Monday, 23 November 2020


By Stijn Mitzer

The following photos were taken during a visit of a Russian journalist to a small armour repair facility in the suburbs of Damascus in June 2017. While already several years old with several of the armoured fighting vehicles pictured likely having been lost to combat damage since the images nevertheless provide an interesting insight into the inner workings of a small Syrian tank workshop.

Even though a job as a mechanic in a conflict is usually a guarantee of relative safety, this particular workshop was unique in that it served both as an armour repair facility and as a defensive structure to stop any rebel incursions from Jobar. In fact, the facility was located (33°32'2"N 36°20'11"E) only some 300 metres away from the actual frontline! Fortunately for the mechanics serving at the facility, no such surprise raids took place before the last pocket of resistance in Jobar was neutralised in March 2018. As a result, the images we discuss here are the rare exception where we get to examine such a workshop while it is still operational.

In the image below, the sad remains of a T-55(A)MV lay in front of a pile of rusty BMP-1 tracks. Having been stripped of most of its components, including nearly all of the Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armour (ERA) tiles on the turret and hull, it appears that this particular T-55 ended its career as a donor vehicle: keeping other vehicles of the same type running, presumably after suffering some type of irreparable damage in combat. Also note the collapsed roof in the background, which really drives home the run-down status of this facility.

Three T-55As still in pristine condition stand guard outside the repair facility. Their good condition is a far cry from the T-55 above or most other T-55s still operational in Syria for that matter. While the vehicles might look ready to head out to the frontline, satellite imagery shows that these tanks were parked in the exact same location from 2015 to early 2018, making it likely they belonged to a resident unit that was tasked with defending the workshop and the area that surrounds it against possible attacks coming from rebel-held Jobar.

Note that the headlights, infrared searchlight and sighting systems are all protected by sandbags in an attempt to protect them from shrapnel from shell or rocket fire landing nearby. As visible on the building behind, the facility came under repeated attacks of small arms and presumably mortar fire, which could inflict serious damage on the otherwise unprotected optical/electrical devices.

Next we see two T-72s that couldn't be more different in the task they fulfill. On the left, a T-72 'Ural' that has been converted into a towing vehicle to haul AFVs that can't move on their own around the facility on the right, a Syrian T-72AV deprived of all its Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armour. This T-72AV is likely operated by a training unit, with the explosive reactive armour removed for use with other tanks serving on the frontline which obviously need it more direly.

The workshop's motor pool quietly gathers dust in one of the storage halls of the facility. Having largely abandoned its aging fleet of Soviet trucks in favour of Russian-delivered GAZ, Ural and KamAZ trucks as well as more reliable and fuel-efficient commercially available vehicles, trucks like the ZIL-131, ZIL-157 and Ural-375 that once formed the backbone of the Syrian Arab Army's vehicle park now rust away in abandoned corners of SyAA bases all throughout Syria.

A SyAA T-55(A)MV has its engine reinstalled after thorough maintenance in the main hall of the armour workshop. Interestingly, while the cannabilised T-55(A)MV earlier in this article has at least some of its ERA tiles still in place, this particular tank was completely stripped of it. This in sharp contrast to the turret of another T-55(A)MV seen further to the rear in the same image, the DIY armour placement of which even saw the installation of ERA tiles on the rear of the turret.

Although the markings on the rear of the tank seen in the second image indicate that the tank once belonged to the 5th Mechanized Division, it is not unplausible that the tank was actually operated by a different unit by the time it entered the workshop for some much needed maintenance.

A BMP-1 is shown undergoing depot-level maintenance, which clearly depicts how cramped the interior of the vehicle is even when the benches for the infantry have been removed. With such a small internal space, it is perhaps unsurprising that the designers of the BMP-1 had to come up with ingenious solutions of where to place the fuel tanks. Unfortunately for the infantry riding inside the BMP, these became the compartments in between the benches and the rear doors respectively. With APCs and IFVs capable of carrying infantry in high demand and with the BMP-1's ruggedness allowing long periods on end of maintenance neglect and abuse on the battlefield, depot-level maintenance must be a rarity for any BMP-1 in Syrian service.

