19 December 2015

Was Turkey Downing Russian Jet a Pre-planned Incident?

As you know, two Turkish F-16 fighter jets shot down a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft on 24 November.

Since then the focus has been on the growing tension between the two countries and the Russian reaction and sanctions. Yesterday Putin escalated the war of words when he stated that "Turks decided to lick the Americans in a certain place."

None of this high drama and crude accusations are of interest to me. That's for the mainstream media. What I want to do here is to try the answer the question posed at the outset: was it a pre-planned attack or a legally defensible but unnecessary overreaction?

Let's start with the Turkish claims.

Right after the incident, Turkey's ambassador to UN sent a letter to the Security Council to inform them that his country shot down one Su-24 of unknown nationality near Yayladagi. He noted that the planes were warned over 10 times before aggressive action was taken.
Both planes disregarded the warnings and then flew 2.19km (1.36 miles) and 1.85km (1.15 miles) into Turkey for 17 seconds from 09:24:05 (07:24:05 GMT), according to Mr Cevik. 
"Following the violation, plane 1 left Turkish national airspace. Plane 2 was fired at while in Turkish national airspace by Turkish F-16s performing air combat patrolling in the area. Plane 2 crashed on to the Syria side of the Turkish-Syrian border." 
The Turkish military also published what it said was the radar image of the path the Russian plane took, showing it briefly flying across Turkey's southern-most tip.
This is the map released by the Turkish military.

Note the little dip that goes into Syrian territory, this is where the alleged airspace violation occurred.

The Russian countered this by maintaining that their plane was never in Turkish airspace and called the attack a pre-planned ambush and a provocation. They also claimed that no warning was issued by the Turkish F-16s or the ground control.

This is their map of the conflict.

The trajectory of the Su-24s is marked on the map and you can see where the missile hit the plane and it is inside Syrian territory.

These are clearly conflicting narratives. Which one is true?

Ten days after the downing, Harper's published an interview with defense analyst Pierre Sprey who was also part of the team that developed F-16s. Which is important to note as he makes certain claims regarding F-16's capabilities.

Sprey examined Russian maps and briefing notes and checked out the evidence presented by the Turkish side. He says that the incident was almost certainly an ambush.

Here is what happened.

Russian Mission 

Two Su-24s leave the Latakia airbase, as you can see in the Russian map and fly east to position themselves for an attack. It is about 9:45 and they are loitering at 18,000-19,000 feet to conserve fuel while waiting for their orders. They are in full view of Turkish radars.

They get their orders: they are to attack a convoy going towards the Yayladag crossing (you can see it in the Turkish map).

This is the main crossing in that region and this is also where oil tankers move to Turkey. The Su-24s hit their target at about 10.15 and go back to their loitering area to wait for another order. They maintain high altitude to save fuel and they are visible to all radar systems.

They receive another set of orders and hit more targets at about 10:24 and right then one of the Su-24s is shot down bu a Turkish F-16.

Turkish Mission

Two Turkish F-16 leave the Diyarbakir airbase before the Russian planes left their Latakia base en route to the Yayladagi crossing. The base is 250 miles away from the crossing.
Interestingly, they arrived in that area to loiter just about the time that the Russian pilots were being assigned their targets, and the F-16s loitered over that mountainous area for about an hour and fifteen minutes.
There is a very damning twist here.
Here’s the crucial thing. They were not loitering up at high altitude—say twenty to thirty thousand feet—to conserve fuel, which is where you would normally be loitering if you were simply doing a routine border patrol. They were loitering quite low, at about seven thousand five hundred to eight thousand feet, which, first of all, is below the coverage of the Syrian and Russian radars that were down around Latakia, and which is a very fuel-inefficient altitude to loiter. You suck up a lot of gas down at those low altitudes.
Besides hiding from radars, which suggests some pre-meditation for what happens afterwards, Sprey argues that it would have been impossible for them to fly from their base and to loiter there at low altitude without getting refueled on their way to that crossing.
That tells you right away, if they hung out there for seventy-five minutes, they must’ve been tanked on the way in to that mission, because they were quite far from their home base—two hundred and fifty miles—so they must’ve topped up on fuel to have enough to even last for an hour and a quarter at this inefficient low altitude. The Turkish Air Force does have a number of American tankers that they own, so they certainly could’ve and almost beyond a shadow of a doubt did tank these F-16s before this whole engagement.
If true, that would be another indication of pre-planning.

