows a certain lack of sedulity about the security element comprised of mechanized infantry mounted in ACV-15s that should establish a strong perimeter around the tanks to prevent ISIS to sneak in to their positions something that tends to happen in hybrid warfare.
Also allocate more M88A1 recovery vehicles for the units in the front to provide them better means for recovery missions along reserves of armored units as full time quick reaction forces to counter-attack, even with support of helicopters against possible ISIS nigh raids or similar ones could be a very good idea.
All the measures told above are free or very cheap however some heavy measuers could be taken to directly protect the Leopard 2s as we are going to see.
The Turkish company ASELSAN designed a very interesting prototype based on the Leopard 2A4 called Leopard 2 NG (Next Generation) which between other things adds a lot of modular armor and a cage armor on the sides.
While Leopard 2A4 is probably protected enough against most threats at the front the sides are another story and in our opinion the addition of the Leopard 2 NG armor to the sides and some ERA could make them well protected against ISIS threats however it is unlikely that without the ERA even the Leopard 2 NG could stop a Konkurs or even less a Kornet at the sides, along with these measures the study of new better protected ammo racks even by reducing them a little could be a great idea.
Finally the addition of a LWR or a similar system to alert the crew from enemy incoming ATGMs could help to save a lot of tanks and lives.
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On this article we will have a deep look at ISIS from the military point of view and so we will analyze their structure, materials, way of fight and different tactics and tricks used by them on the battlefield.
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Table of content:
ISIS in the attack
ISIS on the defense
Terrain, positions and dynamics
IEDs and mines
Evolution: The egg wants to be a condor
Snipers, sharpshooters and designated marksman
Technicals and DIY vehicles
Deductions about their military organization
ISIS in the attack
Depending on the degree of surprise foreseen by ISIS planners they may employ different tactics to assault a position and they are not tactics so far from those used by a conventional army. Most times they do a dismounted assault with fire support from technicals and sometimes spearheaded by a tank at whose back the soldiers advance, this is a very primitive tactic but still useful against low quality forces like those from Iraq and Syria are in most cases.
Another times when there is a big plain between them and their enemies and especially against Kurdish backed by a powerful air force they advance fast and supresively, this time the VBIEDs will open the way while mechanized infantry units advance mounted in DIY armored vehicles moving at top speed against enemy positions and at the same time they open suppresive fire against the enemy positions, by doing this so fast they are provoking in the enemy a panic reaction that ultimately leads to give up the position because of the fear to be surpassed, essentially this is known as a mounted attack a very risky option from the point of view of a conventional army mainly compensated by its fastness.
When they are dismounted the assault tactics of the infantry are quite typical, the main part of the weaponry consists of assault rifles either from AK or M-16 series, also a few machine guns normally from PK series are used to provide suppresive fire, hand grenades are used before rush in the enemy position or to clean close spaces, finally RPG-7s are used against fortified positions like walls, barriers or wickets.
The use of technicals varies a lot between different forces but normally they comprise 14,5 and 23 mm guns while sometimes they can also mount 57 mm S-60 guns or M1939 37 mm guns or even recoilless rifles.
Tanks are used as mobile shields and the infantry advances from behind also they are used for heavy and direct fire support and just under some conditions they are able to engage enemy tanks, also it is very likely that normally because of the expensive and scarce ammunition for the main gun they just use coaxial or top mounted machine guns.
The use of tanks in urban warfare has appeared just a few times in ISIS videos but maybe this is an underrepresented way of use in ISIS media because they normally record big victories and urban warfare is a slow advance one and so it doesn’t provide the glorious image that ISIS wants to present on their videos, also it must be said that the most common antitank warheads are PG-7V and PG-7VM both capabe of penetrate every T-54, T-55, T-62, Type 59 or Type 69 in Iraq or Syria with the exception of the T-55(A)MV and so use them during urban engagements is a risky option.
By knowing their armor, the protection capability that it offers and the mainly offensive spirit of the tank they normally use them during their fast attacks in the open, with especial success against the Syrian Army and their allies during flanking maneuvers to cut their rearguard and always accompanied by motorized or mechanized infantry to assault and occupy positions.
Also about the how the attack is performed they normally attack a position from multiple axes and a whole area by attacking from various sides, especially exploiting weak points in the defensive system and trying to threat the main supply routes by doing a pincer maneuver and taking advantage of the fear to be surrounded of the defenders.
During the course of the operations ISIS must be 24/7 aware of the enemy air forces and so the deployment of advanced air observers to prevent as much as possible the incoming enemy air strikes is a likely option to be used, but to be fair the best ISIS way to deal with enemy air supremacy is the use of misleading tricks against the air observation.
It is very likely that normally they move in groups as small as possible because otherwise the probability of detection and engage by enemy jets is higher but if they move in groups of just two or three cars they can be considered possible civilians and so do not be attacked, but when ISIS suffers a heavy offensive and they need to move large reinforcements in a short period of time it is unavoidable to send large convoys, when doing so they expose themselves a lot but still it is very likely that they try to move during the night when in theory air supremacy is less effective.
For what I have been told normally Daesh basic combat unit is called “Fassil” and is equivalent to a motorized squadron, it usually consists of three SUVs Toyota, one of which would be responsible for the logistic functions, this type of unit would consist of about 10 men armed with assault rifles, one or two machine guns, one rocket launcher and some hand grenades, of course ISIS is not as homogeneizated as a professional army and so this structure is not omnipresent but still this may give us a clue on how they work.
The organic addition of one logistic SUV sounds like a guerrilla evolution created when they needed high autonomy and independence on the battlefield against the US, this kind of unit might be much more difficult to locate and decide to engage by an air force and also it reduces the logistics footprint for the Caliphate, while its disadvantages would be the difficulty to concentrate and coordinate large forces in brief periods of time, but it is true that the combat environment being faced by ISIS is relatively slow and numerically low in comparison with what a conventional army would expect what compensates the disadvantages at a certain degree.
Another typical trick even used by Iraq during 1991 consists in generate big columns of smoke by burning some crtitical places with very inflammable content, also against the link officers from artillery or the air force they also burn large amounts of tires to generate a smoke screen not as dense as when a big installation is burnt but still effective for a short period of time, this kind of tactics were heavily employed when the great operation to reconquer Mosul started.
Like the smoke Daesh tends to use the cover of sandstorms to launch large assaults and we have also seen some night raids by their best units. some of them even using silenced pistols.
Another common tactic used by ISIS is related to the use of large amounts of dummy vehicles simulating military ones, of course this is a very old trickc but it is still interesting to find it on ISIS hands. It is possible that at a certain degree the old Saddam’s officers are behind something like this because it corresponds to high intensity warfare not well known by guerrilla groups.
We also think that dummy vehicles are not massively used but just when they want to confuse enemy air survelliance and make them spend time and ammunition on false targets while the main operations are ongoing in other part.
It has been relatively common to see some strange large inventions consisting on a kind of big umbrella totally covering a tank, this could be used during the displacement phase to the concentration areas before being clearly detected or even during an offensive to protect them from the jets above by hidding the vehicle.
Most of these tricks are more effective against the SyAF whose airplanes most of the times are outdated and so their systems are not so capable to detect this kind of ruses.
Another common trick is related to the use of tunnels at every level, from the front to the homefront to move and store resources, to live in, to be protected from air strikes and artillery before an attack and to safely move troops from one point to another in to an area with prepared defenses, like a village or a town.
ISIS on the defense
Terrain, positions and dynamics
The predilect ISIS defense is established in a medium size urban area with some civilian population to be used as human shields, a big net of tunnels to comunicate different key points and a well knowledge of the surroundings to avoid the enemy to enter the town but if it happens they may have a few strongpoints well entrenched with a lot of IEDs deployed to resist.
