There’s no doubt as to the sequence of events on November 24th: A Russian fighter plane crossed into Turkish airspace and the Turkish military shot it down. It’s not clear, however, that the pilots of the Su-24 intended to violate Turkish territory. Russian pilots rely heavily on instructions from their own ground control and don’t have access to the same modern positioning equipment as their Western peers. In the Middle East’s crowded skies, that can lead to more disasters.
“The Russian Air Force uses ground control instructions to the pilots more than other developed countries do,” explains Anton Lavrov, a Russian armed forces analyst affiliated with a Moscow-based defense think tank, the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. “It’s a legacy of the Soviet era, when military planes were guided from the ground because of their rudimentary navigation systems and weak radars.”
Since then, the Russian Air Force has modernized its technology. And while Su-24 and Su-25 fighter planes are old, the ones operating in Syria are modernized models, known as Su-24M2 and Su-25SM, equipped with satellite navigation systems and digital maps. Bombers such as the Su-24 are at any rate less dependent on ground instructions than other planes because they have navigators. “But the big question is how accurate their digital maps are this far away from Russia,” says Lavrov. “And in the heat of bombing runs in a confined battleground near a border, you can expect human error anytime. With the heavy and not very nimble Su-24, you may suddenly find yourself flying not one kilometer away from the border as planned but one kilometer inside.” That makes ground control instructions vital for the 11 Su-24s (down from 12) and 12 Su-25s now flying missions in Syria. In addition, 10 more modern planes—six Su-34s and four Su-30s—are involved in the Syrian bombing operation.
By comparison, other developed countries’ fighter and bomber pilots use up-to-date electronic maps and are trained to rely less on ground control. “Russian fighter pilots’ situational awareness is worse than that of Western fighter pilots, who are aided by data links and a GPS-aided moving map,” notes Carl Bergqvist, a major in the Swedish Air Force who also writes Sweden’s most popular military blog. While the downed Su-24’s exact equipment is not known, its navigator most likely had to constantly cross-reference the outside terrain with physical maps. “That doesn’t really give you a high degree of accuracy at the altitude they were flying, says Bergqvist, currently a major in the Swedish Air Force and a fighter pilot himself. “The pilots probably weren’t listening to the [Turkish] Guard channel either, since the standard Su-24 only has a single radio of older design. With the previous diplomatic exchanges over border violations, it makes you wonder what instructions the crew had received from higher echelons.” Intelligence sources in the Baltic Sea region tell me that the Russian planes flying bombing missions over Syria are not equipped with receivers for international radio traffic. Turkey had previously issued warnings to Russia over its near-incursions and also shot down a Russian drone.
As a result, the two young pilots flying the ill-fated Su-24 were likely unaware of having entered Turkish airspace. Russia hasn’t said what, exactly, its ground control communicated. But judging from the outcome, ground control staff did not tell the pilots to turn around, at least not in time to avert the shoot-down.
The Russian Air Force’s strong reliance on ground control instructions is a treasure trove for foreign military intelligence agencies, who can easily listen in. “From takeoff to landing, Soviet and Russian pilots get commands regarding even just the smallest turn, ascent, descent, or weapons deployment,” says a former deputy commander of a military intelligence agency in Russia’s western neighborhood. His officers followed Soviet and Russian planes’ communications closely, an experience he likens to having front-row seats at the theater. Not surprisingly, Western intelligence agencies have not revealed what they heard during the ill-fated Su-24 flight.
Listeners don’t even need to be intelligence agencies with fancy technology. Earlier this year, a British aviation enthusiast recorded conversations between a long-range Tu-95 MS bomber and its Russian ground control as the bomber flew dangerously close to British airspace.
One explanation for the Turkish incursion is that the Russian ground control operations in Syria that guided the Su-24 are still rudimentary. There is, however, another answer: that Russian ground control didn’t much care whether the Su-24 was flying just outside Turkish airspace or just inside it. Even though Russia has highly sophisticated ground control centers on its own territory, during the past couple of years Russian warplanes have repeatedly intruded on the airspace of its immediate neighbors. Last year Russian military aircraft entered Finnish airspace five times, in violation of international law, up from two incursions in 2007 and none in 2009, while Sweden has had six Russian incursions over the past five years. Neither Sweden nor Finland are members of NATO. While Russian military planes have not intruded into NATO-protected Baltic airspace this year, the majority of flights by Russian aircraft near those borders have not complied with international rules. Pilots have flown with their transponders switched off, without pre-filed flight plans, and without communicating with Baltic ground control, making it impossible to ascertain the nature of their missions.
Sometimes friendly military planes enter countries’ airspace without permission. In 2011 three American aircraft—including a support plane for the Thunderbird aeronautics team—entered Finnish airspace, as did one Swedish and one Belgian aircraft, along with one from Russia. The most frequent violator of Swedish airspace in the past five years, with seven infractions, was the United States.
The Middle East offers a far more frightening picture than Scandinavia. In addition to Russia’s Syria-based ground control being less capable than its ground control operations at home, the skies above the region’s countries are extremely crowded. The congestion makes the skies particularly dangerous for Russian planes. “The US-led coalition aircraft can rely on information provided by AWACS [airborne warning and control system] aircraft flying over Turkey and Iraq, but the Russians haven’t deployed the same kind of platforms in Syria,” explains David Cenciotti, who writes the Aviationist, a military blog. “The allied combat planes are almost completely integrated and can share data gathered from various airborne, shipborne, or ground stations through a common distribution system, so they have a greater situational awareness and a better idea of who is flying where.”
Compare that to Russian pilots’ foggier information both regarding their own whereabouts and who is flying close to them. Over the past several weeks Russian fighter planes have repeatedly violated Israeli airspace, Israel’s Ministry of Defense has disclosed. “We can expect occasional aerial incursions if the intensive bombing of near-border regions continues,” predicts Lavrov. “There are too many different air forces acting above Syria now.”
Last week, they were joined by yet another one as the parliaments in Britain and Germany approved airstrikes against the Islamic State (Germany’s planed haven’t departed yet). Any ground control will try to avoid aerial collisions, but if the Russian incursions into response-ready countries such as Turkey keep happening, it will look as though Russia is intentionally risking the lives of its underequipped aviators.