Tuesday, August 28, 2012

88th AD Update

Following my original post detailing the known ORBAT / TO&E of the 88th AD, Google Earth updated their imagery of the Zahedan area. In addition to this, I located the new divisional headquarters.

At the same time I was writing the first ORBAT in early-2011, the 1st AB was in the process of transferring their forces to the newly constructed "Shahid Yaqoob Ahmad Beigi" divisional HQ, which was nominally operational by this time with functioning administrative, maintenance and garrison facilities. By late-spring 2012, the majority of this transfer was reported to have been completed.

The given reason for this transfer was to decrease the congestion incurred when operating in major urban areas. It is unclear whether this refers to the brigade's ability to mobilize its forces, or to any negative effect on normal civilian movement.The new base has far better infrastructure to expedite the flow of men and equipment from motor-pools to the adjacent highways; the increased size will also allow for far more expansion in the future when compared to the finite facility inside the city.

Whatever the reason, updated GE imagery from August 2011 shows the results of this transfer, giving more insight into the Artesh's order of battle. For one, the divisional commander has been identified by Iranian media as Sartip Dovom (aka Brigadier General, 2nd class) Haqiqatfard; the commander of the 1st brigade is reported to be named "Ali", but little else is known about either officers, including the latter's rank.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the new base is the grid of high-capacity, median-divided roadways, which are set in stark contrast to the small, winding roads found in the former base. An entry-control point (1) marks the base's main entrance with a nearby reception building and parking lot. A handful of administrative buildings (2) - including "the fort" (3) - can be found nearby. The far-eastern collection of buildings (4) are likely to support the brigade's forces as they are gradually transferred to the new compound. These also likely include the classrooms reported by Iranian media. A parade and drill yard (including mocked-up trenches), similar to those found across the country, can be found further south-west (5). The collection of buildings to the far south (6) with their distinctive red, peaked roofs is the base's maintenance and repair workshops as evidenced by the abundance of nearby construction materials (ex: coiled cables, pipes), and earth-moving equipment, identifiable by their unique bright-yellow paint scheme. It's unclear how much these buildings are necessarily divisional assets versus temporary measures required during base construction. Note the nearby water towers.

Also visible is a handful of armor, but before I describe those, I should segue into a brief discussion about using Google Earth's measuring tool to determine the identity of AFVs. In many cases I have often used the length of an object to determine whether it is, say for example, a BMP or a BTR. While dimensions are unquestionably useful for determining identity, using them for analysis on scale of AFVs (often less than 10 m in length) risks misinterpretation simply because the tools aren't precise enough - hull-lines blur, shadows create distortion, etc. This creates significant difficulties when the difference between vehicles is only a question of one or two meters. In short, measured dimensions are only as useful as their accompanying context, which can be used to understand the observable differences observed in GEOINT. For instance, comparing the length/width ratio of vehicles is often far more important than their absolute measured dimensions, providing a crucial distinguishing feature between wheeled BTR-60s, and tracked BMPs.

Situated next to the maintenance workshops is a collection of 15 BMP-type vehicles (presumably BMP-2s) along with six M113s (variant unknown, likely M113A1) (7). This stands in contrast to the six BMPs which were visible at any given time previously. Taken together, the organization of these 21 vehicles is difficult to discern given the multitude of possibilities. One possibility is that 15 BMPs represents a mechanized infantry battalion with severely understrengthed rifle companies (less than 50% of an equivalent Soviet battalion). It's also possible that the M113s are not affiliated with infantry companies at all, and are instead used to provide some unknown capability at the battalion or brigade level as command vehicles, or as anti-tank or machine-gun platoons. 

It's possible that all the mechanized assets have been consolidated together into a single full-strength battalion-sized force. This would mean combining forces with the two companies of BTR-60PBs (10 rifle squads/company) located to the north (9). Like the BMPs, the number of visible APCs exceeds those visible at the former base. Alternately, these two companies may represent a second mechanized infantry battalion - albeit understrengthed. At this point, these guesses are just that, guesses.

Adjacent to the BTR-60s are two platoons worth of M-48A5 MBTs (8).While some M-48A5s can still be observed at the old base (see below), the question of where the remaining elements of the tank battalion are remains. The most probable answer is that they are in the nearby garages. These garages are aytpical designs (with rather small doors), but could conceivably hold the missing armor. This applies not just to the tanks, but to the other armor as well.

Not all of the 1st AB (and supporting divisional assets) had been relocated from the old base as of August 2011, the equivelent of two tank platoons remain in their old motor-pool, as does the full battalion of M109 SPGs. Notably, the M109 battalion is equipped with 13 guns, rather than the usual 12 (three batteries of four guns). The purpose for this is unclear. Also nearby is a battery of D-30 towed guns, which is also reinforced with an additional gun (seven, rather than the usual six pieces). Organizationally, this is atypical as towed guns are usually deployed in battalions. It's possible that this could be a unique support asset deployed at differently than the standard brigade-level fire-support. Also still garrisoned in the old facility is the division/brigade's engineering company with a number of highly-visible earth-moving equipment (possibly front-end loaders) in bright yellow.

Another noteworthy development in regard to the 88th AD is the continued trend towards smaller field formations among the Artesh. The typical three-brigade structure of Iranian armored division is being reduced even further to a two-brigade structure, with the third brigade operating independently under the command (presumably) of the regional/theater hierarchy. In this case, the 2nd brigade - operating from Khash - has been redesignated the 288th independent armored brigade.