The turret of a T-55(A)MV likely taken from the hull seen in the above image undergoes internal maintenance. Equipped with an advanced fire-control system and some even with an indigenous thermal imaging device, one could argue that the T-55(A)MV presents a more potent adversary than the early-generation T-72 variants (T-72 'Ural', T-72M and T-72M1 respectively) also in Syrian service.

The T-55(A)MV was also the only tank in Syrian service confirmed to be equipped with gun-launched anti-tank guided missiles (GLATGMs) in the form of the 9M117M missile, at least until the delivery of more advanced T-72B variants and T-90s (which in Syrian service are equipped with the 9M119 Svir GLATGM) in 2015.

Another feature of the T-55(A)MV is an extensive array of Kontakt-1 ERA tiles on its turret, hull and sideskirts. Although most remaining operational tanks of this type still have the original configuration, this particular tank had all of its ERA reinstalled in a different fashion. Although this DIY placement certainly looks less professional than the original one, it likely doesn't much effect the protection value that these ERA tiles bring. Also note the row of T-72 roadwheels lined up against the wall just behind the turret.

A collection of tires and truck engines gathers dust in an abandoned corner of the facility, suggesting most are never to be used again.

A battered T-72AV receives some much-needed attention to the wrangled flaps that used to hold the Kontakt-1 ERA-equipped side skirts, which have already fallen off this vehicle. Due to their heavy usage, many T-72AVs were soon left without these side skirts. Indeed, this was one of the more common complaints of tankers of the Republican Guard. One hit by an RPG often results in the whole side skirt falling off, leaving the sides of the tank dangerously exposed to enemy RPG fire. As a simple measure to improve the turret armour, this tank received a bucket of welded metal bars that both acts as slat armour and allows for the stowage of sandbags or other materials to further increase the armour protection.

A mechanic works on the 300 horsepower UTD-20 engine of a BMP-1. With Syria's armoured forces having been engaged in continuous fighting since 2012, there is often little time to undertake crucial repairs, in turn leading to a higher rate of breakdowns in the field. Indeed, regular maintenance of vehicles and equipment has proven to be an overlooked factor in the Syrian Civil War, or in almost any conflict for that matter. As with any sophisticated equipment, components have to be regularly inspected, tested, repaired or even replaced. Considering these facts, the Russian deliveries of more dated equipment like T-62M(Vs) and BRM-1(Ks) is more sensible than delivering more advanced equipment that needs to be more regularly maintained (which also drains manpower) to remain combat efficient.

Stay tuned for articles covering the Syrian Arab Army's major tank and artillery repair workshops in Hama Governorate in the near future!

All photos courtesy of Mikhail Voskresensky of Sputnik.

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Monday, 16 November 2020


By Stijn Mitzer

Guinea-Conakry, officially the Republic of Guinea, is a French-speaking country located in West Africa. Although plagued by poor economic prospects, Guinea has a rapidly growing population of some 12.4 million that inhabit an area slightly larger than that of the United Kingdom, yet remains an underdeveloped nation. Guinea is a Muslim-majority country, with Muslims making up roughly 85% or more of the population.

In addition to being the world's second largest producer of bauxite, Guinea has the dubious honour of having its whole combat fleet sank not by enemy fire, but by pure negligence. At the center of this astonishing feat have been its relatively advanced Soviet Bogomol class patrol boats, which will be the subject of this article.

The Project 02065 Vikhr-III (NATO designation: Bogomol Class) is a class of patrol boats designed and built in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Based on the Project 206MR Vikhr (NATO designation: Matka) class of missile boats, only nine ships were completed before production came to an end in 1989. [1] Armed with a rapid-firing 76mm AK-176 cannon and a 30mm AK-630 close-in weapon system (CIWS), both guided by a MR-123 fire control radar located on top of the bridge, these patrol boats are still potent platforms in the role they were designed for even today.

Interestingly, instead of delivering the Bogomol class boats to countries like Cuba, Vietnam or Yemen, all relatively capable of maintaining and operating advanced naval vessels by the 1980s, the Soviet Union exported four of the nine craft to Guinea and Iraq. Guinea, with a proven track record of negligence and carelessness when it comes to maintaining naval vessels, received arguably the most modern naval vessels of the entire West African coast at a crucial point in history: the fall of the Soviet Union. With its traditional supplier of weaponry, spare parts and technical aid gone, the vessels soon fell in a state of disrepair.

