Turkish forces claimed Friday that at least two of its F-16 fighters fired upon and destroyed a Russian Su-24 “Fencer” strike fighter after it violated the NATO ally’s airspace.
The move is likely to set off a diplomatic frenzy, and it is the latest test in what will be a tenuous and tedious relationship between American/NATO forces and the Russian military in the Syrian Civil War and the battle against ISIS/ISIL.
The Su-24 is a sweep-wing strike aircraft very similar to the retired American F-111 “Aardvark.” Its wings resemble that of the iconic American F-14 “Tomcat” fighter, but the Su-24 is not primarily an air-to-air fighter craft. Typically, the “Fencer” is used in ground attack and missile delivery missions, though it can be equipped to defend itself against air attack. In addition to bombs and and missiles, the Su-24 is equipped with the 23 mm GSh-6-23 cannon with 500 rounds standard, and it typically takes off with two air-to-air missiles.
Turkish forces are claiming that the Russian jet repeatedly violated Turkish air space and was shot down after several warnings. The Russians have denied this, saying their plane was always flying over Syria.
‘‘We are looking into the circumstances of the crash of the Russian jet,’’ Russia’s Defense Ministry told the Associated Press. ‘‘The Ministry of Defense would like to stress that the plane was over the Syrian territory throughout the flight.’’
The Su-24 was in production from 1967-1993. Out of the 1,400 units built, hundreds remain in service today with several nations, particularly former Soviet states. As of 2008, more than 400 remained in service in the Russian military.
The attack craft satisfied the Soviet need for an agile, all-weather, supersonic strike fighter in an era in which virtually all American efforts were in building interceptor aircraft to counter the Soviet Union’s massive nuclear capable bombers.
While the Su-24 is an ancient Cold War design, the fighter that was shot down by the Turks is almost certainly a highly-updated Su-24M variant. It stands to reason that the Russians would only deploy its most advanced version of this aircraft to the front lines of a battlefield, and these planes have previously been seen operating over Syria. The “M” has GLONASS navigation, upgraded computer technology including multi-function displays, a head-up display, and helmet-mounted weapon sights. It can also carry the latest and most advanced weapons, including R-73 “Archer” air-to-air missiles.
This is not the first Su-24 involvement or loss during the Syrian Civil War. The Syrian government operates several Soviet-era planes, including the “Fencer.” In November 2012, a “Fencer” was seen attacking anti-government rebel positions. Later that month, one of the Syrian Air Force Su-24s was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over Aleppo.
On Sept. 23, 2014, the Israeli Air Force shot down another Syrian Su-24 using a surface-to-air missile after the Su-24 allegedly violated Israeli air space over the Golan Heights.
Prior to today, the Russians had 12 Su-24s operating as part of its recent military operations in Syria.