Analysis: Downing Of Russian Jet Hardly A Surprise
27 November 2015
By Justin Bronk
The shooting down of a Russian Air Force Sukhoi Su-24 jet by Turkish F-16
fighters after it reportedly violated Turkish airspace is a dangerous
escalation in the context of Russia's continuing confrontation with NATO in
Eastern Europe and Syria.
However, it should not come as much of a surprise.
Turkish authorities claim that the Su-24 fighter bomber ignored repeated
warnings over the course of five minutes on Tuesday and was then shot down
after violating Turkish airspace near Yayladagi, Hatay.
Russia claims that the Su-24 did not cross the Syria-Turkey border and was,
therefore, illegally attacked.
This version of events, however, does not fit with an established pattern of
repeated violations of NATO airspace by Russian military aircraft over the
past 18 months.
In October 2014, and in June and July this year, for example, Russian
military aircraft repeatedly violated Estonian airspace and since 2013 have
also violated the airspace of NATO-partner nations Sweden and Finland.
On October 3 and 4, Russian Su-30SM and Su-24 jets violated Turkish airspace
repeatedly in the same Hatay province where Turkey claims the Su-24 entered
its airspace on Tuesday, before it was shot down.
During these October airspace violations, which Russia admitted to, a Russian
Su-30SM fighter actively locked on to the Turkish F-16s sent to intercept it
with its radar for over five minutes - an aggressive action outside of the
accepted military procedures for such encounters.
Despite the provocative action, the Russian Ministry of Defence claimed that
the violations of Turkish airspace on consecutive days in early October were
an accidental result of pilots getting lost.
This is not a credible explanation since modern combat aircraft such as the
Su-30SM have sophisticated navigation systems and the Russian Air Force crews
sent to Syria will be highly trained and selected, precisely because the
operational environment is so congested and highly sensitive.
In terms of Tuesday's incident, the multiple pieces of footage showing the
Su-24 falling in flames show a clear blue sky which would further aid
navigation by visual means.
Russia has, in other words, been probing Turkey's airspace and patience since
October this year, and NATO airspace for much longer than that.
However, it should not come as a surprise that further violations would
result in a plane being shot down.
Turkey has consistently responded to Syrian incursions by using its modern
US-supplied F-16 fighters to shoot down intruders.
In 2013, a Syrian Air Force Mi-17 helicopter and a Mig-23 fighter bomber were
destroyed in two separate incidents after they entered Turkish airspace.
The Turkish Air Force shot down another Syrian Mig-23 in March 2014 after it
ignored repeated warnings.
Furthermore, on October 16, a small drone of unknown nationality but
suspected Russian origin was shot down in a similar fashion.
Syria has also previously shot down Turkish military aircraft which have
entered Syrian airspace.
In other words, the airspace on the Syrian-Turkish border is a known
high-tension front line where lethal force is regularly employed if warnings
Within this context, the aggressive Russian Air Force actions in probing
Turkish airspace and locking onto its fighters last month were treated with
significant restraint by Turkey.
However, Turkey and NATO made it clear that such violations must stop and
that any repetition would be "highly dangerous".
If, as Turkey claims, the Su-24 shot down on Tuesday did violate Turkish
airspace and ignore repeated warnings, it should not come as a surprise to
either side that it was shot down, however destabilising the results may be.
Much will now depend on how convincingly Turkey and NATO can show whether the
Russian jet did indeed enter Turkish airspace, and how the tightly
Kremlin-controlled Russian media chooses to spin the story for the Russian
Putin most likely knows that a routine provocation has, for once, been met
with force and he has only his own policies to blame.
However, he cannot be seen to admit any such thing in public.
Therefore, he must continue to claim publicly that Turkey is villainously
stabbing Russia in the back in the midst of her heroic battle against the
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
The fact that there are no ISIL forces near that portion of the
Syrian-Turkish border, and that the Su-24 was most likely engaged in
continued Russian air strikes against Turkmen rebels fighting President
Bashar al-Assad as part of the Free Syrian Army, will doubtless stay off the
In any case, it is vital in the coming days that leaders on both sides try to
avoid more inflammatory rhetoric and avoid further escalation.
With so many military forces pursuing their own, often conflicting, agendas
in Syria and the wider region; the world cannot afford to risk brinkmanship
over this incident.
Justin Bronk is a Research Analyst in Military Sciences at the Royal
United Services Institute.