As one of the first French colonies to gain independence (1958) Guinea became a particularly early recipient of Soviet military aid, which first began arriving in the late 1950s. Having established close ties to the Soviet bloc, Guinea's strategic location was fully exploited by both the Soviet Union and Cuba, which used Guinea as a staging base to support independence movements of neighbouring countries that had not yet achieved independence from their colonial rulers. Nonetheless, as a result of fear that close ties to the Soviet Union could leave Guinea vulnerable to attacks by foreign powers, relations with the Soviet bloc waned throughout much of the 1960s. This lasted until closer ties were again established in the late sixties as a result of President Ahmed Sékou Touré's increasing paranoia over an imminent invasion by Portugal. In turn, Portugal became increasingly irritated by Guinea's support for independence movements fighting against Portuguese colonial rule in Guinea-Bissau. [2]

Touré's fears were not for nothing, as in November 1970 a Portuguese commando force consisting of some 200 Portugese-Guinean soldiers and 100 Guinean dissidents commanded by Portugese officers ouright invaded Guinea. Their goal was to overthrow Touré's regime, to kill Guinea-Bissau's independence leader Amílcar Cabral and free 25 Portuguese prisoners, only the latter of which succeeded. [2] Following the Portugese attack, Touré reestablished close ties to the Soviet Union, resulting in the delivery of additional MiGs, tanks and anti-aircraft guns to fend off possible future Portuguese incursions.
To dissuade the Portuguese from ever setting foot on Guinean soil again, a Soviet naval patrol consisting of several naval ships was frequently called to the region. This would turn out to be a precursor of a constant Soviet naval deployment off West Africa, which also included several Tu-95RT maritime surveillance aircraft that periodically deployed to Conakry. Then, in January 1973, following the assassination of Amílcar Cabral in Guinea, a Soviet destroyer moored in Conakry gave chase and captured the perpetrators responsible for the attack and handed them over to Guinean authorities. [3]
As Portugal recognized Bissau's independence in 1974 and slowly began to withdaw from its colonies (except for Macau, which returned to Chinese control in 1999), Touré had little left to fear from the Portuguese. With a large Soviet naval presence becoming a liability rather than an effective defence policy, Touré began to curtail the activities of the Soviets. In 1977, Touré cancelled Soviet access for Tu-95RTs; in late 1978 most of the Soviet and Cuban advisors were sent packing and in early 1979 Guinea posed further restrictions on the movement of Soviet warships in Conakry. This would ultimately put an end to the Soviet hope of building a much larger and permanent naval base in Guinea. [3]

For several years relations remained cool because of disputes over Soviet fishing rights in Guinean territorial waters and the lack of Soviet willingness to provide meaningful economic assistance to Guinea. [4] When Touré died in March 1984, a military coup brought General Lasana Conté to power, who went on to rule Guinea until his death in 2008.
The close relations with the Soviet Union had a profound impact on the fragile Guinean navy. Trained and equipped in the likeness of a Soviet client state directly after its founding, all of the navy's inventory was of Soviet origin. Following Portugal's incursion, the Guinean navy was to be expanded from 150 to 300 men, with another expansion of 150 announced in 1972 [5]. In the same year, personnel began training in China in anticipation for the acquisition of several Chinese patrol boats, the delivery of which never appears to have materialized. [5]
In the early 1970s Guinea's naval inventory consisted of four Poluchat-I class patrol boats armed with two twin 12.7mm heavy machine guns, several P-6 torpedo boats armed with two 533mm torpedo tubes and two dual 25mm cannons and two MO-VI submarine chasers armed with two dual 25mm cannons and side throwing mortars, as well as depth charges for anti-submarine warfare (!). [5] Inadequate maintenance had already led to the sinking of two ships by 1967, with a Soviet technical mission having to intervene in 1971 to prevent the other ships from meeting a similar fate. [5] Even though this improved the operationality of the fleet, most of the ships seldomly left port, with Guinea complaining about a lack of reliability of their equipment and an inadequate supply of spare parts to properly maintain them. [3]

