Murphy's Law: The Old Cold War Magic


July 11, 2020: One of the mysteries of the Libyan civil war was the sudden retreat of the LNA (Libyan National Army) from Tripoli and western Libya in general. A major reason doe the retreat was the inability of LNA personnel to safeguard Russian electronic and air defense systems or for Libyans, in general, to deal with Russian offers to negotiate. That is why the Russians suddenly withdrew, and later returned, many of the troops and military contractors it had in Libya supporting the LNA. What angered the Russians most was not the role Turkey played in the GNA (Government of National Accord) forces capturing the LNA al Watiya airbase on May 18. This was the main LNA airbase near Tripoli the defense was based on Russian anti-aircraft (Pantsir) systems as well as at least one Krasukha truck-mounted EW (Electronic Warfare) system. The attack on al Watiya was supported by over fifty airstrikes carried out by Turkish UAVs and supported by Turkish EW jammers.

Here's where the situation went off the rails for the Russians. It was GNA militias that actually took possession of Watiya and seized several warplanes and three Pantsir air defense vehicles along with a Russian Krasukha vehicle. It appears the victorious Libyans sold the Krasukha vehicle to the United States, along with other captured Russian equipment. That has not been confirmed but most such transfers of modern Russian military gear to the United States are not acknowledged for a while. The U.S. has monitored Krasukha use in Ukraine and Syria. But having one would answer a lot of questions, some of them major but most being minor.

The analog Krasukha 2 first entered service in 2015 and the more advanced digital Krasukha 4 showed up about a year later. Russia has said the Krasukha and other new EW systems are components of an even more powerful EW system still under development.

Russia had earlier sent post-Cold War ground-based jamming systems like Krasukha to Syria and also used them against Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine (DonBas). The most notable of these new EW systems was the truck-mounted Krasukha-4 ELINT/Jammer, which had capabilities similar to those cited for the new Il-22PP EW aircraft. The Krasukha-4 passive monitoring systems were used in Syria but the jammer, with a range of 250 kilometers, apparently was not. This was not the case in Libya where Russian forces there, supporting the LNA, used Krasukha against the Turkish troops who came to support the UN-backed, but unpopular in Libya, GNA. This UN backed Libyan government was unelected and also unpopular because it depended on militias to control Tripoli and Misrata, two large Libyan cities which were all it controlled when the Turks intervened in late 2019 to basically save the GNA from being completely defeated by the LNA.

The Turks had defeated the truck-mounted Pantsir gun/missile air defense system in Syria, as had the Israelis. Russia knew this and should have been more careful in Libya. The defeat and loss of Pantsir vehicles was a major setback for Russian exports because they had already sold over a hundred Pantsir vehicles to export customers and those customers were demanding upgrades for their Pantsirs so that they would perform against foes like Turkey or the Iranians. Russia recently revealed a new, and perhaps final (S1M) update for the Pantsir. This Pantsir S1M had not been tried in combat yet. If Pantsir S1M also fails that will be the end of Pantsir and Russia will have a harder time finding export customers for all its air defense systems as well as its new EW systems. This includes expensive new EW aircraft that were also tested over Syria and Eastern Ukraine.

In late-2016 Russia revealed the existence of their Il-22PP post-Cold War EW (electronic warfare) aircraft. Russia already had three Il-22PPs and this aircraft was described as an airborne electronic jammer that can detect and block all manner of signals, but particularly the digital ones (like American Link 16) used by Western warplanes and radars like those used by AWACS aircraft. The Il-22PP was also described as being able to protect itself from anti-radiation missiles like the American AGM-88 series.

The Il-22PP was based on the Il-18D, which was an airliner that was frequently converted to Il-20 maritime and ELINT (electronic) surveillance or Il-38 ASW (anti-submarine warfare) aircraft. An Il-20 was spotted in Syria during late 2015 but apparently didn’t stay long. Russian officials said the Il-22PP was a test model of a more advanced aircraft that would be based on a modern transport like the An-140.

Since late 2015 Russia has revealed (to the public) the existence of other post-Cold War electronic warfare aircraft by using them in Syria or over Ukraine. The most prominent of these was the Tu-214R which showed up in Syria during early 2016. This is the Russian equivalent of the American RC-135 Rivet Joint. These aircraft can collect a wide variety of electronic signals in an area, and analyze them quickly and act, often by using onboard jammers. The analysis effort is looking for patterns. The enemy below leaves signs electronically (cell phones, walkie-talkies) or visually (images captured on surveillance cameras). Using the right math and analytical tools (software and computers), you can quickly discover where the bad guys are coming from and have the ground troops promptly shell, bomb or raid the location. This kind of work was popular with the RC-135 crews (about thirty aircrew and techies) in Iraq, Afghanistan (and elsewhere) because they were getting a chance to do, in a combat zone, what they have long trained for. Moreover, it's relatively risk-free, as the aircraft flies beyond the range of machine-gun or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. In addition, the most productive work is done during night missions, when the bad guys can't even see the RC-135's (or Tu-214R) high above.

Russia and China both studied the use of RC-135s in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Russian response was two Tu-214Rs. These aircraft completed their testing during 2015 and the one in Syria was getting its first combat experience. This allowed the United States and Israel to monitor the Tu-214R in action. Apparently, there was nothing particularly impressive about it. Russia has not mentioned sending the Il-22PP to Syria. It has been acknowledged that the truck-mounted Krasukha is basically using the same electronic gear carried by the IL-22PP. That means buying a captured Krasukha in Libya and driving it to U.S.-friendly Tunisia to catch an air transport flight to the United States is considered a big, if secret deal. It happened a lot during and after the Cold War when American intel operatives, equipped with lots of cash and orders to close deals quickly, bought up a lot of late-model Russian equipment from major Russian customers like Libya. Some Libyans may have remembered that and there were some unofficial communications available between the U.S. and the GNA. The Libyans have proved, especially since 2011, to be fast-moving opportunists and that’s what makes it likely that the captured Krasukha disappeared, replaced by a large pile of hundred-dollar bills.




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