Analysis: Soviet-made Sukhoi downed by IAF exposes Syria’s aging air force

The Syrian fighter jet Israel shot down over the Golan Tuesday is a Sukhoi SU-22, an old Soviet-era aircraft which has formed the backbone of Syria’s air force, as attrition has taken its toll over seven long years of war.

It took off from the T4 Airbase more than 200 km. from the Golan and was on a mission to bomb ISIS targets near the 1974 cease-fire line. Initially thought by Israel to be either an SU-22 or SU-24, it was flying towards Israeli airspace at a high rate of speed, the IDF said.

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What do we know about the SU-22 and its capabilities?

According to Janes 360, there is a squadron of SU-22 M-4 aircraft at the T4 base. Nicknamed the ‘Fitter,’ the plane has a range of 2,200 km. and is one of seven types of war planes the Syrian army has in its arsenal. It can be armed with the AA-2 Atoll, AA-8 Aphid and AA-11 Archer air-to-air missiles as well as other ordinance. The SU-22 is based on a model that has been flying since the 1960s and can fly 1,400 km. per hour.

In 1973, Syria acquired an earlier version of the aircraft – the SU-20. They were used in the Yom Kippur war, also taking off from the T4 Airbase. In 1979, Moscow agreed to sell 40 newer SU-22Ms to Damascus, according to an article in The National Interest. Moscow sent more variants of the plane in the 1980s, but Syria also lost several of them fighting Israel during the 1982 Lebanon War. By 2010, the air force only had around fifty of the aircraft left, many of them requiring upgrades.

Since the Syrian civil war broke out, the aging warplane has been a backbone of the conflict – armed with a variety of weapons, including bombs, rockets and “rocket pods” that fire 80 mm. rockets. Because the rebels have had no air force and few anti-aircraft weapons, the Sukhois could operate with impunity, sometimes making low bomb runs over cities. But attrition reduced the fleet until Iran agreed to help Syria acquire spare parts.

According to the National Interest piece, there were 30 such aircraft flying by 2016, packing 500 kg. warheads such as the FAB-500 and ODAB 500. In April 2017, Human Rights Watch alleged that an SU-22 dropped the chemical weapons that caused the massacre. 

The SU-22s have been shot down before in Syria, including in June 2017 when the US shot one down in the eastern part of the country that was on a bombing mission.

The IDF has also struck the T4 base where the fighter was reportedly based. In February, an entered Israeli air space and in retaliation, Jerusalem carried out air strikes on the T4 base. The elderly SU-22s did not try to interdict Israel’s much more advanced attack. Many of them are likely not armed regularly for air-to-air combat because they are mostly being used to strike Syrian rebel positions, including civilian areas.

According to Syrian reports, the plane was flown by a Syrian Air Force colonel and he was killed in the area held by Islamic State near the Golan. He would have been one of many high-ranking Syrian pilots who have died over the years. Lt. Col. Bassel Saleh was killed in February 2017 when his SU-22 crashed.

The SU-22 flying toward Israel was entering an area that should have been a no-fly zone next to the cease-fire line and was operating in a sensitive area close to the border. However over the last week the Syrian regime has been carrying out heavy airstrikes and bombardment of the ISIS pocket near the Golan, with the strikes coming closer and closer to the border.

Over the last weeks, Israel’s air defenses have also been activated to oppose Syrian regime drones that kept flying close to or into Israeli airspace. An aircraft flying toward Israel was a major escalation, regardless of the ordinance it was carrying.