Friday, December 17, 2010

Infantry Armour within the Iranian Armed Forces

Infantry Armour within the Iranian Armed Forces

Infantry body armour is one of the signs of growing profesionalization within any army. When soldiers are dime-a-dozen conscripts, there is little incentive to provide individuals with armor. Not only is the equipment alone prohibitively expensive, it just makes no sense to protect someone with no valuable skills or training . However, as armies invest more and more into making soldiers skilled, giving them control over powerful (and expensive) equipment, there is a need to protect this investment. It no longer becomes a question of a $10,000 conscript, but instead somewhere in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, historically at least, would seem the antitheseis of this theory. Practical considerations aside, Iran is always rated high on scale of communalism compared to individuality. Iranian culture places high value on sacrifice for the community as well as existing as a greater unit then simply an individual. This is a gross oversimplification of centuries of cultural evolution, but it is basically is true when speaking from a grand perspective. This manifested itself in the Iran-Iraq war when light infantry reigned supreme and the notion of martyrdom became ingrained in the national psyche. Iran, like no other country, honours those who have served and paid the ultimate price.

This is to say nothing of the practical consideration. During the height of the Iran-Iraq war, volunteers were sent to the front with minimal, if any training and were often far from the most desirable soldiers - the Basij was famous for being composed of old men and boys. While prior to this, Iran wasn't exactly rushing to equip their soldiers with armour (no country was at that time), the legacy of such tactics - reliance on revolutionary fervour and light infantry - undoubtedly postponed the creation of a professional army.

For some time, Iran was probably incapable of producing on an industrial scale the materials needed for modern armour, and were prevented from importing them. However this is conjecture and no specifics can be implied.

However, this has shown signs of changing in recent years, accelerating as this decade comes to a close. Ballistic vests and helmets are now becoming more and more common among the services.

This piece is a review of common types of infantry body armor found within the Iranian Armed Forces, excepting some of the lighter-duty armors found in the IRIP.

M1 Helmet
The most common protective gear across all branches is the venerable M1 'Steel Pot' helmet which saw service in the US from WWII up through the mid-1980's. It's distinctive shape is recognizable almost anywhere.

The helmet features a steel shell to protect from fragmentation and a rigid plastic liner similar to a hard-hat. It has a two-point chin strap and is frequently used with a camouflage covering.

Iranian M1's are most often of an early design with a less pronounced 'S-curve' in the brim then found in later model Vietnam-era US models. Though this is by no means a rule and several less common subtypes can be found.

The M1 offers poor protection in the modern battlefield, effective only against light shrapnel. Sometimes, the helmets used are in poor shape, even reusing those which have bullet holes in them!
(IRIA soldiers wearing M1s during exercises in south-west Iran in 2004. Image Source: Fars News)

Composite Helmet
Starting to replace the M1 are composite ballistic helmets which, while unnamed, are extremely similar in style to the US PASGT helmet which succeeded the M1 in US service. This is largely inevitable though due to the limited number of designs a ballistic helmet can physically have.

The outer shell is made from layers of Aramide (generic name for Kevlar) and polyethylene ballistic fabric. It features a prominent upturned front brim, and a three-point chin straps, though two and four-point systems are occasionally seen. These are most often accompanied with ladderlock buckles, though some other types are also rarely seen. The basic colour of the helmet is olive drab, though is most often seen painted or with a camouflage helmet cover.

The helmet is rated to level IIIA under NIJ (National Institute of Justice) guidelines which covers the vast majority of handguns loads, including .357 and .44 calibre bullets. However, the official ballistics rating is somewhat confusing. According to Modlex, the helmet is offerred in four distinct weights - not sizes - four distinct types, each presumably with their respective range of sizes from small to large. Specifically, the medium sized helmet is offered in a 1.30, 1.35, 1.40 and 1.55 kg models, with the ability to resist projectiles travelling at 550 m/s, 610 m/s, 620 m/s and 680 m/s respectively. This is even more confusing as it doesn't specify the type of projectile, whether they're FMJ, soft-lead, or just shrapnel. There is also the possibility that something was lost in the transliteration and the four distinct varieties are merely the different sizes available. At any rate, the weight and protective qualities are largely comparable to modern western designs.

