Analysis: Russian Air Strike in Syria Results in Turkish Casualties

Feb 10 2017 - 12 Comments
By Tom Demerly

A Russian Tactical Air Strike in Al-Bab, Syria Kills Three Turkish Soldiers: What May Have Gone Wrong?

Wire services report that a Russian tactical air strike in Al-Bab, Syria, 40 kilometers northeast of Aleppo, has resulted in a “fratricide” (“friendly fire”) incident that took the lives of three Turkish ground troops and wounded another eleven personnel on the ground.

It is inherently dangerous for ground troops to operate in close proximity to airstrike targets. Minor miscalculations in aircraft weapon release point, malfunction of weapon release equipment on the aircraft, weather conditions such as wind and poor visibility, guidance malfunctions on precision guided weapons and problems with communications and coordination between ground troops and attack aircraft can all contribute to incidents of fratricide from air strikes.

Google Earth screengrab of the target area.

During the intense ground battles that have characterized much of the insurgent war in Syria troops have often been in close contact in urban areas. The overhead cover of buildings, the narrow streets and nearly identical appearance of many buildings in urban areas make accurate targeting of air strikes increasingly difficult on the urban battlefield.

Russia has most frequently employed non-precision guided weapons in tactical strikes in Syria. If this is the case in today’s Al-Bab incident it may have been a contributing factor.

While technical details of the strike were not released media photos from Khmeimim Air Base (also called Hmeimim Air Base) frequently show the Russian Su-25 Frogfoot used in a similar role as the U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt II for ground attack and close air support. Although unconfirmed, it may have been an Su-25 that launched today’s mistaken strike.

Su-25 pilot at Latakia airbase (Ru MoD via RT)

One factor that may have contributed to the incident is possible communication problems between Turkish ground forces and Russian close air support assets. U.S. forces traditionally employ specially trained and equipped personnel called “Forward Air Controllers” or “Tactical Air Control Parties” (TACPs) to coordinate air strikes in support of ground troops. It is possible the Russians may have assigned their own personnel, in some cases attack pilots with airstrike experience in the region, to help with targeting and coordination. But if there were no Russian air strike coordinators on the ground with Turkish troops, this could have been a contributing factor.

Russia’s precision-guided weapons have traditionally been larger munitions, while smaller bombs such as the 100kg and 250kg have not been guided. This is contrary to the U.S. development of small precision-guided weapons like the recent GBU-53/B small diameter bomb, a GPS/INS guided 250lb (approx. 113kg) bomb that has been employed by the F-22 in strikes in Syria. Russian precision guided munitions appear to be larger than 500kg including the FAB-500 high-explosive bomb and the “bunker busting” AB-500 bomb used on reinforced concrete targets.

Russian guided weapons relying on satellite targeting may be inherently less accurate than their U.S. counterparts since they update targeting and guidance data from the GLONASS GPS satellite constellation. According to Russia Insider the GLONASS satellite constellation “is fractionally less accurate in low latitudes than [western] GPS”. This suggests the Russian systems may be optimized for striking targets in northern areas.

Analyst for the Japan Times, Robert Burns, wrote, “The skies over Syria are increasingly crowded — and increasingly dangerous. The air forces of multiple countries are on the attack, often at cross-purposes in Syria’s civil war, sometimes without coordination. And now, it seems, they are at risk of unintended conflict.”

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter expressed early concern over a year ago about the possibility of “inadvertent incidents and lack of communication” with Russian aircrews. Part of then-Secretary Ash’s concern stemmed from a relative lack of sophistication with Russian communications systems and their use of non-precision, unguided air delivered weapons.

Russian-Turkish cooperation in the Syrian campaign has been improving prior to this incident from a low point on Nov. 24, 2015 when Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian SU-24 over the Syrian border.



  • McPosterdoor
    • Mongee Phase

      I doubt it. They agreed to share more intel.

    • rats123

      I don’t think the Russians are that petty. Russia needs alliances and now that Turkey is playing ball I’m pretty sure they would like to maintain status quo.

  • mrsatyre

    Russia has rarely ever been inclined to waste high-precision munitions in Syria except as proof of concept. Their penchant for using dumb bombs is well established. They don’t even pretend to be interested in avoiding collateral damage or unnecessary casualties, so is anyone really surprised by this? After all, we have no reports of how many Syrian allies they’ve probably killed during the civil war.

    • rats123

      As I’ve said many times there is no point dropping smart bombs on dumb terrorists.

  • Mali King

    One can imagine the clusterf*cked coordination between Turkish ground troops and the Russki SU 25……

    Turkish FAC: …..Bylat 05….we need air support now….danger close! (Gives the “nine line”)

    Russki: ….What is this foreign mumbo jumbo? Must be FSA/IS intercepting my operating frequency! Cyka Bylat!!!….Drops bombs on Turkish position!

    I bet the Russki Frogfoot dropped unguided munitions/bombs too just like his grandfather in the Great Patriotic War….which made the situation worse.

    Seriously, if you are a Russian “ally” and you see a Russian warplane….run!!!!

  • su-34

    While at the beginning the turks blamed the SyAAF for the strike on the
    building in which the turkish soldiers were located, later the russian
    government took the blame, and reportedly blamed it on lack of
    communicating precisely where the turkish assets were positioned.
    Promises were made to enhance the coordination of the parties.
    Not many details were made public.
    The slightly lower precision of GLONASS vs. GPS is due to the smaller constellation of 24 sats of the first one, compared to the latter’s 32 sats. Also the time references on the older GLONASS sats were slightly less accurate.
    In contrast, the availability in the polar regions is much better for GLONASS (necessity is evident), due to the higher (64.8deg vs. 55deg) orbital inclination, GPS beginning to get less precise at higher latitudes (GDoP, less sats visible).
    Blaming the incident on “dumb” munitions is puerile – “smart” ones didn’t help much the yanks, and co. to not hit the wrong target, but the costs are way higher (MIIC’s profits soar).

    PS: GLONASS GNSS is the correct designation. There is no “GLONASS GPS”.

  • Well, for the record, the Russian has optically guided bomb (KAB-100 and KAB-250) but I’m not sure if they deployed that.

    Probably the Turkish troops were assaulting a building with terrorists inside.

  • Pepe Le Cox

    I don’t think it’s a payback, simply lack of coordination in the area of OPs. No matter what technological level your troops have, this are things that happen

  • Jim Page

    Anybody know why the red stars are frequently painted over on Russian planes in the Syrian theater ?

  • Daniel Martin

    It’s amusing reading all this “analysis” of armchair military strategists! Smart munitions or not the Russians have made a big difference in the Syrian war with very little in terms of aviation. My question is what have the so called U.S coalition achieved, except of aiding the very same terrorists that the Russians have been fighting together with the Syrian government forces, and bombing the SAA and the Syrian peoples civil infrastructure. Besides the Russians have a targeting system called SVP-24 that achieves nearly the same results as with smart bombs, but in a much more cost effective way using ordinary dumb bombs, instead of wasting taxpayers money like their western counter parts do on LGB and satellite guided bombs and despite that fact, they still hit the wrong targets all of the time, with massive civilian casualties as a result.

    Besides the accident happened because the Turkish side failed to provide the locations of their troops to the Russian side, this was even confirmed by the Turkish general HQ. So next time before bashing the Russians, take a minute and do some fact checking.