Russian plane in Turkey: A return to air-to-air combat?

Syrian, Russian, and various NATO warplanes all acting in the same airspace: Could we be seeing a return to air-to-air combat?

REUTERS/Reuters TV/Haberturk TV
A war plane crashing in flames in a mountainous area in northern Syria after it was shot down by Turkish fighter jets near the Turkish-Syrian border, is seen in this still image taken from video November 24, 2015. Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian-made warplane near the Syrian border on Tuesday after repeatedly warning it over air space violations, Turkey officials said, but Moscow said it could prove the jet had not left Syrian air space. Turkish presidential sources said the warplane was a Russian-made SU-24. The Turkish military, which did not confirm the plane's origin, said it had been warned 10 times in the space of five minutes about violating Turkish airspace. Russia's defence ministry said one of its fighter jets had been downed in Syria, apparently after coming under fire from the ground, but said it could prove the plane was over Syria for the duration of its flight, Interfax news agency reported.

Details are still emerging over the downing Tuesday of a Russian Su-24 fighter by Turkey near the Syria/Turkey border. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has already called the attack “a stab in the back by accomplices of terrorists.”

Mr. Putin is expected to give a talk later Tuesday, but has already stated, “We will never tolerate such crimes like the one committed today.”

Both countries have summoned their ambassadors for a meeting Tuesday afternoon. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already canceled a visit to Turkey Wednesday. NATO, of which Turkey is a member, announced an emergency meeting on Tuesday in Brussels as speculation abounds over whether the Russian jet was actually over Turkish territory.

Fears that tensions might escalate between former Cold War rivals are rising – especially after Russia boosted its military presence in Syria to back embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now, we're seeing something not witnessed since the 1990s: the possibility of air-to-air combat.

The Second World War saw a heavy reliance on air warfare. And in the decades after, many conflicts included air-to-air combat. The Korean War saw dogfights between American and Soviet pilots in North Korean- and Chinese-marked jets.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, US aviators engaged North Vietnamese pilots during the Vietnam War. The 1980s, Pakistani pilots flying American F-16s shot down at least 10 Soviet aircraft for intervening in Afghanistan. 

But in the wake of the first Persian Gulf War, major air-to-air conflicts had all but ceased. 

Until now.

According to Turkey researcher Aaron Stein, “This is the fourth Russian violation of Turkish airspace since they began airstrikes. Turkey’s rules of engagement are clear and well known. Moscow miscalculated. This is obviously a very serious incident.”

Putin is standing by his statement that the Russian aircraft never entered Turkish territory. The White House, however, issued a statement claiming that the Russian plane was in Turkey for a few seconds. Turkey initially claimed that the Russian airmen survived. But Russia has said just one pilot is alive.

The incident coincides with French President François Hollande's trip to Washington to meet with President Obama. Mr. Obama commented that Turkey had the right to defend its air space, and urged Russia to focus on Islamic State, not anti-Assad rebels, according to The Guardian.

“The problem has been Russia’s focus on propping up Assad rather than concentrating on Isil,” Obama said.

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