Rather than addressing these issues, the Guinean navy was to undergo the largest upheaval in equipment since its foundation through the delivery of three or four Shershen class patrol boats with the torpedo tubes removed and a single T-43 class minesweeper, which was modified for service in the tropical West African climate. [3] The delivery of these ships marked the last major naval acquisition before the delivery of the Bogomol class ships, which quietly entered service in the late 1980s or early 1990s before being retired several years later. Nonetheless, Guinea continued to receive military equipment worth tens of millions each year from the mid-to-late 1980s, including MiG-21bis fighter aircraft and 9K35 Strela-10 surface-to-air missile systems. [6]

February 2007, although already fallen into disuse, both ships are still securely moored to their pier.

December 2007, the stern of the first ship is already underwater, with the increasing weight slowly dragging the ship further down to the bottom.

August 2008, with high tide only the bridge and radar mast can still be seen protruding above water. The other ship has been moved to the adjacent side of the pier.

December 2009, with low tide more of the first ship's superstructure is visible, including the AK-176 cannon. Several more sunken ships can be seen throughout the harbour.

March 2013, water pressure has caused the AK-176 cannon to detach from the ship. Also note the floating dock on the left.

August 2019, the second Bogomol class has also began taking on water, with only the bow and superstructure still above the waterline. The floating dock that was still in use in 2013 has meanwhile also sunk.

February 2020, the second ship appears to have been saved from its certain fate for now. Waiting to sink again, Guinea would be the only country in the world to have two Bogomol class patrol boats sink three times.

While still of a relatively advanced standard for export clients like Iraq, bringing with it a rapid-firing 76mm AK-176 cannon and AK-630 CIWS, both guided by radar, the Bogomol class was and still is completely in excess to the requirements of a small navy like Guinea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their replacement ships consisted of series of small boats armed with light machine guns only, which are both easier to maintain and operate.
Although Guinea's neighbour Guinea-Bissau is also reported to have received two Bogomol patrol boats in 1988-1990, there is currently no public evidence to suggest this delivery indeed took place. [1] [7] That's not to say that no delivery took place, as these ships could easily have been scrapped or resting on the bottom of a habour even before the advent of commercial satellite imagery. The only other confirmed recipients of Bogomol class ships have been Iraq and Iran (which took over one Iraqi example in 1991), which will be covered in a future article. In Russian service, the ships would eventually be superseded by the more modern Project 10410 (Svetlyak class), and just two are still believed to be in service with Russia's Pacific fleet (PSKR-726 and PSKR-727).

The Sinking of the Bogomols - a saga that demonstrates the Soviet Union's failed policy of delivering advanced weaponry to client states unable to operate and maintain that equipment without significant financial and materiel aid. The results of this policy are still rusting all throughout Africa, either resting at the bottom of a harbour or awaiting disassembly; a painful, yet crumbling, monument to failed ambitions and a past that is slowly fading.


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Monday, 2 November 2020


By Joost Oliemans and Stijn Mitzer
Over time, stories detailing North Korea's arms exports to countries in the Middle East have become more and more common. Though any military link to the DPRK is hardly something nations have been likely to boast about, the actors in these stories are familiar and, in a certain sense, unsurprising. Egypt and Yemen were willing customers in the past, but Iran and Syria (and the non-state actors they support) maintain quite well documented links to the present day. Exposing the extent of these links is by no means trivial and definitely an interesting subject of its own; today however we shed light on a subject that is much less familiar.

Maintaining military parity with your regional neighbours has long been an important consideration in the Middle East, and often an objective bought at considerable expense. Mere monetary costs aren't the only way in which a nation might end up paying for its arms procurements however, and weaponry that at first seemed a bargain has over time become an inconvience to some nations. While it may be long forgotten now, there was a time when North Korean armament was quite advanced compared to what was available on the open market (insofar as that was ever a thing), and their near monopoly on ballistic missile exports to non-(Western- or Soviet-)aligned gave them a significant revenue boost. 

