Anyone who has seen the movie or read the book knows the plot: Red October, an advanced Russian ballistic missile sub, is heading west across the Atlantic, its crew attempting to defect. In pursuit is much of the Soviet fleet. The Enterprise is sailing east to head off the Russians, and tensions have reached a fever pitch. Painter rushes to the flight deck to witness an emergency landing by an F-14, damaged in a mid-air brush with a Russian bomber. As the Tomcat crashes onto the deck, Admiral Painter warns that things may get much worse:
Watching events unfold along the Turkish border this morning, you can't help but wonder if real flag officers are having similar thoughts. Within a matter of minutes, a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian SU-24 Fencer after it entered the country's airspace, and ignored 10 warnings to turn back. The two-man crew ejected from the jet, but were shot as they descended in their parachutes by Turkish rebels operating along the border.
Then, the Russians dispatched a search-and-rescue (SAR) helicopter to pick up the downed airmen. But members of the Free Syrian Army--a rebel group backed by the U.S.--shot down the chopper, reportedly using an American-made TOW missile. At least one member of the helicopter crew was killed.
Needless to say, Vladimir Putin is more than a little ticked off, referring to Turkey as "accomplices of terrorists." Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the shoot down a "stab in the back." A spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry said the incident would have "the gravest of consequences." Putin said the SU-24 fell in Syrian territory and did not represent a threat to Turkey.
But Ankara disagrees, claiming the jet violated its airspace repeatedly in a matter of a few minutes. But the incursions were brief--a fact acknowledged by a U.S. military official in Baghdad. If confirmed, it suggests the Fencer was flying along the Syrian-Turkish border, passing through the airspace of both countries above a national boundary that zigs and zags across rugged terrain.
The flight profile suggests the jet might have been a SU-24MR, designated Fencer E by NATO. The MR variant is a tactical reconnaissance platform, capable of carrying a wide variety of sensors. Similar to the long-retired USAF F-111, the Fencer is a fast, swing-wing tactical bomber/interdiction or recce aircraft. But against F-16s carrying AMRAAM, it was badly outmatched.
Today's incident marked the second time in less than three months that Turkish fighters have downed a Russian-made jet along the Syrian border. Ankara has aggressively defended its airspace and is clearly itching for a fight; the nation's Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Erdoğan, is an arch-foe of Syrian dictator Bashir Assad and by extension, the Russian government that is propping him up. Erdogan has accused Damascus and Moscow of bombing Syria's ethnic Turkmen population, which is concentrated in the border region. Turkey has also launched frequent airstrikes against Kurdish groups in Syria that oppose the Ankara government.
In response to this morning's incident, Russia announced the guided missile cruiser Moskva will be stationed in Syrian waters. Equipped with the naval variant of the S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile system, the Moskva can provide a defensive umbrella that extends into southern Turkey. "All targets representing a potential threat will be destroyed," a Russian spokesman vowed. It doesn't take a military expert to understand that Russia will be gunning for Turkish jets that come within range of the Moskva.
Meanwhile, the U.S. finds itself stuck squarely in the middle of a rapidly deteriorating situation. American inaction in Syria provided an opening for Mr. Putin, who deployed tactical aircraft and ground advisers in support of the Assad regime. Now, in light of today's combat losses--and the recent downing of a Russian jetliner by ISIS over the Sinai Peninsula--the Russian leader has a mandate for wider action. And the possibility of Americans winding up in the cross-hairs is not unreasonable. Many in Moscow are blaming the U.S. for the casualties incurred by the rescue crew, whose helicopter was downed by a group we're backing, with weapons we supplied.
And on the other side, Erdogan expects NATO to back him, if Turkey becomes involved in a conflict with Russia. Remember Article V of the Atlantic Charter? An attack against any NATO member is an attack against the entire alliance? That seminal clause could draw the U.S. (and its allies) into larger conflict on NATO's southern frontier, though others suggest the alliance would fall apart before that happens. At an emergency meeting that followed today's shoot down, representatives of other NATO countries asked the Turks why they just didn't escort the Russian jet out of their airspace. At this point, there doesn't seem to be much enthusiasm for rescuing Erdogan if the Russian come after him.
But there is the matter of American military personnel and aircraft currently operating from bases in Turkey. USAF F-15s, AC-130s, tankers, intelligence platforms and other assets are operating in the region and could find themselves in the cross-fire. Just how would we respond if attacked or provoked by Putin's forces? If recent history is any indication, President Obama and his national security advisers will hope that tensions ease and avoid implementing anything approaching a strategy.
As the fictional Admiral Painter observed in Red October, "the Russians don't take a dump without a plan." It's a safe bet that Mr. Putin has examined a number of options in the wake of today's events and will offer a carefully calibrated military response. At the same time, his counterpart in Washington will offer the usual blather and try to muddle through. It's the only card Mr. Obama knows how to play.
Later reports indicate that one of the Fencer's crew members managed to escape and was rescued by Syrian commandos 12 hours later. And quite predictably, Russia has mounted a series of airstrikes in the area where the jet went down and anti-Assad rebels killed the other crew member, along with a Russian Marine who was part of the initial rescue force. Russian naval vessels in the Med have also launched cruise missile strikes in the area.
Moscow has also announced plans to deploy the advanced S-400 air defense system to Syria. Arrival of that system (along with the SA-N-6 on the Moskva) will give Russia over-lapping coverage of the eastern Mediterranean; much of Lebanon, portions of western and northern Syria, and of course, southern Turkey. It's only a matter of time before the S-400 or the cruiser engages aircraft along the Turkish-Syrian border. What happens when the Russians manage to knock down one of Turkey's F-16s, and Ankara responds with a volley of HARMs? Or, how does Washington respond if one of our jets is targeted? Again, it's easy to envision how this situation could easily spiral out of control, in the absence of U.S. leadership.
Russia also says it will begin escorting Fencers and other attack or recce aircraft on their missions along the border. This virtually guarantees a showdown between Turkish F-16s and Russian SU-30/34 Flankers; the outcome of that battle will be decided by tactical skill and surprisingly, the edge may belong with Ankara, for a couple of reasons.
First, Turkish Air Force has hosted Anatolian Eagle (AE) exercises for more than a decade.
AE is their version of Red Flag, and most of Turkey's NATO partners have participated, along with the air forces of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Pakistan and even China. Anatolian Eagle (along with other NATO exercises) has sharpened the tactical abilities of the TAF.
Secondly, Russian tactics have always been tied to ground or airborne controllers who guide the pilot through the intercept. Russian pilots are less proficient when they lose that guidance (say, in a jamming environment). Additionally, most Russian fighter pilots have never participated in any complex, free-flowing tactical engagement or exercise (such as Red Flag or AE), making them more dependent on radar controllers. However, that is not to say the Russian Air Force contingent in Syria can't bloody Turkey's nose. Pilots and units deployed to the Middle East were hand-picked and they are more than capable of setting a tactical trap for the Turks.