26-March-17 – Russian Special Forces and the Ka-52 Helicopter in the Second Liberation of Palmyra

By Valentin Vasilescu

Translated By Alice Decker


Syria is a training ground for the Russian military to test new combat methods and new organizational structures adapted to fighting terrorists.

The Islamic State offensive from 8 to 12 December 2016 resulted in their recapturing the city of Palmyra, advancing westward, and blocking the Syrian T-4 Air Base at Tiyas, located 30 km west of Palmyra. Islamic State’s offensive formation was composed of three brigades with one in reserve, or about 5,000 fighters. The first brigade took the lead. It had 1,700 men with 30 tanks armored vehicles (BMP-1 or IFVs), 70 trucks equipped with 14.5 mm-caliber machine guns, 20 pieces of artillery (122 mm-caliber howitzers and BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers), and dozens of 120 mm- and 82-caliber mortars. IS had a brigade of more than 1,000 soldiers on both its left and right flanks, without heavy artillery and with fewer armored vehicles and trucks than the main body. Palmyra and the city’s airport were guarded by Islamic State reserves of over 800 fighters.

Combat Forces in Palmyra.

Syria’s T-4 Air Base at Tiyas was defended by about 2,000 soldiers. The defensive forces included: a mechanized brigade of the Syrian Army’s 10th Infantry Division, an NDF territorial battalion comprised of Syrian reservists, a battalion of Lebanese Hizballah and a battalion from the Afghan Shiite organization Liwa Fatemiyoun. The T-4 Base was close to being surrounded and cut off, so that the Syrian army was forced to send reinforcements, about 2,500 troops, from Aleppo.


In addition to a battalion of Tiger special forces, a battalion from the 5th Legion and three tank companies from Tank Division 18 (totaling about 1,000 soldiers), soldiers brought in as reinforcements, were NDF (National Defense Forces) ancillary forces without much combat experience. Even with the reinforcements, the Syrian army was no greater than that of the Islamic State.

Under these conditions, it could have taken several months to stop the Islamic State offensive and prepare a counterattack to liberate Palmyra. Therefore, the general staff of this group was made up of Russian planning officers. The Russian planners quickly drew up a plan of air and ground operations that could achieve the intended goal in less than a week.

Offensive Plan for the Liberation of Palmyra.

The first key was to restrict the mobility of the three IS brigades, preventing them from moving. They put the IS on the defensive and prevented them from bringing up their reserves, located 30 km away from the Syrian air base.

To keep the Islamic State forces in place and neutralize them, a Russian tactical aviation group in Syria (having both jets and attack helicopters) had to hit at least 600 major IS targets in the first 72 hours of the operation. This meant that some aircraft, particularly the Mi-28 and Ka-52 attack helicopters, had to perform five battle flights daily (compared to the two runs normally carried out. Most of these were close air support missions at low altitude. This meant an additional risk to Russian aircraft as they were vulnerable to IS heavy machine guns and small-caliber cannons.

The second key element was to make the most efficient use of one of the basic elements of warfare: reconnaissance, mainly through research carried out independently by ground troops. The accuracy of any airstrikes depended on good intelligence, accurately detecting and transmitting the location of each enemy position. Therefore, the center of gravity of the operation to break the encirclement of the air base at Tiyas and to free Palmyra was the Russian Spetsnaz group’s ability to convey reconnaissance information to the headquarters of the operation. The special forces also organized raids and ambushes.

The Russians gave the Syrian army a flexible order of battle, consisting of approximately 10 assault groups made up of one platoon of T-62 tanks, a BMP-1 platoon, a BTR-82A platoon, two ZSU-23-4 Shilka automatic cannons, 15 pickups with machine guns (14.5 mm caliber) and 200 more Marines onboard the trucks. Reconnaissance by the ground troops of each assault group was conducted by advance detachments that formed joint commando units consisting of Spetsnaz special forces and Syrian Tigers.

IS support points that had been hit in the airstrikes were liquidated by the Syrian army assault groups, which eliminated the Islamist rebels or forced them to retreat. In the mountainous terrain north and south of the road that links the T-4 Tiyas Air Base to Palmyra, it is harder for aerial forces to hit their targets. There, the Syrian army used an artillery support group consisting of 32 artillery systems: D-30 122-mm-caliber howitzers; BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers, and TOS-1A thermobaric launchers. Thermobaric ammunition is a combination of liquid fuel and tetranor powder. It is used for destroying fortifications and armored vehicles or fighters. Thermobaric projectiles first produce a small explosion that vaporizes the contents in a flammable cloud. When the aerosol thus created makes contact with the oxygen in the atmosphere, it self-detonates, creating a tremendous shock wave followed by intense fire.

Within 48 hours of the start of the operation, Russian aviation had fulfilled its mission, the Islamic State terrorist offensive was stopped and the Syrian army assault groups took the lead. IS fighters retreated to Palmyra, which was besieged from the south, west and north by the Syrian army. The city was quickly liberated and the terrorists retreated east of Palmyra. The Syrian army continued in pursuit, moving towards the town of Deir ez Zor.

According to a statement by Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi, the chief of the Russian General Staff Main Operational Directorate, 1,000 ISIS members were killed and wounded, and 19 tanks, 37 armored vehicles, 98 pickups armed with heavy weaponry, and over 100 cars were destroyed.

Tigers Syrian Commando Units.

