Su-24 shootdown, thermobaric weapons and chaos: analysis of Russian air power in Syria


Image source: The Aviationist

Justin Bronk is a Research Analyst of Military Sciences at Royal United Services Institute. Here is his analysis of today’s Su-24 shootdown.


What do we know about the Su-24 shootdown? What will be the consequences of it?

We know that it was shot down by Turkish F-16s after allegedly crossing the border and violating Turkey’s airspace in Hatay province. According to the Turkish letter to the UN the Su-24 was one of a flight of two which ignored ten warnings over a period of five minutes and entered Turkish airspace. A missile was fired at one which impacted and caused it to crash on the Syrian side of the border. The consequences, besides an obvious collapse of Russian-Turkish relations, depend very much on the proof Turkey and NATO can provide that the airspace violation did take place – contrary to Russian claims – and the extent to which Mr Putin feels he has to retaliate diplomatically, asymmetrically and potentially militarily.
How does the Russian and Western story vary? What is the truth? What are the motives for the varying stories?

The Turkish government claims the Su-24 violated Turkish airspace after ignoring repeated warnings and was then shot down, crashing on the Syrian side of the border. Russia claims its aircraft never entered Turkish airspace and that the attack was unprovoked. Russia also claims the Su-24 was involved in strikes against Islamic State at the time. The motives are fairly clear – both sides are saying that the other is in the wrong and the Russians do not want to be seen as being aggressors who got punished. The truth is likely to be that the Russian jet did indeed violate Turkish airspace after ignoring warnings, but for a very brief period and without any intention to threaten Turkey beyond the annoyance of another incursion. Russia has repeatedly violated Turkish airspace, along with other NATO members such as Estonia over the past two years.
 Is Turkey actually scared of air attack, or just sick of having its airspace penetrated?

There is no suggestion from the Turkish side that the Su-24 was attempting to attack Turkey. However, deliberate violation of sovereign airspace by foreign military aircraft is taken very seriously by almost every country in the world. Since the Russian Air Force repeatedly probed Turkish airspace in early October and Turkey warned that any more violations would result in dangerous results, it seems fairly clear that the decision was made at a very high level in Turkey that this violation would be fired upon.

Are Russian and other air forces attacking Syria coordinated?

No, Russian forces are not directly coordinating their activities in Syria with members of the US-led coalition. The only regular interaction is basic attempts at deconfliction to reduce the chances of a mid-air collision in the crowded airspace above Syria. Aside from security concerns, this is primarily because the US-led coalition and Russia have different geopolitical objectives and, therefore, different targets. Whilst the coalition is attempting to destroy ISIL in Syria and Iraq, Russia’s primary objective appears to be providing air support to President Assad’s forces on the ground against all opposition groups. There are few places where the regime’s forces have direct contact with ISIL so most of Russia’s strikes have targeted moderate rebel groups and the Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra. The notable exception to this pattern has been in the aftermath of the Paris and Metrojet terror attacks which have led both France and Russia to focus attacks on the ISIL power-base in Raqqa. However, even these attacks have been carried out with only limited deconfliction cooperation.

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How easy would it be to co-ordinate Russian air assets with those of other nations? What would be the obstacle to this?

Language might be a barrier. With ICAO rules on English as the international language of the air, Russian aircrew could probably understand most of what was said to them and get by speaking back though. However, the main issue is political – with Russia treating NATO very much as an adversary in Europe, it is not wise to let them know more than we have to about the ins and outs of NATO air operations and capabilities. Furthermore, Russian systems have software and hardware interoperability issues internally that make Western whole-force integration look positively glorious. This is a result of the Russian practice of keeping multiple arms companies such as Mikoyan and Sukhoi in business by ordering a huge variety of equipment models in small batches over long periods of time. Standardization is not their strong suit. Given how challenging NATO air forces find full interoperability within coalitions even whilst operating similar aircraft with standardized equipment, tactics and practices, proper integration of Russian forces would likely be a nightmare.

 Is true that the Russian air force causes more civilian deaths than other air forces, if so why? 

The Russian Air Force in Syria is causing far more civilian deaths than Western air forces (although not nearly as many as the Syrian Air Force barrel bombing campaign). This is primarily due to their reliance on large numbers of unguided ‘dumb’ bombs and rockets to attack targets. These invariably cause far more collateral damage than selective use of Western precision guided munitions due to their lower accuracy, higher blast yield and required ‘area’ attack tactics. Russian forces have also been reportedly using cluster munitions and thermobaric weapons which are by nature indiscriminate and imprecise.

There is talk of the UK starting air strikes in Syria- are more air assets actually needed? Would it be purely political?

The results of UK participation in kinetic strikes against targets in Syria would likely be almost purely political. There has so far been no talk about committing more assets, just allowing the eight Tornado GR.4s and ten MQ-9 Reapers currently committed in Iraq to extend their missions to Syria. Within the context of the wider US and coalition effort in Syria, this is a small force to add and certainly cannot produce anything more than marginal tactical gains. What is really in short supply in Syria is ISR platforms and UK Reapers, Sentinel and other ISR platforms are already conducting ISR operations over Syria as well as Iraq.


Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_Br0nk

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

You should also enjoy some more of our articles: There’s a whole feast of features, including the top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an alternate history of the TSR.2, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is the The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker.



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