December 25, 2016

Implications of crash of the Russian Air Force aircraft en route Syria

Earlier image of Russian Air Force Tu-154B RA-85572

Early on Christmas day, a Russian Air Force passenger jet crashed into the Black Sea while on its way to an air base in Syria. The aircraft, Russian Air Force Tu-154B (NATO: Careless) RA-85572 was flying from Moscow to Humaymim Air Base just south of Latakia on Syria's Mediterranean coast.

Humaymim Air Base base has been the headquarters of Russian expeditionary forces deployed to Syria since September 2015. The aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff from a refueling stop in Sochi on the Black Sea.

The aircraft was carrying 84 passengers and eight crew. The majority of the passengers were members of the Russian Army choir, heading to Syria to provide holiday concerts for Russian troops in Syria, as well as a few reporters and at least one charity fund director.

At this point, there is no suspicion of terrorism - Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a thorough investigation into the incident. I believe the investigation will show some technical issue or pilot error - this was a Russian military aircraft and access to the aircraft would normally be restricted to authorized military personnel. However, while the aircraft was being serviced in Sochi, others may have have had access to the plane.

Two questions come to mind:

- Why was the aircraft on this flight route?
- Why did the flight stop in Sochi?

The aircraft was headed from Moscow to Syria. That's not unusual - the Russian Air Force flies at least one resupply and troop rotation flight to Humaymim Air Base every day. In addition to Tu-154 jets, the Russians also use AN-124 (NATO: Condor) heavy transports and Il-62 (NATO: Classic) passenger aircraft.

The normal flight route from Moscow takes the aircraft over Russian airspace to the Caspian Sea, then the airspace of Iran and Iraq before entering Syrian airspace.

This circuitous route is used because Russian Air Force aircraft are not normally granted permission to overfly Turkey. This restriction is in response to an American request that members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) refuse overflight clearance for Russian military aircraft heading to or from Syria.

This particular flight appears to have been on a different flight route - from Moscow to the international airspace of the Black Sea, then via Turkish airspace to Syria. Why would the Turks grant overflight clearance to this Russian military flight? Was the fact that the aircraft was carrying the Russian Army choir deemed to not fall into the category of a military flight? Would the Turks have known the exact manifest?

Call me a cynic, but I wonder if the recent meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Moscow to discuss the future of Syria, resulted in an agreement between the Russians and Turks to allow overflight of Turkish airspace for the airbridge between Moscow and Humaymim Air Base.

That would represent a significant change in Turkish-Russian relations, and a blow to NATO solidarity. I note that the United States was not invited to the Moscow meeting.

In any case, the aircraft was flying directly from Moscow to Humaymim, a distance of about 1400 miles. This is easily within the flight range of the Tu-154B - a refueling stop in Sochi was not required. Why did the aircraft make a stop? Were there mechanical problems with the aircraft the caused the pilot to land at Sochi?

I look forward to the answers. It is important to know if this was mechanical or human failure, or worse, terrorism.