Syria’s President Bashir al-Assad has ‘expressed regret’ at the downing of the Turkish Air Force McDonnell Douglas/Boeing RF-4E Phantom which was hit by Syrian ground-based air defences on 22nd June.
Apparently, Syrian air defenders believed that the aircraft was an Israeli warplane. The President reportedly said: “We learned it belonged to Turkey after shooting it down. I say 100% ‘if only we had not shot it down’. We are in a state of war, so very unidentified plane is an enemy plane,” according to Cumhuriyet, a Turkish newspaper.
Assad added that Syrian military personnel had believed the aircraft to have been Israeli as the Turkish aircraft had used the same routes as Israeli aircraft in the past. This comment appears mysterious as Turkey is positioned to the north of Syria, while Israel is positioned to the south.
However, Assad’s comment could be a cryptic reference to ‘Operation Orchard’ on 6th September 2007 when Israeli Air Force jets bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear weapons site in the east of the country. On their way towards their target, the Israeli aircraft hit a Syrian early warning radar station at Tall al-Abuad, near Syria’s northern border with Turkey. After attacking the reactor, the Israeli aircraft are believed to have over-flown Turkey on their way back home.
Assads’ comments came eight days after the bodies of the RF-4E’s aircrew, namely Captain Gokhan Ertan and Lieutenant Hasan Huseyin Aksoy were discovered by a US Navy submersible.
For now, the Turkish government is remaining quiet on the exact location of the bodies, presumably to keep the location of the jet’s impact with the water out of the public domain. Such information could enable Syrian air defenders to extrapolate the point in the sky at which their weapons engaged the Turkish aircraft, and hence information regarding the efficiency and effective ranges of their weapons.
While both sides have worked to resolve the incident diplomatically, the loss of the Phantom has undoubtedly made the already tense political situation between Turkey and Syria more fragile. Turkey is hosting thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled the domestic upheaval as their country has slid progressively towards civil war.
Much remains unknown regarding the incident.
What has been reported is that the RF-4E Phantom had undergone an upgrade which had outfitted it with Israeli subsystems, however details on the specifics of these subsystems remain scant.
Various reports have said that the aircraft was on either a training fligt or a sortie to test its radar when it was hit. One must ask the question as to why the aircraft’s active and passive self-defence measures seem to have failed, especially during a flight profile which would have taken it so close to Syrian territory?
Another theory which has been posited states that the Phantom was performing an air defence reconnaissance mission during which it had maintained a flight profile which would have taken either very close to, or directly into, Syrian air space so as to test the reaction times of Syrian air defence units, and possibly to record information regarding Syrian air defence radar emissions. It was reported on 4th July that an unnamed Russian source had claimed that the Turkish jet was probing Syrian air defences when the attack occurred.
Given the stand-off between Syria and the international community regarding the behaviour of the regime of President Bashir Assad, and the possibility that Turkey could play an important role during any future air campaign against the Syrian government and armed forces, it would not seem that unusual if the Turkish air force were performing reconnaissance missions over the country so as to gather as much information regarding the Syrian electronic order of battle as possible prior to any air campaign.
Secondly, the circumstances in which the jet was lost remain unclear.
One report has said that the aircraft was flying at a low altitude, albeit at high speed when it was hit by Syrian Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA). Local Turkish media reports in mid-July stated that damage from AAA had been sustained by the aircraft’s tail, as witnessed on the RF-4E’s wreckage. Syria’s land forces are known to operate 23mm, 37mm, 57mm, 85mm and 100mm towed and mobile AAA systems. They are also thought to have at their disposal around ten ZSU-57-2 and 300 ZSU-23-4 self-propelled AAA platforms. This latter system is considered a particularly capable system and may have been able to engage the Phantom thanks to its radar-guided fire control system.
Moreover, one must not forget that the Syrians have recently taken delivery of Pantsir-S1 (NATO reporting name ‘SA-22 Greyhound’) self-propelled radar-guided combined AAA and surface-to-air missile systems. The Pantsir-S1 is considered as the successor to the ZSU-23-4 and, although not previously thought to have been encountered in combat, is nevertheless considered a highly capable system. The air defence system which downed the aircraft was thought to have been based close to the Russia’s Syrian naval base at Tartus. During a recent visit to Israel, sources told ChainHomeHigh that the Pantsir-S1 systems are thought to have been deployed to defend this naval base. That said, other sources have noted that the aircraft was downed by a 9K317 Buk-M2 (NATO reporting name ‘SA-11 Gadfly’).
The loss of the Turkish Phantom has also had an impact on Ankara’s own procurement plans. It was report in the Hurriyet Daily News that the country has now postponed a decision on the acquisition of a new medium-to-high altitude air defence system, with one Turkish procurement official telling the paper that; “A few weeks again, a decision may have been likely, but internationally the situation is not clear now.”
A decision on which system had been selected by the country was originally expected to be announced in July. This is not now expected to occur until after 16th July. The candidate systems include Raytheon’s MIM-104 Patriot, MBDA’s SAMP/T, the Almaz-Antey S-300 (NATO reporting name ‘SA-10 Grumble’) or China’s CPMIEC HQ-9.