Sometimes when they want to cover a retreat from a position they let a few suicides at their back and they get out during the night, also I have not confirm it but it is possible that sometimes they use light forces equipped with technicals and a few ATGMs to delay the enemy and screen the movements of the main force.
ISIS understands well that the objective is not to build positions with very gross walls but rather difficult to locate because once it is known it is just a matter of time that jets, helicopters or artillery will reduce it to ashes.
Oposite to the ISIS “doctrine” has been the finding of tanks being used as pillboxes on fixed positions covered at the top by the roof of a house, while we are not sure if it was because of the lack of fuel for their tanks in our opinion it just represents a desperate decision to use a valuable tank that otherwise would be absolutely useless.
Some elements normal for every army like dig trenches, put obstacles for the vehicles, clear the fields of fire, demolish buildings to cut roads, build barriers to avoid enemy to see them or even use blankets to cover certain areas or certain gaps on tunnels are also typical of Daesh.
Sometimes we have even seen them build something like petrol moats to act as fire barriers and above all again generate smoke against enemy observation both from ground and air.
The defense on open terrain is uncommon because it means huge disadvantages for them because of the lack of heavy armor, materials to build defensive lines in deepth, unexperience on that field, and exposure to enemy observation especially of the fixed positions.
We think that populated locations are their guide and reference to establish defensive positions and it is very likely from their point of view that every urban stronghold has the means to protect its position and at a certain degree its surroundings with its own material, while there must be something like “motorized reserves” by using technicals and civilian vehicles ready to be moved when one stronghold is attacked by a superior force, this may specially work in terms of ATGMs, a relatively expensive, scarce and vital weapon to defeat the core of the armored forces attacking them, however if the fight goes inside the town things would work different and evolve to something very close to an attrition battle.
While in our opinion there is not a clear way of defend by ISIS in terms of formations like a perimeter defense or a reverse slope or so in our opinion they tend to use a mix of them and specially prepare ambushes in some relatively open terrain inside the towns, in places like parks, parkings, or big buildings or complex of buildings with some open ground surrounding them.
ISIS antitank defense engagement ranges table
How does ISIS engage armored forces, and especially tanks?
If we think it cold, ISIS on the ground is facing an outmatching armor, in Iraq they fight against M1A1 Abrams and T-72Ms, in Syria they fight against T-90s, T-72Bs from advanced variants and other capable tanks, and against Turkey they are fighting against Leopard 2A4s and M-60Ts, try to battle them as equals by counterposing their own armored forces wasn’t a viable option for ISIS and so they have developed quite complex but not new antitank tactics.
The best long range AT weapon of ISIS is the ATGM, while they have operated a lot of ATGMs we can say that the 9M111 Fagot, 9M113 Konkurs and 9M133 Kornet are the most common among their forces, while missles like the Konkurs or the Kornet maybe are not able to deal at the front with the most advanced tanks like the M1A1 or the T-90 it is sure that every ISIS ATGM hitting the side will probably penetrate and cause big damage to even the most advanced tanks.
At medium ranges from approximately 1.200 or less metres the best ISIS weapon is the recoilless rifle, normally a 73 mm SPG-9 but also B-10s or M40s, very effective against modern tanks if they hit them on the sides but they need a certain degree of training to be fired, in exchange they are much cheaper than ATGMs and so they can also be used against lightly armroed vehicles and infantry.
Finally at close ranges like 400 metres or less they use RPGs, normally RPG-7s but sometimes M72 LAWs or similar one-shot bazookas, also for area denial or to canalize enemy forces they employ important amounts of minefields using both conventional or DIY mines, they also employ heavy weapons like 12,7, 14 and 23 mm calibers against lightly armored vehicles and hand grenades or even antitank grenades at very close range.
Another tactic used by ISIS to engage enemy armor consist in use large concentrations of mortar fire, that is a very common tactic among profesional armies but not so common in the case of non-state actors with small amounts of ammunition at their dispposal, it has not been widely documented but on the claimed page of 15 vehicles destroyed by ISIS in Syria two or one were because of likely or confirmed mortar fire, this gives us a percentage of 7,5% to 14% by comparison the ATGMs, the most effective weapon of the Caliphate represented slightly more than 50%. The problem is that some weapons are better suited to be recorded than others and mortars are not good for that purpose because you need more than one camera and they are not as predictable and spectacular so maybe they do not appear on ISIS propaganda.
While some may ask why for example mines/IEDs are not so effective in my opinion it has a big relation with a good training because sometimes apart from the most obvious avenues of approach like roads or lanes they are not very good at identify the enemy attack directions and also they don´t have massive amounts of this kind of weapons, something very important when you want to deny areas.
Since the begin of the SCW on 2011 the use of ATGMs by every side has been very basic, normally it was a group of a few men with the launcher and the missiles who sighted and attacked an enemy force, but since the begining of 2017 we have seen an increasing refinement on the ISIS way of use of ATGMs, especially against the Turkish armor in Al-Bab.
For example let’s imagine a normal situation near Al-Bab, a formation of 4 Turkish M-60Ts is facing ISIS, M-60T is impermeable to every ISIS weapon so they must be attacked from the sides, but this unit is formed covering a big arch and so if one ATGM is shot it is very likely that one of the tanks will be able to locate the place where it was fired and open fire, from this situation arises a new necessity for ISIS, that is to strike more than one vehicle at the same time, a tactic that also leads to a bigger capability to destroy enemy vehicles because they will not have as much time to react.
We have seen a few recent double and even triple simultaneous ATGM strikes against a single unit of armored vehicles, what is a big problem to deal. This kind of attacks at the same time from different positions indicate a relatively high level of train and coordination because it requires to have previously selected the positions for more than one ATGM launcher and an officer to coordinate the action or at least pre-establish a common plan.
And that is the other point, the experience show us that ISIS has been able to correctly guess the best firing points against enemy armor and also a flexible enough force to move the scarce resources when and where they are required.
Also sometimes they use tunnels to position themselves behind the armored forces and strike them from the back where they are very vulnerable.
IEDs and mines
Daesh gathered a lot of experience about IEDs during the years of the occupation when they were normally planted on the expected roads where the foreign convoys were going to pass. There were a few types of IEDs like those using an impact fuse or those remotely activated by a phone call, also when attacking civilians, another field where AQI accumulated extensive experience, the use of artifacts with timeserver was possible.
But IEDs are not just hidden bombs but also for example DIY hand grenades used to equip their infantry.
While the use of this kind of artifacts to ambush Iraqi or Syrian forces as it was done during the occupation has had a paper during the Caliphate operations it is true that the main objective has shifted in favor of some new roles.
Fist of all when ISIS retires from a location they let it filled with hundreds of hidden booby traps used to continually produce loses to its enemies and so slowly bleed them out, also they are being used as a delay tactic to slow the enemy advance by randomly, and a lot of times hastily putting them on the likely enemy avenues of approach.
Finally we find quite likely that they use them as a typical mean to strenght some positions by putting fields of IEDs in front of them or to canalize enemy attacks towards some pre-established kill zones.
As Oryx has stated along some very interesting articles ISIS has try a lot of things to do some damage at the air forces that harass them, some of the quite desperate actions like use D-30 guns on AA role or mount captured air-air missiles on trucks to use them as AA platforms have been an obvious fail and they are just intern psychological medicine to show their population and troops that they have specific AA units dedicated to shoot down jets while their true effects are null.
However the ISIS inventory of AA weapons consist of 12,7 mm, 14,5 mm, 23 mm, 37 mm and 57 mm machine guns and guns along with some MANPADs and a few ZSU-23-4 Shilka AA vehicles.
