The North Atlantic Council discussed the shooting down of a Turkish aircraft by Syria. We consider this act to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest terms. It is another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard for international norms, peace and security, and human life.
Our thoughts at this difficult time are with the missing Turkish aircrew, their families and their loved ones. We continue to follow the situation closely and with great concern, and will remain seized of developments on the South-Eastern border of NATO.
The security of the Alliance is indivisible. We stand together with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity.
The New York Times ran an article (later picked up elsewhere) that included a scan of a letter sent from Turkey to the UN.
The letter includes several details that provide a clear view of the Turkish version of the episode.
Firstly the exact position of where the Phantom was hit: 35 48.22N – 35 32.21E which is 13NM from the coast of Syria and therefore in international airspace. This means the aircraft had violated the Syrian airspace but, according to the Turkish authorities, it had already left it when it was shot down at 11.58 local time.
Secondly according to the text of the letter, was flying at 7,400 feet on its own (not part of a pair) and after being hit turned towards the Syrian coast and hit the sea at 35 48.26N – 35 37.59E some 8NM from the coast.
Again the letter states the plane was transmitting its IFF (indentification, friend or foe) transponder and that Turkey has captured radio communications that demonstrates Syrian units knew this was a Turkish plane. The letter also alluded that Turkey may have proof from third party radar stations that could have recorded the route flown by the combat plane.
Noteworthy, the letter does not say that the RF-4ETM (this is the correct designation) was downed by a missile. However, if it was really flying so far from the coast (13 NM) and at medium altitude (7,400 ft), it could not be reached by anti-aircraft artillery flak.
According to the data released by Turkey here’s how the airspace violation developed:
11.42LT: the aircraft “unintentionally” entered the Syrian airspace at 200 feet with a North East heading
11.44LT: a Turkish radar station (most probably the one providing assistance to the flight) issued an airspace violation warning
11.47LT: after turning left (and coming extremely close to the Syrian coast) the RF-4 exited the Syrian airspace
11.50LT: the pilot contacted the Turkish radar to inform it that they would have performed the same profile and asking for positive radar control not to repeat airspace violation.
11.58LT: the Phantom was hit while it was repositioning for a second pattern
Although it is extremely weird that the Syrian air defense shot down the Phantom 15 minutes after it violated the Syrian airspace (according to the Turkish version), it is at least as suspect that a combat plane flying under positive radio and radar contact, possibly under radar control or advisory service, violates a foreign airspace without being warned by its own air traffic control agency well before the violation occurs.
Written with The Aviationist’s Editor David Cenciotti
Erdogan had called a meeting with his political opposition leaders to discuss the situation and it was during this meeting that the photograph was shown.
It’s at least unusual to find two pairs of boots but not any potential bodies or remains, unless the pilots Capt. Gokhan Ertan and Lt. Huseyin Aksoy removed the boots once they took to their life raft. Anyway, too much time has passed since they ejected and the probability to find them alive, after so many days is extremely low.
In other developments, Hurriyet also ran an article stating that Syrian officials knew that the jet that was Turkish. Turkish intelligence units say they have recordings of the Syrian forces referring to the jet by the word ‘Komsu’ which is Turkish for “Neighbor” followed by the Arabic word for plane.
The intel agents also went on to state that the F-4 had its IFF (identification, friend or foe) system switched on meaning that it would have been picked up by the radar stations (even the Syrian ones – this is normal, for “normal flights”; it’s unusual for covert missions that don’t fly with a switched on transponder in order to not “advertise” their position to radars).
This would seem to indicate that Turkey is monitoring Syrian government forces very closely, by recording their radio “chatter” and it could be argued performing aerial reconnaissance of the area.
However, Ankara insists the Phantom was shot down by a Surface to Air Missile, that hit the RF-4E as it was 13 nautical miles off the Syrian coast (hence, in international airspace). The report of the another RF-4E flying alongside the downed one as well as their own recorded radar data could be used by Turkey to prove its version of the episode.
