Drones used in an attack on Russian military bases in Syria. Photo: Ministry of defence of the Russian Federation via AFP

Russia is seeking international assistance in its quest to determine the source of swarming drone attacks on two of its military bases in Syria.

The twin strikes represent the first time swarming drones have been used by terrorists against hardened targets, and judging from the excitement on the Russian side, they are clearly worried and upset.  While denying that they lost any equipment in the strikes, it is hard to explain otherwise the level of alarm in Russia’s military.

The Russian General Staff held a briefing in Moscow to show off some of the  home-made drones that were used to attack Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia, Syria and the important Russian naval base in Tartus.

The drones themselves are simple.  They use a small commercial gasoline two stroke engine that might be found in a weed whacker or used to power a bicycle. Structurally the drones are made out of wooden spars and styrofoam “boards” that are tied into the wooden structure with glue and plastic wrap.

The drone itself is launched from some sort of simple rail platform and guided by two piece of wood on the drone with cutouts to protect the drone’s aerodynamic quality.  The drones carry either eight or ten bomblets, each stuffed with the explosive PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate), a very energetic explosive that has been favored by terrorists such as the shoe bomber, Richard Reid.  PETN needs to be ignited by an explosive fuse, and the bomblets all have fuses that explode on contact.

The Russians have pointed to the Ukraine as a possible source of PETN for the bombs. But there are many other sources and PETN and other explosives such as RDX are widely available on the black market. No doubt the Russians are trying to find out if the PETN in the drones has some chemical characteristic that would point to its source, but it is unlikely even the Russians will be able to identify the Ukrainians as the source.

The bomblets are released by a solenoid that opens gaps in a sliding metal bar. The bomblets contain about 1 KG of PETN plus a string of epoxied ball bearings wrapped around the PETN explosive.

It appears the mission of the swarming drones was three-fold: it was to show the Russians that their bases are vulnerable to attack even if the terrorists are far off (the attack was launched about 50 km away originating in Idlib according to reports and the Russians have now destroyed a stockpile of drones there); that the Russian aircraft and missiles were vulnerable to a drone strike; and finally that the bomblets could be used to terrorize ground crews and military personnel on the Russian bases.  Most of the focus was on Hmeimim Air Base where 10 drones were used in a swarming attack; another three drones struck the Tartus Naval Base.

The Russians claim that one of the drones carried a camera and had the ability to adjust the track of the other drones if needed.  The drones themselves were guided by GPS and the flight path for each one was pre-programmed.

What especially disturbs the Russian analysts – and on this point they are still unable to identify the source – is that the drones were accurately programmed not only to reach the bases, but to hit specific targets that could not be attacked using standard GPS-generated maps or rely on GPS for accurate targeting. The single camera-equipped drone was there to help adjust the final target, indicating a fairly sophisticated command and control capability, something that clearly impressed the Russian General Staff. The drones also were programmed with accurate intelligence that was harmonized with GPS maps.

The Russians captured a number of the drones which they claim they were able to gain control over and crash land (the drones are not capable of landing in the normal sense). They were able to read out the directional plots and see that the programming was very accurate to locate targets. More than likely the targeting was aimed at parked Russian aircraft, since the bomblets would do very little damage to buildings. It is less sure the targeting included Russian air defense missiles, as these are of little or no interest to terrorist who don’t have an air force.

Bottom line: the accuracy of the mapping means that the drones were supported by a well-established military organization capable of spotting the targets and adjusting GPS maps to their exact location.  Putting aside the fact that the drones may, or may not have achieved their objectives (whether you believe the Russians shot down or controlled most of them and did not suffer any losses, or alternatively the terrorist-leaks to the press where some seven Russian aircraft, including at least one Su-35 are claimed to have been destroyed) the accuracy of the drones is certainly the big issue and the Russians are almost certainly right that someone was helping the terrorists.

At first the Russians blamed the Turks. Next they blamed the Americans and pointed out that a US Navy Reconnaissance plane may have been involved.  More recently the Russians are accusing the Ukrainians.

What the Russians have not done is to blame the Iranians, ostensibly their ally in Syria. But the Iranians know the Russians are under pressure for a settlement of the Syrian mess (maybe linked to some deal on Ukraine), and perhaps the biggest demand (from Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel)  is for the Iranians and Hezbollah to leave Syria.  Kicking the Russians hard may be the Iranian way of sending a strong message to Putin that they are not leaving and that Putin needs “them” to protect vital Russian bases.

Whatever one thinks, the Russians are deeply troubled and afraid these kinds of attacks will migrate to Russian territory in the hands of local terrorists (who also have been operating with ISIS in Syria). That’s why even the Russian Defense Ministry and General Staff are looking for international help to prevent swarm drone attacks.

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