Monday 31 December 2012

The Weapons Of The Syrian Air Force - Updated

Over the past months we've seen an escalation in the air war in Syria, with helicopters being joined by L-39 and MiG jets, and an increasing variety of weapons being deployed by the Syrian Air Force.  By examining the various UXO (Unexploded ordnance) filmed by opposition activists in Syria we can see which weapons are being used by the Syrian Air Force, and get an idea of the quantities being used.

S-5 Rockets

One of the most widely used weapons by the Syrian Air Force is the S-5 rocket, used from the earliest days of the air war, and capable of being used by both helicopters and jets.  They also featured heavily in the Libyan Civil War, generally fired from rocket pods welded to the backs of pick up trucks.

They have a very distinctive long thin body, usually a light metallic colour, with black stabliser fins at the rear.  The actual explosive charge it only at the very end of the missile, the rest of the body being used to hold propellant.  As the above videos demonstrates large numbers of rockets have been used across Syria.

AT-2 Swatters

AT-2 Swatter/3M11 Fleyta anti-tank missile have made rare appearances, the above example being from December 2012, around the same time their was a significant rise in the use of armour by the Syrian opposition.  Unlike the other bombs and missiles on this page the AT-2 has an in-built guidance system, the remains of which can be seen in the above video.


OFABs are Russian made general purpose bombs (classified as fragmentation/blast bombs in Russia) designed for attacking lightly armoured vehicles, non-fortified structures, and personnel in the field.  The first OFABs to be identified as UXO in Syria were the larger OFAB 250-270 bombs

In August, around the same time as L-39s started being used in Aleppo and elsewhere, we began to see evidence of OFAB 100-120 bombs

It's interesting to note that since L-39s were first spotted in Aleppo I've collected around 30 examples of unexploded or partly exploded OFAB 100-120 bombs, compared to a handful of all other bomb types in the same period.  This strongly suggests that OFAB 100-120 bombs are the bomb of choice for the Syrian Air Force, and were very likely introduced alongside the use of L-39 jets in Aleppo.


In October 2012 Russian FAB M62 high explosive bombs first made an appearance.  These are simply large high explosive bombs, and while they haven't been used as widely as OFAB bombs they are far larger and much more powerful.  Unexploded FAB bombs have been spotted making up part of a massive truck bomb used by Jabhat al-Nusra.

RBK Cluster Bombs

RBK 250/250-275 cluster bomb dispensers and their associated cluster bomblets first made their appearance in the conflict around July 10th 2012 in the Jabal Shehshebo region in the Hama, later confirmed by Human Rights Watch.  Evidence of only one cluster bomb was found at that time, carrying AO-1 SCH fragmentation bomblets, designed to attack lightly armoured targets and ground personnel.  Here activists took the incredible risk of lining them up for a Youtube video

Cluster bombs are rather unique as they will nearly always leave behind evidence of their use, namely the dispenser part of the bomb which opens up when deployed to scatter the bomblets, rather than exploding like a traditional bomb.  This means that each bomb dropped can be reasonably expected to leave behind a casing.

Until August 2012 there were no more videos of cluster bombs or bomblets until activists in Abu Kamal posted this video

Again, they take a huge risk moving these bomblets to make a Youtube video, and what they are showing here are PTAB 2.5m cluster bomblets, primarily used as anti-armour weapons, but equally deadly to anything else in the area.

There were virtually no other reports of cluster bomb use until around October 10th, when shortly after the opposition captured a major highway in the Idlib region there was a sudden and massive increase in reports of cluster bomb use across the entire country.  Later, in late November, we saw the first images of incendiary cluster bombs loaded with thermite based ZAB incendiary bomblets.  This escalation in the air war appeared to occur shortly after a series of military bases were captured in the Aleppo region.


Around the same time ZAB incendiary cluster bombs made their first appearance in the conflict we also saw the first use of ZAB-100-105 incendiary bombs, containing both a napalm style mixture and 9 thermite cartridges designed to scatter on impact.  More details of the contents of these bombs can be found here.


ODABs are fuel-air bombs which create huge explosive fireballs that are capable of much more destruction against buildings than an OFAB bomb.  It's believed by some people these bombs were used in Azaz in an incident where it appears only two bombs flattened houses in "an area of approximately 70-by-70 meters – more than half a football field" killing over 40 civilians.  Judging by UXO evidence it appears these bombs have only been used since August 2012, and not in huge quantities. More examples can be found here.


So far only a few examples of BETAB penetration bombs have been recorded since their first appearance in September 2012, specifically the BETAB-500M62 free-fall 500kg model.  Designed to penetrate and destroy reinforced structures it's unclear why one would be used in a village outside of Aleppo, as the above example was.  While these bombs are cleared for use on the various jets used by the Syrian Air Force it's unclear if they can be dropped by helicopters.  More examples can be found here.


From August 2012 there were multiple reports of ADIEDs (Air Deployed Improvised Explosive Devices) dropped across Syria.  To begin with multiple examples of what appears to be DIY bombs, barrels filled with explosives and piece of shrapnel were reportedly dropped from helicopters in locations across Syria, followed by an increasing number of reports of "TNT barrel" being dropped.

What appears to have happened is activists have begun to use the term "barrel bomb" or "TNT barrel" to describe pretty much any cylinder shape bomb they see being dropped, something that's reflected in the increasing number of videos being uploaded to Youtube described as showing "barrel bombs" or "TNT barrels" that in fact clearly are OFABs or one of the other bombs shown above.

In late October 2012 videos were posted online that showed members of the Syrian air force dropping these devices from the back of a helicopter, seemingly confirming that these improvised devices were being used by the Syrian Air Force.  More examples of ADIEDs can be found here.

Naval Mines

In December 2012 we saw the first sighting of naval mines dropped from helicopters in two locations in Syria.  It's unclear how effective these have been as weapons, or whether this reflects supply issues for the Syrian Air Force. 

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  2. The ODAB in the video is very clearly the same thing as a typical Russian chemical weapon bomb. The equipment in the nose is basically a radio-altimeter fuse.

    The bomb is spun and this rapidly reels out the contents when the radio-altimeter fuses senses the right height above ground. This results in bomblets landing and bursting in a spiral pattern more or less simultaneously. The resulting cloud of fuel explodes when it's mixed in critical proportions with the air, either by timed incendiary, or simply by including a reactive chemical (ethylene dioxide is traditional) in the fuel that ignites when a critical mixture is reached.

    If the latter approach is taken, the only difference between an OBAD and a nerve gas dispenser is the critical height above the ground which the fuse is set for. (Usually a toxic agent will be spread over a wider area.)

    This raises obvious dangers, both of poison gas being used and of people wrongly concluding that poison gas is being used.

    This was the main reason why the RAF terminated experiments with fuel air explosives on German targets in WW2: intelligence suggested the Germans thought they were finding pieces of poison gas bombs.

    Empty cannisters with helical or spiral sheet metal vanes or flanges inside must not be touched: these may have contained binary chemical weapons agents. Likewise anything with obvious internal moving parts in the nature of paddles.

    Biological and biotoxin weapons will probably look like an ODAB but with powder-filled submunitions. If something lands and there's no explosion, only clouds of "dust", do not linger or approach. Try and phone someone and leave a message on voicemail, describing what you see and where, while you still can.

    Try for a copy of Sterling Seagrave's book "Yellow Rain" which describes a lot of Russian experiments with biotoxins and nerve gases, using inter-Arab conflicts as testing grounds.

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