Belmont Club

The Further Adventures of the GoPro Tanks

In November last year I wrote about the GoPro-equipped Syrian tanks fighting in Jobar.  It’s 2015 and the Russian based ANNA news reporters are still covering the fighting in Jobar.  There are two outstanding videos in parts.  Even more interestingly, the English captions essentially confirm all the observations made in my November post.

The November observations are shown below. One can extend and modify those in the light of the new video and captioning.

You may, like myself, have been somewhat astonished to see so little infantry in play. That’s because the infantry is not there to seize and hold terrain. Rather they are used as spotters for the tanks. The big 125s are the killers. The viewer may note how the the tanks flit from spot to spot and fire directly on specific targets. They are not shooting at random, but rather under the specific instruction of spotters. Often they re-engage until the spotter tells them they’re bingo.

For although Jobar seems empty, it is apparently full of eyes. From other GoPro videos the YouTube historian will see that the high rise ruins and ground level structures are really honeycombed with sniper hides and mobile squads of infantry belonging to both sides, The holes in buildings become firing ports, from which ATGM teams and roving bands of infantrymen with RPGs working on both sides of the fight shoot. There are few apparent fortifications. Very little will stop a 125 mm or a Russian 12.7 mm bullet so the rebels shoot and scoot.

It appears to be very difficult for unprotected men to move openly along the roads.

The fight is essentially about line of sight. Every Syrian movement, whether involving tanks, unprotected infantry or armored personnel carriers, requires control of fields of observation.  Failure to do so means death by sniper or ATGM.  Hence, the Syrian Army either routes its movement around visual cover, or temporarily controls visual lanes by laying down suppressing fire or a smokescreen to obscure it.

Movement is controlled by a Syrian command element equipped with handheld radios and paper maps. Their job is to advance the Syrian position by identifying and seizing visual fields, then on the basis of what they see plan and direct the next move. They are basically hopping from one controlling set of vantage points to the other. By plotting visual arcs on the map, the Syrians maneuver their forces into position for assault and hold themselves safe from return fire.

The degree to which they will fight for visual fields is extraordinary. There’s a long sequence in which an armored engineering vehicle and a bulldozer, under heavy covering fire, shove a bus into an intersection to block sniper fire. The gaps are filled with a dirt berm pushed in by the dozer.  All to block a line of sight.

In the assaults all the targeting information is provided by Syrians peering through holes in the ruined buildings. It is for these vantages that everyone struggles. When all known targets in the next enemy position are identified, the tanks are rushed up through the visually covered lanes to  take out all known targets, completely under the direction of the spotters.

The tankers essentially follow instructions implictly. Drivers maneuver, the gunners fire without being able to see anything for themselves, so enclosed are the spaces and so dense is the dust and smoke of combat. In the video you can hear “a little to the left, up a bit. Fire! Fire!” As soon as the main gun fires, the tank coax takes over to keep the Jihadis down. The MBTs also operate in buddy pairs, so that while one T-72 reloads the other can engage a target.

The Jihadis have their positions in the interior spaces of a building, away from the outer walls. From within the shadows of the many hulking ruins they have a bazillion mousehole positions from which to snipe or fire a 14.5mm or 12.7mm machine gun.  The flash is hidden, the noise suppressed.  The only thing coming from those dark holes is a supersonic bullet.  Heavy machine guns are used to rain down fire on the engine ports of BMPs or even MBTs. In the video you can see a heavy MG burst come from nowhere to clatter on the engine deck of a T-72. Where did it come from?  That’s the next problem to be solved.

The Jihadi method of defense  is to hole up in the structural core of buildings, with the ammo and supplies in the underground parking basement. There they wait, protected by many inches of steel and reinforced concrete. The instant the Syrian Army begins its assault, they rush out of the sandbagged interior of the building to take position in the outer rooms. They only need a minute or two to set up an ATGM or fire down pre-sited lanes. The frantic and unremitting fire of the Syrian tankers is designed to deny them even that minute. Syrian infantry rushes in as soon as the tank fires lift to push out the Jihadis “before they can recover their senses” as the Russian puts it.  You can hear the Syrian spotters yell over the radio, “quick, quick, they are teeming on the ground floor!”

As a defense against infantry, the Jihadis emplace an an enormous number of IEDs behind walls, under floors and most anywhere to blow up in the Syrian faces. As a last resort, they fall back. The captions make it clear that every building has been linked by tunnel to others in the Jihadi defensive network in Jobar, so that essentially they can maneuver underground. The Jihadis also fire mortars way into the immediate Syrian rear, in the hopes of catching command elements or ambulances at unawares. This implies a radio network among the Jihadis equivalent to that possessed by the Syrians so that the mortars are guided by some jihadi concealed in a ruined tower or room.

The Syrian battle for Jobar resembles nothing so much as a 2015 version of the Battle of Okinawa, with Jihadis in the caves and the Syrian/Russians in the position of blowtorch and corkscrew.

One of the most interesting aspects of this combat, already remarked upon earlier, is the seemingly empty battlefield. Judging by the video, the Syrians use a comparatively small number — a couple of platoons of men and a platoon of tanks — to conduct operations. Presumably they are faced by an equivalently small number of combatants, by World War 2 standards. But the area they jointly deny is enormous. The range of modern sniper rifles, heavy MGs, ATGMs and mortars really means that nothing can live within a mile’s line of sight from a Jihadi position.

The result is an enormous zone of destruction. The Russian commentator likens a Jihadi assault to ‘locusts descending on a blooming garden’. Everything is bored, delved, looted and destroyed. Because the strongest buildings are taken for conversion into forts, it is the most beautiful part of the city which is smashed most thoroughly. In this kind of fight the Syrians must be ground down. By fighting inside Syria, the Jihadis are imposing not only a huge attrition on the SAA, they are essentially leveling its cities into the bargain and turning its population into displaced persons.

If one wants to imagine the worst possible scenario in Europe, think of of Jihadis fighting a version of Jobar in a EU city. Even a limited application would create an enormous denied space that would cripple a major community. You could retake a “denied area” only to have to take it again. The reliance of both attack and defense on radios in this fluid battlefield has probably prompted a renewed interest in radio spectrum deniability. If US forces had to re-engage Jihadis in an urban setting, it would be greatly to their advantage to selectively “fry” the enemy comms. By denying communications the US could make lines of sight useless, since there would be no way to cue ATGM or heavy MGs onto a fleeting target.

One such weapon in USAF development is CHAMP, or Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project. It’s a non-nuclear EMP warhead that can take out all electronics in a defined area. “The CHAMP is superior to other electronic warfare weapons because it destroys electronics, rather than jamming which temporarily affects systems that come back online when it stops being applied.”

We should be ever so glad that America has no more enemies.  The problem however, is that as Trotsky once remarked, that “you may not be interested in war but war may be interested in you.”


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