Let’s Recap Everything We Know About The Russian Il-20M Shot Down By A Syrian S-200 Missile System Yesterday

Sep 19 2018 - Leave a Comment
By Tom Demerly

The Il-20M was shot down off Syria shortly after an Israeli air strike had hit targets in the Latakia Province.

Written with The Aviationist’s editor David Cenciotti

In the hours following the downing of a Russian military Il-20M “Coot-A” surveillance and control aircraft off the Syrian coast with 15 personnel on board, the leaders of Israel and Russia have expressed regret over the incident.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to express regret for the incident and emphasized that Syria was to blame for the loss of the aircraft and crew.

Russian President Putin was reported as saying the incident was, “A chain of tragic accidental circumstances” in quotes published by the BBC World News and other news outlets.

As the circumstances become clearer about how the large, four-engine turboprop Russian Il-20M “Coot-A” surveillance aircraft was lost previous theories have been debunked. It now appears certain the incident was a result of Syrian anti-aircraft batteries attempting to engage four Israeli F-16s that were striking targets in the region at the time. The Syrian S-200 surface to air missiles accidentally hit the larger, slower Russian Il-20M surveillance plane instead of any of the attacking Israeli F-16s (and possible escorting aircraft).

Early theories about who may be responsible for the destruction of the Russian aircraft included anti-aircraft missiles from the French missile frigate Auvergne off the Syrian coast and even the possible involvement of Israeli F-35I Adir aircraft or the four Israeli F-16s directly involved in the strike over Syria at the time the Russian Il-20M was lost. All of these theories have been dismissed as false.

But even with official acknowledgement of the circumstances leading up to the incident, which appears to be “fratricide” or a tragic “friendly fire” incident between allies, questions still remain. Columnist Joe Trevithick of “The War Zone” wrote after the incident, “Israel has used a deconfliction hotline in the past to alert Russia of impending strikes in Syria. The Israeli Air Force says it did give the Kremlin advance notice in this case, as well, but did not say how much time elapsed between that notification and the first missiles hitting various targets in Latakia.”

Trevithick’s observation has merit. Suggestions that the four attacking Israeli F-16s were using the large, slow Il-20 as a “shield” during the attack as suggested by the Russian MoD also seems tactically implausible to some, although deconfliction over a crowded target area is a problem in aerial combat that dates back to WWI, as is the corresponding threat of fratricide from anti-aircraft fire.

Suggestions have surfaced on social media, including Facebook pages originating in Russia, that the Russian Il-20M “Coot-A” was, “Landing in the Syria defense zone, all of the radar systems were turned off. Israeli planes took advantage of this situation and under cover [of the Russian Il-20M] struck positions of the Syrians. The S-200 air defenses of the Syria struck our plane by mistake.” Others have pointed out that the IFF used by the Russian aircraft should have prevented the “blue on blue” accident.

However, there have been previous episodes of friendly fire, including a famous accident that saw a RAF Tornado shot down by a U.S. Patriot missile in Iraq on Mar 22, 2003. Back then the UK MoD pointed to a “system error” as the cause, linked to failure of the aircraft’s “identification friend or foe” (IFF) system against a backdrop of of “inexperienced US troops, heavily reliant on technology to make decisions”.

Indeed, the IFF is not always reliable and the safety of friendly aircraft is also ensured by coordination, use of “Transit Corridors”, etc.

And EW (Electronic Warfare) support, decoys etc. that have proved to be extremely effective in the past, can have played a role:

Indeed, on Sept. 6, 2007, ten F-15I and F-16 jets attacked a nuclear facility being built in Syria. The success of that mission, dubbed “Silent Tone” (previously unofficially named “Operation Orchard” by international media), was largely attributed to effectiveness of the Israeli Electronic Warfare platforms that supported the air strike and made the Syrian radars blind: some sources believe that Operation Orchard saw the baptism of fire of the Suter airborne network system against Syrian radar systems from some ELINT aircraft.

Anyway, other contributing factors to the “friendly fire” that brought down the Il-20M may have been defective equipment as well as lack of training/expertise, even though we must also remember that, in June 2012, a Syrian anti-aircraft artillery battery was able to down a Turkish Air Force RF-4E Phantom that had violated the Syrian airspace at low altitude over the Mediterranean Sea, thus proving that Damascus’s air defense were (at that time) somehow dreadful for enemy fighter jets.

Photos appeared on Twitter today showing the alleged target of the Israeli F-16 strikes. Originally appearing from the Twitter user @aldin_ww and then shared on the unofficial Russian Aerospace Facebook fan page ВКС РОССИИ, the photo from before the strike showed a large, apparently single story building that appeared to be a warehouse. The photo posted that was claimed to be after the strike showed a similar building destroyed. No claim of the authenticity of the photos has been made by Israeli sources.

Official Israeli sources on Twitter released a series of tweets explaining their version of events surrounding the incident. Included in the Twitter statements from @IDFSpokesperson was the tweet that, “Israel will share all the relevant information with the Russian government to review the incident and confirm the facts in this inquiry.” Further posts on social media claimed that Israel had offered to send the “commander of the Israeli Air Force” to Russia to provide information about the Israeli actions surrounding the incident.

From the tactical point of view, the most interesting IDF statement claimed that the F-16s were already in Israeli airspace when the Il-20 was engaged by the Syrian S-200: a version that contradicts the official Russian MoD stance that the Israeli aircraft used the spyplane as a cover.

So, what has really happened on Sept. 18?

Based on the details available to date, it quite likely that the Syrian S-200 battery, facing multiple target, some real ones and other fake ones possibly generated by decoys and EW activity shot at anything within range. Panic and stress on the Syrian side may have contributed.

As Popular Mechanics remembers, misidentification by air defenses operated by Russian-backed forces led to the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 flight about 50NM to the northwest of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine on Jul. 17, 2014. On Jul. 3, 1988, an Airbus A-300 (registration EP-IBU) operating as Iran Air Flight 655 from Tehran Bandar Abbas to Dubai was shot down by two ground-to-air missiles fired by the USS Vincennes, a Ticonderoga-class warship that was cruising in the Persian Gulf waters that misidentified the airliner as an Iranian F-14.

As the news cycle and social media conversation surrounding the incident continue it would appear that there will be no military response from Russia toward any nation. Russian social media has begun to show posts expressing remorse for the loss of the 15-member crew on board the Ilyushin Il-20M Coot. Names of the crew have not yet been seen on social media.

Top image credit: Dmitry Terekhov/Wiki