All of those weapons are effective against low flying aircrafts, but specially against helicopters because the jets normally don`t fly so low, for example the AA machine guns may have ranges as much as 2,5 km, 57 mm guns well managed may have a range of about 4 km and MANPADs depending on the model 6 km approximately.
This kind of material just allows for a close point AA defense situating the armament around the objective to protect it, however if they want to give a certain AA cover to some units who are likely to receive helicopter attacks the use of MANPADs AA units mounted on highly flexible civilian vehicles is probably their best option, especially when considering how scarce those weapons are, also the distribution of a few men armed with MANPAD forming a triangle may let them cover bigger areas, but if this consists just in one MANPAD units without coordination with the other ones their efficency must be very low especially considering the very low fly and use of countermeasures by modern helicopters, what makes aircrafts even harder targets for the MANPADs.
While in theory mos of this material is probably near the front close to the expected areas to be attacked by enemy helicopters it is very likely that some important fixed objectives or even important persons of ISIS get a point AA defense protection against possible raids of the Western Special Forces who will normally employ helicopters to go at the back door of ISIS letting those helicopters relatively exposed to this kind of systems.
In the other hand while a ZSU-23-4 vehicle could be relatively effective at close range defense if it is not able to use its radar it is nothing else than a self-propelled ZSU-23-2 and as happens with heavier AA systems ISIS has not been able to operate those radars.
Since the very first moment was obvious for everyone that ISIS wasn’t going to be able to defeat an air force but below that it is true that they have been able to shoot down a few helicopters.
Evolution: The egg wants to be a condor
While the first archaic origins of ISIS are even before 2003 it was after the US invasion of Iraq when the group grew up, especially since Al-Zarqawi took its lead until he was killed on 2006, during that time Al Qaeda Iraq, as they were known, adopted extremely violent methods and at a certian degree the way of think of that epoch has influenced the current ISIS lack of diplomacy derived from their radical think and actions.
Around 2011 the organization was badly wounded so they decided to begin a new “policy” based on attack prisions to liberate religious extremists and recruit them fot the group, later they also took advantage of the Syrian Civil War that had started on 2011 it is possible that during the first moments they acted as a moderate group to get financial and material support something that worked for some time.
But during 2013 the group took off his mask and occupied Raqqa and a big part of East Syria by expulsing the rebels and the Kurdish and again using very violent methods, this provided them with a huge amount of material, territory and population, at this point the true Islamic Caliphate was bornt, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2014 when ISIS made use of their penetration among Iraqi sunnies to hugely defeat the Iraqi Army around Mosul, a victory that was related to the sunnie disenchantment with the sectarian shia politics from Baghdag and an excellent use of psychology during the battles by ISIS.
When the victory over Mosul was completed ISIS was in full expansion of its power, its territories and above all their army.
They sewed a new army in a brief period of time, while it was still based in light infantry and guerrilla material and philosophy they get huge amounts of APCs, IFVs artillery and tanks what lead to the creation of the first armored and mechanized units, birefly they captured the next heavy material:
Artillery: D-30, M198, D-74, D-44, D-20 guns
Tanks: Their core is comprised by T-54/55 and Type 69 (a Chinese copy of the last) while also a few T-62s and T-72s are part of their forces, they also captured M1A1 Abrams, M-60Ts and Leopard 2A4s but they decided to destroy them because of their complexity and other reasons.
Apart from that they also captured huge numbers of personal equipment, ammunitions and light weapons, including mortars, ATGMs and recoilless rifles.
This new DIY combined arms force comprised some conventional artillery, tanks, APCs, survelliance drones, guerrilla motorized infantry units using technicals… While for example a typical T-55 is an outdated tank with a relatively bad armor unable to resist most of the AT weapons on the battlefield they still offer protection against most of the weapons. For example the Kurdish weapons available to penetrate a T-55 would be just their RPGs, their few ATGMs and their recoilless rifles.
The low availability of those AT weapons and the lack of training and experience on their use led to easy ISIL victories by even using outdated tactics from WWII, also the combination of tanks as rams along with the technicals to provide fire support and the dismounted infantry to assault positions was a strong capable force for the Syrian standards.
At that time the violent ISIS methods provoked an international response that led to rearm the Iraqi army, send Western forces and suit a strong air coalition able to make a lot of damage to ISIS, from the military point of view the violent ISIS methods provided them with some advantages and disadvantages:
Advantages: it gave them international fame and in terms of radical sunnism it means that they became the beacon for the yihadis around the world and their supporters, also when their enemies were not surrounded they tended to runaway in certain situations thanks to the psychological impact of the very violent ISIS actions spreaded by their excellent propaganda media and the local support of part of the population.
Disadvantages: all of those advantages gave them fast victories but it also meant that when a force was completely surrounded or it was composed of non-arab or non-sunnie groups they tend to fight fiercely making ISIS advance much harder thanks to their pitiless diplomacy. Also their declarations and acts activated a strong international response that ultimately was vital to defeat ISIS, of course the main element was the air coalition leaded by USA that was able to provide tactical support to Kurdish and Iraqis on the ground and even do damage in the deep of ISIS structure. Also they even get some unnecessary enemies among radical sunnie groups with whom they could have get agreements.
When this final step happened the pressure from the air coalition but also from the SyAF and the RuAF forced them to adapt to a new kind of warfare where they were been continuously harassed from above and so the use of their new hardware was more difficult and required more caution decreasing its effectiveness forcing them to adopt new tricks and tactics.
When ISIS arrived to Syria it was an Iraqi group with around 2.000 fighters, but one year later they controlled a big part of Syria and Iraq with a few tens of thousands of troops and plenty of heavy material, while explain this growth is difficult we think that some reasons are related to the calling effect of their victories among local populations and a intelligent diplomacy towards yihadi groups both from outside and inside Syria and Iraq what ultimately allowed to the creation of a big army in a short period of time able to defend very distant fronts against multiple enemies.
The suicide bomb vehicles are used as a second artillery to produce a first shock before the main echelon assaults the position or as a ram against an entrenched force or a strong point, but the suicide drivers are a relatively expensive and limited weapon on hands of ISIS and so they are probably assigned to a unit depending on its mission and with a pre-stressed amount of VBIEDs at disposal giving the field commander a silver bullet to be used during the critical moments of the battle.
The experience of ISIS with VBIEDs was gathered during the insurgency against USA but those VBIEDs where relatively unpowerful and badly protected in comparison with the threat that we are facing now.
There is probably a certain high degree of centralization to on one hand recruit, brainwash and test suicide drivers and on the other hand design the vehicle to be used and the explosives to fill it.
A typical VBIED would be a chevy with a few hundred kilograms of payload from wich a part is deviated to add armored plates to the vehicle and so protect it from the weaponry that the enemies of ISIS are going to use desperately and in mass against it, this extra protection along with a relatively high speed (probably superior to 100 km/h) make these artifacts a big threat on the battlefield.
Most units from ISIS have mortars and at a certain degree other types of DIY artillery with a low accuracy but with some level of effectiveness when used in mass.
Conventional artillery is not very common and normally it is just seen on the main offensives as a support force along with mortars, although the degree of ability to manage the artillery pieces may vary a lot between different units.
The artillery tends to be used in the same way as VBIEDs to produce a shock before the first assault or even to pound enemy positions especially to defeat some enemy resistance that may slow the main axis of advance or weak fortified positions. They have the problem that most of their pieces are not self-propelled and so they can’t follow the assaulting force at great distances because they are very exposed to enemy aircraft while being towed through the roads.
