Russian President Vladimir Putin is claiming that Turkey “stabbed us in the back” due to the shootdown of a Russian ground-attack plane by Turkish F-16 Fighting Falcons. While Turkey and Russia go eyeball-to-eyeball over this incident, and diplomats scramble to contain this new crisis, let’s take a closer look at the aircraft that was downed to start this whole crisis off.
The Sukhoi Su-24 was given the NATO code name Fencer. Ostensibly a fighter in NATO’s eyes (fighters were given code names that started with F, bombers got code names that started with B), the Fencer is roughly comparable to the F-111 Aardvark. Like the Aardvark, though, the Su-24 is more a medium bomber than a true fighter. The purpose of the Su-24 was to deliver a lot of ordnance (just under 18,000 pounds, or about 56% of what a F-111 could carry) on target in any weather condition. The Soviets (and Russians) built over 1,400 Su-24s, with production not ending until 1993, and the plane was widely exported. Compare that to the F-111, which saw 563 examples produced, with only Australia as an export customer. The Fencer has seen action in a number of wars, including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Lebanese civil war, the Syrian civil war, the Libyan civil war, the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, and Desert Storm.
Since the end of the Cold War, Russia still maintains a large force of these planes – over 250 in service – and they have received updates. While most are Fencer D strike aircraft, Russia has developed reconnaissance (Fencer E) and electronic warfare (Fencer F) versions of the plane. Russia reportedly deployed 12 Su-24s to Syria earlier this year, along with 12 Su-25 “Frogfoot” attack planes (the Soviet answer to the A-10), and at least four Su-30 Flankers. One report indicated that Russia has also involved the Su-34 Fullback, a version of the Flanker intended to carry out ground-attack missions (much like the F-15E Strike Eagle when compared to the F-15C Eagle).
The Su-24 was reportedly downed while targeting Turkmen rebels near the Turkish border. While Russia has claimed it is targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Putin has been adamant that Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad remain in power and some of the Russian air strikes are reportedly targeting more moderate resistance groups, as opposed to ISIS or al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the region, the al-Nusra Front.
While President Obama is backing Turkey, at least publicly, and pointing the finger at Putin and citing “an ongoing problem with the Russian operations,” and saying Putin should be targeting ISIS as opposed to the moderate groups, there are efforts to de-escalate the crisis. Russia has now confirmed that one pilot was killed by a rebel group, while the other crew member was rescued. Russia also announced it is sending its S-400 missile system to boost air defenses in the area.
There do remain a lot of unanswered questions about the incident. Why was the Su-24 operating in a manner that brought it up against Turkish F-16s, which clearly outclassed it in air-to-air combat, without any fighter escort? Were the Turks being “overly aggressive” and did they use “poor judgment,” to quote retired Air Force General Tom McInerney? While Turkey and Russia appear ready to de-escalate the crisis, the answers could be very important.