On Sunday, Turkish Air Force F-16 jet fighters shot down two Syrian Air Force Su-24MK2 bombers over Idlib province. The air battle is the latest clash in a mounting conflict between the Turkish military and forces supporting the regime of Bashar-al-Assad for control of the last major rebel stronghold in Syria.
Some accounts claim the Su-24s—two-seat supersonic bomber operated both the Syrian Arab Air Force and the Russian Aerospace Force over Syria—attempted to attack Turkish F-16s after the latter struck Syrian air defense sites, which in turn had downed a Turkish Anka-S drone earlier that day. This version of events seems peculiar, as though the Su-24 can carry short-range air-to-air missiles, it’s not designed to take on enemy fighters.
Reportedly, the F-16s engaged the Su-24s from a distance using AIM-120C beyond-visual-range radar-guided missiles. Both Su-24 crews apparently ejected safely. (Note, these are actually the second and the third Su-24s shot down over Syria by a Turkish F-16, following a Russian Su-24 shot down in November 2015.)
In the space of just three days, Turkish drone strikes and artillery fires have knocked out over 100 armored vehicles, dozens of artillery systems and killed hundreds of pro-regime forces. Turkey claims as many 2,200 but that number can’t be verified.
Anti-Assad rebels, who already were receiving anti-tank missiles and armored vehicles from Turkey, also took back the town of Saraqeb, located on a strategically vital intersection of the M4 and M5 highway. Pro-regime forces are currently engaged in a counter-attack attempting to retake the town, the status of which is subject to conflicting reports at the time of writing.
Turkey’s President Recef Erdogan issued an ultimatum: Turkish forces would intervene forcefully in Idlib if Assad didn’t withdraw his forces back to the ceasefire line by the end of February. Furthermore, the Turkish military deployed over 100 armored vehicles into Syria, including Sabra tanks and ACV-15 fighting vehicles.
The deadly air strike on Turkish forces on Feb. 27 triggered a retaliation so massive and sustained it merged seamlessly into that threatened intervention, now code named Operation Spring Shield.
Why has Turkish attack been so devastating?
The new Turkish offensive has been largely carried out using drone-launched missiles and precision artillery strikes leveraging drone artillery spotters. These weapons are arguably deadlier when used against massed conventional military formations then against disbursed insurgent targets.
Drone footage appears to show the destruction of dozens of T-55, T-62, and T-72 main battle tanks, BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles, Pantsir-S1 and ZSU-23 Shilka short-range air defense systems, and 2S1 and 2S3 self-propelled howitzers.
Turkey, along with China, is a world leader in manufacturing armed drones, or Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs), though most of these drones are tethered to just over 100-mile ranges due to command-link limitations when compared to U.S.-style UCAVs. Still, Russia does not have any similar UCAVs in operational service.
Two Turkish drone systems, the Bayraktar-TB and Anka-S are seeing extensive action over Syria. The Bayraktar has also been extensive employed in the Libyan civil war, in which Turkey is also intervening. The large and heavier Anka-S is seeing its combat debut in the clashes in Syria, and can carry nearly three times the payload.
The drones are reportedly using MAM-C and MAM-L ‘micro-munitions’—70- and 160-millimeter rockets respectively, weighing only 14 and 48.5 pounds designed to strike targets illuminated by a laser. These can carry high explosive, armor-penetrating shaped charges, or (on the MAM-L) lung-rupturing thermobaric warheads, while remaining light enough to mount on relatively small drones. The larger MAM-L can also extend range from 5 to 8.6 miles by using GPS or inertial guidance.
Drones can also be used to locate and call in precise artillery strikes from distant artillery units, filling in a risky role that used to be performed by slow-flying observation planes. Turkey has made extensive use of rapid-firing T-155 Firtina artillery systems, a domestic spinoff of the South Korean K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzers and T-122 Sakariya and KS-300 multiple-rocket launcher systems.
Assad’s forces do possess short-range air defense systems, notably the Pantsir-S in the region. Russian Pantsir and Tor systems have had some success against rebel-operated drones in the past, but Syrian-operated systems have had less success countering Israeli kamikaze drones.
Syrian air defenses have managed to shoot down at least three Turkish Anka-S drones in February, and Damascus claims as many as six. As these are larger and newer drones, their loss may be keenly felt, but obviously less so than manned aircraft.
Air defense fire targeting those drones appears to have led to the strike on Syrian air defenses this Sunday.
Still, why have Turkish UAV losses been so minimal compared to the damage inflicted? Reportedly, Turkey has been using it Koral jamming system built by Aselsan, to degrade the effectiveness of Syrian air defense radars. The Koral, which has a range of 124 miles, has support sensors designed to detect and classify other systems in the area, and an electronic attack element designed to jam, deceive and overload enemy sensors.
The devastation incurred by Turkish strikes is yet another dramatic demonstration that today’s armies need strong electronic warfare and short-range air defenses that can tackle drones efficiently to survive on 21st century battlefields.
It also furthermore demonstrates that ubiquitous unmanned surveillance assets are poised to bring stand-off-range artillery in its various forms renewed prominence in 21st century military operations.
It’s notable that Turkey managed to inflict so much damage largely without engaging direct-fire formations. Instead, it’s relied on drone or indirect fire to punish enemy forces, and then allowing its rebel proxies to seize what’s left behind—similar to the strategy the United States employed against ISIS using Kurdish fighters.
How long that will remain a viable posture for Turkish forces remains to be seen, as does Ankara’s concept for indefinitely shielding the rebels in Idlib from government attacks.
Also at stake will be Russia and its relationship with Turkey. For the time being Moscow has refrained from openly defending Assad’s Syrian and Iranian troops from Turkish attacks, and even continues to perform joint patrols with Turkey in Syria.
But the open warfare between Ankara and Damascus will make that stance difficult to sustain. Ankara is concerned enough that it’s requesting coverage from U.S. Patriot air defense batteries to guard against retaliation, despite its purchase of Russian surface-to-air missiles.
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