Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Facing The Storm: The PKK’s DIY AA Guns

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Some 8 years years after its official retreat from Turkey, the PKK continues to wage guerrilla warfare and conduct infiltrations into Turkey from their mountainous fortresses in Northern Iraq. Dead set on eliminating this threat, the Turkish Armed Forces frequently launch offensives into PKK-controlled areas to neutralise hideouts and weapons caches. In an effort to counter these heliborne incursions and the threat of attack helicopters, the PKK uses a variety of locally improved machine guns and cannons to target helicopters and the personnel disembarking from them.

Often placed high up on mountains from where they have a wide field of view and can spot incoming airborne threats from afar, PKK anti-aircraft guns and their crews have achieved limited successes against Turkish helicopters over the past several years. Most of these successes entail damaging helicopters rather than outright shooting them down however, sometimes leading to emergency landings in hostile territory. Although they have been largely unsuccessful in countering or deterring helicopter operations, they remain a potent threat that needs to be taken seriously.
Based on Soviet or Chinese weaponry captured from Syrian or Iraqi forces as a rule, the main requirement for AA guns used by the PKK is the ability to be broken down into several pieces for transport over rough ground and through mountainous terrain. The ubiquitous 12.7mm DShK (and its Chinese derivatives), the 14.5mm KPV and ZPU-1 have proven especially popular for this reason, with several other types thrown into the mix. More recently, the PKK has begun introducing remote weapon stations that can be operated from the safety of nearby underground cave systems.
Little is known about the units that operate these guns. Although a formation known as the 'Şehîd Delal Amed Air Defence Units' exists within the PKK, its role until thus far appears to be limited to operating paramotors for infiltration purposes and attack drones armed with homemade munitions. It thus seems likely that the AA guns are operated by local PKK units in their respective operational sector, perhaps with a region-wide warning system to alert other sectors of incoming Turkish helicopters.
When an AA gun is brought to its intended emplacement and then assembled, it usually remains hidden until the need for its use arises. It is likely that the guns are frequently checked and maintained to ensure their continued operations under field conditions. The 14.5mm KPV seen below is such a typical example of a hidden AA gun. Positioned under a tree to reduce the chances of discovery, covering it with a cloth and tree branches makes the KPV nearly impossible to see from the sky or even at a distance on ground level. [1]

This KPV also shows off some of the modifications applied to most HMGs – most notably a muzzle brake, a tripod, shoulder rests and a buttstock. The distinctive muzzle brake somewhat alleviates the strong recoil associated with the KPV, although in order to maintain any sort of accuracy only short bursts can be fired. To further help the gunner improve his aim, a front gunsight was added aft of the handle bar.
Another improvised AA system is based on the 23mm 2A7/2A7M cannon taken from a ZSU-23-4 'Shilka' self-propelled anti-aircraft weapon system (SPAAG). [1] Similar to the KPV discussed above, this particular gun too received a new muzzle brake, front sight and a tripod. Owing to its larger calibre, the recoil of the 2A7 limits the gunner to firing single shots or very short bursts, in effect making it closer to an anti-materiel rifle (AMR) than an AA gun. Its 23mm rounds inflict far greater damage on helicopters however, meaning the gunner needs to get far fewer rounds on target to achieve the same (or greater) effect. Just as the modified KPV, this AA gun was captured during Turkey's Claw-Eagle and Tiger operations that took place from June till September 2020. [1]

While the KPV was modified by the PKK to be used as an AA gun, the ZPU-1 was designed as a lightweight AA gun from the onset. Ordinarily carried on a two-wheeled carriage, the ZPU-1 can be broken down into several 80-kilogram pieces for transport by mules or simply by persons. Firing the same type of ammunition as the KPV to a maximum range of some two kilometres, its ease of operation, dedicated AA sight and sizeable magazines are certain to be valued by the PKK. The example below, captured by Turkish forces during Operations Claw-Lightning and Claw-Thunderbolt in April and May 2021, has rust covering large parts of the gun system, perhaps indicating that not all AA guns were looked after equally well.

A more recent invention has been a series of remote weapon stations (RWS) usually based on the 12.7mm DShK HMGs (or on its Chinese derivatives the Type 54 and W85). The main advantage of these RWS' is that the gunner can operate the system from the safety of a cave, not having to risk exposure to its dangerous foes. Drawbacks include greatly reduced situational awareness and the need to come manually reload the gun each time after emptying its magazine – although the latter might pose less of a problem than one might imagine given the short amount of time any helicopter will fly through its engagement envelope. Like the aforementioned AA guns, the DShK RWS too has a secondary role in targeting infantry advancing through mountain valleys.

During Operations Claw-Lightning and Claw-Thunderbolt, at least three RWS' were captured by Turkish forces, seemingly all positioned in the vicinity of undergound cave systems. While they were a potent deterrent against nearby infantry, their presence also immediately alerts Turkish forces that a PKK cave system is indeed in the vicinity. Taking into account the numerical and tactical superiority of Turkish forces, further backed by artillery and precision-guided munitions launched from aircraft and UCAVs, the subsequent annihilation of these cave systems is almost certain. [2]

For all the effort put into modifying these versatile weapons systems, the most feared armament in the hands of the PKK remains its man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS). Undoubtedly because of the complexity of these systems and the sensitive electronics in them, these have seen very little active use, and several were captured by Turkish forces in the past before they could be used. The most notable success for the PKK was achieved in May 2016 when a 9K38 Igla (NATO designation: SA-18 Grouse) MANPADS was used to shoot down a Turkish AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter. [3] While the shootdown highlighted the grave threat associated with such systems, no successful downings have occurred since.

The PKK's attempts at using whatever means at their disposal (including ATGMs) to prevent Turkish helicopters from roaming free in Northern Iraq are undeniably resourceful, yet at the same time they epitomise the gross shortcomings they are having to deal with in the face of Turkish heliborne operations. Without suitable weaponry there is little they can hope to achieve against an enemy superior in both its assets available and innovative capabilities. Still, the threat of the PPK's DIY AA guns is powerful precisely because it is low tech and therefore difficult to counter. From the Turkish side, it would be interesting to see if any countermeasures can be enacted against the AA gun emplacements, for example by having drones scan ridgelines in the envisaged operational zone for any suspicious shapes or movement.
Lacking any significant influx of armament or currency, at the current rate attrition of the PKK's AA guns likely far exceeds that of the Turkish equipment they are meant to counter however. Losing HMGs faster than it can acquire new ones, their deployment and operational effectiveness might diminish before its opponent ever needs to come up with a viable counter strategy.