The best piece of the artillery parque of ISIS probably is the M198 155 mm US howitzer a very accurate gun able to provide a deadly firepower, but the most used piece is by far the Soviet designed D-30 light howitzer, a 122 mm gun relatively easy to manually operate and with a relative light weight perfect to be transported and even hidden from air coalition jets, also its low weight makes it suitable to be installed on platforms such as trucks meaning that ISIS has self-propelled artillery, however a civilian truck is not well suited for pieces like this and so their performance is relatively bad in comparison with military dedicated SPHs.
While conventional artillery is assigned to units depending on ther mission and are probably part of fully dedicated artillery units it is very likely that most of the ISIS units have at least an organic mortar support group or something close to it but still it is dubious the level of ammunition availability for this kind of weapons with high rates of ammunition expenditure.
The mortars mainly comprise they typical 81 and 120 mm calibers and as we have already told looks like every ISIS unit with certain size has its own support group based on mortars, a deadly weapon if its is well managed.
Apart from propaganda the main use of drones by ISIS has been to recognize the terrain before the offensive and probably to correct the artillery fire, so we have seen a lot of times how unarmed ISIS drones were shoot down, this is because they were doing survelliance missions a very useful tool for the ISIS military planners.
The appearance of ISIS armed drones is quite recent and as it could be consider by some as a mere psychological weapon in my opinion is just another weapon with a big psychological impact but also with some level of capacity to help ISIS wear out its enemies by its massive use and with an increasing level of menace, especially to unarmored vehicles transporting ammunition or uncovered infantry in the open.
We are not sure about their way of use but we think that it could be a mix of direct support assigned to a unit or also they act as lonely hunters looking for opportunity victims close to an area of operations limited by its autonomy.
What is sure is that they have been trained to choose their objectives because in our opinion they are looking for open roofs on the vehicles, this is becuase their main aerial bomb is based on a 40 mm grenade with a kill ratius of 5 metres and a very small penetration capacity, so the best way to use it consist on hit somewhere open with a lot of explosives on it, like Humvees but also tanks with the hatch open, a tactic that in spite of be quite homely has proved effective and at a low degree can be considered as another anti armor ISIS weapon.
Also it has some advantages like the low cost of civilian drones and the operators training, and also the cheap ammunition used of course if they face EW equipment they have no chance, but an even bigger force of drones might be the backbone of a low-cost terrorist air force that must not be underestimated.
Snipers, sharpshooters and designated marksmans
The use of snipers (or similar ones) by Iraqi insurgency groups is not new, when they were facing the West superior firepower most tactics shifted to hit & run because it denied the Western to make use of their superior firepower by calling air support and so between these hit and run tactics the sniper played an important role as it was able to do deadly shots from the distance and stay undiscovered.
Generally speaking some of the most common long range rifles on ISIS hands are the U.S M24 using a 7,62 x 51 mm cartridge, the Mosin Nagant using a 7,62 x 54 R cartridge and the king of the popularity, the mythical SVD Dragunov or its foreign copies.
As an idea of their potential the SVD series are accurate enough at around 700 to 800 metres on hands of experienced snipers and with a powerful scope magnification.
Snipers are assigned to the units more as sharpshooters than as snipers to support the forces during the attack or for attrition tactics along with IEDs or so inside urban environments.
A very typical combo is the usage of snipers along with IEDs in abandoned towns, for example when ISIS forces left Sinjar to the Kurdish they let it filled with booby traps and a few snipers to produce some more casualities to their enemies a very efficient cost/effective way to deny the complete control of some area to the enemy and make him divert some sources to it.
Also it must be said that the camouflage knowledge of the main part of the ISIS snipers is quite basic being reduced to some mimicry, also a lot of times they act as anti light armor by using high caliber sniper rifles like the Sayyad-2 able to penetrate Humvees, M117s, M-113s and other light armored vehicles.
Technicals & DIY vehicles
Technicals or as we can call them “gunneds” essentially are civilian SUVs or trucks with a weapon mounted at its back for direct fire support, normally those weapons have no plating and they usually mount the next weapons:
MMGs and assault rifles: sometimes on some vehicles they add firing ports to let the troops inside open fire with its light weaponry, a good improvement while doing mounted attacks.
HMGs: DShKM 12,7 mm, and KPV, ZPU-2 or ZPU-4 of 14,5 mm
AA guns: ZU-23-2 double automatic gun of 23 mm, 57 mm S-60 guns on trucks and sometimes even 37 mm M1939 guns or their Chinese copies.
Recoilless rifles: this is not a common upgrade but when it exists normally uses a U.S M40 of 105 mm mounted on a jeep, this upgrade means a lot because it is thought to be used as a tank hunter by fastly moving to a position an effective tactic against badly trained tank crews.
But sometimes they directly design absolutely new and huge vehicles that I call gunned castles which add a lot of bulletproof plates and a few levels with HMGs mounted on them what creates very strange combinations that remind us to some WWI vehicles. Their objective is to safely transport as much fighters as possible while at the same time those vehicles provide a great suppressive fire in all directions, something vital during frontal attacks on a plain.
In the end we can say that gunneds are the IFVs of the poor and because they are put on good platforms like civilian Toyota pick ups they have a good mobility, a good cross country ability, a low logistic footprint and a high reliability, something vital in combat situations.
From all of the abilities deployed by ISIS on the battlefield the more complex at the moment by far is the use of chemical weapons in limited amounts, while we are not sure if it has been done by trained fighters or by a grave recklessness this is a worrisome issue.
While the use of chemical agents by ISIS has been limited unfortunatelty we can not say that it has been anecdotic nor ineffective.
Most likely all agents came from captured Syrian and Iraq installations where those weapons were already produced and storaged.
But chemical weapons have several things to be known and considered before use them, like direction and speed of the wind, humidity, concentrations needed of the agent to both incapacitate or kill, the use of the precursor substances from the binary system and the dispersion vehicle/weapon to be used what is not an easy ability for an originally guerrilla group.
The ability of ISIS to produce operative chemical weapons is very unlikely so their capacity on this field is closely related to the amount of ready to use ammunitions captured in Syria and Iraq and the level of availability of the dispersion vehicles.
If we take a look at IHS map where 52 confirmed chemical attacks by ISIS have been documented we can see that most of them have taken place against Kurdish both from Iraq and Syria, in our opinion this could be related to a correct ISIS think about the lower readiness of Kurdish against this kind of weapons especially because in theory they haven’t get NBC equipment and training so they are very exposed to gases. Also the use of the agents tends to be more psychological than tactical.
At the moment the degree of mortality reached suggests the use of some common chemical agents like the sarin, the chlorine or the mustard gas, the three present in the Syrian inventory, but fortunately none of those is one of the “top tier” gases of the Syrian government which are the tabun and the VX. From those agents on hands of ISIS the sarin is by far the most powerful.
Of couse the different weapons of ISIS may require different trainings but above all a light infantry training is probably the one that ISIS has been mainly providing, this comprises the use of assault rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, RPGs, basics about movements, fire and maneuver, camouflage, orientation, close combat, basic field fortifications…
Some normal units probably get a specialized training about ATGMs, artillery, snipers, MANPADs, mortars, recoilless rifles and in certain occasions about armored vehicles.
A big part of ISIS comprising experienced yihadis do not need training and also a big part of the local militias supporting them are badly equiped and not very trustable so they probably don’t receive a good preparation.
Finally the core of their recently erected force comes from people and volunteers recruited inside and outside the Caliphate, then they are probably classified, most of them have no military experience but a few may have done the military service or even have served in Syrian or Iraqi army and so they could have very valuable experience as mechanized infantry, light infantry or tanks, if so they may receive new specific training and been sent to those especial units.
