UPDATE: I have posted an update containing several important details.
UPDATE 31/08/2013: A second update including more details is available here.
In recent days, the world’s attention has been focused on the alleged chemical weapons (CW) attacks in Syria. This post will seek to examine the alleged delivery system used in these attacks, and provide a preliminary analysis of the capabilities and features of such. This is a preliminary analysis only, and should be treated as such. My hope in posting this piece is that it will inform the conversation, and help cut through some of the wild guesses and outrageous claims regarding these munitions that I have seen over the past few days. Nothing in this post should be considered definitive. Additionally, I will not be attempting to establish which side employed chemical weapons, nor indeed if CW were employed at all. These are questions best answered by CW specialists on the ground (such as the UN team in Syria). The earliest video of this munition type that I have seen is from January 2013, and the devices match with those recorded at earlier alleged CW attacks.
The delivery system appears to be a non-standard surface-to-surface rocket of at least 2800mm in length (and quite possibly longer). The tail fin assembly and similarly sized warhead baseplate suggest that the rocket is of the tube-launched type, though they may be rack-launched. Estimations based on objects appearing in the images and videos alongside these munitions suggest that the warhead baseplate and fin assembly are at least 300mm in diameter, and may be as much as 350mm. The tail features a straight fin assembly with a ring aerofoil, and a single large exhaust nozzle for the rocket motor (see below). The payload section of the weapon appears to be larger than the body section, and approximately the same diameter as the warhead baseplate or central ‘collar’ seen remaining in several photos and videos. It appears to be thin walled, which would indicate the requirement for a high fill-to-weight ratio.
Possible firing platforms for these would be Iranian Falaq-2 and Fajr-5, and Syrian ‘Khaibar’ launcher types. The Falaq-2, which fires a 330mm rocket, is known to be in use in Syria already. These do typically fire reasonably short (1820mm) rockets, however. Another possible launch system is the Syrian 302mm ‘Khaibar’ rocket launcher; however this system may be too narrow in diameter. The Iranian Fajr-5 type launchers fire a rocket of 333mm in diameter, and of greater length than the Falaq-2 system. Iran is thought to have supplied these to Syria, however no video evidence has been seen by this author. Of course, a bespoke launch platform could have been designed specifically for these munitions. The munitions are unlikely to be improvised devices, given their build quality and uniformity of appearance.
A reddish-brown powder substance is seen around the warhead in the video below. It is possible that the two points seen on the baseplate of the warhead are filling plugs.
Whilst the features of the rocket, particularly the top-heavy payload seen in the video above, are partially consistent with those of an improvised rocket-assisted munition (IRAM), the uniform build quality, numbering, and other markings (see images below) suggest that these weapons were produced on a larger scale than some of the ‘DIY’ type weapons seen in the Syrian conflict to date. If these were only produced locally in very small numbers, such a numbering system would be unlikely, and the build quality would likely be lower and less uniform. The highest number appears to be ‘900’, which may indicate that a large number of rockets have been produced. The numbering may have several alternative purposes. The fact that the majority of devices seen appear to have functioned as intended also adds weight to the theory that these are not improvised devices.
One source photographed the fuze below, a Soviet/Russian ATK-EB mechanical time (MT) fuze, near the impact site of one of these munitions. It is not known whether the fuze is from the munition in question, or from an earlier strike in the same area. It appears airstrikes were also carried out by regime forces after the alleged incident. in the Such a fuze, most commonly seen in use with RBK-type cluster munitions, could have been used to detonate these munitions. The use of a MT fuze would likely indicate that the munition was supposed to function in an airburst fashion, detonating before striking the ground. Whilst a possible candidate for this munition, a MT fuze would not necessarily be the most effective option. The use of a MT fuze, coupled with the fact that most of the devices observed appeared to have functioned, may indicate that the operating party was familiar with the weapon system and capable of effectively calculating and setting the MT fuzes to their appropriate delays.
The craters and impact areas around the munitions in the various photos (see photo at top, for example) available are quite small, which probably rules out a large high explosive (HE) charge. It may still be indicative of a smaller HE bursting charge. In these images, it appears that the warhead has functioned.
There exists the possibility that the munitions in question are in fact designed to deliver a HE or a fuel-air explosive (FAE) effect. FAE rockets of similar construction can be seen in the US Surface-Launched Unit, Fuel-Air Explosive (SLUFAE) and Israeli CARPET rockets. FAE or HE weapons could, with varying degrees of difficulty, be converted to deliver a liquid CW payload by replacing the payload of the munition with a chemical agent. It is possible that the munition is or was produced in two or more different variants, or that one type which was produced originally was converted to serve another purpose at a later date. The yellow band identified on some of the munitions, as seen in the image below, may be indicative of a different warhead fill type. The video below shows a powdered substance payload which looks more likely to be a HE fill.
Videos such as the one below seem to indicated that the agent is either non-persistent (if a CW fill), or that the munitions have been used with non-CW fills, as discussed. Many of the images and videos show people handling or in close proximity to the remnants of these munitions.
Whilst we certainly do not have enough information to positively identify the munition as yet, we can say that:
1.) It is likely a non-standard munition, not widely used or manufactured, but likely not an ‘improvised’ munition;
2.) It is probably a tube-launched munition;
3.) It appears to have a diameter of approximately 300mm or more at its widest points (warhead base plate and tail fin assembly), and a total length of at least 2800mm.
4.) The nature of the design means they are unlikely to be particularly long-range, nor particularly accurate.
As noted in my opening paragraph, all of these findings should be treated as ‘best guesses’ only. It is not clear that these are CW munitions at all, nor are their origins known. However, they appear consistent with designs that could function with a liquid payload, and may be capable of delivering a CW agent.
Another question worth asking: why would the Assad regime use these somewhat crude munitions when they are believed to have Scud-type missiles with chemical delivery capabilities? One specialist suggested it may be a way to develop less-expensive munitions for a surfeit of CW agents. No doubt, at least some of the facts will come to light in time, and these preliminary observations will be revised by those with access to the right data. Certainly, a lot more information is needed.
UPDATE 25/08/2013 1225: Edited post to reflect reports of airstrikes after the alleged incident, a few typographic errors, and to add the location of possible filling plugs. I also clarified my point about these potentially being FAE/HE weapons, as I have received a few emails on the subject.
UPDATE 29/08/2013: I have posted an update containing several important details.
UPDATE 31/08/2013: New images including rudimentary measurements, and new video footage of a presumed HE device. Available here.
Anyone with clearer images, qualified opinions on the device, or similar is welcome to get in touch with me.
My thanks goes to Eliot Higgins, John Ismay, and several others who assisted, including a number specialising in CW and/or EOD, who have elected to remain anonymous. All photos are taken from Eliot Higgins’ compiled lists of images and video, available here and here.