An image has emerged on social media that reportedly shows a CASA CN-235 aircraft flying somewhere over eastern Syria’s Al Hasakah Governorate. The photo appears to show one of a fleet of shadowy U.S. Air Force-owned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance versions of the plane, one of which spent more than a week in 2017 flying over Seattle, Washington as part of a secretive training mission.
You can read more about these specialized CN-235 aircraft and their potential capabilities in detail in a past feature here at The War Zone.
French journalist Harry Boone posted a version of the image on Twitter on Jan. 6, 2018. Shot from the ground, the aircraft is flying against a clear blue sky and there are no reference points that could help confirm its location. The photo is low quality, but there are a number of distinct features visible that line up with one of the six known U.S. Air Force CN-235s, which researchers and observers believe are part of the 427th Special Operations Squadron.
Under the forward fuselage, offset to the left, there is what appears to be the camera door which is found on these unique American aircraft. What looks like the cluster of ventral antennas between the main landing gear is also visible. Most importantly, there is a fairing on the aircraft’s empennage, which looks similar, if not identical to the ones on the U.S. Air Force types.
These fairings, which hold a pair of forward-firing flare launchers, in particular appear to be unique to these American variants. Other countries operate CN-235s with differently shaped side sponsons, such as Turkey’s maritime patrol variant or Jordan’s armed gunship version, and they all have other specific features that would be visible, even in this low resolution image.
And while we can’t confirm the aircraft’s exact location, eastern Syria has been a hotbed of U.S. special operations forces activity, focused predominantly on hunting ISIS terrorists and advising local forces, since at least 2015, if not well before then. American troops have now established a constellation of forward operating bases in the country to support those operations.
In March 2017, aircraft spotters noticed one of the aircraft, serial number 96-6046, on open source flight tracking software appearing to be heading toward Jordan. In November 2017, another one of the fleet, serial number 96-6043, showed up on the same websites heading east, with stops in Spain and the Italian island of Sardinia.
Likely launch points for actual missions over Eastern Syria could include air bases in Jordan, facilities in Northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, and sites in Turkey. We already know that the main airport in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil alone has hosted other shy aircraft, including a discreetly marked Beechcraft King Air intelligence gathering aircraft, contractor-operated S-92 helicopters, and a pair of experimental OV-10G+ Bronco light attack planes, both of which worked closely with elements of the equally secretive Joint Special Operations Command.
As for what the CN-235 might have been doing specifically over Syria, based on our previous analysis, it is very likely that the aircraft in the Air Force’s fleet have a persisent wide-area aerial surveillance (WAAS) capability, as well as a signals intelligence suite. They may also have the ability to focus their search based on geo-location information straight from the National Security Agency about a particular target’s cell phone. This combination of sensors would be ideal for persistent surveillance as special operators hunt for and gather intelligence on individual terrorists or specific groups, as we explained in our earlier feature:
Some WAAS sensors require the aircraft to fly tight overhead orbits, while others work at a slant angle in relation to the ground. Considering the mounting location and aperture size on the CN-235 in question, this kind of "slant" setup would likely be the case. Also, the counterclockwise orbits the aircraft flies, between roughly six and twelve miles across, at altitudes from 17,000 to 22,000 feet, also indicate such a setup.
Above all else, these types of surveillance systems are especially good at capturing and monitoring so called "patterns of life" over and around a target area. This is an especially useful tool when collecting intelligence on an enemy target or group of targets over time and can open up new possibilities when it comes to the process of finding, fixing and finishing the enemy.
Simply put, instead of recording a snapshot in time such as what a satellite can furnish, persistent airborne surveillance sensors capture massive amounts of exploitable information over hours and days. So if a picture is akin to a thousand words, this persistent type of wide area aerial surveillance is equivalent to an entire novel or even a series of novels.
