Syria Rearms: Russian deliveries of BMP-2s and 2S9s arrive

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

After the first delivery of T-62Ms and BMP-1s to the Syrian Arab Army earlier this year, new imagery coming out of Syria has now revealed that more types of armoured fighting vehicles have recently been sent to the country onboard Russia's 'Syria Express'. These new deliveries come as government forces are currently making major gains in Eastern Homs against the fighters of Islamic State, and the new vehicles will likely be deployed here to bring the fight back to the Islamic State once and for all.

The delivery of large amounts of weaponry and vehicles is part of the de-facto re-establishment of the Syrian Arab Army, with the aim of creating a unified army incorporating some of the many militias that are currently active throughout Syria. The driving force behind this process is the newly established 5th Corps, which is to serve as a counterweight to the increasing strength of the aforementioned militias that have largely taken over the role of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) in the past six years.

In accordance with Russia's role in the reinstatement of the Syrian Arab Army, it is also Russia that is responsible for training and equipping the new force. Although this led some to believe that Syria would soon receive additional T-72s, T-90s or even BMP-3s, all of which would be more advanced than the current armour composition of the regime forces, the deliveries until thus far have mostly included older weaponry excess to requirements or no longer in service with the Russian Army itself.

Nonetheless, many of these delivered vehicles and weaponry are ideally suited for the Syrian Arab Army in their current operations against the many factions fighting over control of parts of Syria. In addition to the delivery of small arms and large numbers of Ural, GAZ, KamAZ and UAZ trucks and jeeps, other deliveries so far have encompassed T-62Ms, BMP-1(P)s and 122mm M-1938 (M-30) howitzers, and now also including BMP-2s infantry fighting vehicles and 120mm 2S9 self-propelled mortars.

The delivery of BMP-2s and 2S9s is of interest as previous deliveries to the 5th Corps amounted to less advanced equipment such as BMP-1s and World War 2-era 122mm M-30 howitzers. The fact that more advanced equipment is now arriving in Syria might be a sign that Russia deems the rearmament programme a success, and could potentially step up the delivery of more advanced equipment as the conflict continues to develop in favour of the current government.

Despite the relative scarcity of the BMP-2 in footage and images of the Civil War, this vehicle is certainly no stranger to the Syrian battlefield. Indeed, Syria continues to operate the survivors of the around 100 BMP-2s it had previously acquired in the late eighties, all but a few of which are in service with the Republican Guard in operations mostly in and around Damascus. In addition to the BMP-2s already in service since the 1980s, a limited number of BMP-2s along with T-72Bs and BMP-1s were received from Russia in 2015 to take part in operations near Tadmur. At least one but possibly two of these BMP-2s were subsequently destroyed here.

The vehicles that are currently being delivered can easily be discerned from the BMP-2s already operating in Syria by their dark green camouflage and more importantly, by the presence of anti-radiation lining installed on the turret, which is only present from the BMP-2 Obr. 1984 variant and onwards. The BMP-2s that Syria had previously received in the late eighties were of the older Obr. 1980 variant and lack such anti-radiation lining, as well as other incremental improvements.

The BMP-2 improves significantly upon the capabilities of the BMP-1, which has served as the Syrian Arab Army's main infantry fighting vehicle ever since its introduction in the 1970s. Originally designed for use on the plains of Europe, the armament of the BMP-1 was quickly found to be inadequate for supporting infantry and incapable of targeting heavily armoured armoured fighting vehicles. In addition, the BMP-1's mediocre gun elevation, lack of armour and inability to fire accurately while on the move makes it woefully outdated for use in today's conflicts.

Incorporating many of the lessions learned from the BMP-1, the BMP-2 does away with several of these serious drawbacks. Most notably is the replacement of the 73mm 2A28 cannon with a fast-firing 30mm 2A42, which is very well-suited for supporting infantry and suppressing enemy positions thanks to its high elevation. The BMP-2 also comes with an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) launcher for the 9M113 Konkurs as opposed to the BMP-1's unwieldy 9M14 Malyutka, which is rarely fitted let alone used.

The delivery of the 2S9 is also notable as this vehicle was previously not in service with the Syrian Arab Army, which had until thus far has never operated any type of self-propelled mortars. The 2S9 is armed with a 120mm breech-loaded 2A51 mortar that can lob shells over a distance of eight kilometers with conventional ammunition, and over 12 kilometers with a rocket assisted projectile. A guided mortar round has also been developed for the 2S9, but is unlikely to have been deployed to Syria.

While the Syrian Arab Army continues to operate large numbers of 122mm 2S1s and 122mm BM-21s in addition to several types of towed artillery guns for artillery support, the high elevation of the 2S9 makes it perfect for engaging entrenched Islamic State positions on mountains and ridges regime forces are currently facing in Eastern Homs. While some might be quick to note that the 2S9 is air-droppable, it is unlikely that any will be sent to Deir ez-Zor this way. As the 2S9 is the first of its type to have entered service with regime forces, it is likely that crews will first have to be trained on the vehicle, which is true for the BMP-2 as well (albeit to a lesser extent) so it might take some time before they show up on the frontline.

As regime forces are currently making major gains, mainly against the Islamic State, Russia appears intent on affirming its support for the Syrian government, further consolidating its stakes in a conflict that has so far seemed to continue on endlessly. For Syria, the actual delivery of these vehicles is possibly much less significant than the trend it represents. With an ally that is essentially capable of indefinitely replenishing the Syrian Arab Army's stocks and that despite economic hardships is willing to pay the checks required to bring about its return as a coherent fighting force, eventual victory for the pro-regime forces seems likely, barring any unexpected twists and turns in the future course of the war. Whatever the case, the current developments are certain to affect the strategic balance between force battling over Syria significantly, and could well have far-reaching consequences for the ultimate outcome of the Syrian War.

Special thanks to Wael Al Hussaini.

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