October 16, 2015

Turkish jets down Russian drone - what happened?

On October 16, Turkish fighter jets shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle almost two miles inside Turkish airspace. The wreckage appears to be that of a Russian ORLAN-10 drone. The exact model of drone is not important - for the purposes of this analysis, let us stipulate that this is a drone used by the Russian forces deployed to Syria.

The bulk of Russian forces in Syria are located at Humaymim Air Base, co-located with Basil al-Asad International Airport in the town of Jablah, on the Mediterranean coast about 10 miles south of Syria's major port at Latakia (see map).

If the ground control station for the Russian drone was located at the air base, its 140 kilometer (just over 85 miles) operating range would allow the Russians to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions as far away as the city of Aleppo. The drone went down near the Turkish city of Kilis (see map), almost 180 kilometers (110 miles) from Humaymim.

Most of the Russian airstrikes have been concentrated east of the coastal area, specifically in Idlib and Hamah provinces, in the area approximated by the red box on the map. This area has been the venue of heavy fighting between the Syrian regime on one side and a loose alliance of moderate and Islamic rebel groups on the other.

Some of the rebel groups have been supplied with U.S.-manufactured TOW anti-tank missiles - these missiles have taken a heavy toll on Syria's tanks and armored personnel carriers.* The recent increase in the number of TOW missiles in the hands of the rebels was partly responsible for the near collapse of the Syrian Army in most of Idlib and Hamah provinces.

It was likely these setbacks on the ground and the belief that the U.S.-led coalition was about to declare safe areas and no-fly zones in Syria that convinced the Russian leadership (a euphemism for President Vladimir Putin) that absent additional external support, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad might fall.

As with most militaries in the world, the Russians use drones to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for both air and ground forces. When the Russians deployed to Syria, they brought drones with them. Although the Russians have access to Syrian and Iranian intelligence on their primary target set - the anti-regime rebel groups - all commanders prefer to have their own collection assets.

Russia's main objective in Syria is to support the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Despite the Kremlin's (another euphemism for Vladimir Putin) repetitious claims that Russian airstrikes are targeting fighters and facilities of the Islamic State (more commonly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS), most sorties flown by the Russians have attacked non-ISIS rebels in Hamah and Idlib. The Russians have also started hitting targets in Aleppo province as a prelude to a Syrian regime offensive there.

As part of their air operations in Syria, the Russians are flying their drones over Hamah, Idlib and probably Aleppo provinces. As they get further north and east of Humaymim air base, the signals to and from the drones become weaker, as well as being affected by the coastal mountain range that separates the coastal homeland of Bashar al-Asad's 'Alawite sect from the Sunni areas to the east.

These areas are being targeted by Syrian forces - forces supported on the ground by Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard troops, Hizballah fighters and just within the last few days, Cuban special forces soldiers, and in the air by the Russian Air Force.

I believe that for whatever reason, the command data links between the ground station and the drone failed or were blocked by terrain, causing the drone to begin flying out of control. At some point, the drone crossed into Turkey - the Turks claim that two Turkish Air Force F-16 fighters subsequently shot down the drone.

The Turks really had no choice but to shoot down the drone. They claim that they "warned" the drone three times - I assume they made broadcasts on the international emergency frequencies warning anyone operating the drones that the aircraft had violated Turkish air space. The pilots may have made passes in sight of the drone's cameras/sensors, but I suspect the drone was too far from the ground station to relay the images back.

In addition to the sovereignty issue, the Turks would have needed to down the out-of-control drone as a safety issue before it approached any populated areas.

There is nothing sinister here. Drones sometimes go astray as they lose contact with their ground stations - this is much different then what I believe were the two deliberate manned fighter aircraft violations of Turkish air space earlier this month. Those incursions were meant to send a message to the Turks.

The Turks will complain, the Russians - if they ever admit that a Russian-made ORLAN-10 drone in pieces on the ground in Turkey is actually theirs - will apologize, and the carnage in Syria will continue unabated.

* In April 2014 (American arms to Syria? Too little, too late?) I wrote:

Earlier this year, President Obama met with Saudi King 'Abdullah to discuss Syria. After the meeting, the President's deputy national security advisor reiterated the administration's concerns over supplying MANPADS to the rebels, but made no mention of anti-tank weapons. This comes just after the disclosure that the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) took delivery of almost 16,000 TOW missiles late last year. The SANG is a force of about 100,000 men (organized into eight brigades) separate from the Ministry of Defense and Aviation structure and is a counterbalance to the Royal Saudi Land Forces.

Coincidence? Maybe not.

Let's look at this. That is a huge quantity of TOW missiles for that size force and for the potential threats the Saudis may face in the region. If you combine the armies of Israel, Iran and Iraq, you have a total of about 8,000 tanks. Even if you double that to account for armored fighting vehicles, acquiring 16,000 TOW missiles for the SANG seems a bit high. That does not include the well over 20,000 TOWs in the Saudi Land Forces inventory. Now we have TOW missiles showing up in Syria - it just seems too convenient.