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Fire in the Sky

The loss of a Russian Air Force plane to Syrian air defences raises questions regarding friendly fire and combat identification

The Russian Air Force lost an Ilyushin IL-20M (NATO reporting name COOT-A) electronic intelligence (ELINT) aircraft on 17 September. The plane crashed into the Mediterranean some 35km off the coast of Syria. Its loss gives rise to concerns regarding the levels of coordination and combat identification practiced by belligerents in Syria’s civil war.


Russia’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) moved quickly to blame the Israeli Air Force (IAF) for causing the plane’s loss, accusing it of using the IL-20M to mask detection of its F-16I SUFA fighters by Syrian ground-based air defences during the IAF’s execution of an air-to-surface missile (ASM) strike against unspecified targets in  Latakia province on the country’s Mediterranean coast. Sana, the Syrian state news agency, stated the country’s air defences had fired on incoming missiles it claimed the F-16s had launched from the Mediterranean. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied using the IL-20M for this purpose: yet this is standard practice for air strikes and was used by the US Air Force (USAF) during its attacks on Libya in 1986. The IL-20M was reportedly returning to Hmeimim airbase in northeast Syria, which houses a sizeable number of Russian combat aircraft. The MoD claimed the F-16s forced the IL-20M into the path of Syrian air defences; presumably surface-to-air missiles (SAM) launched to intercept the incoming ASMs.

Much regarding the shoot-down remains unknown. Russia’s admission that the aircraft was shot down by Syrian air defences is an interesting one, yet the incident should have been avoidable for two reasons.  First, the IL-20M should have had its Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponder operating in such a way as to identify the aircraft as friendly to both Russian and Syrian air defences. IFF transponders transmit a recognised code using V/UHF radio transmissions across a 30MHz-3GHz waveband. These transmissions would have accompanied the aircraft’s appearance on the radar screens of Syrian/Russian radar operators, identifying the aircraft and providing details of its altitude and velocity. The radar operators should have then determined the aircraft as friendly and taken no further action. This apparent breakdown in IFF procedure has uncomfortable echoes vis-à-vis the loss of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777-200ER on 17 July 2014 over Ukraine, with the loss of all 298 passengers and crew. The Russian Army’s 9K37 BUK (NATO reporting name SA-11 GADFLY) family medium-altitude SAM system, widely acknowledged to have been responsible for downing the airliner, reportedly hosted a rudimentary IFF interrogator and confidential NATO sources have expressed serious concerns to MONCh regarding the ability of Russian air defenders to use IFF correctly to identify aircraft as friendly or hostile.

Second, Russian and Syrian air defenders should have been briefed on the planned IL-20M sortie and given information regarding timing and expected flight path. Even if IFF procedures had been inadequate, identifying the aircraft’s behaviour on the radar screen and correlating this with the briefed sortie should have helped to identify the plane as friendly. At the very least, it seems that the Russian Air Force and Syrian air defenders may not be sharing information regarding briefed sorties. Coupled with inadequate IFF procedures, which could include the inability of Syrian air defence batteries to adequately interrogate an aircraft’s IFF and understand its response, greatly increases the risk of such friendly fire incidents occurring. Similarly, if the IL-20M’s IFF had been switched off by the crew intentionally or in error, or malfunctioned, the aircraft would have been dangerously exposed.


While the IL-20M’s loss may have been the result of lax IFF discipline, it raises questions about the levels of de-confliction practiced by those nations involved in the Syrian civil war. It has been widely reported that Russia maintains ‘hot lines’ between itself and the US CENTCOM  combatant command, which is leading the multinational Operation Inherent Resolve against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) activities in both countries. Russia also maintains similar communications with Israel, which has now conducted over 200 air strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria.

Communications between Russia, Israel and CENTCOM are intended to reduce the chances of ‘blue on blue’ incidents, with all participants in theory knowing where their land and air forces may be at any particular time, as well as the general areas in which they are operating. The Russian MoD concedes that Israel did provide warning that its aircraft would conduct operations in the vicinity of Latakia, but claimed it was given insufficient warning time of just one minute as to when these would take place. Israel has not provided any comment on the air strikes; it rarely does regarding such operations, or Russian allegations. Nevertheless, even if Israel had given very short notice of the attacks, correct IFF procedures and sortie briefings should have made it possible to avoid the shoot-down.

At this early stage there remains to clarify regarding the IL-20M’s loss, and Russia’s allegations must be treated with a degree of caution. Nevertheless, its admission that Syrian air defences were responsible for downing the aircraft indicates that coordination between the Russian and Syrian armed forces is seemingly very casual.

Tennyson’s poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ encapsulates the inevitability of fratricide in warfare in the words “Someone had blundered” – words no less true today than in 1854.

Thomas Withington

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