(IRIA soldiers on parade wearing relatively new ballistic helmets. Image Source: ISNA)

Ballistic Vest
Ballistic vests undoubtedly form the centrepiece of any army's, including Iran's, infantry armour loadout. However, with Iran, identifying a specific type is often difficult because there exists so many little differences between different models. Regardless, the design does not appear to be a copy of, or influenced by any foreign design.

At the most basic level, Iranian military ballistic vests are side-opening models, with some having over-the-shoulder closures. They're soft vests, most likely made of aramide (Kevlar) fabric with two large plate carriers, one for the back and one for the front.

Older models are fastened with a cummerbund-style hook and loop (Velcro) fasterners that wrap around front on either side of the torso. Another hook and loop fastener is found on the left shoulder. The only other features are the above-mentioned carriers for chest and back plates. These models have only ever been observed in three-colour desert camouflage.

(An older model ballistic vest during a demonstration at Army Day 2009 in Tehran. Note the lack of over-the-shoulder closure on the right hand shoulder as well as the hook and loop cummerbund. Image Source: Jamejam Online News)

The newer model, which is by far the most commonly seen swaps out the hook and loop cummerbund for two large side-release plastic buckles per side. Meanwhile, hook and loop fasteners are now featured on both shoulders and are attached to padded handles that are presumably included to facilitate dragging of an incapacitated soldier. On the front of the vest, on either side of the plate carrier, are D-rings which can be used to attach pouches to with snap hooks. These snap hooks and pouches are also found on the back of the vest, but without the D-rings. Also added is a groin protector which is most often seen folded up against the chest plate carrier. This model is most commonly (but not exclusively) seen in 3-tone woodland or desert camouflage.

(The most common model, as seen offered for export. Image Source: Modlex)

The soft vests themselves are rated to the same IIIA level as the composite helmets detailed above, when combined with polymer plates, the level is raised to III (rifle ammunition such as 7.62x51 NATO)

(non-ceramic plate during testing of the HS .50 sniper rifle during Great Prophet wargames. Image Source: Youtube)

The vests, weight anywhere from 5 kg to 12 kg, depending on exactly what comprises their loadout.

(The same vests worn by soldiers from the 23rd commando division, note the folded groin protector as well as the over-the-shoulder hook and loop fasteners. Image Source: Fars News)

Besides this, several other appliqué features exist that are sometimes glimpsed on, or can be added to the other models of vests including different types of plates (either ceramic or polyethylene), and additional soft armour as well as plates for the neck, groin, shoulders and arms. They also serve nominally as tactical vests with some newer models carrying PALS-styled (though not a direct copy of) webbing.

(A new style of vest, with webbing across the front, neck guards, but lacking hook and loop shoulder fasteners in use with IRGC airborne troops on parade during Sacred Defense Week 2010 in Isfahan. Image Source: Mehr News)

There also exists slight variations of each of the vests mentioned above, indicating that they're still in development and that nothing written here should be taken as 100% concrete or static.

Rate of Use
Use of personal armour within the ranks of infantry in Iran is still limited, though it appears to have exploded in the last few years. This comes with the caveat that this conclusion can only be arrived at if one takes the rate of armor use in parades as at least somewhat representative of use across the country which is a large assumption in and of itself. However, in the total absence of other information, including the drop off of pictures from infantry in ground-forces exercises.

It appears to be more common within the IRGC for low-level units to be effectively outfitted with armour, then within the IRIA, a problem likely traceable to funding disparities. However, within the IRIA, ballistic vests and helmets appear standard in at least some specific commando units, including the 23rd division, and possibly some of the units on the western border. Again, these assessments come only from parade photographs and cannot be assumed to be written in stone. For the broad majority though, armour remains limited to M1 helmets and the thin cloth of BDU's.

(1) "Among the Iranians: A Guide to Iran's Culture and Customs" Sofia Koutlaki. 2010
(2) M1 Helmet.
(3) Miscellaneous.
(4) Ballistic Protection Levels.
(5) General research on body armor through various wikipedia articles

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Qom Salt-Lake Military Facilities

Qom Salt-Lake Military Facilities

***This piece is a revision of two earlier pieces on the storage depots and nuclear facility, which have both been combined into this final version***

The north-west region of the Qom province, about 15 km north of the city itself, centered around southern edge of the Qom Salt-Lake is a dense clustering of military facilities, including the recently discovered semi-secret enrichment facility.

