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Il-20 shootdown: Syrian air defences examined

Photo: The 9K317E Buk-M2E (SA-17 ‘Grizzly’) is arguably the most capable asset in the SyADF inventory. Seen at Dumayr air base, this 9A317 transporter-erector-launcher and radar (TELAR) is capable of independent operations thanks to its onboard radar. Syrian MoD


The Russian defence ministry confirmed this morning that an Il-20M electronic intelligence aircraft was shot down by a Syrian S-200 (SA-5 Gammon) surface-to-air missile. Contact with the Coot, carrying 15 crew, was lost about 22 miles (35km) off the Syrian coast at around 23.00hrs local time on Monday.

The ministry accused Israel of “irresponsible actions”, claiming that Israeli F-16s involved in strikes against targets in Syria forced the aircraft into the Syrian missile engagement zone (MEZ) in a “deliberate provocation”. According to the Russian MoD, the Israeli F-16s were employing GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs) – glide weapons with a range of over 68 miles (11okm).

At the time of the incident the Israeli Air Force (IAF) had been carrying out missile strikes against targets in Syria’s Latakia province. A Russian military spokesman said that the Israeli F-16s were using the Il-20 as cover for their raid.

Syria said its anti-aircraft batteries were firing at incoming missiles from the sea that were heading towards several locations in the city of Latakia. A US official said that Washington believes the Syrian defences may have shot down the Russian intelligence-gathering aircraft while attempting to engage Israeli missiles.

On its part, the IAF said that its initial inquiry suggested that “extensive and inaccurate Syrian anti-aircraft (surface-to-air missile) fire caused the Russian plane to be hit and downed. In addition, when the Syrian Army launched the missiles that hit the Russian plane, IAF jets were already within Israeli airspace.”

A scene from an official Syrian MoD video shows an air defence operator at Dumayr air base in April. The facility is protected with Buk and Pantsir systems operated by the resident 55th Air Defence Regiment. Syrian MoD

Syrian Air Defence Force

The forthcoming October issue of AFM includes a detailed assessment of the Syrian Air Defence Force (SyADF), which has been on the receiving end of attacks from Israeli, US, British and French strike aircraft and cruise missiles.

Since the establishment of the SyADF in 1969 along Soviet lines, it has been an independent branch of the Syrian Armed Forces. The force is responsible for the country’s integrated air defence system (IADS), which comprises an early warning radar network, SAM and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) batteries. It also manages a command and control network to link them all together, as well as providing ground control intercept (GCI) services for Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) fighters.

In 2018 the SyADF is clearly a shadow of its pre-war organisations with many of its missile and radar sites overrun by rebel forces or destroyed in fighting since the start of the civil war in 2011. Analysis in 2011 suggested that the force boasted some 130 active SAM sites. In May this year, this had dropped to approximately 60 active SAM sites, with possibly some 500 individual missile launchers and scores of radar sites. However, around a quarter of these involved new Pantsir (SA-22 Greyhound) gun/missile systems or Buk (SA-17 Grizzly) SAMs, supplied since 2008. A Russian news agency reported earlier this year that Moscow had delivered 40 new Pantsir systems, effectively doubling the numbers in service with the SyADF.

The organisation of the SyADF was also very different from its pre-war status. By May, some 75% of Syrian SAM sites were now in the Damascus area and they included nine of the 11 equipped with new Pantsirs and four of the six Buk sites. The north and east of Syria has been denuded of SyADF missile and radars because of heavy rebel attacks over the past seven years.  This coverage has effectively been replaced by the arrival of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS, Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily) in Latakia province, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. The Russians have positioned at least one S-400 (SA-21 Growler) SAM battery on the top of the Latakia mountain range, as well as two long-range radar sites and a GCI command post, linked into the country-wide air defence network by satellite communications. This enables Russian air defence commanders to monitor huge tracts of airspace, and those parts of Syria shielded by other mountain ranges can be observed by VKS A-50 airborne early warning radar aircraft, two of which are forward based in Syria. Russian radar coverage is further bolstered by stationing Black Sea Fleet warships in the eastern Mediterranean.

Syria has never retired any SAM system and continues to operate both dual and quadruple launchers for the Cold War-era S-125 (SA-3 ‘Goa’). The later, quadruple variant is more common and is found at locations throughout the country.

Special Purpose Aviation Brigade

The VKS Il-20M Coot that was shot down – reported, but unconfirmed as RF-93610 – had been returning to Hmeymim air base, the Russian-operated facility in Latakia province. As of early June, the VKS Special Purpose Aviation Brigade at the airfield comprised six Su-25SM3 and seven Su-24M strike aircraft, ten Su-30SM multi-role fighters, eight Su-34 strike fighters and four Su-35S interceptor/escort fighters. Four Mi-8 helicopters were meanwhile dispersed around Syria, together with a similar number of Mi-35, eight Mi-28 and four Ka-52 attack helicopters. Transport and support assets at Hmeymim included examples of the An-26, An-30, An-72/74, Il-38, Il-20M, Il-76 and A-50. Unmanned aerial vehicles typically consist of around four Forposts and at least four Orlan-10s.

Aircraft of the Special Purpose Aviation Brigade fly around 40-60 sorties daily, including between 30-40 air strikes. The monthly average is 550 sorties. As of June, VKS had flown some 41,000 missions and around 15,000 air strikes since the Russian intervention in Syria began in September 2015.

A VKS Su-25 taxies past a pair of Russian S-400 Triumf (SA-21 ‘Growler’) transporter-erector-launchers at Khmeimim air base in Latakia province. This SAM was first deployed to Syria after a VKS Su-24 strike aircraft was downed by a Turkish Air Force F-16 in November 2015. Russian MoD


The Il-20s attached to the Special Purpose Aviation Brigade are drawn from an original fleet of 18 aircraft completed in small batches by the Znamya Truda factory in Moscow between 1969 and 1976. Around a dozen remain in service with Independent Aviation Reconnaissance Groups (ORAO, Otdelnyi Razvedyvatelnyi Aviatsionnyi Otryad), usually equipped with two aircraft and subordinated to the Main Intelligence Directorate (Glavnoye Razvyedyvatyelnoye Upravleniye, GRU) of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces.

An Il-20M over the Baltic Sea. Aeronautica Militare


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