Geotagging the Shayrat airbase attack: what hit and where.


Perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment, but I went ahead and geotagged the entire tomahawk strike on the Shayrat airbase.  Now you can see at a glance what areas were struck (and with what level of confidence), and (to the best that can be determined with public images and information) what struck there.…

  • Colors range from red (little doubt of the hit) through orange, yellow to green (clearly not hit). Blue is for pictures, gray for satellite / aerial images, and purple for miscellaneous / unknown. The cluster of purple images on the top is airplane wrecks which could not be pinned down to specific hangars.
  • Icon types indicate the type of object struck — hangars (double arch), bunkers (single arch), fuel (gas pump), missile defense (rocket), workshop / auxiliary / staging (industrial sign), aircraft (airplane), crater (explosion) and unknown (question mark).
  • Click on an object, then on a picture for high res. Most sites have multiple shots of them, although some only have satellite/aerial or IR shots without ground shots.  The combination of satellite and IR however is very useful, as you can see both damage and what was glowing hot.

What conclusions can we draw? Well, let’s start with looking at what conclusions have already been drawn.

  • Jane’s Defence Weekly: If you know private military analysis groups, you know Jane’s.  Their summary: “Satellite imagery obtained by Jane's , combined with analysis of video footage released by the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD), disproves the MoD's assertion that fewer than half the cruise missiles that the United States launched at Syria's Al-Shayrat Air Base on 7 April reached their targets.”
  • ISI: Making use of commercial satellites, they cover, with imagery, most of the damage done. Their key conclusions:
    • 44 targets hit. Several targets may have hit twice.
    • 13 double hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) got 23 hits

    • 5 workshops got hit. The workshops are not necessarily related to WMD, but to aircraft and their ability to do maintenance and fly.

    • Ten ammunition storages got hit. Seven fuel reservoirs of the AFB got hit at two sites with eight hits total. Two locations remain untouched. One SA6 Battery utterly destroyed along with its radars and control systems. In total, five SA6 Battery elements hit.

    • Although 58 missiles hit the base, it seems that the overall damage to the base is limited because the warhead of the Tomahawk is not considered large and weighs about 450 kg.

Geotagging reveals pretty much the same story:

  • There’s a lot of things hit, with most hits making a lot of damage.
  • That said, there’s still plenty of the base untouched, because it’s a big base. There’s just so many targets, 58 tomahawks is just not going to hit them all.
  • Damage comes mainly in two types — fires and explosions. Some places have just fires, some just explosions, and some both.
  • One munitions bunker was basically wiped off the map — half a meter thick concrete followed by several meters of earth.  That must have been some explosion.  A number of other munitions bunkers did a “spray” of all of their contents out into the surrounding area.
  • The Russian MOD is lying their arse off about how many tomahawks hit.
  • That said, the Russian MOD is probably telling the truth about what types of planes were (at least predominantly) hit — unless they deliberately avoided filming wrecks of planes they didn’t want filmed, which is always a possibility.  All of the wreckage that I could identify was MiG-23s.  These are relatively inexpensive aircraft ($15m, new). That said, nearly half of Assad’s jets are MiG-23s (most of the rest being even more obsolete MiG-21s).
  • I cannot confirm, positively or negatively, the number of jets destroyed.  Jet-sized “hulks” of some sort can be seen within most of the shelters for which ground imagery is available, but only certain shelters were filmed inside. There are good enough images to show at least seven unique wrecks.
  • As a note about wrecks, do recall that jet fuel burns hot, and aluminum melts at low heat. The thin skins of almost all wrecks have been reduced to molten aluminum; it’s the more durable components (heavier structural aluminum, wiring, pressure vessels, engines, etc) that remain the most intact. Particularly common surviving components are the connection between the engine and the fuselage, where the wings get attached.
  • I can also confirm that some planes survived — or otherwise were relocated in for PR purposes, but for various reasons that’s doubtful in most cases. This includes three MiG-21s sitting outside on the west, five unknown aircraft outside in the east, and 2 Su-22s.
  • While there appear to have been “strikes” on all fuel depots, and most went up in hellish blazes, there’s two depot strikes that don’t kick off much IR. It’s reasonable to conclude that those depots probably survived.

Why did I waste so much time doing this? To hopefully once and for all dispel the conspiracy theory on Daily Kos. What conspiracy theory?  I’ll sum it up — it involves varying numbers of the following:

1) The strike was just pounding dirt. The US gave Russia enough time to move everything out of the base, and then the US went and hit a bunch of empty buildings or worthless junk. And US officials are lying about many things having been hit.  And US allies supportive of the strike are either pretending that it did something (knowing that it didn’t), or their intelligence services are morons who don’t realize that it was just pounding dirt.

2) The strike was pre-planned with the Russians and/or Assad in order to take attention away from his problems. Basically, “Aww, sorry to hear about your problems, Donald — hey, want to hit one of my bases?”

3) The gas attack was done specifically to give the excuse for #2

4) There was no gas attack.

The conspiracy is, of course, nonsense. There was under 90 minutes warning given to the Russians. At 2:10 AM Syrian time. The concept that by the time it had filtered through the Russian administration, to the military, to Assad, to Assad’s troops, that they then in the middle of the night raced into the bombing zone and evacuated an entire 5km-long airbase of its valuables is the sort of thing that wouldn’t even pass for a plot element in a Hollywood action film.  I highly, highly doubt even a single plane got into the air.

In short:

  • Yes, major, expensive damage was done to the base.
  • No, the base was not destroyed.

And so that we don’t have to rehash the inevitable in the comments section:

  • No, it’s a stupid use of a $1m missile to make a $10k hole in a runway that can be patched in a week. You take out runways when you’re trying to achieve air superiority, and you use $25k JDAMs to do it.
  • Yes, patching a runway really is that easy. Permanent fixes need to be done well, but you can get a temporary patch in place with nothing more complicated than well-graded gravel.
  • No, the US was not trying to destroy the runways. Because the military isn’t run by halfwits.

I hope you enjoy the map.