Thursday 8 April 2021

Fighting The Tide: The Islamic State’s Desperate Attempts to Combat Coalition Airpower

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Starting in June 2014, Coalition airstrikes conducted on positions, vehicles and high-ranking members of the Islamic State have taken a heavy toll on the group. These airstrikes combined with increased bombardements conducted by the Russian Air Force (RuAF) ultimately proved to be decisive in determining the outcome of many of the offensives conducted by and against the Islamic State. The Battle for Kobanî, where Coalition airpower played a decisive role in the defence of the city, first made painfully clear the vulnerability of Islamic State forces to aircraft armed with precision-guided munitions.

Although the Islamic State had no lack of captured surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) nor launchers required to launch them, it lacked the expertise to turn these often derelict systems into operational systems capable of hitting any foe in the air. Indeed, only pickup-mounted anti-aircraft guns and the limited amount of man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) in the hands of the Islamic State (even including some North Korean examples) proved capable of inflicting damage to or downing opposing aircraft and helicopters, most often in Iraq.
The capture of two fully operational S-125 (NATO designation: SA-3) batteries in between Hama and Aleppo in September 2014 and near T4 airbase in December 2016 did not help the Islamic State in any way, as it was not only incapable of operating these sophisticated systems, but unable to transport them to any of its strongholds throughout Syria in the first place. Utilisation of one of the S-75 (SA-2) missiles it managed to capture back in 2014 was in turn impeded by the fact that no launcher was captured along with it, though a lack of expertise in operating the aging system would surely have prevented its use otherwise. 

The usage of several 2P25 launch systems, part of the 2K12 Kub (SA-6) SAM complex, captured near Deir ez-Zor in 2014 was foiled by the lack of any missiles and significant damage on the launcher itself. More promising was a capture of a 2K12 Kub battery in Deir ez-Zor in January 2016, which did provide the Islamic State with an operational SURN 1S19 radar system and intact launchers. However, these systems were in such a sorry state that returning them to operational condition would have been nigh impossible, not to mention the bad condition of many of the associated missiles. [1] The whole site was said to have been bombed and destroyed by the RuAF shortly after its capture, which turned out to be a case of Russian disinformation after one of the intact launchers was later seen employed as a VBIED. [2]

The capture of Tabqa airbase on the 24th of August 2014 provided Islamic State with an undisclosed number of R-3S, R-13M and R-60 air-to-air missiles (AAMs) originally intended to be used with the two resident squadrons flying MiG-21 fighter jets. The terrorist group subsequently moved a batch of these missiles to Raqqa, where it attemped to convert them to the surface-to-air role. This progress was filmed by one of the project leaders, who was subsequently arrested at a rebel checkpoint. The footage was then given to SkyNews, which first reported on the conversion of R-13Ms to the surface-to-air role on the 6th of January 2016. [3]

While the project in Raqqa appears to have ended in failure, with its project leader in rebel custody, these setbacks did little to deter Islamic State from continuing its efforts to repurpose AAMs into missiles that could be succesfully launched from the ground. Looking to maximise the chances of success, it began to distribute the missiles throughout the territories it controlled, likely hoping for one of its units to succeed in turning the otherwise useless munitions into potent weapons. This not only included the several Wilayats (governorates) located throughout Syria, but also those in Iraq, which became the recipients of several batches of missiles that were originally captured in Syria.
Unsurprisingly, all of these efforts ended in failure as well, with most missiles left unused in IS weapon depots until found by SDF, regime forces or Iraqi forces (large stashes were encountered in Raqqa, Tabqa, Deir ez-Zor, Hama and Mosul). Other Islamic State units attemped to make the most out of them and used the AAMs as DIY (unguided) munitions, resulting in an extremely inaccurate rocket with a small warhead. Had the Islamic State actually succeeded in adapting these missiles to their new role, their age, limited range and the fact that they would quickly have ran out of stocks would have made their effect on Coalition airpower a limited one all the same.

