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Turkey today confirmed that two of its F-16 jet fighters shot down a Russian Air Force Sukhoi Su-24 attack jet after it reportedly violated Turkish airspace on the border with Syria and failed to respond to repeated warnings over a five-minute period. It is the first time that forces of NATO and the Russian Federation have actually exchanged fire, and represents a critical escalation of Russia’s confrontational relations with the West which erupted following the Maidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014.
However, it is worth remembering that during the early Cold War, the Soviet Union and NATO shot down several of each other’s military aircraft following airspace violations. The last publicly known such incident occurred in October 1970, when a Soviet missile destroyed a US Air Force RU-8 spy-plane after it allegedly violated Armenian airspace. Despite regular probing of airspace by Russian aircraft around the airspace of NATO member states and multiple violations of Estonian, Swedish and Turkish airspace in recent years, no shots had been fired until now.
The Russian Su-24 which was destroyed today reportedly entered Turkish airspace near the town of Yayladagi near the Syrian border. It was filmed by multiple sources falling in flames and crashed on the Syrian side of the border, with the apparent death of at least one of the two aircrew on board when they were shot by Turkmen rebels fighting against the Syrian regime. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Turkey warned Russia last week of serious consequences if its bombing raids against Turkmen settlements in Northern Syria did not cease immediately. Russian sources insist that the Su-24 did not enter Turkish airspace and there remains the possibility, whilst very unlikely, that Turkey fired upon the Su-24 across the border as it conducted attacks against Turkmen fighters allied with the Free Syrian Army against Assad.
On the other hand, Russia has a record of deliberately and provocatively violating Turkish airspace during its recent Syrian expedition. On 3 and 4 October, Russian Su-30 and Su-24 aircraft crossed into Turkish airspace in the same province as the shoot down today. Russia admitted that the October violations had occurred, but claimed that its pilots had ‘got lost’ and crossed the border by accident. It is difficult to believe that highly trained combat pilots flying in a highly sensitive region close to international borders in modern combat aircraft could repeatedly make such a basic navigational error. Furthermore, during one of the October violations, a Russian Su-30SM air-superiority fighter locked its fire-control radar onto the Turkish F-16s scrambled to intercept it for over five minutes.
Such actions are part of a long-established Russian practice of intimidation through military probing and aggression supported by implausible official denials and explanations. In August 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defence explained that Russian paratroopers captured thirty miles inside Eastern Ukraine were there by mistake after supposedly crossing the border, fully armed and equipped, ‘by accident’. As a result, it seems reasonable to believe Turkey’s claim, backed up by early radar trace stills, that the Su-24 that they shot down was following an established pattern in the belief that Turkey and NATO in general would not risk escalation by exercising their legal right and destroying the intruder after repeated warnings.
Turkish politicians and NATO issued clear warnings in early October that any further incursions would be extremely dangerous and destabilising. Turkey also has a record of responding to airspace violations with lethal force. In 2013, Turkey shot down a Syrian Air Force Mi-17 helicopter and a Mig-23 jet fighter after they entered Turkish airspace. Another Syrian MiG-23 was shot down in March 2014. Furthermore, on 16 October 2015 a small drone of unknown nationality – but suspected Russian origin – was shot down in a similar fashion.
Claim and counter-claim about whether the Russian jet did violate Turkish airspace will almost certainly continue, with each side presenting ‘evidence’ to support its claims. What is significant is what line the Russian leadership decides to take in public over this incident. Initial suggestions from Russian spokespersons that the Su-24 might have been downed by ‘ground fire’ from rebel forces on the Syrian side of the border, despite the altitude (6,000 metres) making this almost impossible, suggest a desire for more time to consider the official response.
However, condemnation and protestations of innocence on the Russian side are a certainty and any recent appearances of a partial rapprochement between NATO and Russia now look optimistic at best. Equally, NATO must be seen to stand by its Turkish ally if, as seems likely, it is proven that Ankara’s claims about acting in defence of its own airspace are true.
Justin Bronk is a Research Analyst in the Military Sciences research group at RUSI