After the first attack, Russian planes go back to their loitering area to wait for their next set of orders.
At that point, the two F-16s break out of their loiter patterns to fly in a straight line south, quite certainly under Turkish ground control because they clearly are not hunting for the Su-24s and following a curved path, they’re heading straight for an intercept point that apparently ground control has  provided them—a point that’s very close to the target that the Su-24s have just bombed. That’s clearly the point they’re coming back to bomb again.
The F-16s' next move is to position themselves for a strike.
The F-16s arrive quite nicely and precisely timed to a missile-shooting position very near the border and three to four miles from the second Su-24—who has just finished bombing his second target—at about 10:24. One of the F-16s  locks onto him, launches a missile—an infrared missile according to the  Russians—and  immediately dives down to get back under the Syrian radar coverage. 
What about the alleged violation of airspace, you might ask.

If you look at the Turkish map above, you see that little finger sticking into the Syrian territory. The Turkish side claims that this is where the violation occurred. The Russians deny it vigorously.

Pierre Sprey examined the Russian maps and he says that it is likely that the 17 second incursion occurred. But he adds that, if it did, it must have taken place during the first bombing mission at about 10:15.

The F-16s struck the Su-24 during the second run at about 10:24.
This border-violating incursion was on the first run to the target at around 10:15. On the second run to the target the Russian planes were clearly further to the south. This is according to the plots and maps released in the Russian briefing, which are very, very detailed with exact time marks every minute. The seventeen-second crossing of the border alleged by the Turks happened at about 10:15, but the Turks waited. They didn’t come in and attack the airplane that had crossed the border at that point. They simply sat and waited until the plane flew a long re-attack pattern and came back on a second run seven or eight minutes later, and that’s when they attacked and shot him down.
When you consider these elements and add them up, the case for a pre-planned attack begins to look quite strong.

But didn't Turks warn them repeatedly, I hear you say.

Here is the recording released by the Turkish ground control.

Clearly they state, "you are approaching Turkish airspace, change your heading South immediately."


But this is the last bit of damning evidence.

How Not to Warn

Turkish ground control did issue a warning. The question is, was it heard? Or was it meant to be heard?

Emergency messages are issued either on UHF frequency, which is civilian or VHF, which is military. Pierre Sprey points to an interesting fact.
The Americans were quick to confirm that their monitoring equipment picked up the Turkish ground-station radio warning calls, but they’ve been careful not to say what frequency they heard. Now it so happens that Su-24s have no radios onboard for receiving UHF-frequency signals, a fact which is well known to American, NATO, and Turkish intelligence. 
 I got curious and did a little bit of digging. Here is what I found.
From a radar picture released by the Turkish military shortly after the incident that shows the radar tracks of the Russian plane and voice recordings of warnings issued by Turkish planes, it is understood that the Turkish air force used UHF 243.000 MHZ emergency call channel to warn the Russian plane 10 times in five minutes, and only then shot it down for violating Turkish airspace.
In other words, the repeated warnings from UHF channel could have not been heard by the Russian aircraft.

So let me summarize the whole setup for you.

Two Russian planes are on a bombing mission. It is highly likely that NATO is informed and the aircraft are visible to radar systems.

Two Turkish F-16s fly to that mission point way before Russians left their base. They fly at low altitude to avoid detection.

To maintain that altitude they almost certainly get refueled in and out of the mission.

They wait for Russians to hit their first target, during which a 17 second air space violation occurs.

Then the F-16s fly directly to the attack point to wait for the Russian aircraft, hit one of them as soon as they appear, even though at that point, the planes are inside Syrian airspace.

Finally, just before the actual strike, Turkish ground force warn the Russian aircraft on a channel that is not available to them.

Was it an innocent overreaction?

Or a planned ambush?

You tell me.

By the way, why did no mainstream media outlet pick up Harper's piece?

The Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) unit formerly known as GES which stands for Genelkurmay Elektronik Sistemler Komutanligi (General Staff Electronic Systems Command) was removed from the army in 2012 and attached to the Turkish Intelligence Agency (MIT). They were given the task to monitor all radar and missile activities.

Which explains how the official Anatolian Agency, citing Presidential Palace as its source, was able to report that a Russian aircraft was shot down 11 minutes after the incident, whereas the General Staff was still unsure about the nationality of that plane a good half hour later. [Link in Turkish]

In 2014, MIT's activities were substantially expanded and the agency was no longer subject to judicial and legislative oversight. The Agency was to report directly to the Prime Minister (and now to the President). More importantly, it was no longer an intelligence gathering organization and was given operational capabilities.

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