It is very likely that most of the light infantry training and especially that locally recruited is trained at its own Wilayat to take advantage of their known of the terrain, society and climate, but this arises the question about their training standards.
We have seen how pupils from ISIS held territory get some ISIS-edited books, so if it has happen at the educational level it is very likely that it has also happened at the military level and so they have produce their own brief and adaptative military manuals for the training camps and their instructors.
Unfortunately we don’t have much information about ISIS training and especially about their local recruiting system, their training philosophy or the duration of the instruction phase.
Deductions about their military organization
The main civilian administrative unit of ISIS is the governorate (Wilayat) with a governor and his subordinates and advisors.
The growth of ISIS was too large and too fast, especially in the case of Syria where they were not as present as in Iraq before 2013, their fast evolution adding groups of globalist yihadis, Chechens, Iraqis and Syrians in both scenaries with huge fronts comprising deserts and towns, desertic and mediterranean climate, and been facing very different threats including Iraqi Kurdish, Syrian Kurdish, rebels from Syria, Turkish supported forces, SAA, Iranian militias etc could not have been done without a great level of decentralization, but the problem arrives when we try to decide what is the true level of military decentralization.
Let’s take the defense of Al-Bab as an example, was it just a defense organized by the corresponding Wilayat or there was a declared theatre of operations charged to one commander independent from the Wilayat? In our opinion the tactical defense in normal situations is mainly responsability of a Wilayat and its commander by providing most of the resources needed to successfully accomplish the mision, while there must be a certain degree of coordination with the Central HQ to apply for new resources and some big strategic or operational operations are prepared by the Central HQ that sends specific elite units and commanders to the area.
There could be a high level of central control over some especial units like tanks, conventional artillery, suicides, drones, highly experienced fighters from outside or MANPADs to be provided at critical moments. At first look we may think that with the increasing pressure of air supremacy the movements may have get more difficult and so the move of fighters and material from the Central HQs in Mosul or Raqqa at distant places is very risky, but this is probably mitigated by placing the bases and training camps near the most likely operational theatres, by this way the Central HQ just would need to give the orders and the especial units would be relatively close to their destinations and so the possibility of been caught by enemy aircraft largely decreases.
Also it is very likely that apart from the political orders and some basic military instructions the autonomy about planning and acting in the battlefield is very high and especially in everything referred to warfare material, for example the Chechens units probably retain a certain degree of autonomy in the battlefield and they buy or get their own weapons from loot, black market or ISIS arsenals at their will.
Finally ISIS presents us a very monolithic and solid image but would be interesting to know how the hierarchy works among different human military groups like Chechens, tribes, Syrians or Iraqis because the existance of so much differences among those groups that sometimes are even lobbies inside ISIS can make the Caliphate much splitted than we actually think.
On this article we are going to have a closer look to the new Turkish tank that has also appeared in Syria, the M-60T1 Sabra.
Fist of all the M-60T Sabra is a very deep upgrade designed in Israel and based on the Magach 7C tank which is in turn based on the M-60 Patton, the Israelis called it Sabra Mk. II but when it was chosen by the Turkish Army it was called M-60T from “Türkiye” (Turkey).
In the end of August, 2016 Turkey launched the Operation Euphrates Shield (OES) with the aim of kick ISIS from some areas in the nort of Syria and also there was a hidden objective to prevent Kurdish from unify their cantons in Syria and ensure survival of some Turkish backed rebel groups.
Since the begin the armored spearhead of the Turkish and its allies during OES was the M-60T Sabra, the tank was quite good and was able to even resist on the front the impact of a 9M133 Kornet, one of the most advanced Russian ATGMs, this is not a small matter as far as the M-60T in the end was based on a tank from the 60s, but despite of that the numerous impacts on the sides of the M-60Ts showed that they still were very vulnerable to the ISIS ATGMs.
The amount of losses of men and material was increasing at a relatively high rate and it finally lead to the appearance of the Leopard 2A4TRs to replace at a certain degree the losses suffered by units equipped with the M-60s.
So the situation was relatively bad and Turkey came up with a new upgrade that has probably been conceived in less than a few months, unless it was a previous secret program, so this is why the M-60T1 probably bornt, to meet the demanding requirements of the new Syrian operational environment.
On 7th February some images of a tank called “M-60T1” merged and that was quite strange as far as we didn’t hear nothing about that upgrade before.
The first interesting thing is the Remote Weapon Station (RWS) that replaces at the left-back of the turret the M85 HMG weapon station, that was not remotely operated, the new RWS uses a typical 12,7 x 99 mm M2 Browning HMG, the new RWS looks like is a N-2000 from the Turkish company Nurol Makinawho has put it on the Ejder Yalçin 4×4 armored vehicle, also it is possible that this product has been developed with some know-how from ASELSAN or could be a SARP RWS from the same Turkish company with a lot of experience in the field of RWS design.
The company provides some information about the N-2000 that is stated to use a DNP-28 ASELSAN night and day vision system and also it can be rotated manually from inside between -20° and +60° in elevation and 360° in azimuth (multi-turn).
In opposition to most tanks in the world the M-60 was one of the few with a commander’s machine gun fired from a protected station without the need to expose himself to the bullets or the shrapnel when firing the machine gun so the motivation of this improve can not be the protection, we think that the reason is due to the optics and at a less extent because of the standarization.
The N-2000 possess good optics, specially for night operations much better than those of the original M-60T M85 machine gun, and also it is the standarization which is a minor point. The M85 is a machine gun only operated in the M-60 series and, in spite of be similar to the M2 Browning it is still different and could have some disadvantages against the M2 that is used in a lot of vehicles and by the Turskish infantry and so it has a less complex logistic.
The other main improvement of the M-60T1 is the “artifact” located at the side of the turret, but before treat it we would like to say that the opinion emitted about the artifact must not be taken as a fact because we are far from sure to be able to say what it is exactly.
The artifact looks comprised of two different elements that we have not been able to ID, the one on the top looks like a Laser Warning Receiver, a device that would be useful just against the 9M133 Kornet, the only laser guided missile on hands of ISIS, the device below could be a camera or a dazzler, the camera could be useful for driving and at close range during urban fighting, but for us it looks fixed so at a certain degree it wouldn’t have sense to install such a big camera fixed in the end we find this second theory less likely.
The lower part of the artifact could be a TLUS LWRS from ASELSAN but unleast some better images appear we can’t be sure.
Also the theory of a non hard-kill APS similar to the Shtora-1 has some weak points as @trubia_t notest because just 8 smoke-launchers on the tank are not enough to fully exploit a system like this.
So in our opinion the most likely and desirable device would be a dazzler similar in concept to the “red eyes” of the T-90’s Shtora, essentially it consists in a special light able to confuse the automatic part of the guidance system from a Semi Automatic Line of Sight (SACLOS) ATGM, a system present in most ATGMs in Syria, with the exception of the 9M14 Malyutka that is MCLOS, that would explain the fixed position looking at the sides of the device, as far as the M-60T front has shown to be very well protected against all the threats in Syria and so the tank does not need protection on the front but rather on the sides were nearly all of the impacts had happened.
It is interesting to note the arid camo paint on the M-60T1 what proves the especialization of this upgrade for the Syrian scenario, at the moment just the Leopard 2A4 TR and a few M-60Ts deployed in Syria had get something like it while most M-60Ts even keep the typical Turkish green camouflage.
We are not sure if this is a prototype or an incoming massive upgrade for M-60Ts but it is interesting to note that Turkey has recently launched a competition to upgrade 40 M-60A3s, 40 Leopard 2A4s and 120 M-60Ts, while of course this has no direct relation with the M-60T1s it makes us think that maybe the M-60T1 is a temporary patch until those upgraded tanks are ready.