At the end of 2013, Lieutenant Colonel Suheil al-Hassan was tasked with forming a new Syrian special forces battalion which was to have a greater offensive capability. They were called the Tigers. Some of the officers of this new unit are selected from Tank Divisions 4 and 11 of the Syrian army. Originally, the Tigers were prepared using manuals and trainers from the Iranian and Hezbollah commandos. In early 2016, the Tigers went ahead and formed two battalions. They were trained by Spetsnaz special forces and Iranian instructors. This explains why the Tigers used Russian AK-74 weapons with silencers and with laser rangefinders, headphones and armor from the Russian RATNIK equipment, 10 to 15 T-90A tanks and several Russian light armored vehicles (Russian LMV) in operations in the Aleppo governorate, in the summer of 2016.

Offensive operations by Al Qaeda and Islamic State groups are preceded by two types of suicide actions carried out simultaneously. Up to ten 4×4 cars and trucks with heavy plates of armor called VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices) or armored BMP-1s (IFV), all filled with explosives, start out from different directions at full speed and ram their way through the Syrian army positions in order to explode in their midst. Simultaneously, dozens of individuals or groups of fighters, with explosive belts, try to penetrate the Syrian army.

If this method works, the terrorist assault units start their offensive.

The Tigers have adopted a method of neutralizing these suicide attacks by setting up ambushes. In the ambush, the Tigers use multiple observation points covering different sectors, using snipers with Orsis T-5000 sighted rifles (7.62 mm caliber) and KSVK sighted machine guns (12.7 mm caliber), as well as SPG-9 recoilless rifles (73 mm caliber), RPG-29 anti-tank missile launchers, and Metis-M and Kornet portable anti-tank missiles.

The 5th Legion and the IS Hunters Regiment are auxiliary units of the Syrian Army, supplemented by volunteers who have undergone a program of training, equipping and arming financed by Russia. The 5th Legion has a first batch of 1,000 soldiers who have been trained in assault tactics to be used on Islamic State groups, and they are used in elite units serving under the Tigers.

The role of Russian Spetsnaz in the liberation of Palmyra.

Russian Special Forces are equipped with 6B47 helmets (RATNIK equipment) that have a 1PN139 thermal finder and 1-P88-2 sighting device, for night vision. This allowed them to infiltrate secretly, at night, to a distance of less than 5 km from IS resistance points. During the day this was impossible, because of the many IS observation points manned by snipers.

Spetsnaz troops equipped with RATNIK then launched silent ZALA 421-08 type mini UAVs, with electric motors, weighing 1.7 kg, with a ceiling of 3,600 m and flight duration up to 90 minutes [1]. Video transmissions from the Zala 421-08 provided infrared imagery of Islamic State formations. These were received via satellite at the air operations center of the Russian air base at Hmeymim. The transmission is done using the Special Forces’ Strelets tactical computer device. The Strelets screens also automatically displayed to Russian aviators the positions of all the Spetsnaz detachments, thus avoiding any “friendly fire” incidents.

Having identified targets to hit, the Russian command center at Hmeymim dispatched Su-24, Su-25, and Su-30 planes as well as Mi-28 N, Mi-35 and Ka-52 attack helicopters. The armored cars, pickup trucks and artillery were hit first — the strong points of IS.

To aid the precision airstrikes, Spetsnaz illuminated some of the targets by laser beam. These Russian airstrikes neutralized fire power of infantry Islamic State.

Testing the Russian Ka-52 Helicopter.

For Russia, one important objective of this operation was to test the Ka-52 helicopters that are being deployed with Russia’s Navy. The Ka-52 Alligator is a new reconnaissance and attack helicopter with two coaxial bearing propellers driven by two Klimov TV3 engines of 1830 kg each. It can reach a speed of 350 km/h. The Ka-52 helicopter has a range of 545 km without additional fuel tanks, and it can carry two tons of weapons. Four containers can be mounted with 23 mm caliber guns, or four multiple-launchers with six Vikhr-type laser-guided antitank rockets (with a range of 12–15 km), or with six Igla-V air-to-air missiles or two blocks of 20 S-8 reactive projectiles each (80 mm caliber).

In the Palmyra operation, tests of the new Vikhr missiles showed very good results. When the Russian Navy uses the Ka-52, it is equipped with two torpedoes or four Kh-25 air-to-ship laser-guided missiles, or two Kh-35U missiles (with a range of 300 km) or two Kh1AD missiles.

The avionics on board the Ka-52 includes equipment designed by the French company Sextant Avionique, part of the Thales concern. This allows them to display all the NASH information (Navigation and Attack System for Helicopters) on the unit’s HDD (head-down displays) sighting system, or directly on the helmet visor of the pilot and the weapons system operator using the Topowl system. The 30-mm Shipunov2A422 mobile cannon located in the nose of the helicopter is also operated via the helmet visor.

For navigation at night and in low visibility, the helicopter is equipped with Russian Khoda-type FLIR sensors and laser rangefinders linked to the laser target-marking system. They are mounted in a turret under the cockpit. In another turret, electro-optical sensors are mounted (TV and infrared cameras). Ka-52 helicopters also have Phazotron FH-01 Crossbow radar, which can track up to 20 air and ground targets simultaneously.

To protect itself, the Ka-52 helicopter has a broadband receiver and Pastel L150 radar warning system. In the infrared spectrum it is protected by Mak L136 equipment, and in pulsed laser frequencies by L140 Otklik equipment. UV-26 flare and chaff dispensers and metalized dipole cartridges are mounted in a container at the wingtips.

[1]. Russian soldiers have the best personal protective gear ( https://southfront.org/russian-soldiers-have-the-best-personal-protection-gear-opinion/ )

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