The shooting down of a Russian Su-24M warplane by a Turkish F-16 Tuesday on the Syrian border capped a month in which Moscow demonstrated strategic, as well as tactical air power. Turkey claimed that it had issued several warnings about violations of its airspace by Russian military aircraft conducting airstrikes over Syria. Both crew members ejected, but the pilot was killed (reportedly by small arms groundfire as he descended in his parachute), only the navigator being rescued by a Russian Mi-8 helicopter. A second Mi-8 rescue helicopter was forced down by small arms fire, with one crewman killed, according to the Russian defense ministry. Syrian rebels posted video that apparently showed the grounded Mi-8 destroyed with an American-supplied TOW anti-armor missile.
In an overt warning to Turkey, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said today that the Moskva cruiser including S-300 surface-to-air missiles has been redeployed off the Syrian coast “and is ready to destroy any aerial target which presents a threat to our aviation.” Fighter aircraft will escort all future Russian airstrikes over Syria, he continued. Russia is also sending long-range S-300 and S-400 air defense missile systems to its deployment at Hmeymim airbase near Latakia in Syria.
In media briefings and website postings that included cockpit and bomb bay videos, the Russian defense ministry has revealed unprecedented detail about the long-range airstrikes conducted in mid-November by the strategic bomber fleet. At least one of the Tu-160 missions covered more than 13,000 km (8,000 miles), with two aircraft taking off from Olenya airbase on the Kola peninsula and overflying the Barents and Norwegian seas, then around the western side of the UK and Ireland to enter the Mediterranean via the Straits of Gibraltar. They were escorted at least partway by Su-27 interceptors, and refueled inflight by Il-78 Midas tankers. After firing their eight Kh-555 cruise missiles, they apparently returned to Russia via Iraqi and Iranian airspace. Other Tu-160s, together with Tu-95Ms, flew from Engels airbase near Saratov via the Caspian Sea and Iranian airspace, through which they were escorted by Iranian air force F-14 Tomcats. The Tu-160s carried up to 16 Kh-101 or eight Kh-555 cruise missiles, and the Tu-95s up to eight Kh-555s.
Meanwhile, a fleet of Tu-22M3 bombers stationed at Mozdok airbase just north of the Caucasas mountains flew twice-daily missions with 12 aircraft each time. They dropped large numbers of free-fall FAB-250-280 bombs. Another eight Su-34 tactical strike aircraft are being deployed to Russia's Syrian base, from which four similar aircraft, together with 12 Su-24Ms and 12 Su-25Ms also based at Latakia, flew nearly 100 sorties each day from November 17-20.
Russian surface vessels have also been launching Kaliber cruise missiles into Syria from the Caspian Sea. These firings began on October 7. A second series of firings on November 17 caused the European Air Safety Agency (EASA) to issue a Safety Information Bulletin (SIB) describing the low-level flight of these missiles across northern Iran and Iraq to reach Syria. The Russian MoD said that the first series of launches comprised 26 missiles fired from four ships against 11 Syrian targets. On November 20, a further 18 missiles were launched against seven Syrian targets.
Contrary to some media reports, Russia says no cruise missiles have yet been launched from Russian submarines. But the Russian navy is sending at least one Project 636.3 submarine equipped with Kaliber-PL cruise missiles into the Black Sea and also probably from there into the Mediterranean, from where such missiles can be launched into Syria without them overflying Turkey.
By mid-November, according to the Russian MoD, the Russian air force had flown more than 2,000 combat missions, and a total of 101 air- and sea-based cruise missiles had been launched. The Russian intention is to “undermine the economic basis of ISIS” by striking oil storage and processing targets, as well as arms, training and logistics bases.
But the US and some other nations also fighting ISIS in coalition, say that Russia has been targeting other groups in Syria that oppose the Assad regime, such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Journalists who witnessed the Su-24 shootdown reported that Russian warplanes had targeted refugee camps in that border area, which is controlled by the FSA.
(story updated 27 November)