07 December 2015

Mountain Ambush: Turkish F-16s vs. Russian SU-24s

While circumstances of the recent  shoot-down of the Russian SU-24 by a Turkish F-16 in the border region of Turkey and Syria remain murky, Andrew Cockburn’s interview of Pierre Sprey, attached below, is best analysis that I have seen to date.    Be warned, however: I am biased, both the interviewer and the interviewee are good friends of mine.  
This compound map may help you to follow their discussion.  The shoot-down took place in the vicinity of the southern-most point of Turkey’s Hatay Province, a province with a history contested between Turkey and Syria ever since the demise of the Ottoman Empire. (When I visited the port captain’s office at Latakia harbor Syria (in 2008), the map behind his desk designated Hatay as “Occupied Syria.”)  The Russian SU-24 crashed into Syria and the one surviving pilot landed in Syria in the area just to west of the southernmost point of Hatay, probably in the area enclosed by the blue circle on the compound map below.

The target area was about five miles south of Yayladagi, probably somewhere inside the magenta oval in this Google Earth satellite photo of the border area.  The red line is the Turko-Syrian border. This corner of Hatay province is rugged, forested mountains with few roads (the yellow lines), and it is likely that infiltration routes for refugees into Turkey and jihadis out of Turkey are narrow foot paths through the mountains.  If Sprey’s analysis is correct, the pilot could easily stray briefly across the southernmost tip of the Turkish border on his high altitude (~ 18,000 ft) flight path from the east or south east, and if hit, the pilot would likely land in Syria since his target area was well south of the Turkish border.  This border geometry should help the reader appreciate Sprey’s hypothesis with respect to careful timing and a prepared ambush.
One factor not addressed in most media reports is that the Russian airplanes were sitting ducks for the Turkish F-16s waiting in ambush with IR missiles.  The SU-24 Fencer is a large, lumbering 40 ton, late-sixties Soviet knockoff of our infamously un-maneuverable F-111 Aardvark.  
I urge readers read carefully the entire interview at the link indicated below.

The Harper’s Blog

Mountain Ambush
“Looking at the detailed Russian timeline of what happened,” says defense analyst Pierre Sprey, “I’d say the evidence looks pretty strong that the Turks were setting up an ambush.”
By Andrew Cockburn, Harpers, December 4, 2015, 5:57 pm

On November 24, a Turkish F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber near the border of Turkey and Syria. In the immediate aftermath, officials from the two countries offered contradictory versions of what transpired: Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed that the plane was flying over Syrian territory when it was downed; Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan countered that it was inside Turkey’s border and had been warned ten times to alter its course. Hours later, President Obama threw his support behind Erdogan. “Turkey,” he said, “has a right to defend its territory and its airspace.”
I asked Pierre Sprey, a longtime defense analyst and member of the team that developed the F-16, to examine what we know about the downing and determine what actually occurred that morning.
The Russians have claimed the November 24 downing of their bomber was a deliberate pre-planned ambush by the Turks. Is there any merit in that argument?

Looking at the detailed Russian timeline of what happened—as well as the much less detailed Turkish radar maps—I’d say the evidence looks pretty strong that the Turks were setting up an ambush. They certainly weren’t doing anything that would point to a routine air patrol along the border. Their actions in no way represented a routine, all day long type of patrol. … continued