Wednesday 28 April 2021


By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
If any lessons can be drawn from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, they are bound to revolve around the stunning effiency of cheap but highly effective unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) and the failure of a wide array of air defence systems, both modern and old, to stop the onslaught brought about by them. For Armenia, the failure to acknowledge its impending defeat led it to fight a costly 44-day war of attrition, suffering severe losses that included some 250 tanks and more tragically, some 5.000 soldiers and reservists, many of which still in their late teens and early twenties. [1]

Nevertheless, the Armenian military could only be expected to be acutely aware of its shortcomings in an era of drone-powered warfare, and it certainly attempted to remedy them with the limited funds it had available. This mainly manifested itself in the acquisition of Russian electronic warfare (EW) systems meant to disrupt the operations of UAVs in one way or another, Tor-M2KM SAM systems that could operate as hunter-killer systems, and 35 9K33 Osa-AKs acquired from Jordan that despite their old age enabled the Armenian military to cover large swaths of Nagorno-Karabakh. As Armenia found out the hard way however, the aforementioned systems could do little but wait in agony as Bayraktar TB2s and loitering munitions began picking them off one by one.
Another method utilised by Armenia entailed the placing of decoy SAM systems nearby real SAM systems in order to lure attacking drones into targeting the decoys, thus saving the real systems from certain destruction. Although this act of 'maskirovka' was highly effective during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, the numbers deployed by Armenia during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh were far too sparse to distract Azerbaijani forces from targeting operational SAM systems and thus have any actual impact on the course of the war. Still, the examples utilised stood out for their realistic depiction of the SAM system they were meant to replicate, even donning detailed camouflage patterns.
As the 9K33 Osa (NATO designation: SA-8 Gecko) was the most numerous SAM system within the Armenian Armed Forces (and by extension the Artsakh Defence Force, itself a de-facto part of the Armenian Army), it should come as no surprise that most of Armenia's decoys were based on this system. The 9K33 decoys are also the only decoy types confirmed to have successfully tricked Azerbaijani drone operators into striking them, which happened on the 30th of September 2020 at a 9K33 garrison near the small village of Papravənd (known as Nor Karmiravan by Armenia), in what was then still Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh. [2]

Being almost indiscernible from real 9K33s, two decoys parked in revetments (to mimic the deployment of an operational system) were struck by Israeli IAI Harop loitering munitions, resulting in their complete destruction. Unfortunately for Armenia, the operational systems located throughout the vicinity of the base fared little better, and together with the associated 9T217 transloaders were quickly annihilated by a combination of Bayraktar TB2s and IAI Harops. In total, Armenia lost at least 18 9K33 systems (16 destroyed, 2 captured) in addition to three 9T217 transloaders (two destroyed, one captured) during the course of the war. [1]

Interestingly, in the case of the few Tor-M2KM decoys known to have been produced, the eleborate camouflage pattern was actually indicative of their nature as decoys, as Armenian Tor SAM systems never received any kind of camouflage pattern after their arrival to the country in 2019. Furthermore, the decoys merely comprised the container-based launch system rather than also including the truck supposed to be carrying it. That said, it is unknown to what degree Azerbaijani drone operators were made familiar with the size and shapes of the SAM systems they were meant to track down and neutralise, and an overzealous drone operator could easily have mistaken a Tor-M2KM decoy for a real system. Only a single Tor-M2KM is confirmed to have been destroyed during the 44-day war, although this was likely because of the small numbers deployed by Armenia rather than the decoys that were meant to protect them. [1]

Left: An Armenian Tor-M2KM SAM system as it operated during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Right: An elaborate Tor-M2KM decoy featuring the standard camouflage pattern applied by Armenia on its military vehicles