Take the case of the United Arab Emirates. Like surprisingly many countries across the globe, it was at one point quite eager to invest in the latest technology on offer by the DPRK, yet it has carefully avoided making this fact known to observers since. Preciously few images of North Korean arms in the UAE are publically available, and there exist even fewer written sources that detail the history of the deals that were conducted. Yet what little information is available tells an intriguing tale. At the end of the 1980s, the UAE entered negotiations with the DPRK for an arms deal that would alledgedly end up including the transfer of Hwasong-5 missiles (a copy of the R-17E "Scud-B"), anti-aircraft guns, self-propelled artillery, multiple-rocket launchers and munitions in 1989, at a cost of 160 million U.S. dollars. Of course, it is the missiles that are of most interest to international observers, and therefore also the sole aspect about which anything of substance is known. Although a U.S. national intelligence estimate in 1991 suspected between 18 and 24 missiles had been delivered (and an unknown number of launchers), this number was apparently revised upwards to 25 by the time of the 106th Congress on U.S. Policy toward North Korea in 1999. The conventional story is that the UAE was dissatisfied on the quality of the Hwasong-5, and quickly put them in storage awaiting dismantlement. This politically convenient tale doesn't hold up to scrutiny very well however, as we will see later.

In the meantime, it can only be assumed that the rest of the weaponry was inducted into the UAE's armed forces without a hitch, as North Korean artillery systems have been wont to do in a myriad of other militaries in the past. And indeed, somewhere along the way the wrong piece of footage of a military exercise made its way to the public domain, providing us with a first look at what the UAE got for its money.
North Korean 240mm MRLs firing during a UAE armed forces exercise.

These 240mm multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) are well known in the DPRK and such countries as Iran, Myanmar and Angola. At the time of their introduction in North Korea they were some of the longest ranged and heaviest MRLs in existence, capable of lobbing a warhead of 90 kilogrammes at targets up to 43 kilometres away. In the variant received by the UAE, each truck carries twelve tubes, meaning a typical barrage from four vehicles can saturate a target with 48 rockets. The trucks in question are peculiar, and it would take a long time for better footage to emerge that allowed their identification. Of course, one could not expect the UAE itself to be forthcoming with such footage, and in the meantime these particular pieces of armament underwent a transformation that would secure their obscurity for quite some time longer. 

In early June 2020, soldiers of Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) finally wrestled over control over Tarhuna, which had been held by Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA). In the process, they encountered a number of MRLs that were at the time completely unknown. Tarhuna had been a major LNA stronghold in Western Libya, and since the LNA has received military support from the UAE, a link was easily established. The launch tubes themselves were identified easily enough; they were of the same type delivered by Turkey's Roketsan to be installed on the massive Jobaria Defense Systems Multiple Cradle Launcher. The truck and erection mechanism were more of a conundrum however, unless one has prior knowledge of North Korea's arms deliveries to the UAE. Indeed, the erection mechanism is then easily identified as the one used on North Korean twelve-tube 240mm MRLs – which are notably different from those used by other nations. The truck is also of note, being an uparmoured variant of the Italian Iveco 260/330.35 (apparently also known as the ACP90). This type isn't operated by North Korea, but the fact that it for a long time lacked a proper heavy truck industry to support its military needs meant that it often improvised by adapting foreign imported designs. In this case, it would appear that they simply did not deliver the trucks at all, possibly assisting in modifying suitable platforms to carry the MRLs.

The mystery MRL encountered by the GNA upon capturing Tarhuna.
A UAE armed forces-operated Iveco 320.45 WTM tank transporter. The highly similar Iveco 260/330.35 is also thought to be in service.

