Look Out, Special Operators in Syria, the Internet Has Spotted You and That’s a Problem

A U.S. Marine special operator assists with security during a construction project for an Afghan Local Police (ALP) checkpoint in Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 30, 2013.

DoD photo by Sgt. Pete Thibodeau

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A U.S. Marine special operator assists with security during a construction project for an Afghan Local Police (ALP) checkpoint in Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 30, 2013.

It's not only the improvement of an airstrip in Northeast Syria that warrants attention, but how it was discovered.

An unparalleled, indiscriminate and growing wave of transparency is exposing the deployment of military assets—once found only through labored searches of technical publications—and high definition, near-real-time images of geographical locations worldwide, are obtainable through the click of a mouse. As tensions rise between the United States and potential state and non-state adversaries, the veil of secrecy that at one time could only be lifted by intelligence agencies is now accessible to virtually anyone via the worldwide web.

Many news outlets picked up on the recent expansion of an airstrip in Remeillan, Syria—a Kurdish-controlled area 365 miles from NATO Incirlik air base in Turkey. The strip, that was just 2,300 feet long by 82 feet wide on April 17, 2015, has been expanded to 4,330 feet by 190 feet wide, with an 82 feet by 92 feet apron, as of December 18, 2015. CNN placed a reporter on the ground to give an eyewitness account of the activities taking place near the strip—described as herdsmen with sheep, oil pumps, and mud brick houses. Yet, this leaves many unanswered questions.

Why does the expansion of an isolated airstrip warrant attention? It is not only the improvement of the airstrip, but also how it was discovered. The construction was observed by IHS Janes using commercial satellite imagery gathered, in this case, from Airbus Defence and Space, but which could be purchased from a number of sources for a few thousand dollars. What are the deeper implications of this runway? Without taking a trip to Syria or accessing classified sources, can a person answer this question using only open sources?

Considering the old dimensions of the airstrip, the most functional American fixed-wing cargo aircraft with the technical capability to land at the strip is the C-27J. With a required runway length of 2,400 feet, it fits close to the specifications. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) took control of these planes in 2014 after they failed to meet air force requirements. Otherwise, only helicopters or V-22s could operate out of the old strip, a fact that has been reported by news sources.

This data comes without the burden launching and managing satellites, or gathering primary intelligence.

With the expanded dimensions of the strip, the most versatile airplane that could be used in this space is the C-130—a multi-role, long-range tactical aircraft. An assault landing, a technique used when faced with a short landing strip or when taking enemy fire it is likely, requires only a 3,000- by 60-foot airstrip. The other aircraft capable of landing on this strip is the C-17—a cargo and transport aircraft larger than the C-130 that requires a 3,000- by 90-foot airstrip for an assault landing. Though landing either of these aircrafts was impossible on the old strip, it is well within the limits of the new field. A C-17 is more efficient at delivering cargo, but less flexible, and the air force prefers to use them for inter-theater transport.

As a baseline, the C-27J has a max payload of 25,000 pounds and can carry a Jackal, a versatile ground vehicle. So, what additional capabilities do the C-130 and C-17 provide that are worth the effort of expanding an airstrip in remote Syria?

There are several capabilities the United States might want to have with these new platforms. The C-130 can now be parked on the apron and used as a force-multiplier to provide rapid ground refueling for helicopters, fast attack vehicles (FAVs), or Ospreys. This C-130 could also be utilized for aeromedical evacuation, to bring in six FAVs, such as Flyers or Ranger Special Operations Vehicle, at a time, fly as part of a Unified Command Suite to coordinate efforts on the ground and provide a central link to fighters in the area, or drop off a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to provide a precision strike capability in northern Syria. If the military just wants to drop off supplies, a C-17 can deliver 73,000 pounds of equipment at a time with a 90-minute turnaround. Those pallets could carry in weapons, ammunition, light vehicles, drones, or other supplies.

Each set of capabilities is linked to a different mission. The higher payload capacity could provide increased material support for Kurdish Forces, faster refueling capabilities could better enable air operations to support allies on the ground, and FAVs could strengthen snatch and grab capabilities in the area.

A supporter of the self-declared Islamic State could use open-source information to perform this type of analysis full time.

Individuals can purchase commercial surveillance images of specific areas of concern. They are able to “roll back time,” looking at images from present to inception, to answer the questions of who, what, when, and where. The United States has repeated employed this strategy, both stateside and overseas, with satellites, blimps, and conventional airplanes. Following an improvised explosive device (IED) blast, or the murder of a law enforcement official, U.S. authorities such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) often utilize imagery to track the parties involved.

An interested party can do this analysis from the comfort of their office without access to classified information, contacts on the ground, or even any database subscriptions. This data comes without the burden launching and managing satellites, or gathering primary intelligence. While it’s nothing new that a Russian military intelligence unit could complete a comprehensive study of a Syrian airstrip, it is novel that a supporter of the self-declared Islamic State could use open-source information to perform this type of analysis full time. They could now purchase satellite images to track similar scenarios and to inform grand strategy and prioritize targets. A radical jihadist version of Elliott Higgins, the British citizen journalist who has exposed Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria using open-source intelligence, would be a prized asset for any extremist group.

This post appears courtesy of CFR.org.

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