Tadmur, captured on the 20th of May 2015, and the third airbase to fell in the hands of the Islamic State in Syria, also provided the Islamic State with large numbers of air-to-air missiles and even anti-radiation missiles (designed to be used by aircraft against ground radars). [4] Tadmur was previously home to a squadron flying MiG-25PD(S) interceptors, but as these aircraft were gradually withdrawn from service, the four remaining MiG-25s left for T4 airbase in late 2013. Their associated missiles remained however, stored away in two of Tadmur's sixteen Hardened Aircraft Shelters. When the fighters of the Islamic State overran the airbase, it not not only encountered dozens of R-40 air-to-air missiles but also large numbers of Kh-28 anti-radiation missiles, likely intended for use on Su-22s and Su-24s stationed at the nearby T4 airbase but never transported there.

While it was extremely unlikely that the Islamic State would be able to turn the Kh-28s and its 140kg heavy warhead into anything useful other than an IED or DIY surface-to-surface rocket, it too distributed these missiles (along with several dozen R-40 AAMs) throughout its territories in Syria and Iraq, ultimately ending up in both Raqqa and Mosul. [5] [6] [7] There was some fear that some of the missiles in Mosul were being modified to carry mustard gas, although there is no indication to suggest that this ever took place. Instead, IS likely envisaged using the huge missiles as unguided rockets, an idea that was probably quickly abandoned because of their unwieldiness and the small chance of hitting any target with even a remote degree of accuracy.
The Islamic State ultimately did find a more fitting role for some of the R-40 missiles that were left behind in Syria. Two variants of the R-40 were captured: the semi-active radar homing guided R-40RD and the infrared-guided R-40TD. As the R-40RD requires an on-board radar to lock on to the targeted aircraft, it was useless for the Islamic State in its intended role. The R-40TD on the other hand is guided by its infrared warhead, and does not require guidance by an on-board radar.
When regime forces entered one of the recently captured Hardened Aircraft Shelters at Tadmur in March 2017, they encountered a dump truck modified precisely for this purpose – to carry and launch a single R-40TD. The missile, installed on a specially designed platform, could be aimed by using the dump truck's tipper mechanism. As the R-40 was designed to hit large and fast flying targets, it comes with a 70kg heavy warhead, enabling the missile to destroy most targets by only exploding in the vicinity of the targeted aircraft. Although the R-40TD would appear to be mounted upside down, the attachment points that connect it with the MiG-25's pylons are located on the top of the missile, creating the false image the missile sits inverted. As no aircraft or helicopters were reported to have been shot down over Tadmur, it will likely never become known if the system was ever actually used. 
Several similar modifications of the R-3S, the R-13M, the R-60 and the R-73 were seen in Yugoslavia in an attempt to counter the Coalition airpower here. Similary mounted on trucks, none ever scored a hit. The SyAAF took it one step further and experimented with launching R-40TDs at ground targets back in 2014, unsurprisingly with very poor results. [8]

In its increasingly desperate efforts to address the threat of Coalition airpower in Iraq, the Islamic State resorted to measures such as using conventional artillery as makeshift anti-aircraft guns, praying for the remote chance of achieving a direct hit on enemy aircraft flying high in the sky to bring them down. [9] First shown off in March 2016, these truck-mounted 122mm D-30 howitzers of the Al-Farouq Platoon (of the Wilayat Ninawa Air Defence Battalion) were seen firing at U.S. Navy (E)P-3 spy planes used for signals intelligence (SIGINT) missions over Mosul. The use of this weaponry, ordinarily employed as conventional artillery against ground targets only, was highly unconventional, and highlighted the Islamic State's severe lack of means to counter the Coalition's overwhelming air assets.

The slow-flying (E)P-3s, usually moving in a circular pattern, must have been a thorn in the eye of the Islamic State, which, in contrast with fast flying jets also used in the region, appeared as though there was a chance of shooting them down in this manner. Despite the fact that the high-powered artillery is capable of reaching the altitude at which these aircraft operate, the fact that their High Explosive (HE) munition lacks any type of proximity- or anti-aircraft fuse means they have to score a direct hit on their target in order to disable it, an almost impossible feat to accomplish.

Although this practise might appear to be a waste of time and precious munition, the Islamic State is not the first to resort to such tactics. Indeed, Mujahideen are known to have employed mortar- and RPG-fire against Soviet helicopters during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Iranian artillery targeted low-flying Iraqi helicopters during the Iran-Iraq War as well. Of course, neither of these cases resulted in any reported aircraft losses or even minor damage being done, as the use of such desperate tactics only results in either a complete destruction of the target or a complete miss.

