Details are still being assimilated regarding the incident but whatever the circumstances the fact remains that a NATO fighter has shot down a Russian aircraft. Earlier today the Turkish Air Force dispatched F-16 Fighting Falcons to intercept and ultimately shoot down a Russian Su-24 “Fencer” near the Turkish-Syrian border.
At present it is unclear just how the Russians plan to respond but the incident will no doubt mark a low point in relations between Moscow and NATO who will be forced to support their member state if it proves the Russian aircraft did indeed violate Turkish territory. What will almost certainly happen in the wake of this incident is that the Russian Air Force engaged in operations over Syria will have to take measures to protect their aircraft from this happening again. The Russians have already deployed advanced Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) to their base at Latakia in Syria and have reportedly already supplied S-300 SAMs to Assad’s government indicating that Moscow is prepared to defend their interests in Syria from attack by air even though ISIS has no air force.
If the Russians continue to maintain that it was Turkey acting aggressively or it is proven that the aircraft never left Syrian airspace then prudence will demand additional assets be deployed to protect Russian combat aircraft away from their base and that means fighter aircraft. This in turn means more heavily armed combat aircraft being flown in to increasingly cramped airspace with Russian pilots and ground controllers feeling that they are on the defensive. Just as the Russians will no doubt be taking extra measures to protect their combat aircraft from interception the western allies will have to do the same. The chances, therefore, of another such engagement could become highly likely.
So how will this affect the British Conservative government’s efforts to gather enough parliamentary votes to allow the Royal Air Force to join US and French warplanes bombing ISIS in Syria?
In short it will strengthen the argument against joining the strikes. RAF aircraft joining the fight could be seen as an escalation in itself by the Russians who may start to feel that their position in Syria is becoming increasingly threatened at the very least politically. British politicians who are against the strikes argue that to extend RAF operations beyond Iraq to Syria would only increase the chances of another incident such as what happened today.
Both Moscow and the western powers already involved in air strikes have called for a combined mission to defeat ISIS but have thus far failed to reach an agreement. The attacks in Paris actually strengthened the possibility that Moscow and Washington were prepared to cooperate finally but today’s incident may have quashed that. Russian leader Valdimir Putin has built his reputation on standing up to the west and therefore he will have to address today’s incident in such a way as to appear almost as a victim of Turkish (and by association, NATO) aggression and therefore use that to achieve more political levity in Syria. RAF aircraft, who themselves have been very active in recent months against the Russians over the North Sea and Baltic, could derail the recovery process from this incident.
The next question the opponents of extending the strikes argue is that the RAF’s Tornado fleet is not up to defending itself over Syria should the aircraft come under attack (intentionally or otherwise) by Russian fighters. The Tornado was developed for the low level penetration role where it could use terrain to hide itself but over Syria it would be operating in the medium to high altitude spectrum. Therefore if the aircraft was attacked it would not be able to adequately defend itself being only armed with AIM-132 ASRAAM short range missiles. The Russian aircraft would be armed with R-27 and R-77 medium range missiles which could shoot down the Tornado from ranges outside of the Tornados own weapons. If further proof was needed then it should be pointed out that the Su-24 shot down today was a very similar aircraft to the Tornado.
In conclusion, today’s incident will no doubt guarantee that any argument David Cameron’s supporters make for strikes will meet sterner opposition than ever before. The shooting down of the Su-24 threatens to destabilise the balancing act the west has had to play with Moscow since Russian air strikes began. However, should the UK come under a terrorist attack such as what happened in Paris over a week and a half ago then support for strikes may be swayed and the British aircrews involved will be forced to address the consequences of today’s incident.