Since it's unknown how many MRLs the DPRK delivered to the UAE, and the UAE subsequently to the LNA, it is certainly possible that a number still serve in the UAE's armed forces. However, the fact that their unique 240mm munition (which in recent years has seen upgrades to extend their range to 60 or even 70 kilometres, and to include GPS guidance for high-precision targeting) can no longer be delivered without incurring the ire of multiple sanctions regimes means that likely all were modified to fire the Turkish 122mm munition. 
What about the other equipment delivered in 1989? Though the DPRK produces and operates a plethora of self-propelled guns (SPGs), there is just one that would have been very interesting to the UAE in 1989. The so-called Koksan (or Juche gun, in North Korean parlance), was at the time of its introduction a truly unique beast. With an indigenous two-piece munition of 170mm in diameter and an absolutely massive barrel length, it was capable of attaining ranges of some 50 kilometres, the longest of any artillery system of the time. The older 1973 variant was previously exported to Iran, which used it to shell Iraqi-held positions and oil fields in Kuwait (as punishment for their support of Iraq) from outside retaliation range during the Iran-Iraq war. The variant obtained by the UAE is the newer 1989 Koksan however, as rare images from a secluded section at the 2005 IDEX in the UAE betray. Showcased alongside a North Korean ZPU-4, this artillery gun is still one of the most powerful in existence – and certainly in the DPRK. 
The "M-1989" Koksan as displayed at the IDEX 2005 in the UAE.

Is there more? Possibly. A recent documentary by Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger that unraveled the inner workings of North Korean arms deals through the use of a mole included photographs of some North Korean weapons systems. One of these, found in an arms brochure, appears to show an early Hwasong-5 in desert colours. Remarkably, the traditional MAZ-543 transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) has been swapped for one based on the German MAN KAT-1 truck. As we've noted before, the North Koreans had difficulty with producing trucks such as these TELs and thus resorted to importing them, as noted in a 1993 New York Times article. Nevertheless, the camouflage of this particular TEL and its surroundings indicate that this image was not taken in the DPRK. The usual suspects, Iran, Libya or Syria are certainly possible (the latter standing out specifically), but in each of these nations the TEL would have stood out in available imagery. The latter two nations have had their Scud TELs thoroughly exposed by a decade of nation-wide fighting, and the former has always been remarkably open in showing its holdings, rare North Korean TELs included. This leaves the possibility of the photo originating from a nation like the UAE (or even, as we will see, Saudi Arabia), which unlike the aforementioned countries is a prolific user of MAN trucks.

A Hwasong-5 based on a MAN KAT-1 TEL, as seen in a North Korean arms brochure showcased in The Mole: Infiltrating North Korea.

Whatever is the case, the 1989 deal did not quite spell the end for the UAE's North Korean adventures, because despite their supposed dissatisfaction with the Hwasong-5s, they soon entered negotiations for yet another round of ballistic missiles. Delivered in 1999, these systems promptly triggered a U.S. review of the possibility of emplacing sanctions on the UAE under U.S. missile sanctions laws, though the matter was kept under tight wraps. In response, the UAE's Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Mohammed bin Zayid (MbZ) personally assured the U.S. government in response that the total number of ballistic missiles was fewer than 30, divided roughly evenly amongst the Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6 (an upgraded "Scud-C" which can reach targets up to 500 kilometres away), and that no additional systems would be acquired. MbZ then apparently saw an opportunity to turn the situation to the UAE's advantage, and started negotiations for the procurement of MGM-140 ATACMS tactical missiles and MQ-1B Predator UCAVs, in exchange for handing over its ballistic missiles and entering the Missile Technology Control Regime (MCTR). The number of Scuds he acknowledged the UAE had at the time was 38 – a notable increase since the previous count, yet one likely to have been caused not by new deliveries but merely by a lack of accuracy of the first count. When the U.S. wasn't forthcoming with these systems (instead offering unarmed Predator UAVs, and later ATACMS at a price that was considered too steep), the UAE also backed off from the deal and simply retained its missile force. 