The Islamic State also attempted to create solutions to mitigate the targeting of Islamic State armour by Coalition aircraft. Left defenceless against fast jets and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) circling overhead, the Islamic State's only viable option was to decrease the chances of detection of its forces, leading to interesting adaptations on the battlefield. One example is the production on several types of camouflage uniforms with an aluminium lining to prevent forward-looking infrared (FLIR) targeting pods from picking up the heat source of the soldier.

While these methods are relatively straightforward and easy to implement, the camouflaging of an object as large as a tank required a wholly different approach, as clearly evidenced on the T-55 tank below. The suspended rope-like components that make up the camouflage are believed to be leather strips, and have a similar function to the camouflage uniforms mentioned above.

Unsurprisingly, nearly all of the tanks upgraded with multi-spectral camouflage would be deployed to Wilayat al-Barakah (al-Hasakah governorate), where the Islamic State was on the offensive against not only government forces but mainly the YPG. [10] The latter could count on heavy Coalition air support, which would play a vital role in stopping the Islamic State's advance in this region.

Similar to other Islamic State armour upgrades, the effectiveness of the multi-spectral camouflage at deceiving Coalition airpower remains largely unknown. However, as no tank upgraded with this type of camouflage has ever been seen targeted in footage of Coalition airstrikes, or has otherwise been spotted destroyed by a presumed airstrike on the ground in Syria, it might indeed have proved effective at deceiving Coalition aircraft and thus avoiding detection.

Another way to avoid being struck from above is by making sure that more visible decoys are on the receiving end of precision-guided munitions instead. For this purpose, the Islamic State manufactured a whole range of decoys that even included a number of fake tanks. That said, many of these were of questionable build quality, and it is likely that even with a camouflage pattern they still would have stood out as a sore thumb on the plains of Iraq and Syria, something a bearded mannequin posing as crew was unlikely to change.

Questionable build quality was far from the only problem hampering the successful usage of tank decoys, as it seems the designer of many of the decoys had little idea of what modern tanks are actually supposed to look like. This resulted in the deployment of several decoys around Mosul in 2017 that resembled WWII-era Maus super-heavy tanks more than any of the Soviet T-series of tanks in use by IS. Nevertheless, the continued efforts showed how much the Islamic State was still committed to exploit any strategy that could prevent its own fighters and positions from being hit even at this stage of the war.

The production and deployment of decoys was not limited to just tanks, as even M1114 'Humvees', howitzers, multiple rocket launchers and heavy machine guns were used as the basis of a range of decoys. While these might well have fooled the optical devices of older generations of Russian aircraft, it is unlikely that Coalition aircraft equipped with advanced forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras had much problems discerning them from their more lethal brethren.

As the war progressed, the production of decoys quickly became a standardised process. This was especially true in Mosul, where whole factories would be set up to assemble M1114 'Humvee'-based decoys. The fact that it was this model that was being imitated can be attributed to U.S. foreign policy, which left the region flooded with these vehicles, but no security apparatus capable of preventing the Islamic State's forces from capturing them.

While the Islamic State's extensive efforts to combat coalition airpower would ultimately yield little result, they still embodied the group's pragmatic attitude towards finding inventive ways to alleviate their shortcomings. Whatever the task at hand, you can be certain that IS would come up with some surprising solution in attempt to achieve it. Of course, with its Middle Eastern empire in tatters and relieved of much of its former resources, it will now be forced to do so once more in obscurity. Meanwhile, Coalition air pilots will not have lost much sleep over the Islamic State's anti-air endeavours.
[1] Islamic State captures Ayyash weapons depots in largest arms haul of Syrian Civil War
[2] Armour in the Islamic State, the DIY works of Wilayat al-Khayr
[4] Islamic State captures large numbers of radars and missiles at Tadmur (Palmyra) airbase
[6] Iraqi forces discover terrifying arsenal of weapons including mustard gas and dozens of ageing rockets in ISIS arms warehouse
[7] YPG-led SDF captures Soviet-made missiles from ISIS in Raqqa
[9] That Time Soviet Howitzers Were Used as Anti-Aircraft Guns by the Islamic State 
[10] Armour in the Islamic State - The Story of ’The Workshop’

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