When paired with communications intelligence gathering, such as intercepting radio communications and mobile and satellite phone chatter, a high fidelity "picture" of a targeted area and how specific targets in that area operate can be compiled in a relatively short period of time, all using a single relatively economical asset. Also, the aircraft’s extensive communications suite can take this information, including streaming video, and send it to a command center around the world or relay it to regional ground stations. As such, it can likely provide high-fidelity overwatch of ongoing special operations mission, and relay that video and/or audio to commanders in real time.
These capabilities are also especially useful in dense urban areas, where it might otherwise be difficult to positively identify small targets or specific individuals and in turn reduce the chance of inadvertently killing innocent civilians in a subsequent strike or raid. As such, it is possible that the Air Force's CN-235 flying over Seattle was conducting a realistic training exercise ahead of its deployment to the Middle East. Simulated surveillance missions over a real city full of neutral bystanders would have given the crew valuable experience regardless.
Whatever the case, the surveillance capabilities offered by the CN-235s are likely to become even more important in the near future. Though the United States, the Iraqi government, and the Russians have all declared ISIS’ dream of a physical caliphate to be effectively over, the group has gone back to its insurgent roots and remains a very real threat. As the group has lost physical territory, its members have dispersed into less populate areas or otherwise gone into hiding, making them more difficult to locate without persistent monitoring across broader areas.
And it's clear the United States and its partners are still actively hunting for members of the organization and senior leaders. Between October and December 2017, the U.S.-led coalition said it had killed nearly 20 named terrorists in targeted operations in both Iraq and Syria. Among these individuals was Abu Walid al Qamishli, who the U.S. military said had controlled a “network of fighters in Hasakah Province,” according to an official press release.
By April 2017, the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the official name of the overarching American-led unit in charge of special operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, had already killed more than 21,000 terrorists in both countries. An official statement added that the elite multi-national force had been responsible for liberating more than 17,000 square miles of territory from ISIS. We at The War Zone have discussed in depth how intelligence gathering, especially airborne surveillance, has been central to counter-terrorism operations around the world.
It looks as if American special operators and their partners will be continuing their missions in Iraq and Syria for the foreseeable future, as well. In November 2017, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis implied there could be a long-term mission for American forces in both countries.
“The enemy [ISIS] hasn’t declared that they’re done with the area yet, so we’ll keep fighting as long as they want to fight,” he told reporters at the Pentagon on Nov. 13, 2017. “We're going to have to make certain that 2.0 doesn't pop right out of the ground.”
It not entirely clear what form the mission, especially in Syria, will take on as it evolves though. The Syrian government, along with its Russian and Iranian benefactors, has called the American presence in the country’s Eastern provinces illegal and tantamount to an occupation.
“What we will be doing is shifting from what I would call an offensive – shifting from an offensive, terrain-seizing approach, to a stabilizing – making certain the diplomats – you'll see more U.S. diplomats on the ground, for example,” Mattis stressed during another press conference on Dec. 29, 2017, though it was unclear if he was speaking about Iraq, Syria, or both. “The military would move them around – our diplomats around, make certain they're protected.”
Special operations forces in Syria have also acted as de facto peacekeepers in the past, blocking certain movements by different factions. The United States also has a formal, if dubious agreement with Russia that has set a fixed boundary between the two countries’ operations.
In his December 2017 comments, Mattis added that it would take a civilian-run effort in order to help local elements re-establish basic services and other civil institutions and restore “normalcy” to areas that ISIS previously occupied. The U.S. military has already officially turned over control of Raqqa to a local council, but continues to insist that it hasn’t and will not take sides in Syria’s grueling civil war, instead relying on an internationally mediated peace process.
In April 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did voice continued support for a final resolution that involved dictator Bashar Al Assad stepping aside as the country’s leader. The U.S. State Department has had a Syria Transition Assistance and Response Team, now based in Turkey, since 2012, with the stated goal of being on hand to aid in post-conflict reconstruction efforts.
In the meantime, American special operators and conventional forces are focused on making sure ISIS doesn’t have a chance to regroup. Persistent surveillance, including with discreet spy planes such as the Air Force’s CN-235s, will only continue be an essential part of that mission, especially as the militants goes back into hiding to launch terrorist attacks.
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