Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft Tuesday after the jet reportedly violated Turkish airspace, in an incident that will surely increase tensions in an already chaotic conflict.
The shoot down, confirmed by Turkish, Russian and U.S. officials, involved only Turkish and Russian forces. Russian defense officials say that the jet was flying at 6,000 meters in Syrian territory when it was struck with ground fire, while Turkish military officials have said that the aircraft was shot down by two F-16s after repeated warnings.
The Russian jet, a Sukhoi 24, is just one of approximately 30 fixed-wing aircraft flying sorties over Syria. The main contingent of Russian aircraft, flown out of Khmeimim airbase in Syria’s coastal Latakia province, is composed of roughly a dozen Su-25 Frogfoots and Su-24 Fencers. The additional aircraft are smaller detachment of Su-30 and Su-34 multi-role fighters.
The Su-24, introduced into the Soviet air force in the 1970s, is primarily used in the ground-attack role, much like U.S. A-10s or Harriers, while it most closely resembles a retired U.S. aircraft called the F-111. The Su-24, much like the F-111, is meant for long range strikes and is capable of fulfilling the roll of a strategic bomber. It has a sweep wing that allows it to fly effectively at different speeds (think the F-14 Tomcat in Top Gun). The Su-24 also supports a crew of two who sit side by side — a configuration that is rare in U.S. attack aircraft, save for the F-111 and Vietnam-era jets like the A-6 Intruder.
As the Su-24 flies low and slow to best attack ground targets, it has limited air-to-air capabilities and likely would have a hard time countering any attack from two Turkish F-16s. F-16s, a U.S. aircraft built by General Dynamics, are older but reliable fighters that excel at air interdiction.
Russian aircraft have flown thousands of sorties in support of Syrian Army operations and against some Islamic State targets since starting operations at the end of September. Russia has also deployed helicopter gunships to the region, rocket artillery and advisers that assist their Syrian counterparts. Concurrently U.S. and coalition aircraft are flying against Islamic State targets primarily in the east of the country, though Russian and U.S. aircraft have struck in the same area, just not at the same time.
This post has been updated.