Interview with Seth Smith on the Downed Turkish Jet

By Bilal Y. Saab – The Syrian conflict took a turn to the worse after Syria shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom fighter jet on June 22. Here is what we know so far:

* Turkey has confirmed that the jet did cross into Syrian airspace.

* Syria has confirmed that it did shoot down the jet.

* The pilot and electronic warfare operator have not been recovered yet.

* The jet in question was an RF-4, a reconnaissance variant of the F-4 Phantom II.

* Turkey invoked Article IV of the NATO charter, which calls for consultation by NATO members when one is attacked or threatened. For those interested in the NATO Secretary General’s statement, here it is.

Numerous questions still loom over this incident, the answers to which could shed light on the potential for international intervention in Syria. For more on this story, I sat down with Seth Smith, Herbert Scoville Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Mr. Smith served six years in the U.S. Navy as a Persian-Farsi Crypto-linguist and airborne reconnaissance mission supervisor. He was considered a SME on the orders of battle of the Gulf State militaries and on the Iranian military capabilities and tactics.

1- Why was a Turkish fighter jet flying so close to – and possibly in – Syrian territory in the first place?

The answer to this question may lie in the type of aircraft that was shot down. According to a recent news report, the jet in question was an “R” variant of the F-4 Phantom. The “R” in the nomenclature stands for reconnaissance. Though it can be armed with bombs for targeting static ground forces/facilities and is a capable air-to-air combat fighter, the more common role for the Phantom is anti-aircraft missile suppression; an essential component of establishing air superiority and/or no-fly zones. An RF-4 would be equipped with specific electronic warfare capability for the identification of radar and missile sites in Syria that would need to be destroyed in the event of an air campaign. 

Initial thinking was that the Turkish jet was shot down by a SAM; however new reporting indicates that it was anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire that brought the jet down. If true, this information would refute Turkish claims that the jet was shot down in international airspace and would support Syrian claims that it was flying very low within Syrian territory, as AAAs are short-range air defense weapons. This would also indicate that the jet’s mission was focused more on testing and identifying Syrian air defense capabilities and not testing Turkish radar systems, as Turkey’s foreign minister recently stated.

2- Why did Syria shoot it down? Could it have avoided doing so?

Breaches of territorial airspace are not a rare occurrence for any nation. Unidentified aircraft are regularly spotted on radar systems and countries usually follow a prescribed protocol to identify those aircraft and their intensions. Attacking such aircraft is generally the last option on an air defense protocol. With this in mind, there are two possibilities as to why Syria fired on the Turkish jet:

  1. Syria’s air defenses are on high-alert in light of the current unrest and threat of international intervention. As such, their rules of engagement are shoot-first, ask questions or apologize later.
  2. A Syrian air defense operator spotted an unidentified aircraft and fired on it without authorization.

Either case is likely; however, in times of heightened tension or conflict, air defense postures can be recalibrated to decrease the options available to site commanders short of attack. Considering the current turmoil in Syria and the rhetoric of the international community, it is likely that the Syrian air defense posture is at high-alert. This would give lower-level commanders the authorization to fire on suspect aircraft without direct orders from a higher command. Takeaway, Syria’s armed forces have itchy trigger fingers (as if their brutality against their own people wasn’t proof enough).

So what does this incident mean in the context of potential intervention? The answer to that is still unclear. One thing is certain, the argument of international security experts that Syria is not Libya has been confirmed. No NATO aircraft were lost to enemy fire during the Libya operation. Even if it was a “lucky” shot, the incident demonstrates the capability of Syrian air defense systems. This will make an international community, already reluctant to get involved militarily in Syria, even more hesitant to do so – unanimous condemnation of Syria from NATO notwithstanding.

3- Do you think this incident will deter Turkey from sending more jets into Syrian airspace?

This incident will most likely dissuade Turkey from embarking on similarly risky missions, at least in the near future. Turkey has a much larger air force than Syria’s (twice as large) but in terms of modernity of technology the two countries are roughly evenly matched. The reluctance of Turkey’s NATO allies to get involved in Syria is another factor that could keep Ankara from pushing back too hard against Syrian action or risking further escalation by testing Syrian air defense capabilities in the near-term.

4- Does this change anything in the broader discussion about potential military intervention in Syria?

This incident has reminded us once again that Syria is not Libya. The United States was able to lead from behind in Libya because other NATO countries had sufficient capability to establish a no-fly zone with little risk to their aircrafts and pilots. And even in the Libyan case, leading from behind still necessitated the United States providing the lion’s share of ISR, targeting, and armaments capability in that campaign. Leading from behind in Syria does not look like an option. Even the often overly simplified “no-fly zone” would probably involve launching cruise missiles from Navy ships in the Mediterranean in conjunction with a large and sustained air assault.

5- What is the bottom line of this incident? What have we really learned?

Any international military intervention will require a sizeable force and a much more prominent role by the United States. Also, the risk of loss of life to all those involved will be much greater. Expect casualties. The stated goal in Libya was humanitarian assistance, not regime change (although one led to the other of course). How do you say “fool me once” in Russian? or in Mandarin? Barring the use of chemical weapons by Assad against the rebels, Russia and China probbaly won’t be offering any “Yes” votes regarding intervention in Syria. For the right price, however, the Russians can be convinced to cooperate and agree on covert (not overt) actions in Syria. But their laundry list of demands is ridiculous.