What happened to the Russian Il-20?

Here’s a text on the lost Russian aircraft, published in Russian by the New Times.


A Russian Il-20M reconnaissance aircraft disappeared from radar screens late in the evening on September 17. All 14 crew members are presumed lost, and some reports indicate that remnants of the aircraft have been located by a Russian navy auxiliary ship that was in the area. Initially, the Russian Ministry of Defense blamed a nearby French frigate, accusing it of firing rockets at the aircraft. Subsequently, the ministry accepted that the aircraft was downed as a result of friendly fire by Syrian S-200 air defenses. At the same time, the Russian MOD transferred blame to the Israeli Air Force, which was conducting air strikes against Syrian military facilities in the Latakia area at the time of the incident. Supposedly, four Israeli F-16 strike aircraft were using the Il-20 as cover while conducting strikes on Syria from international airspace. The whole operation can be seen in the map below provided by the MOD in its official briefing on the incident.

Il-20While the Russian government’s reaction included a strongly worded condemnation of the Israeli Air Force for its role in the incident, the reality is that the Israeli aircraft would not have had the ability or need to use a large, slow Russian turboprop aircraft as cover. They carried out their strikes and almost certainly had departed the area before the Syrian forces had realized they were under attack and activated their air defense systems. The Syrian military has a history of launching air defense missiles late, after incurring damage from hostile forces. The same tactic was used in response to NATO missile strikes on suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities in April 2018. One suspects that this is done so that Syrian military officials can report to their leaders that they “did something” in response. In April 2018, the response allowed Syrian and Russian officials to make false claims that the air defenses had neutralized a large number of NATO cruise missiles. Whereas the response in that case was in reality completely ineffective, in this case, unfortunately, the late response resulted in an unintended casualty of an allied aircraft.

The political consequences of this incident are likely to be limited. Both Israel and Russia are keen to limit the damage to what has in recent years become a relatively comfortable relationship. The Israeli military not only expressed condolences for the loss of life, but took the almost unprecedented step of publicly discussing an Israeli military operation. The statement noted that Israeli aircraft had already left the scene by the time the Syrian missiles were launched, thus confirming that the Israeli attack on Syria took place. At the same time, it firmly assigned blame to the Syrian forces that launched the missiles, thus rejected any claims of Israeli responsibility for the incident.

Furthermore, the Israeli prime minister highlighted the importance of Russian-Israeli security coordination while confirming Israel’s intent “to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and Iranian attempts to transfer to Hezbollah lethal weapons against Israel.” He also offered to send the commander of the Israeli air force to Moscow to provide to Russian officials all information Israel has collected on the incident. On the Russian side, President Putin warned against making any facile comparisons to the shooting down of a Russian plane by Turkish forces in 2015, since this time the plane was shot down by Syrian forces. He called the incident “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances” and noted that the result will be additional security measures for Russian military personnel based in Syria. In short, initial calls in the State Duma for a tough response against Israel will vanish quickly and once the condolence calls on the part of Russian officials to the families of those who lost their lives are completed the entire incident will be forgotten in short order.

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Russian naval air defense in trouble

There have long been reports that the ongoing delays with the commissioning of the Admiral Gorshkov frigate have to do with defects in its air defense systems. These were thought to be primarily related to problems with integration of the Poliment Redut air defense missile system. The Poliment system was designed to be Russia’s answer to AEGIS, with four phased array antennas that are able to track 16 targets at the same time. The Redut system consists of four or eight vertical launch systems that launch three types of missiles. The 9M100 is the short-range missile, with a range of up to 15km. The 9M96M is the medium-range missile, with a range of 40-50km. Finally, the 9M96 long-range missile is supposed to have a range of up to 150km.

It now appears that the Redut’s problems are much more serious than just integration. A recent report notes that the Ministry of Defense has stopped trials of the system because of continuing problems with the 9M96 long-range missile. Specifically, the missiles appear to fail after three seconds of flight. Some reports indicate that the Redut system works well hitting targets up to 40km away, but fails in the long range. The implication is that the short and medium range missiles work well, but the long range missile does not. Nevertheless, this may be an improvement over previous results, as trials of the Redut system on the Steregushchiy class corvettes in 2014 showed that they were only able to hit targets at distances of up to 15km because the medium-range Furke-2 radar system was not functioning properly.

Instead of further trials, the problems will now be sorted out by an inter-agency commission, a sure sign that the problems are serious and are not expected to be fixed any time soon. The problems stem from issues at the design bureau, which is reportedly not up to the task of designing a missile with the requirements provided by the Defense Ministry. The Fakel machine design bureau, which is developing the missiles is supposedly in relatively poor condition, using technologies and equipment left over from the Soviet period.

Redut systems are supposed to be installed on both the Admiral Gorshkov frigates and the Steregushchiy class corvettes. The corvettes that have been commissioned so far with partial Redut systems that are not able to strike long-distance targets. It looks like the Russian military is now facing a choice regarding how long it is willing to wait to commission the already long-delayed first ship of the Admiral Gorshkov frigate class. So far, the Defense Ministry has not been willing to commission the frigate without a fully functional air defense system, though this may change as the delays grow longer.