Furthermore, it has come to light that a Turkish Search and Rescue aircraft also came under fire whilst searching the area for the crashed Phantom and its crew, and it was forced to immediately leave the Syrian airspace after the shots.
According to SANA wreckage from the jet, the tail end had been handed to the Turkish authorities with an official record which shows holes which had come from a heavy calibre machine gun. Obviously none of this has been confirmed by the Turkish authorities: Turkish media states that the aircraft has been located in 1,300 meteRs of water but it has not yet been recovered.
Written with The Aviationist’s Editor David Cenciotti
That’s why the rebels have put the instructions on how to shoot down an helicopter on-line: the Syrian Revolution 2011 page on Facebook (with about 514K likes) has published a short text that provides hints on how to target a chopper.
Here’s a (rough) translation (provided by Bing)
To all free people free national army …I’ve observed recently that some of the rebels are targeting aircraft alasdet as if they had parked in the air! Any that are targeted directly without taking account of space and time which will reach the plane and shot/shell at the same time!.In fact this is known for both served in the air force and Army aviation use, but to deliver this information to both HSS and the rebels and especially for newcomers to our free hero; we Dear Heroes to leave some distance between the plane and the access point, so that the shot hit the target in the appropriate place and time.The picture below shows a correction and payment when you reference x. And then the plane will arrive and she shot/shell, so drop goal.The seasoned in correction and drop aircraft can estimate the distance accurately, but affiliated with new free army needs to train and practice and awareness. Valnnshar dear HSS this image to all activists and perhaps up to members of the rebel army stationed on the fronts free in most Syrian cities.
As explained on several posts of the Airspace Violations series, aircraft violating a foreign airspace should not be fired upon but warned, intercepted and eventually escorted outside the violated airspace. Anyway, what is still far from being explained is the reason why an (R)F-4 was flying at low level and high-speed just 1 km off the Syrian coast. There are at least three possibilities: navigation error, weather, or intentional violation to probe the enemy air defense readiness.
Although the navigation error can’t never be ruled out a priori, considering the equipment carried by the aircraft, the fact that there are two crew members in a Phantom and, above all, that the plane was flying next to a “danger zone” there’s reason to believe that the two on board were perfectly aware of their position.
What is particularly interesting is the altitude at which the plane was flying when it entered the Syrian airspace. It was extremely low (and it was most probably gunned optically, with no radar lock). As a NATO pilot told me “when you are flying at hi-speed low-altitude you are either performing a rather awkward attempt to penetrate the enemy airspace to use the onboard sensors or to keep below the cloud cover. However, since flying an ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) mission at low level and less than 12 nautical miles from the coast is almost useless, I think they were probing the Syrian air defense. And I think that they now have a good idea of their readiness status that is, among the others, one of the most interesting things we can learn from the incident.”
Although they most probably knew that the aircraft was a Turkish Air Force plane, the Syrians may have mistaken it for a defecting Syrian Arab Air Force plane. Hence they shot it down before it could reach Turkey, to prevent another embarrassing episode like the one of the Mig-21 that defected to Jordan.
Even if one might believe that buzzing the enemy airspace to test its reaction time or actively disturbing the enemy training activities is something rare, it is not for Turkey or Syria according to what the NATO pilot told to The Aviationist:
“Few years ago, I was flying as a backseater of a Turkish combat plane during a Taceval at Diyarbakir. Our route brought us along the border with Syria and for almost all that leg of our flight our radio communication were (actively) disturbed. Since the jamming of the radio communications was not planned for that kind of mission, it was most probably the effect of a direct action of the Syrian armed forces.”
In the meantime, the fuselage and ejection seats were located (meaning that both pilots have ejected) but they were not recovered yet.
Their names were made public as Captain Gökhan Ertan and Lieutenant Hasan Hüseyin Aksoy.
Image credit: TuAF
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