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Along 2016 and 2017 have emerged images and videos showing us an exponential increasing use of drones as attack platforms by ISIS and some rebel groups in Syria and Irak, on this article we are going to treat the evolution we have been able to see in their use their capabilities and the projectiles designed by Islamic State.
At first drones were used just for propaganda to record images from above, lately they were used for reconnaissance and intelligence and finally following the logical development ISIS used them on ground attack role.
How threaty they are?: Knowing their secret weapon
At first ISIS used them as SVBIEDs but with not a very high effectiveness, for example on the New York Times on October 2016 was stated: “Of the three known drone attacks in Iraq, only the one involving the Kurdish soldiers caused casualties. “The explosive device inside was disguised as a battery — there was a very small amount of explosives in it, but it was enough to go off and kill them[…]”.
The relatively low degree of effectiveness is related to the relatively cheap series of drones available for ISIS and their small payload capacity.
Normally civilian drones are designed for especific missions and most of them are not designed to wear big payloads as ISIS needs, still they offer a safety space between the capability of the engines and its total weight letting ISIS install relatively small explosives and devices on them.
On December 2016 in the besieged city of Deir ez Zor the pro-Assad forces were able to down two ISIS drones by presumably using some kind of electronic warfare equipment, both drones can be seen on the images below.
Both are civilian drones, the first uses a PG-7V and the second an improved PG-7VM warhead. These ones were rocket-propelled grenades originally intended to be fired from the Soviet rocket launcher RPG-7 with multipurpose capability, and they are able to penetrate more than 20 cm of armor (RHA) or to roughly create an explosion like that of a hand grenade but more powerful.
A PG-7 warhead alone would weight around 1 kg but it would also need a dropping mechanism if it is a tactical support drone, or even a phone or a special device to make the SVBIED exploit at the desired moment unleast the plan is launch the drone straight to the target and make the impact fuze exploit, what could be a difficult task.
While we are not sure if those drones were intended to be SVBIEDs or to be support attack drones they were using typical war material from the region adapted to their new purpose, in spite of use especially designed projectiles.
On November 2016 Conflict Armament Research documented some interesting DIY ” Made in the Caliphate” mortar round fashion artifacts, as can be seen on the images below.
The projectile is formed by five elements: (5) The plastic tail designed to gain stability and so accuracy during the flight (4) The main part of the body is united to the tail and made of the same plastic, it is cylindical and inside (3) it is the manufactured explosive mixture, (1) then it is the pin point steel plain impact fuze and (2) it also has an ingenious safety system by using a pin that needs to be removed to get the projectile armed.
Behind these artifacts there is a much bigger project that includes design, production, know-how and testing, what tells us a lot about ISIS State-like capabilities, but still if we have a closer look to some of them we will see that they are not mass pruced but manufactured because their lines are not equal and perfect on every product, we may call this kind of middle way between DIY and industrial product a “DIY/2”.
We have been able to make a rough estimation of the explosive inside the projectiles on the images above, and they have a volume of 40 to 70 cm3 to be filled with an ISIS produced DIY/2 explosive mix with less power than a military one.
Conflict Amamente Research show us on its excellent document that ISIS has been able to produce plastic fuzes so, why do not use those on these artifacts?. In my opinion when the projectile is falling it is good for the accuracy that most of the weight is on the nose where the fuze is and so if the projectile is so light a fuze composed of steel has a great advantage over a plastic one providing the desired “nose-falling” effect.
Also some may think that this looks like a DIY/2 mortar round, but this can not be true because the “projection cartridge” (as we call it in Spanish) needed to fire a mortar round would destroy the whole projectile if it was made of plastic.
Finally if we compare the ISIS designed projectiles with the adapted PG-7s we will find out that for every PG-7 at least 3 ISIS projectiles probably can be carried by a drone, but to attack an armored vehicle, even like a humvee, just a PG-7 can be effective so If I were a terrorist I would use PG-7s against highly protected targets while ISIS projectiles against enemy exposed infantry or unprotected vehicles. In the end even a M1 Abrams hasn’t got protection enough on the roof to deal with a PG-7.
But here comes the other question: Accuracy.
These drones can fly very high but if it is too high they can loose a lot of autonomy and also their payload is very low so there is no possibility to install even some kind of primitive aim device so everything must be done literally by the eye of the operator. If conditions are good without wind nor rain and the altitude is low, I would say no more than 100 metres, a well trained operator might be able to calculate with some precision the dropping, but if we are speaking of a PG-7 warhead not designed to fall from the sky it is very probable that the operator needs to send the drone as a SVBIED straight to the target in order to let the fuze of the PG-7 impact on the target.
Let’s have a closer look to another recently released ISIS video, on this one we see another civilian drone, some claimed that it was one called “X8 Skywalker” while I don’t think it is this model probably they are quite similar products, so for example there is a video on Youtube of a flying X8 that goes extreme and flies at an altitude of 5.341 metres!. Also its payload can be as much as 2 kg, and its price is around 180$ to 250$. This could be considered as a representative example for a typical ISIS drone.
On the images above we see more interesting projectiles, in this case the drone mounts two artifacts, one per wing, and they are composed by a similar tail of that of the projectile treated above.
In the case of the artifact used on the attack while we can’t know its size I would say that it has a similar white plastic tail as other ISIS designs while in this case it is coupled with what looks like a 40 mm grenade typical from Western grenade launchers or even a OG-7V HE-Fragmentation warhead designed for RPG-7s.
Also when this artifact exploits just at a few metres from a group of 5 men it produces minor injuries to two of them while heavy injuries to the other three, and this with a relatively accurate attack.
If we do a comparison, what could be the cost of an ISIS SVBIED including car, oil, the man, the explosives and the typical add on armour?. Just the car should cost several times the drone, but still both are different weapons meant for different situations. For example in my opinion every unit of ground based VBIEDs can be a very powerful tactical weapon while a few drones can be useful for a squad or a company of ISIS but not for a whole offensive, and even more if the enemy is digged in fortified areas.
Would also be interesting to see if ISIS includes thermal or infared cameras on its drones, what could be an interesting option for them.
Also I know that this is speculation, but what about the use of big formations of like 20 drones or so, a true unmanned air force ideally suited for non-state actors, maybe the combination of something we may call mini-carpet-drone-bombings could be effective in some situations, or the use of small wings of drones to attack objectives in succession looking if the first drone has succeed and sending another if not, like a true air force does. If this hasn’t happen yet it could be for two reasons: The less important is that the drones, specially those with a certain size are available for ISIS just in limited quantities, but the most important is that they would need a real training program of drone operators, what must be the real challenge for non-state actors. The money should not be an issue as far as buy for example 100 X8s might cost, going extreme, as much as 40.000$ what isn’t a problem for an organization able to earn billions of dollars every year.
I must also say that during the propagandistic video a drone was recording the other drone so it is possible that ISIS has some ability operating at least small groups of drones simultaneously.
Finally I would like to say that new imaginative and unpredictable tactics using bigger drones formations could be expected if ISIS has time enough.
They are vulnerable
Teach the ground soldiers to fire at the drones could be okay if they are able to mass enough muzzles firing and there is no risk of betray their positions to other ISIS weapons like mortars, but still it is a relatively costly measure. From my point of view the best way to deal with them would be to make troops aware of the threat and so survey the sky and hide when they see or hear something.
Finally as equipment especially designed to combat drones we should not forget that these are civilian drones with badly protected links between the machine and the operator and so they are very vulnerable to minimum electronic warfare countermeasures so apart from specialized EW units I think that the use of relatively cheap devices designed to inhibit the link between the operator and the machine could be enough to effectively deal with the increasing threat that apparently drones possess on the hybrid battlefield.