Rather than placing the decoys throughout strategic locations in Nagorno-Karabakh, each posing as an operational 9K33 or Tor-M2KM system, the few decoys deployed by Armenia were positioned inside existing SAM garrisons. While this might ultimately have helped to prolong the career of a few other real 9K33 Osas by several minutes, it is almost certain that Armenia would have been better off by deploying the fake systems as standalone decoys throughout the entirety of occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, forcing Azerbaijan to spend valuable time and resources tracking and hunting those systems down while flying in the engagement envelope of a real SAM system nearby.
Of course, did not help that Bayraktar TB2s could fly circles above 9K33 garrisons (or any other Armenian SAM site for that matter), each containing some seven to eight launch vehicles with their radars turned on, all the while remaining unnoticed to the SAM systems below. This meant that the operators of the TB2s could keep hitting the SAM systems (and the decoys) until all systems were destroyed with no threat of being shot down, once more making painfully clear the obsolescence of the 9K33 in an era of drone-powered warfare.

Armenia's decoys may have been deployed in far too small numbers to affect the course of the war, both sides will surely study their effectiveness and use the lessons learned in potential future wars. Modern optics may have changed the way (aerial) warfare is conducted, decoys have and will continue to change alongside, and a renewed conflict could well see greater numbers deployed, equipped for instance with features such infrared heat signatures to make them even harder to discern from operational systems. Now made aware of the presence of decoys, Azerbaijan will look for ways to identify them beforehand, for example by studying satellite imagery of SAM garrisons and by training its drone operators to discern decoy systems from the real ones.

That said, with the price of MAM-L munitions for the Bayraktar TB2 being comparatively low, the question arises whether the deployment of large numbers of decoys can really have a significant impact on a future conflict. UCAVs like the Bayraktar Akinci and TAI Aksungur can carry 24 and 12 MAM-Ls each, which is sufficient to destroy several SAM sites together with their radars and any decoys. So long as Armenia, or any other nation in the world that faces a comparable threat, lacks the means to successfully counter drones like the TB2, mass deployment of decoys would yield little results but to force the opposing side to stock up on munitions. To a country like Azerbaijan, there is little to disincentivise from doing precisely so, and taking the cost of effective decoys in account and the disparity in assets available to the two parties any decoy destroyed may end up being a net positive. Of course, if they evaded destruction they would have failed their mission regardless; such is the life of a decoy.

