Tuesday 24 July, 2018 Update: Syrian Fighter-Bomber Shot Down Over Israeli Territory

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Israel has shot down a Syrian Air Force Su-24 Fencer fighter-bomber after the aircraft entered Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights. The Fencer was engaged successfully by a pair of Israeli Patriot missiles. One of the pilots, Syrian Air Force Colonel Omran Mari, was killed. The fate of the other pilot is unknown at the moment. The incident occurred in the midst of increased military activity on the Syrian side of the border. The Syrian government has been fighting both ISIS-affiliated groups, and other rebel forces in southern Syria for some time now. For now, it seems likely that the Fencer strayed into Israeli airspace as the result of a navigation error. This incident is not anticipated to bring a major confrontation between Israel and Syria. It will, however, likely raise tensions in the region even higher.

The shootdown highlights both Israel’s staunch commitment to defending its airspace and frontiers. Yesterday, Israeli David’s Sling missiles knocked down tactical ballistic missiles fired by Syrian or Russian forces as part of the fighting going on in Syria. One of the SS-21 tactical ballistic missiles came down just one kilometer from the Israeli border.

The shootdown also serves as a reminder of how volatile the skies over and around Syria are. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, multiple incidents have played out in the skies. A simple navigation  error led a Russian Su-24 into Turkish airspace in 2015 where it was promptly dispatched by an F-16. The close proximity between Russian, and Coalition aircraft in the skies over northern Syria led to the set up of elaborate deconfliction system between US and Russian defense officials.

Sunday 21 August, 2016 Update: Dangerous Skies Above Syria

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The airspace over northern Syria has become crowded and tense of late. Twice in the last four days, Syrian warplanes have made rare appearances over territory held by Kurdish forces in the northeast corner of Syria prompting coalition aircraft to be scrambled. On 18 August, Syrian Su-24 Fencers conducted raids in an area where US special forces were operating. A request for assistance went out and US fighters were launched but by the time they arrived in the area, the Syrian Fencers had departed. Following the incident, the Assad regime was placed on notice by the Pentagon. Damascus was warned not to fly or conducts strikes in areas where US forces are operating.

On the next day, US F-22 Raptors were scrambled to intercept another pair of Syrian Su-24s that flew near the town of Hasakah. The Raptor pilots flew within a mile of their Syrian counterparts and attempted to hail them, but received no response. The Raptors then used other means to ‘encourage the Syrians to depart from the area.’ This effort was successful, though the details on exactly what the ‘other means’ were remains unclear.

The encounters highlight the crowded and complex conditions that exist in Syrian airspace these days. Aircraft from the US-led coalition, Russia and Syria are all operating in the same areas and at the same times in some cases. The deconfliction plan that was put in place between the US and Russian militaries to keep their aircraft separated has worked very well so far. Judging by the events of 18 and 19 August, however, it appears that the Syrian Air Force is not included in the same agreement.

If that is the case, more incidents like this can be expected in the future, adding to an already tense situation in the air above Syria.

Thursday 26 November, 2015 Update: Russia And Turkey Simmer

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Tensions between Turkey and Russia are simmering in the wake of Tuesday’s shoot-down of a Russian Su-24 Fencer fighter bomber by a Turk F-16 after it strayed into Turkish airspace. Russia has claimed that its aircraft never crossed the border and was not issued radio warnings, as claimed by the Turks. Turkey, in response, released audio recordings that indicate the Su-24 was warned several times and did not respond to requests that it alter course.

Now, following the incident, Russia is moving forward with the deployment of a battery of long range SAMs to Syria. The SA-21 Growler (S-400) is an effective air defense system with a range of 250 miles. From where the battery is being placed outside of Latakia, its range enables it to cover a large swath of airspace over the Eastern Mediterranean, including portions of southern Turkey. Along with the SAM deployment, Russian attack jets will now be provided with fighter escorts for their missions against Syrian rebel positions. These moves, it is hoped by Moscow, will deter any future Turkish actions against Russian aircraft.

Turkey has rejected Russian demands for an apology, emphatically sticking to its position that the Russian aircraft violated Turkish airspace. Meanwhile, Russia is apparently preparing to slap Turkey with economic sanctions. This is a significant step considering that the two nations have important economic connections. Russia is Turkey’s second largest trading partner and will, predictably, feel the pinch quite soon if sanctions are placed in effect.

On the bright side, it is a a relief to see that Russia is seeking to even the score with economic measures instead of military action. But the movement of SA-21 missiles into Syria is a sign that any future clash between Turkish and Russian aircraft will run the risk of cascading into a much larger confrontation.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Tuesday 24 November, 2015 Update: Russian Aircraft Shot Down

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After weeks of Russian aircraft flying in close proximity to the Turkish border there has been a shooting incident. Earlier today, Turkish F-16s shoot down a Russian Su-24 Fencer fighter-bomber after it violated Turkish airspace. The Fencer’s pilots had been warned repeatedly via radio that they had crossed the border and did not respond. As a result, Turkish F-16s shot the aircraft down. According to early reports, both pilots did eject, however, their condition is not known for certain at the moment.

It was just a matter of time before something like this happened. In fact, this is exactly the sort of situation that many people feared would come about. Since the Syrian civil war erupted Turkey has staunchly defended its airspace. There were a handful of incidents between Turkish and Syrian forces resulting in the loss of aircraft on both sides. When Russian air missions began in Syria in September, Ankara warned Russia about keeping its aircraft on the correct side of the border. Despite the warnings, there have been some instances of Russian aircraft crossing into Turkey in the last six weeks.

The concern now is what happens next. Will this incident act as a vehicle for escalation or will it be a one-time affair? It is too early to know with a degree of certainty. The incident just happened a few hours ago and there are conflicting reports on whether it was ground fire or Turkish fighters that brought the Fencer down. There are also conflicting reports about the condition of the Russian pilots.

Syrian Update 5 October, 2015: Flying The Tense, Crowded Skies

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On Saturday, a MiG-29 Fulcrum violated Turkish airspace. Turkey responded by scrambling its own fighter aircraft.  F-16s intercepted the MiG and escorted it out of Turkish airspace. On the surface, this seems to be a fairly open and shut case. Russia has apologized for the incursion and blamed weather conditions for the intercept and promised Ankara it would not happen again.

Then today, NATO released a statement on the “Recent dangerous military activities of the Russian Federation in and around Syria.” NATO has claimed that there were multiple incursions of Turkish airspace by Russian Su-30 Flanker and Su-24 Fencer aircraft on Saturday and Sunday. The statement follows a report by the Turkish military claiming that the MiG-29 placed two of its F-16s under radar lock for nearly six minutes. It is still unclear what nation the MiG belonged to, but in all likelihood it was Syrian. The nationality of the pilot is another story entirely.

The danger of an inadvertent confrontation in the skies over Syria or Turkey should not be taken lightly. There are large numbers of warplanes operating over Syria. The aircraft belong to a host of nations. I’ve talked about the chances of an encounter before. It’s a very real possibility with so many aircraft operation in such close proximity. One mistake can lead to an accident that quickly escalates into an international situation or worse. Tensions are high enough right now. It wouldn’t take much to bring on a situation where Russian and Coalition aircraft are engaging and firing on each other.

This past weekend should serve as a warning. Unfortunately, the chances that Moscow will see it as such are slim. Russia has the initiative in this crisis for the moment. The US, Turkey, NATO and other parties opposed to Bashar al-Assad are reacting to Russian actions. That does not seem like it will be changing anytime soon.

Make no mistake about it, the situation in the skies over Syria is a dangerous one, and bound to deteriorate even more unless something changes fast.