***As Always, Click to Enlarge***

Kushk-e Nosrat Emergency Airbase
South-west of the Qom Salt Lake and immediately adjacent to the Persian Gulf Highway is the Kushk-e Nosrat emergency airfield was originally used by the IIAF, the USAF, and later the IRIAF. During the 1990s, several ex-IrAF aircraft were stored here. It was reported to be innactive, however between 2005 and 2009, a number of new buildings and features were constructed and now a number of light aircraft can be seen at the base, although it is probably restricted to liason duties for the nearby military facilities. (1)

Storage Depots
The two compounds that comprise the bulk of the military facilities in the Qom Salt-Lake area are unidentifiable, but can be presumed to be storage depots given a) strategic location along the Tehran-Qom highway which would be used as a throughfare for units in event of a war, b) lack of any known nearby unit, and c) lack of assets (such as firing ranges, motor pools, barracks) normally associated with a previously unknown unit in the area.

The high density of features means that traditional "overview" pictures, as they are presented in other image-analysis features on the Arkenstone are close to useless in these compounds because everything simply blends together at the altitude required to get a full FOV .

Western Compound
While the western compound is physically larger then the eastern one, it is less developed and large tracts of it remain unused compared to the high density of the eastern compound.

In addition to the usual complement of hardened shelter type bunkers found in the compound, there are also two underground facilities (UGF) (previously referred to by the Arkenstone simply as 'bunkers' or as 'extensive bunkers'). They include the instantly recognizable dual entrances set close by to each other as well as their concrete ramps. the northernmost facility was still under construction in 2005, and by 2009 appears largely, if not entirely finished. While the southern UGF appears to have made little discernible outward progress since 2005, with the 2nd entrance still only just cut into the hillside.

Those bunkers listed as "Under construction" have been that way for many years and are unlikely to change any time soon.

There are a fair amount of hardened shelter type bunkers as well as revetments in the open that are clearly packed with equipment such as storage containers and barrels (very possibly fuel).

A number of AAA emplacements (usually empty) can be found around the edge of the compound, usually paired with some sort of sentry post.

The heart of the compound is the administrative center, complete with a soccer field, mosque, a parade yard, and offices.

Eastern Compound
Although geographically smaller, the eastern compound is far much more densely packed with features.

The most noticeable feature is the large amount of storage bunkers and associated revetments.

Note that only distinct segments of revetments are marked on the map, those found in one's and two's and generally associated with nearby bunkers are left off this map.

Some of the more interesting revetments are those adjacent to large concrete pads (30 m x 7 m) near the administration center and living quarters. These are similar to the pads used at the Kermamshah bunker-storage facilities that have possible use as missile-launching platforms, which could indicate the same potential use here . (though emphasis must me made of how many qualifying statements were used in the last sentence).

There are also a small number of empty AAA emplacements

This compound also has an administrative center, dominated by a large traditional-style fort. This compound also appears to have many 'living quarter' type buildings for the facility garrison.

Nuclear Enrichment Facility
Certainly the most well known feature of the greater-Qom area is the semi-secret nuclear enrichment facility only publicly unveiled by western intelligence agencies in 2009.

Note that the following is only a brief overview of the facility and those wishing an in-depth analysis by experts are invited to visit the cites below.

The original excavations were dug sometime between early-2000 and mid-2004, though most have assessed them to be, at that time, merely military in nature, not necessarily associated with the nuclear program. It is not clear why this assessment predominates, but it does make logical sense.

Excavation then began in 2004, with the construction of two separate tunnel entrances covered with an above-ground structure as well as a separate UGF 350 m north.

The site stays mostly dormant until June 2007 when construction materials first start appearing near the two tunnel entrances. (2)

Construction continues up through January 2009 which is when the next image comes from. The two covered excavations are revealed as having two distinct entrances. Global Security makes the valid point that the size of the backfill excavated indicates that these are not massive complexes that are dug into the entire mountain, but what's visible is probably the extent of the facilities. One possible use for these, as GS points out, is for power plants. (3) Also important is the construction of a large UGF that is generally assumed to be the main enrichment hall.

In October, the next major development was unveiled with the concealing of construction being done on the enrichment hall and the completion of external work on the two possible power plants.

(1) Wikimapia
(2) ISIS Reports.
(3) Global Security.