Late on the afternoon (Central European Time) of Jun. 22, media outlets started to report that a Turkish Air Force F-4 Phantom has disappeared over the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, near its shared border with Syria.
The Phantom had left Erhac Air Base at around 07.30GMT and disappeared off radar around 09.00 GMT.
Reports came out of Turkey soon after saying that Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan had claimed that Syria had apologised for shooting down the jet, however at a press conference he told the gathered reporters that he could not confirm reports that Syria had shot down the jet and had apologised.
Later, Erdogan confirmed that the plane was shot down, that the crew fate is still uncertain and that Turkey will take all necessary measures ‘decisively’ once all details of incident emerge.
The early reports stated that the F-4 had disappeared off radar screen flying over international waters but had crashed into waters that were in Syrian territory near to the town of Latakia, prompting Turkish authorities to request permission to send their forces into the area to search for the two missing pilots. The press association are quoting Hebollah’s Manar TV as saying Syrian air defences had shot the jet down citing unnamed Syrian security sources.
Latest reports say that both Turkish and Syrian gunboats are searching the sea in the area where the jet is thought to have come down but the news on the pilots is conflicting: some saying they have been picked up, others stating they are still missing.
Turkish Prime Minister Erodgan has called an emergency security meeting and will be attended by top military and intelligence officials.
Turkey is part of NATO and could in theory invoke Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty where all of the 28 member countries should come to the aid of a member under attack.
All of the above paints a very confusing picture of events over the eastern Mediterranean Sea on the day after a Syrian Mig-21 defected to Jordan.
First of all, it’s still unclear which type of aircraft was downed (or simply crashed) and what kind of mission the aircraft was flying when it was downed: the Turkish Air Force operates a mixed fleet of F-4E-2020 Terminator, RF-4E/TM Isik upgraded Recce Phantoms, and F-4E/TM Simsek. Although it has yet to be confirmed, the aircraft (flying with another F-4 of the same type) was probably a Recce Phantom on an ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) mission.
In simple words: it was spying on Assad forces in the North of Syria.
Then, if it was really shot down by a Syrian SAM (Surface to Air Missile) battery, which kind of missile hit the Phantom?
According to rumors, it was an SA-5 Gammon (S-200) a long range medium to high-altitude mobile SAM produced by the Soviets in the ’60s. Five SA-5 sites are known to be active in Syria.
The (aging) system (very well known to NATO in terms of capability, range, operating radio frequencies, signature, etc.) uses radio semi active guidance with terminal active radar homing. With a peak speed of around Mach 8 a single-shot kill probability is quoted as 0.85, presumably against a high altitude heavy bomber-type of target, should be less against a fast maneuvering combat plane.
Therefore, connecting the dots, the RF-4 was most probably flying outside the Syrian airspace at high altitude on a recce mission (still, there’s a residual chance it was a flight of F-4Es on a mission aimed at testing the Syrian air defense readiness). It was downed by an SA-5 shot that proved that this kind of missile can be lethal even if fired by accident by personnel believed to be not so very well trained (this being a serious issue should NATO eventually decide to establish a No-Fly Zone over Syria).
Update Jun. 22, 2012 22.46 GMT
According to the spokesman of the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the aircraft was gunned down by anti-aircraft fire as the aircraft was flying 1 km off the coast of Syria.
A video allegedly showing the air defense battery firing at the Phantom (and bringing it down with a very short burst..) was posted on Youtube.
If this video is genuine (no aircraft can be spotted), the scenario changes a lot: the F-4 was flying well inside the Syrian air space at low/medium altitude when the Syrian Air Defense (most probably on a heightened alert status to prevent any other defection) shot it down.
The Aviationist will update this story as when new facts come out.
Written with The Aviationist’s Editor David Cenciotti
Image credit: Turkish Air Force