The Complex

Check Out the Syrian Rebels' Insane New Missile Launcher

A new video posted on YouTube earlier this week appears to show a Syrian rebel fighter launching a U.S.-made anti-tank missile at what is said to be an enemy tank, raising new questions about whether Washington has begun to supply powerful weapons to groups trying to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

If the TOW missile system were supplied by the United States -- and analysts cautioned Monday that its pedigree was unclear -- it would signal a dramatic change in the Obama administration's policy towards arming Syrian rebels. The U.S. government has been reluctant to supply heavy weapons such as anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles, which could be used to shoot down military or civilian aircraft, for fear they'll fall into the hands of religious extremists. The fighter in the video appears to be a member of Harakat Hazm, said two analysts, which is part of the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group generally seen as more moderate than some of the Islamist fighters who are also trying to overthrow Assad.



The video, which was uploaded to the site on Saturday, April 5, shows a man in a black sweater firing a TOW missile at what a narrator claims is a Syrian tank at a checkpoint in the village of Heesh, according to an analyst who translated the video from Arabic. In the video, the missile smashes into the target, which disappears in a cloud of smoke as unseen militants chant "Allahu akhbar," Arabic for "God is great."  The TOW system was built by the United States and has been in used by the American military since the Vietnam War. It's also used by around three dozen other militaries around the world.

But the TOW missile has never shown up in the hands of rebel fighters in Syria, analysts said. That in and of itself marked a potential shift in the course of Syria's three-year old civil war. Regardless of who supplied the weapon, it could give the rebels a leg up against Syrian military tanks. A video uploaded on April 1 also appears to show a Free Syrian Army fighter from the same group firing a TOW missile.


Older videos have shown rebels using Chinese-made anti-tank missiles whose origins are likewise difficult to ascertain. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been two sources of weapons flowing to fighters in Syria. The CIA also has a base in Jordan where it has trained Syrian rebels. Reuters reported in January that the Congress has secretly approved funding to supply the rebels with small arms.


Rebel fighters sometimes film themselves firing heavy weapons, including portable missiles, to demonstrate that they're not falling into the hands of extremists, which could be an inducement for foreign countries to keep the arms flowing, said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian opposition.

"We have seen uptick in anti-tank missiles of various sorts being used by the Free Syrian Army," said Shahbandar, noting that the weapons have been effective against Syrian forces. "Whether this weapon is coming from the United States is difficult if not impossible to verify, because the U.S. works with regional partners," he said.

Eliot Higgins, a long-time chronicler of the Syrian civil war who blogs under the name Brown Moses, said the TOW in the video probably didn't come from the United States and was more likely taken by the rebels from Hezbollah forces, who've fought alongside Assad's troops in Syria's three-year old civil war.

But in March, administration officials said that the White House was considering allowing portable surface-to-air missiles, known as "manpads," to be shipped to rebel forces inside Syria. Those weapons would likely come from the Saudi government, which has them stockpiled but hasn't yet sent them to rebels because of U.S. opposition and concern that they'd fall into the hands of terrorists.

U.S. intelligence officials didn't immediately respond to requests for comment about the video and who may have supplied the TOW missile.

Screenshot via YouTube.com

National Security

Watch the Navy’s Futuristic ‘Star Wars’ Railgun Blow Things Up

Picture this: The Pentagon is preparing for an assault on a coastal country in the Pacific that already has attacked U.S. embassies abroad and is clearly spoiling for a fight. The enemy nation maintains a fearsome air force that isn't as good as Washington's, but is nevertheless capable of inflicting significant casualties on the U.S. military. Before that can happen, however, the Navy fires dozens of supersonic rounds from high-tech cannons mounted on U.S. ships safely offshore. One after another, the 23-pound projectiles pound enemy airfields nearly 100 miles away - and the threat disappears in flashes of fire and smoke.

The Navy hopes that will be the future of warfare. It has spent ten years and at least $240 million developing a so-called "electromagnetic railgun" capable of launching projectiles that reach speeds of up to Mach 7 - seven times the speed of sound - and can travel more than 100 miles before smashing into their targets.

That, at least, is what the gun is supposed to do. It's not yet clear that it will work as advertised in combat. The service has fired the railgun successfully hundreds of times over the past few years, but only while the cannons were mounted on land, mostly at a secretive Navy base in Dahlgren, Va. Next year, the railgun will be fired from a new high-speed ship, the USNS Millinocket, for the first time. That's a major step for a program that has never been operated at sea.

To demonstrate its lethality, the Navy just released a new video demonstrating railgun projectiles slicing through a variety of targets, including vehicles. The service has released other videos of the railgun firing in the past, but this marks the first time civilians can see it not only firing, but destroying the targets at which it is aimed:


Office of Naval Research's Electromagnetic Railgun from Foreign Policy on Vimeo.

Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, the chief of naval research, is fond of comparing the railgun to weaponry seen in the Star Wars movies. 

"I'm not going to tell you how this is designed... because frankly, it's very, very secret," Klunder told reporters at the Pentagon, sitting next to an inert 23-pound model of a railgun round. "I'm not going to tell you what's inside of it. But the point is, we've done a number of models with the guns we've fired hundreds of times.... It gives us the ability to knock anything out of the air."

Navy officials have tested the railguns to see how it would perform in a variety of missions, including defending against cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and targeting vehicles, Klunder said. The system had performed well in every test scenarios, he added, although in some cases it requires two or three projectiles take out a target. After making sure the gun works well while installed on a ship, the next big project is to make sure it can fire multiple times in a minute without overheating, which could be key in the middle of a massive air-sea battle.

"Right now, we're doing single shots at a time," Klunder told reporters at the a press conference rolling out the new video last week. "We're going to try to get up to 10 rounds per minute. The technology is there, we just have to work on some of the mechanics, the handling and the cooling systems."

That's no small feat. Many things remain secret about the program, but it has faced scrutiny on Capitol Hill because of trouble it has run into in the past. The massive amount of energy needed to fire the weapon wore out components of the gun quickly, leading to skepticism it would ever be practical. The Senate Armed Services Committee even moved to kill the program in 2011, feeling that "the technical challenges to developing and fielding the weapon would be daunting, particularly [related to] the power required and the barrel of the gun having limited life," a committee staff member told Wired magazine at the time.

Proponents in Washington moved to keep the railgun program, however, and it survived. Last year, the Navy selected a version of the weapon made by BAE Systems as its primary option. It uses electromagnetic energy instead of gunpowder or other explosive propellants to launch the projectile, the company says. The weapon would draw the power primarily from battery-like components, eliminating the safety concerns that go with using gunpowder or other old-school explosive propellants.

As the service moves toward firing the gun multiple times in a matter of minutes, it will test whether undisclosed changes it has made in the composition of the gun have increased its durability, Klunder said. He wouldn't disclose what has been changed, but said the Navy will be closely monitoring its "thermal management" - military-speak for its ability to not melt under immense pressure.

"I can tell you that we absolutely have a pathway for that. It is not a problem," the admiral said. "As a matter fact, a lot of the secret sauce in the materials that we put... in those rails and that gun will allow us to do exactly that."

Image from Navy video