#PutinAtWar: Iraq Reconsiders Its Military Equipment Suppliers

A video released by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense confirms their purchase of Russian T-90S tanks

For more than 10 years, the United States provided Iraq with top-notch equipment, logistical support and military instructors to train Iraqi military. The Iraqi Security Forces took a hard beating in the battle against ISIS since 2014. A significant amount of the military equipment provided by the United States was heavily damaged, destroyed, or captured during these fights. Some of the lost U.S. equipment ended up in the hands of ISIS, the Iran-supported militias, putting at risk the security of U.S. military technology.

As Iraqi military failed to retrieve the lost equipment, U.S. government stopped logistical support until the equipment is retrieved. In order to solve the shortage of parts, Iraqi military decided to look for new suppliers without as many strings as the United States.

@DFRLab recently reported evidence that the Iraqi military is buying equipment like tanks from Russia. This time the evidence was provided by the Iraqi military itself.

Lost Abrams

Ten years ago, the United States approved an arms deal supplying 140 M1A1 (Abrams) main battle tanks to Iraq. In late 2017, the U.S. expressed growing wariness over how these tanks were actually used in battle. As part of the sale, General Dynamics Land Systems workers were contracted to maintain Iraq’s new tanks, train Iraqis to to fix the vehicles, and provide support to fix the battle damage.

When ISIS surged in northwest Iraq in 2014, the militants managed to destroy five, damage dozens, and capture several intact Abrams tanks. Since then, not all of these tanks were recovered by the Iraqi government. As ISIS was pushed out of Iraq, at least nine of the Iraqi army’s 9th Armored Division’s Abrams tanks have ended up in the hands of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of Shiite-majority paramilitary groups sanctioned by the Iraqi government. These tanks were even used against some of the Kurdish forces in Iraq’s north. A few of the Abrams tanks were recently in the hands of three Shiite militia groups backed by Iran: Kataib Sayyid Al Shuhada, Kataib Sayyid Al Shuhada and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

It became increasingly worrisome that Iran might acquire the missing U.S. tanks from the Shiite militias and use the technology for their own tank development. In December 2017, news appeared that most of the General Dynamics contractors left Iraq. The U.S. government decided to temporarily shut down this program until the missing tanks had been returned, rendering scores of Iraq’s Abrams unfit for battle. In February 2018, the U.S. military and State Department finally admitted that pro-Iran forces were operating Abrams tanks. Iraq owns 140 M1 Abrams Tanks, sixty of which are reportedly out of service following the Mosul battle.

New Suppliers

Despite Baghdad’s success in recovering seven of nine missing tanks, the U.S. government was not satisfied with the results. The tank maintenance operation is currently on hold until the Iraqi military retrieves the remaining two Abrams from the militias. Amidst this situation, reports of Iraq ordering tanks from Russia appeared. @DFRLab investigated the first open source evidence of Russian T-90S tanks on the move to Iraq in late February 2018. New open source evidence has since appeared, this time provided by Iraqi Ministry of Defense.
 
 On April 15, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense released a video celebrating repairing 1075 military vehicles.

Iraqi Ministry of Defense video. (Source: YouTube / وزارة الدفاع العراقية)

The location of the video was confirmed to be the Taji military base north of Baghdad.

Taji military base. (Source: GoogleMaps)

The promotional video gave a glimpse into current state of Iraqi military. Officers giving interviews against the backdrop of Abrams tanks posters might suggest that the Abrams tanks were not yet fully dismissed by the Iraqi military.

Abrams tanks in the background. (Source: YouTube / وزارة الدفاع العراقية)

Amongst other recently appeared vehicles, dozens of allegedly repaired U.S.-made HMMWV Humvees were shown.

US made Humvees. (Source: YouTube / وزارة الدفاع العراقية).

Large numbers of equipment were stationed in the western part of the base, near the Logistics Headquarters.

Location of the recorded vehicles. Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: YouTube / وزارة الدفاع العراقية).

In one of the frames a Russian made T-90S tank was briefly shown. A possible location of the recorded tank was also near the Logistics Headquarters in Taji military base.

T-90S in Taji military base. Left: (Source: YouTube / وزارة الدفاع العراقية); Right: (Source: GoogleMaps).

This video served as the first confirmed proof of the Iraqi military having received the T-90S tanks. The tank in the official video clearly coincided with the photos that were leaked in February 2018.

Top: T-90S tank recorded in official Iraqi MoD video, Bottom: T-90S tanks in photos that were leaked in February 2015. Top: (Source: YouTube / وزارة الدفاع العراقية); Bottom: (Source: Medium / @DFRLab).

A few days before the official video was released, a couple of photos leaked, allegedly showing dozens of T-90S tanks in Taji military base. These photos lacked geolocation data to be confirmed, but were likely to be genuine. The painted camouflage on the T-90S closely resembled the camouflage in the official video as well. The reverse image search also suggested that the photos had not been published before.

Comparison of the Iraqi MoD video and the leaked photos of T-90S. Left: (Source: Twitter / @Miladvisor); Bottom Right: (Source: YouTube / وزارة الدفاع العراقية).

Switching from U.S. to Russian Weaponry

This official Iraqi MoD video provided clear evidence that Iraqi military already have Russian T-90S tanks and that they are in Taji military base. But this is not the only Russian equipment manned by the Iraqi military. Another example captured in the same video is the Russian Mil Mi-8 helicopter (NATO reporting name: Hip).

Comparissons of Mi-8 helicopter: top — Iraqi MoD video.Top: (Source: YouTube / وزارة الدفاع العراقية); Bottom: (Source: The Star).

Apparently, the Iraqi military is considering more equipment purchases from Moscow. On top of its recent purchase of Russian T-90S tanks, Iraq is also contemplating buying Russian S-400 air defense missiles. The purchase of the S-400 would be the most sophisticated Iraqi air defense system since the French-made KARI air defense system, which was largely destroyed in the Persian Gulf War. Regardless of whether Iraq will purchase the S-400s, the growing preference for Russian hardware is becoming increasingly evident.

The Iraqi gunship fleet consists of Mi-28s (NATO reporting name “Havoc”) and Mi-35Ms (NATO reporting name “Hind E”), Russian-made helicopters, since Baghdad preferred them to the U.S. Apaches. The only fighter jets in the Iraqi air force are American-made F-16s. The U.S. placed clear constraints on Iraq’s usage of F-16s, making sure that they won’t target Iraq’s cities or the Kurdistan Region. Similar limits are usually not applied to Russian weapons exports.

Conclusion

The Iraqi military is showing willingness to rely on Russian weaponry rather than U.S. produced arms, or at the very least, suppliers with less conditions than those demanded by the U.S. The preference for the T-90S tanks clearly showed the considerations of Iraqi military. If Iraqi continues to rely on the U.S. as the primary arms supplier, hardline agreements will have to be met, including limitations on some targets — as in the case F-16s — and having limited control of the weaponry — as in the case of Abrams.

It is far too early to say whether Russia will become the primary supplier of Iraqi arms, as this is a single deal in the face of a complicated set of relations. One fact is clear: Iraq is diversifying its suppliers and is not willing to be dependent on one country for its arms.


Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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