Some have speculated that a third delivery of ballistic missiles occurred in the 2000s, but so far there is no conclusive evidence to prove this is indeed the case. Nevertheless, there are reports that indicate a continued involvement from the North Koreans to modern day. Despite U.S. inquiries about the matter, UAE representatives in August 2008 visited the DPRK, just months before a similar visit from a Myanmarese delegation (which, it should be mentioned, even took a look at a "Scud missile factory"). Whether this resulted in any purchase is of course unknown, but as recently as 2015 it was clear relations had not abated much. Through an intermediary, the UAE purchased close to 100 million U.S. dollars' worth of armament in support of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, including machine guns, rifles and rockets. The fact that the Houthis which they are fighting there are themselves equipped with various types of North Korean armament (though none acquired directly in recent years) is perhaps not purely ironic: the UAE's continued purchases of North Korean arms may also be aimed at discouraging the DPRK from providing weaponry to its adversaries. Surprisingly, this did not trigger hefty sanctions on the UAE, which can presumably only be explained by its preferential position as one of the U.S.' staunchest allies on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). 
It is truly remarkable what may be occluded from public knowledge if the interests of the parties involved align to make it so. There is little doubt that the UAE's ventures are by no means unique, yet so long as no new information or imagery leaks chances of these events coming to light are slim. As such, OSINT analysts are reduced to speculation and vague inferences. An interesting case in point is Saudi Arabia, whose strategic capabilities are also one of the most opaque in the world. Their acquisition of Chinese DF-3A intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in 1988 was publically affirmed when they showcased them during a massive military parade in 2014. Much more recent developments are documented sporadically in a variety of sources, but none mention the delivery of Scud-type missile systems to the kingdom. It is therefore quite significant that the former deputy defence minister of Saudi Arabia was presented a glass case with three models of ballistic missiles on visiting the country's strategic missile force in 2013, two of which were not known to be in the Saudi inventory.

Prince Fahd bin Abdullah bin Mohammed Al Saud being presented models of three ballistic missiles presumably in Saudi service in 2013.
The largest of the three was clearly an accurate representation of the DF-3A, and taking the model to be at scale the smallest makes for a close match with the R-17 "Scud", or its North Korean Hwasong-5/6 derivatives. The middle missile is the greatest mystery of the three, featuring what appears to be a distinctive triconic nosecone such as the ones seen on the Hwasong-7 ("Nodong-1") and Hwasong-9 missiles, and the former's foreign variants. Based on such scarce evidence a link with North Korea can hardly be established. Nevertheless, it is clear that some transfer of ballistic missiles yet unknown occurred in Saudi Arabia's murky past – a transfer which it is less comfortable highlighting then that of its Chinese DF-3A IRBMs. The list of countries willing to supply Scud-type systems to Saudi Arabia in this time period is surprisingly short, especially when one considers the indications that a larger, more advanced system was also delivered. 

As arms deals conducted in the previous century remain a matter of extreme secrecy to these nations, there is little hope of conclusively uncovering the full history of North Korean arms sales in the Middle East any time soon. Given the potential embarrassment to the parties in question, these inconvenient weapons are kept securely in military bases behind high fences and bunker doors, or are otherwise dismantled before anyone ever could find out. Will we ever find out the full story? Perhaps. 
Perhaps however, if they are careful enough, the truth will simply die in these dark places.


Sunday, 27 September 2020


By Stijn Mitzer in collaboration with Jakub Janovsky, Dan, and COIN
Armed clashes which commenced early in the morning of the 27th of September 2020 over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh have so far caused considerable human and materiel losses on both sides. The renewed clashes are an extension of the three decades long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and at present the short-term implications can only be guessed at. While solid information regarding materiel losses is scarce, rumours fly wildly – and unconfirmed and false reports are readily repeated for propaganda purposes. This article will attempt to break down all confirmed material losses by carefully studying the footage made available by both warring parties.

Thursday, 14 May 2020


By Joost Oliemans and Stijn Mitzer

Novel information featured in one of our articles for NK News detail the procurement of at least six anti-submarine helicopters from Cuba, once again showing North Korea ensures its armed forces remain well equipped in an era of sanctions and economic hardship.

In aid of Juche: how Cuban anti-submarine helicopters ended up in North Korea

The DPRK attempted to rectify its rudimentary ASW capabilities by dealing with Havana in the early 2000s.

Friday, 28 February 2020


By Stijn Mitzer in collaboration with Jakub Janovsky and Calibre Obscura

Turkish air and ground strikes which commenced late on the 27th of February 2020 on positions of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) and affiliated forces hit a large number of targets throughout Idlib and Aleppo, leading to the complete collapse of government forces along this part of the frontline and allowing rebel forces to continue their advance after recapturing the strategic town of Saraqib. Launched in retaliation after the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in an airstrike, Turkey has now entered a new phase in its war in Syria, and at present the long-term implications can only be guessed at.