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Syrian Missile Downs Russian Plane in Error

Syrian Missile Downs Russian Plane in Error

Russian IL-20 four engine aircraft

A Russian four engine IL-20 naval reconnaissance aircraft was shot down seemingly by accident over Syria by Syrian air defense. While initial reports lack significant details, early information seem to point out that due to a possible Israeli missile attack, Syrian air defense was targeting incoming missiles or planes and locked on the IL-20 by radar. Information suggests that an S-200 missile brought down the plane, known to NATO as a SA-5 Gammon, the S-200 while effective, is a system developed during the Cold War era and has limited capabilities due to its age. From the 14 or 15 member crew, there were no survivors.

While newer missile system like the Pantsir and TOR have more advanced equipment to correctly determine the origin and design of aircraft being targeted, systems like the S-200 may be linked with radar systems that could date as far back as the 80s or even 70s era systems. While more modern systems like the BUK-M1 have shot down planes that were misidentified as recently as the Malaysia Airline flight over Ukraine a few short years ago, the coordination and training of several forces operating over Syria along with Western allied and Russian and Syrian air arms was established in order to avoid incidents like those that took place with the downing of the IL-20. Why an old S-200 missile can accidentally down an older IL-20 airplane with modern radar and a coordinated air defense system is puzzling, a tragedy for all involved.

The origin of the IL-20 is an innocent one, being developed as a 1950s era Soviet airliner, the IL-18. The IL-20 likely was in the area working as an airborne radar and detection system or perhaps was the IL-22 or IL-38 version that track naval and submarine activity. With an aircraft such as the IL-20 operating as a known radar and early warning system asset, a coordinated air defense with Russia and Syrian forces and systems should have been keenly aware of the IL-20, as the IL-20 would have been in direct and constant contact with all air assets in the area.

The IL-20 having its origins as a 1950s airliner also possesses some characteristics that should have made it evident on radar that it was not a missile or even a fighter plane. The IL-20 has four propeller or turboprop driven engines, is somewhat large and would have been moving fairly slowly. The radar for the S-200 likely would have been able to determine that it was not a plane that offered significant threats to its target and should have been cautious as it looked more like an airliner or other civilian aircraft.

Using the S-200 to target missiles also deserves some analysis. While an S-200 was able to shoot down one Israeli aircraft this year, to use a rather large and heavy anti-aircraft missile like the S-200 to target incoming cruise missiles seems like it would be quite ineffective. With most of the strikes coming into Syria being cruise or other air-to-ground missiles, an S-200 would likely have not hit any of the main missile threats, despite claims about the performance of the S-200. With most of the actual aircraft being at a fair distance from the targets, an S-200 would be best used on targets that are lower risk than threats it needs to handle. So while a fighter jet might be shot down and an IL-20 certainly would have no protection, individual missiles would require a more effective system and missile than the S-200.

The loss of lives is certainly a tragedy, and almost certainly an error or a malfunction. It is only hoped that a peaceful resolution in Syria can remove the situation where errors like these can ever occur again.



Richard Basas

Richard Basas, a Canadian Masters Level Law student educated in Spain, England, and Canada (U of London MA 2003 LL.M., 2007), has worked researching for CSIS and as a Reporter for the Latin America Advisor. He went on to study his MA in Latin American Political Economy in London with the University of London and LSE. Subsequently, Rich followed his career into Law focusing mostly on International Commerce and EU-Americas issues. He has worked for many commercial and legal organisations as well as within the Refugee Protection Community in Toronto, Canada, representing detained non-status indivduals residing in Canada. Rich will go on to study his PhD in International Law.

Areas of Focus:
Law; Economics and Commerce; Americas; Europe; Refugees; Immigration