The B of VBIED means “Borne” we did not correct that fail when the article was released
Firstly, and before we start, we would like to point out that in this analysis we are going to use the more widely used acronym “VBIED” or “SVBIED” which means Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device, however we believe acronyms like VB or simply SVB would be equally appropriate. Also we must stress that the terms “Suicide” SVBIED and the “Non Suicide” VBIED are namely used as synonyms because at the moment we have just seen very few unmanned VBIEDs, however in the future it is very likely that this difference is going to be more relevant.
The use of Suicide Bomb Vehicles with Improvised Explosive Devices is not new and for what interest us it mainly dates back to the days of the Iraqi insurgency against the U.S starting in 2003, however throughout history we have seen somehow similar behaviors like the infamous Japanese Kamikazes at the end of WWII.
During the war on terror SVBIEDs were mainly used as strategic terror weapons rather than as tactical weapons on the battlefield, this is because the availability of “volunteers” eager to sacrifice themselves on these kind of actions has always been relatively low and so very valuable for terrorist groups that preferred to use them as terror weapons, however never in history a terrorist group, a State and an army were combined together to get the necessary resources to recruit such a high number of suicides drivers, allowing for the VBIED to be considered by Daesh as a tactical weapon rather than just a terror weapon.
ISIS created a new situation thanks to a proto-state organization able to group together a large powerful media, military and political brainwashing machine capable to assemble a true organization with logistics, experts, technicians and operators ready to be the bone and the muscle of the fleet of suicide vehicles that support ISIS military operations on the field.
The VBIEDs Conceptual Framework
As “ISIS Study Group” released, there is a branch of the ISIS Operations Planning Team specifically dedicated to the IEDs, however we are not exactly sure about what this acronym truly stands for, whether it is just IEDs or VBIEDs or something else.
From a “philosophical” point of view the SVBIED concept is far wider than previously thought of because it is an organic composition created as a strike force element, as a fully contained design, as a vehicle, as a suicide operation and as an explosive device.
Force: as part of the elements comprising ISIS military forces in the battlefield every SVBIED acts as a unit that can also operate along other VBIEDs and drones while remaining under the orders or the direct guidance of a supervisor.
Design: every VBIED is produced out of a different civilian vehicle, from cars to tanks every job is different and every job requires a certain degree of specific design to determine its payload, speed and armour which requires some level of experience and technician.
Vehicle: a VBIED is a moving object propelled by a combustion engine and moving on tracks or wheels and able to be directed at will.
Suicide: SVBIEDs have a human driver willing to die with the vehicle and who is going to drive it until the objective and set off the charge when at the desired right moment.
Explosive: a VBIED is never complete without a big payload comprised of explosives to be detonated on the suicide driver’s command.
From these fundamental elements we can make out that ISIS have created an effective support network to fulfil the requirements of SVBIEDs operations on behalf of the Caliphate both for terror and tactical operations.
One key factor is the training of the suicide drivers, because they are the true brain of the operation. First of all they must be acquainted with the area where they are going to operate so at first they probably use Google Earth and similar tools to get an overall impression, then they probably do an eye inspection to determine the most convenient avenues of approach, finally and if available they do additional reconnaissance by drone.
It is also likely that the drivers get some training both to drive through rough terrain and special driving to avoid being hit by enemy weapons, also they are trained to choose their objectives and establish a priority list between them. It is also possible that they receive a psychological preparation and even some kind of narcotics or stimulants for the accomplishment of their mission.
The overall design of vehicle, modifications and explosive payload are specifically interrelated elements, a key factor relies on the engine and the weight of the vehicle, thanks to those elements they can determine the approximate maximum payload, and the weight of the armour and explosives to be added.
VBIEDs used to be true lone wolves in the battlefield acting on a few vague and general instructions, but over time we have witnessed the use of increasingly sophisticated tactics including VBIED “fireteams” with 2 attacking vehicles to take advantage of their full potential and even a “live” survey and command network supporting and guiding them by the use of drones, a true improvement in the command ability that leads to a far better effectiveness.
Also there must be some sort of a logistic element able to put out with the amount of VBIEDs needed by the military planners whom would determine which units are going to receive them in first place.
Outlining the Threat
A typical ISIS VBIED is a civilian 4×4 with homemade armour at the front and side fenders with a maximum thickness at some parts of the front between 70 to 150 mm, a payload of 1.500 kg and able to reach high speeds, more than 90 km/h with a lethal air blast range of 60 metres.
As a general estimate we believe that a normal ISIS VBIED has much more than various hundred of metres of effective shrapnel radius, while that of a tank and its crew would be between 5 to 50 metres depending on the model of the tank and the characteristics of the VBIED and other elements.
All of these characteristics mix up resulting in a powerful weapon that is very fast and very difficult to disable just by using ordinary bullets and also very hard to destroy just by using ordinary infantry weapons at a certain range, like RPGs, recoilless rifles or low rate of fire weaponry. The reason for this is the high speed of the VBIEDs. Most of the long-range ground-based anti-tank weapons were designed to deal with older tanks (and APCs), and often times, especially with older models, these were never faster than 60 km/h, thus intended for targets moving about a 33% slower than the typical VBIED in the best of the cases which is why most conventional AT weapons are not so effective.
The effective use of a VBIED depend on a lot of external factors like the type of terrain, the cover offered in the area for the targets, obstacles like trenches, earthen bags or barriers, the dispersion of the enemy troops and also depends a lot on the ability of the driver to choose the targets.
Finally one of the main advantages of the VBIEDs over other weapons is their demoralizing and shocking effects among the troops, this happens mainly because nobody likes to run away from an armed terrorist trying to blow up its own vehicle nearby and because human psychology tends to overestimate the enemy in a state of shock, hence most troops at the front might get develop bad habits which hamper their effectiveness in future engagements. This psychological shortcoming must be properly addressed through training and clear cut and well known-by-all procedures to allow the soldiers to have a clear idea of what to expect and how to react in these cases instead of allowing themselves to be dominated by panic.
Finally it must be said that ISIS is constantly improving the efficiency of its VBIED attacks by using a more sophisticated survey and command network which eventually use drones to guide the suicides during their attacks posing a much bigger threat than in the older methods of operation.
While most ISIS VBIEDs have just a light reinforced skin, quite a relevant number of them are based on tanks, IFVs, APCs and bulldozers with certainly heavy amour plating.
In these less frequent cases the use of HMGs is less effective while obstacles like trenches require much more work to be effective and only AT mines are able to defeat these kind of threats.
Although ATGMs are very efficient against this kind of targets but also slow firing guns like recoilless rifles, AT guns, and tanks guns can also be very effective in the right circumstances.
Heavy Machine Guns & Others
The M2 Browning with a 12,7 x 99 mm cartridge, the DShK and the NSV with a 12,7 x 108 mm cartridge or the KPV with a 14,5 x 114 mm cartridge can all penetrate at 100 to 200 metres most of the ISIS VBIEDs by using AP ammunition.
For example the company Igman produces two AP rounds, the BZT-44 API-T and the B-32 API, the first one can penetrate 15 mm of armour plate (HPA-10) at 100 metres while the second can penetrate 20 mm under the same conditions so they are effective against most of ISIS VBIEDs more even if we take in to account that the armour of ISIS VBIEDs is of less quality than the HPA-10 against whom BZT-44 and B-32 have been tested.
Maybe the bigger problem is that 100 metres is not even a safety distance against a VBIED, however the plates installed by ISIS are of less quality than HPA-10 so they should be vulnerable at distances up to 300 to 500 metres in most cases.