Wednesday 14 April 2021


By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Most of the Gulf countries are generally reticent when it comes to showing off their defence capabilities and recent acquisitions of military hardware. Although a high degree of secrecy surrounding the acquisition of ballistic missile systems from North Korea and China by the UAE and Saudi Arabia is to be expected, in the Gulf region this secrecy often also applies to conventional weaponry such as artillery and even small arms. For Qatar, the situation is slightly different: while it does showcase most of its weaponry during its annual National Day parades, surprisingly little equipment gets shown during military exercises and other events. 
In similar vein, Qatar's acquisition of the Russian AK-12 assault rifle remains largely unreported, and imagery indicating their presence outside military parades so far appears to be nonexistent. Its relative elusiveness set aside, the delivery of the AK-12 is a testament to the increasing flow of Russian-made weaponry reaching countries in the Gulf region, which almost exclusively relied on arms sourced from Western countries in the past. Qatar is the first confirmed export customer of the new assault rifle, which only entered serial production in 2017.
Qatar's interest in Russian-made weaponry first came to light in 2016 and 2017, when it signed a series of agreements with Russia on military-technical cooperation during bilateral visits to Doha and Moscow. [1] [2] [3] Although what exactly these agreements entailed was at the time still unknown, the first sighting of Russian weaponry in Qatar already came a year later in December 2018, when hundreds of AK-12 rifles were seen in the hands of Qatari soldiers marching through Doha Corniche during that year's National Day parade.
Months before, in July 2018, the Russian envoy to Qatar confirmed reports that Qatar and Russia had signed an arms deal for small arms and anti-tank missiles. [4] Included in the deal were large numbers of AK-12s, 9M133 Kornet anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and even 9K338 Igla-S (NATO designation: SA-24) MANPADS. Another type of Russian weapon system Doha showed interest in was the S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, although an actual acquisition of the S-400 by Qatar is highly unlikely due to the threat of sanctions by the U.S. [4]
Forging new friendships
Traditionally a customer of arms and equipment from France and later the US, the Qatar diplomatic crisis that lasted from 2017 to 2021 saw Qatar diversifying its procurement efforts to now also include Russia as a supplier of weaponry. This was a notable change in relations from the early 2010s, when fundamental differences over the course of the Syrian Civil War significantly strained Doha's relations with Moscow. Qatar's warming ties with Russia can in this respect be seen to be underlined by the acquisition of weaponry. Today Qatar and Russia are working together in a joint attempt to achieve a political solution to the conflict in Syria, showing just how swiftly relations can shift in this diplomatically competitive corner of the globe.
Familiar shapes
The 5.45×39mm AK-12 is the latest in the series of highly popular assault rifles designed and produced by the Kalashnikov Concern (formerly known as Izhmash). Entering production some 70 years after the inception of the original AK-47, the shape and design philosophy of the first AK can still be readily appreciated in the new design. Some might still know the AK-12 for its prototype design, which suffered from a number of defects and was later abandoned in favour of the more basic AK-400 design, which ultimately became the finalised model of the AK-12. As it was the prototype design that almost exclusively featured in video games, to many a casual observer the AK-12 designation will still belong to this progenitor. In addition to Qatar, Armenia has also been speculated to be a possible customer of the AK-12, potentially even setting up a production line for the type. [5] At the same time, since it is currently in the process of reequipping its military with license-produced AK-103s any large scale acquisition of AK-12s as well as the latter theory appears unlikely.
While the actual number of rifles bought by Qatar remains unknown, it is almost certain that the AK-12 isn't destined to become the new service rifle of its armed forces. This has as much to do with the fact that Qatar doesn't have a main service rifle, with units making use of the FN FNC, M4 and M16, as with a 2018 agreement with Italy for the local production of ARX160 and ARX200 assault rifles. [6] The ARX160 has enjoyed significant success in the Gulf region, with neighbouring Bahrain even adopting it as its main service rifle. In addition to the ARX-160 and AK-12, several more types of modern assault rifles are fielded by Qatar's Armed Forces, mostly with its special forces units.
Based on the parade footage alone, it appears that most of the AK-12s were distributed to the Qatar Special Operations Command (Q-SOC) and possibly the Qatar Amiri Guard as well. It is possible that the AK-12 will see limited usage by special forces units only, by which its robustness and reliability in water, sand and dusty environments should be especially treasured.

Though the acquisition of AK-12s from Russia is notable, it doesn't necessarily signify the start of a wholesale shift in its allegiance as an arms customer. Instead, Qatar is likely to continue to diversify its procurement efforts in the future, which could entail more arms purchases from other sources, with NATO weapons operating alongside an arrangement of weapons sourced from Russia and China as a result. As Qatar looks to expand its indigenous defence industry most notably through Barzan Holdings  – at least a portion of such weaponry will likely be produced or assembled in Qatar as well, as is the case with the ARX160 and ARX200. To Qatar, such projects will be attractive as a means to increase its independence as much as to increase its military prowess – to which end the AK-12 will certainly not be the last means.

[2] Qatar looking for defence cooperation with Russia
[3] Qatar, Russia sign agreements on air defense, supplies
[4] Russia and Qatar discuss S-400 missile systems deal TASS
[5] Armenia will be the first country to purchase AK-12 assault rifles
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Thursday 8 April 2021

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.

Monday 5 April 2021


By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans 
Turkish Airlines is one of the largest airlines in the world, flying to more destinations than any other carrier in the world. It operates a fleet of more than 350 Airbus and Boeing aircraft that serve some 300 destinations domestically and internationally today, a huge leap from its humble beginning of four domestic destinations in 1933, and just 103 destinations in 2003. Over the past century, Turkish Airlines has operated a wide variety of aircraft that haven't always been in the spotlight as much as their more modern brethrens. One of these aircraft is the German Ju 52, which has long remained elusive in imagery and footage during its years of service in Turkey.