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The Joint Special Operations Kalashnikov: A Look at the AKs of a New Cold War

Project JSOK

Photos by LRH Photography

In early February of 2018, the headquarters of U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces — and their embedded U.S. advisors — came under heavy attack by a force of the Syrian Regime. U.S. forces successfully repelled the attack using a full suite of air support assets, including Apache helicopters, drones, AC-130 gunships, and F-22 jets.
Initial reports after the battle indicated that among the dead were 100 Russians. In the following weeks, a variety of news sources from both the U.S. and Russia would double that number, citing nearly 200 dead Russian fighters — all of whom were believed to be working for a Russian private military company known as PMC Wagner. While Moscow never officially endorsed this version of the narrative, the Wagner brand has been popping up more and more frequently across Africa and Southwest Asia, leading some to believe we’re creeping into a next-generation cold conflict with the Kremlin.

Due in no small part to the Global War On Terror, the Kalashnikov and its many variants have been thrust back into the forefront of geopolitics. For most U.S. military vets, and fans of contemporary war movies, the image of the AK typically consists of dirty, broke-down rifles cobbled together by shade-tree gunsmiths in the Khyber Pass. Some of these guns are literally held together with duct tape and brass tacks. Other than their value as spectacle, these are unremarkable mutt rifles employed by fighters who believe that pushing the rear sight leaf to max elevation “increases the power” of the rifle. (That last part is something I was told directly by a host-nation soldier I was working alongside as a contractor. No sh*t, there I was …)

We attempted to optimize modularity through the use of extended KeyMod handguards. These are lighter weight, lower profile alternatives to Picatinny rails.

But those aren’t the guns that inspired this build. The growing presence of Russian shooters on the battlefield in the form of Spetsnaz operators and Wagner mercs has loosed a steady trickle of in-the-wild images highlighting how Eastern Europe’s best-trained soldiers are setting up and employing their AKs. It’s these pictures that birthed the concept of Project JSOK. This rifle isn’t meant to directly clone the rifles currently in use by Russian forces. Instead, it’s an “in-the-spirit-of” build, meant to reflect how one of our longest-running political adversaries has brought the People’s Rifle to a level of advancement that gives entities like Wagner small-arms parity with our own forces. As Russian shadow forces continue to advance Kremlin policy throughout the third world, we expect that U.S. soldiers will find themselves up against JSOK-type AKs more frequently in today’s asymmetric warfare environment.

Know Thine Enemy

After scouring a variety of news sources from The Daily Beast to Grey Dynamics, the first known deployment of Soviet … err … Russian mercenaries to Syria was 2013, in the form of a company known as Slavonic Corps. Their job was to recapture oil fields on behalf of the Asad regime. Reports indicate it didn’t end well, with Slavonic Corps being quickly routed by rebel forces. When the contractors of Slavonic Corps returned home, they were arrested by FSB (Russia’s internal security service) under a provision that, officially, bans Russian citizens from mercenary service.

Then came Russia’s incursion into the Ukraine, wherein the use of freelance fighters was integrated into Putin’s own “hybrid war” strategy. As part of this effort, Lieutenant Colonel Dimitry Utkin formed PMC Wagner. Right up until 2013, Utkin was an officer in the 2nd Spetsnaz Brigade, GRU — Russia’s military intelligence arm charged with intel missions abroad. Several units of Spetsnaz fall directly under GRU’s command to execute a variety of missions from special reconnaissance to training partner-nation commandos to sabotage. Sometime in 2013, Utkin left Spetsnaz (maybe?) to form PMC Wagner — allegedly named for Hitler’s favorite classical composer. We have no idea how true that is, but it’s hilariously ironic in light of World War II history. And it makes Utkin sound even more like a super villain. Since its inception, PMC Wagner has been spotted in the Sudan, Central African Republic, Libya, and Ukraine. What remains murky is the relationship between Wagner and the Russian military’s GRU. There are conflicting reports as to how many of Wagner’s shooters are former Spetsnaz now working as contractors versus how many are active-duty operators using Wagner as cover-for-status for deniability purposes.

Bodywork

We built out the JSOK with some help from the folks at Petronov Armament.



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