Swarm Attack on Russia’s Military Facilities in Syria

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 5

Drones captured by the Russian Military that attempted to attack their base in Syria (Source: Russian Ministry of Defense)

Since late December 2017, Russia’s military facilities in Syria have been subjected to a series of attacks attributed to militants or terrorists. Although some damage was inflicted to Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) platforms at the Khmeimim airbase near Latakia, on December 31, a more recent failed attack on Khmeimim and the naval logistical facility in Tartus presents the Russian military with considerably greater security challenges. The attack against Latakia and Tartus, on the night of January 5–6, utilized multiple small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) carrying improvised explosive devices (IED), marking a sophisticated targeting of Russian military assets deployed in Syria. The attack failed due to early detection and interception by Russia’s deployed air defenses and its electronic warfare (EW) troops effectively thwarting the UAVs from reaching their targets (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 12, 2018; see EDM, January 9, 11, 2018).

The swarm drone attack was mounted against Russian military facilities in Syria from distances of up to 100 kilometers away. Ten small UAVs targeted the Khmeimim airbase and another three were intended to hit the naval logistics facility in Tartus. Russia’s defense ministry issued a statement, on January 8, to confirm that all the drones were eliminated: seven were shot down by the Pantsir-S1 air defense system and six were disabled by the electronic warfare troops employing EW countermeasures against the UAVs. Among the six brought down using EW capabilities, three detonated before reaching their target and three landed causing no damage. These are being scrutinized by Russian specialists. However, from the photographs released to the Russian media, these small UAVs appeared to have been modified in a “DIY” fashion, with some reinforcement to support the mounting of IEDs. While the Russian defense against the swarm attack on these facilities was clearly a success, it also denotes the effectiveness of Moscow’s force protection measures taken by deploying air-defense and EW assets. However, while the Pantsir-S1 was referenced in Russian media, there was less openness on the use of EW systems in the countermeasures against the UAVs (RIA Novosti, January 9, 2018; Twower.livejournal.comJanuary 8, 2018).

Indeed, the details that emerged concerning the UAVs and their IEDs, as well as the guidance system and complex control and planning of the attack, reveal interesting facts about Russia’s advancing EW capabilities. As one commentary noted, the EW troops at Khmeimim and Tartus were used to cut enemy communications and block GPS signals. Although the specific systems were not identified, the defense against the swarm attack confirms that Russian EW capability includes the ability to jam enemy access to GPS; this was used to guide the UAVs used in the swarm attack. Coupled with the success of the air-defense assets used—Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missiles—it certainly confirms formidable base protection for the deployed Russian Armed Forces. What is unclear is why the attack on December 31 succeeded in damaging a number of air platforms based at Khmeimim. On that occasion reporting is less forthcoming on precisely what was used in the execution of the attack, but it may have also included drones (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, January 10).

Shortly after the attempted swarm attack, Russia’s defense ministry information system swung into action, releasing some details concerning the UAVs and the origin of the attack. Defense officials in Moscow are convinced that the attack was mounted from Muazzara, in the Idlib de-escalation zone, and asserted the group responsible was Ahrar al-Sham. Some other sources, meanwhile, indicate the culprit might have been the al-Nusra Front (former name for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham). Defense ministry reports alleged that the UAVs were guided by GPS and altimeters launched up to 100 km from the longest-range target in Tartus. These reports also asserted that the IEDs were fitted with foreign-made fuses. At least two of the three recovered UAVs were undoubtedly DIY versions rather than commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) models: they were reinforced with wooden slats to facilitate carrying ten small 400-gram IEDs. Additionally, the explosive was identified as pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) (Izvestia, January 10, 2018).

Into this narrative, Russian defense officials began to weave the theme of the involvement of other actors in the attack’s preparation and execution. One official noted the “coincidence” of the presence of a US Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft over the Mediterranean Sea at an altitude of 7,000 meters at the time of the swarm attack (TASS, January 9, 2018). Most reports concentrated on the sophistication of the attack and highlighted the possibility that the PETN originated from Ukraine. Few outlets noted that PETN can be acquired from multiple sources other than military industrial facilities in Ukraine (Vesti, January 12, 2018; Gazeta.ru, January 7, 2018).

The attempted swarm attack on Russia’s military facilities in Syria is by no means the only effort to inflict damage on Russian assets; similarly, most of these have been successfully countered. Yet, the January 6 swarm attack serves as a reminder to Moscow that damage might be suffered despite the recent claims of “victory” against the Islamic State and its affiliates in Syria. It has clearly worried defense planners in the General Staff and the defense ministry, since it could well mark the beginning of a shift in militant or terrorist tactics. Indeed, though this has implications for Russia’s military force protection in Syria, it may also cause concern to the Russian government and others involved in Syria. Notably, Ivan Konovalov, the director of the Center for Strategic Research, raised the prospect of terrorists using swarm attacks against soft targets in Western countries (Vesti, January 12, 2018; Gazeta.ru, January 7, 2018).

It is striking that the success of repelling the attack using air-defense and EW systems soon gave way to conspiracy theories about possible US coordination and finger pointing at Kyiv as the likely source for the IED explosive. This most likely reflects the level of concern that enemy forces can mount such an attack, as well as anxiety that this may be further refined in the future to inflict real damage on Russian military systems located in Syria. Enemy attacks on these facilities have not really achieved great success, but these efforts appear to have intensified within the past few weeks. And Moscow may well be concerned that determined adversaries within striking range of its military facilities in Syria could further test its defenses. The swarm attack evidently demonstrates militant groups in Syria are determined to score a success against Russian targets (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 12, 2018; Izvestia, January 10, 2018).