Sunday, 27 March 2016
The Islamic State going DIY, R-40 air-to-air missiles used as SAMs?
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 Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) and the Russian Air Force (RuAF) have made a significant difference during several battles already, most notably in Kobanî. The Islamic State has so far been unable to come up with an answer against the many air forces now threatening them in both Syria and Iraq. Although it has tried to better camouflage its forces in order to prevent them from being spotted and hit, it has so far failed to directly hit any of the aircraft conducting these strikes.
Although the Islamic State has no lack of surface-to-air missiles nor associated launchers, it lacks the expertise to turn these often derelict systems into operational systems capable of hitting any foe in the air. Indeed, the limited amount of MANPADS in the hands of the Islamic State (even including North Korean examples) have so far only managed to damage or down Iraqi Air Force helicopters. The capture of a fully operational S-125 battery in between Hama and Aleppo did not help the Islamic State in any way, as it was not only incapable of operating these sophisticated systems, but unable to transport these systems to Raqqa in the first place. Using the S-75 missiles captured back in 2014 was complicated by the fact that none of the systems captured were operational or in a state that could easily be made operational, not to mention the fact that they lack the expertise to use them. The usage of one 2P25 launch system, part of the 2K12 Kub SAM complex, captured in Deir ez-Zor was foiled by the lack of any missiles and significant damage on the launcher itself. The capture of a 2K12 Kub battery in Deir ez-Zor in January 2016 did provide the Islamic State with an operational SURN 1S19 radar system and intact launchers, but in such a sorry state that bringing these systems back to operational condition would have been nigh impossible, not to mention the bad condition of the associated missiles. Although not confirmed through video footage, the whole site was said to have been bombed by the RuAF shortly after its capture.
The capture of Tabqa airbase on the 24th of August 2014 did provide the Islamic State with at least ten R-3S and four R-13M air-to-air missiles originally intended to be used on the resident 12th squadron and another unknown squadron flying MiG-21bis and MiG-21MFs. The Islamic State subsequently moved these missiles to Raqqa, where it tried to convert them to the surface-to-air role. This progress was filmed by one of the project leaders, which 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 in the 6th of January 2016.
Tadmur, captured on the 20th of May 2015 and the third airbase to fall 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. Tadmur was previously home to a squadron flying the MiG-25PD(S) interceptor and the MiG-25PU two-seat trainer, but as these aircraft were gradually withdrawn from service, the three remaining MiG-25PD(S) and one MiG-25PU left for T4 in late 2013. Their associated missiles remained stored in two of Tadmur's sixteen Hardened Aircraft Shelters however. When the fighters of the Islamic State overran the airbase, it not only encountered dozens of R-40 air-to-air missiles but also large numbers of Kh-28 anti-radiation missiles, likely intended to be used on Su-22s and Su-24s stationed at T4 but never transported to this airbase.
While it was extremely unlikely that the Islamic State could turn the Kh-28s and its 140kg heavy warhead, intended to be launched against radar systems of SAM sites, into anything useful other than an IED or DIY surface-to-surface rocket, it did find a role for the R-40 missiles also found at the airbase. 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 onboard 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 onboard radar. Several similar surface-to-air modifications of the 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. All were mounted on trucks, none ever scored a hit. The SyAAF took it one step further and experimented with launching R-40TDs at ground targets several years back, unsurprisingly to no avail.
When regime forces entered one of the recently captured Hardened Aircraft Shelters at Tadmur, they encountered a dump truck armed with no less than an R-40TD! The missile, installed on a newly raised platform, can 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. The heavy warhead also makes using the R-40 as a DIY surface-to-surface rocket an attractive option. Although such a conversion will be in no way accurate, neither are the hundreds of much lighter DIY rockets still assembled and used by the fighters of the Islamic State each day. While the R-40TD looks to be mounted the wrong way around, the attachment points that connects the missile with the MiG-25's pylons are located on the top of the missile, creating the false impression that the missile sits inverted.
As no aircraft or helicopters were reported to have been shot down over Tadmur, and no one witnessed the impact of an R-40, it will probably always remain unknown what the intended role of this contraption was, or if it was ever used in the first place. It does however once again prove that whatever falls in the hands of the Islamic State, you're always sure they come up with an inventive way to put it to use.
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