Russia Offers New Details About Syrian Mass Drone Attack, Now Implies Ukrainian Connection
and the U.S..
The Russian military’s top officer in charge of drone development has offered new details about apparent first of their kind mass drone attacks on its forces in Syria in an official briefing at the country’s Ministry of Defense. The presentation reiterated the Kremlin’s assertion that terrorists or rebels could not have conducted the operation without significant outside support, now implying a possible Ukrainian connection, but significant questions remain unanswered.
Speaking from the Russian Ministry of Defense’s briefing room, amid examples of the drones and their munitions that the country recovered after the attacks, Major General Alexander Novikov, head of the Russian General Staff’s Office for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Development, gave the most detailed and complete official description of the incident to date. He said that unspecified terrorists utilized a total of 13 improvised drones, each carrying 10 bomblets, sending 10 to Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Latakia governorate and the other three to its naval base in Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea. The munitions each had an explosive charge weighing nearly one pound, as well as strings of metal ball bearings or BBs glued together as pre-formed shrapnel, which would have made them most effective against individuals out in the open.
“Construction of these drones takes significant time period and special knowledge of aerodynamics and radioelectronics,” Novikov. “Assembly and use of these components in the joint system are a complicated engineer task demanding special training, scientific knowledge, and practical experience of producing these aircraft.”
Novikov said that Russian forces had been able to capture a number of the drones after electronic warfare systems at Khmeimim knocked them out of the sky. Somewhat confusingly, he later said that whoever had built the unmanned aircraft had included systems to specifically to defeat those countermeasures, though.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford called his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, following a swarm drone attack on a Russian air base in Syria earlier this week, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff director, said only that Dunford and Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s General Staff, had a “frank and cordial exchange of views,” but the phone call came after the Russian Defense Ministry suggested the U.S. may have played a part in the drone attack.
Air defense radars aided in detecting the attacks and Pantsir-S1 short-range air defense systems destroyed some of the improvised unmanned aircraft, as well. He added that this was the first-time Russian forces in Syria had come under such an attack, though rebels and terrorists have been employing such systems for years now in both that country and neighboring Iraq.
The ministry said there were no casualties or damage from the attacks by “small-sized air targets of unknown identity.”
Seven were shot down and three others exploded after crashing on the night of Jan. 5, the ministry said.
The drone attacks were the first time that “terrorists” had employed a “massed drone aircraft attack launched at a range of more than 50 [kilometers] using a modern GPS guidance system,” the ministry said.
The general officer acknowledged that the individual components, such as the apparent lawnmower or moped motors, were available commercially. This is a point the U.S. military has been keen to stress in the aftermath of the attacks.
“We have seen this type of commercial UAV technology used to carry out missions by ISIS,” Pentagon spokesperson Major Adrian Rankin-Galloway told Russian state outlet Sputnik on Jan. 8, 2018. “Those devices and technologies can easily be obtained in the open market and that is cause for concern.”
However, Novikov insisted that militants would not have been able to conduct the necessary research and development and flight testing out of their workshops in Syria to make sure the improvised aircraft actually worked without significant assistance. “It is impossible to develop such drones in an improvised manner. They were developed and operated by experts with special skills acquired in countries that produce and apply systems with UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles],” he said, without naming where those individuals might be situated or where the militants might have received such training.
— Adam Rawnsley (@arawnsley) January 11, 2018
In his January 2018 briefing, Novikov also specifically appeared to suggest there might be a connection to Ukraine. He brought up the country when talking about the source of the explosive material inside the bombs the drones dropped on Khmeimim.
“The PETN [pentaerythritol tetranitrate] is produces [sic] by a number of countries, including Ukraine at the Shostkinsky Chemical Plant,” he explained. “This explosive material cannot be produced in an improvised manner or extracted from other munitions.”
Besides Syria and Russia, Ukraine was the only other country Novikov mentioned by name, according to the official transcript. He did not note that military forces around the world and commercial mining companies use PETN, which German scientists first developed in 1894, and that it is relatively easy to obtain.
Ukraine is the third country Russia has indirectly implied might have aided the attacks in some fashion. On Jan. 9, 2018, an official statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense, as well as reports from state media outlets, strongly suggested that a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon patrol plane flying off the coast of Syria during the attack was somehow involved in the incident.
The implication was that the aircraft was feeding targeting information, such as the aforementioned GPS coordinates, or other information to the militants controlling the drones. These aircraft do have a robust electronic support measures suite that can collect information about various emitters, such as enemy radars, but additional electronic and signals intelligence systems have yet to become operational.
The idea that the United States is supporting ISIS, who may have been responsible, is a long-standing, but completely unfounded conspiracy theory. The U.S. government and its partners have armed groups opposed to Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, though, most notably with TOW anti-tank missiles. Still, there is no actual evidence whatsoever the U.S. military had a role in the attack.