Russia Implies Drone Swarm Attack On Its Base in Syria Linked to US P-8 Patrol Plane

The country's Defense Ministry, as well as state news outlets, suggest there could be a connection, but haven't shown any evidence.

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Russia is advancing a conspiracy theory, without providing any evidence, which suggests a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon patrol plane may have been involved in an attack on its Khmeimim Air Base in Syria. The incident has been highly embarrassing for Russian authorities, coming after President Vladimir Putin declared total victory over terrorists in the country, and the Kremlin is increasingly insistent that it could not have occurred without direct foreign support.

On Jan. 9, 2018, Russian state-run media outlet, citing an anonymous source within the Russian Ministry of Defense, reported that a P-8A had been flying in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea in the vicinity of both Khmeimim, also known as Hmeimim or Hmeymim, and the Syrian port city of Tartus during the time of the attack. The latter location also hosts a Russian naval base, for which the Kremlin signed a new 49-year lease in 2017.

“The programming of systems to control unmanned aerial vehicles and drop GPS-guided munitions requires completing engineering studies in a developed country,” the unnamed official told TASS. “Besides, not everyone is capable of calculating exact coordinates using space surveillance data. We would like to stress once again that terrorists did not have anything of that kind until recently.”

“It is a strange coincidence that during a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] attack on the Russian military facilities in Syria, a U.S. Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft was cruising for more than four hours over the Mediterranean Sea at an altitude of 7,000 meters,” the source continued.

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A P-8A Poseidon fires flares during a test.

The individual never explicitly makes the connection, either that the aircraft was directing the strike or feeding targeting information or other intelligence to the attackers, and does not provide any details to back up any such assertion. U.S. Navy P-8A and older P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft fly routine patrols in the Mediterranean and elsewhere in Europe monitoring various hot spots and potential conflict zones and otherwise supporting American interests. The Navy first deployed Poseidons to the region in 2016, sending seven aircraft from Patrol Squadron Four Five (VP-45) to Naval Air Station Sigonella on the Italian island of Sicily for a seven-month rotation that wrapped up in April 2017.

Also on Jan. 9, 2018, Sputnik, another Russian state media outlet, said authorities were actively looking into a potential link between the P-8A and the attack, citing a statement directly from the country’s Ministry of Defense.

The Russian Defense Ministry has since denied it was implying American involvement. The allegation that the United States may be working hand-in-hand with ISIS or other terrorists in Syria is nevertheless obvious. 

“It is necessary to undergo studies at a qualified engineering school in one of the developed countries to program systems for controlling aircraft-type UAVs and dropping GPS-guided ammunition,” the Russian Ministry of Defense said in yet another statement posted on its official facebook page. “Moreover, hardly anyone can get accurate coordinates based on space intelligence data.”

There is no actual evidence the bombs the drones dropped on Khmeimim were GPS-guided themselves. The pictures the Russian government released showed mortar bomb-style projectiles that open sources have documented before in Syria and Iraq.

This may be a translation error, though, with the individuals referring to the drones, which would have had to use a GPS autopilot to navigate to Khmeimim from rebel- or terrorist-held territory, rather than the munitions themselves. Still, basic GPS coordinates for a large site such as the air base are also readily available online and unclassified imagery of neat lines of Russian aircraft there routinely circulates on social media.

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A photo of improvised bombs the Russian Ministry of Defense released after the drone swarm attack on Khmeimim Air Base.

Russia’s underlying claim that the drones flew dozens of miles to a preset drop point remains unverified, as well, though it is hardly implausible. Already one of the first to report on the attack, The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway had suspected these details, true or not, would lead the Russian government to allege foreign and potential American involvement in the drone swarm attack, writing:

“First off, it's interesting Russia is providing all this information on a threat to its own base. Who knows how accurate some of these details really are, but if the number of drones launched at the facility is anywhere near correct, it would seem to be the first self-contained, large scale, coordinated, standoff drone assault on a fixed installation like this. Also of note is the stated range of these drones—over 60 miles. That means they could be launched from well outside regime controlled territory, which makes countering them at their source extremely challenging.

On the other hand, Russia could have specifically inserted this detail in its release to make it seem as if the nearby area around the base remains totally uncontested and not subject to a deteriorating security situation. Beyond the drone, rocket, and artillery threat, the Russian Air Force apparently sees shoulder-fired SAMs also as a threat in the immediate area, which points to the possibility that Russia is operating in a more troubled neighborhood than what the Ministry of Defense and the Assad regime commonly let on.

Russia's statement also insinuates that whoever is launching these drones, whether they are an anti-Assad rebel force or a terror related group, is getting some sort of external help in creating these improvised guided missiles of sorts. We'll have to see where this road leads and if Russia begins to allude more clearly to the possibility that state actors may have some kind of a hand in these attacks.”

The assertion that the United States and its allies are actually in league with ISIS, which it sees as indistinct from other groups in Syria opposed to the regime of dictator Bashar Al Assad, is a long-standing conspiracy theory. This is not the first time the Russians have made such allegations, either. The latest string of attacks on Khmeimim is particularly uncomfortable, though, coming after Putin’s triumphant victory tour to Syria and other countries in the region in December 2017.

Separately, TASS reported about concerns that Russian warships at Tartus could come under attack from terrorist drone boats. This is a tactic that Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have employed with some success against vessels belonging to the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in Yemen. Infamously, in 2000, Al Qaeda terrorists had also used a manned suicide boat in a deadly attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole as it sat in port in the Yemeni city of Aden.

Dmitriy Vinogradov/Sputnik via AP

A Russian naval infantryman appears to fire at a derelict ship near the country's base in Tartus during exercises with Syrian forces in April 2017.

This second TASS story further touched on the potential for terrorists to launch drone swarm attacks on other Russian sites in Syria, including “diplomatic facilities,” as well. In addition, some of the named experts the outlet interviewed reaffirmed the belief that terrorists in Syria could not have launched the Khmeimim attack, or launch future drone swarm operations, without active outside assistance.

“I can name [drone] production centers: NATO countries, including the United States, Middle East countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel), as well as Turkey and Asia Pacific countries,” Igor Korotchenkov, editor-in-chief of the National Defense magazine, told TASS. But “it is impossible to say what exact country was behind the attack without reliable intelligence data.”

Others downplayed the requirement for heavy outside involvement. “It’s a secret to no one that Islamic State militants used drones made in other countries in Syria and Iraq, but the Russian defense ministry’s photos feature clandestine UAVs assembled from commercially available components,” Denis Fedutinov, editor-in-chief of the Unmanned Aviation magazine, explained to TASS.

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One of the drones Russia put on display after the swarm attack on Khmeimim Air Base.

According to Sputnik, the U.S. military has formally denied any involvement in the incident. The Pentagon has also rightly stressed that the technology necessary to build the drones is available on the open market.

Since the Russian government has not provided any evidence, real or otherwise, it’s hard to say how far they might take these allegations. It is possible that they are simply trying to muddy the waters, as they appear to have done in other instances, which could prompt suspicion about any future reports about complex attacks Khmeimim.

What does seem clear is that there will be more of these types of swarm attacks, both on land and potentially at sea, and the Russians seem well aware of this fact.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com