So in our opinion to use DShKMs with 12,7 x 108 API rounds as they are being used is a good feature, but the problem is that most times there is not enough training, discipline or clear operational methods so the full potential of these type of heavier weapons is wasted.
Also in general SVBIEDs have some design flaws like unprotected wheels, partially exposed flanks or big windows at the front to let the suicide drive the vehicle, all of these soft spots can be targeted with all kind of calibers, including 5,45, 5,56 and especially 7,62 mm and so massed firing over the vehicles can also help a lot to deal with SVBIEDs.
Also what is applied to HMGs can be applied to high rate of fire guns, like 57 mm S-60s, 23 mm ZU-23-2, 30 mm 2A42 or 2A72s…
The ATGMs are relatively low efficient weapons in so far as they are scarce and primarily designed to defeat highly protected objectives like tanks and bunkers, however their characteristics like high speeds, long ranges and high levels of accuracy even against fast moving targets have proven like real silver bullets against VBIEDs.
We have seen the U.S SFs using the FGM-148 Javelin, the French and Kurdish using the Milan and most commonly the Iraqi and Kurdish forces using the Chinese HJ-8s mounted on Humvees to defeat ISIS VBIEDs.
As we mentioned already ATGMs are scarce and so they should be carefully assigned with the main spearheads attacking in open terrain to protect them from VBIEDs.
Tanks and Heavy Guns
Tank guns like 100 mm D-10, 120 mm M256 or 125 mm 2A46 or heavy guns like 85 mm KS-1s or 100 mm KS-19s can have a role dealing with SVBIEDs but their use tends to be more complex, we will try to cover their use and operations anyway.
The procedure includes spotting, aiming and shooting at a target moving at speeds around 90 km/h and again, we must take into consideration that tanks were designed to deal with tanks which are significantly slower and bigger than SVBIEDs.
But in spite of all of the disadvantages a properly trained crew by Western standards must be able to deal with the threat if it has a good Fire Control System (FCS), and in this case “good” means fast and accurate. Finally the ammunition used is very important, for example a kinetic APFSDS round fired from a German 120 mm L/44 gun, very similar to the M256 of the M1 Abrams can reach speeds around 1.675 m/s at 20º Celsius while in similar circumstances a HEAT round can reach 1.405 m/s and this difference is much bigger in Soviet tanks between APFSDS and HE rounds.
If a VBIED advances at 90 km/h it means that it is going at 25 m/s at this velocity and distance because of their trajectory and speed APFSDS are much effective than HEAT or HE rounds and in the best cases they are even 16% faster, which relates to the speed of the VBIED, meaning that if you calculate the speed of the vehicle as being 25 m/s you will have to predict the distance and velocity to reach the target with 16% more calculations in the best of the cases to fire other non-kinetic rounds.
However as we mentioned, a properly trained crew firing at high rate can deal with VBIED threats.
Trenches and barriers are old but still very effective mobility counter measures, however and foremost time is needed to build them but still this is a cheap and easy counter measure, at the end of the day if Rome Legions were able to build a camp every day in their marches through Germania, Iraqis should not have problem to build trenches or barriers with modern equipment when the advance is stopped for a few hours.
Also the use of caltrops and spiked roadblocks can be very effective against the civilian wheels of most of the ISIS VBIEDs. While this could sound strange we believe that the design of caltrops even with the addition of very small explosive charges to improve their efficiency could help a lot to deal with most civilian VBIEDs.
We must take in to account that caltrops have not changed essentially since the ancient Roman but new designs can help yo deal with SVBIEDs.
How Can We Fight Them?
In Open Terrain
The open terrain is key to defeat ISIS VBIEDs because it allows for earlier awareness on the incoming threat and thus it provides more time to react. In our opinion when a VBIED is spotted some procedures must be automatically put in to action, first of all the dismounted infantry must get cover on the ground or if there were not natural covers they must stay behind the vehicles to avoid the deadly shrapnel.
The dispersion, especially that of unarmored vehicles is highly important to avoid unnecessary losses, and the use interlocking fields of fire with HMGs and automatic guns especially set within fast response teams sufficiently spaced from other force elements ready to coordinate and quickly establish killing zones would be key factors to ensure defeat SVBIED tactics.
In our view most of the ISIS VBIEDs attacking in the open could have been perfectly avoided if a greater level of training and coordination had been available, in most cases VBIEDs were successful it was thanks to the ensued panic and shock among Iraqi units forcing a “stampede” that allowed Isis “wolves” to choose better their prey from among those who were panicking.
The engagements with VBIEDs in urban environment are characterized by:
High level of unpredictability about VBIEDs approach routes
Lack of early warning
High speed of the events
Shortened reaction time due to limited visibility in urban environments
The Junction Defensive Approach
At this stage we have already managed to provide a definite method to defeat ISIS SVBIEDs in urban environments.
First of all urban fighting is very chaotic and the avenues of approach of ISIS VBIEDs can be too many and even difficult to foresee under certain circumstances like after big terrain gains or when the force is overextended, therefore in our opinion it is essential to do a quick but methodical planning of every advance and take into account the paths available for VBIEDs and place there some security forces and a small fast response force.
For example, in our opinion a good enough blocking and security force would be comprised of a Humvee with a driver, a shooter operating a 14,5 mm KPVT HMG, a couple of ready to use RPG-7 against heavy VBIEDs and a couple of combat engineers/sappers specialized in light obstacles, altogether with the usual rifle unit assigned to deal with ISIS infantry.
The specialized light obstacles 2 man team would be the key, their mission would be to establish the best suited place for a disruption point, that would be an area with some distance to the own forces that can close the path just by placing a few obstacles.
The main obstacles would be caltrops but remotely controlled explosives could be used as well, something like a small charge of C4s placed in an armoured box on the disruption point, that explosive would be activated by the operator when the VBIED is close to it. The armoured plate be to prevent light weapons from detonating it. Also mines, especially cable ones can be very effective but they would need further terrain preparations to be installed at the disruption point something difficult if we take in to account that usually those points are exposed to enemy fire.
Regarding the caltrops would be very important to be easily deployed just by throwing them even randomly or the ability to deploy them individually or in lines adhered to a rope or chain (one of the easiest to make).
The Humvee would be operating alongside the caltrops roadblocks and the explosives/mines and rest of the force would take cover on the nearest building at the same time they would fire all of their weapons against the VBIED before it reaches the block position
The “Junction Defensive Approach” is appropriated for small and narrow streets but in wider ones we propose the next formation: The best armored MBT would be at the tip of a wedge formation, while high rate of fire light armored vehicles like BMP-2s, MRAPs or BTR-80s would be slightly backward at the sides of the wedge ready to concentrate their fire on the VBIED if the tank is too slow to destroy it in time.
The addition of a Remote Controlled Weapon Station (RWS) with 12,7 or 14,5 mm HMGs at the top of the tanks and with a mode allowing them to be connected to the gunner and commander sights would provide a much faster response for the tanks that at the moment tend to be too slow to deal with SVBIEDs at close range.
The addition of improved armor plates and spall liners to most of the lightly armored vehicles like M-113s or Humvees can be a good upgrade to prevent them from the effects of shrapnel and close explosions.
The discipline and diligence of the security elements during the operations is one of the keys to defeat ISIS VBIEDs because as we have been able to see so far, most times the troops manning certain positions were mostly unaware of what they were supposed to protect.
Also the use of surveillance drones, even civilian ones overlooking the forward positions can be very effective to deal with VBIEDs by providing some level of early warning.
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Also we want to recommend this excellent articleabout the history of VBIEDs.