A Chain of Tragic Accidental Circumstances

I can’t help feeling some affinity with the 15 Russian airmen who died when their aircraft was shot down over Syria this week. To all appearances, they were just finishing up an airborne intelligence-gathering mission similar to the ones I flew 50 years ago. According to published reports, some going back several years, their aircraft, an Ilyushin-20, was outfitted for the interception of signals intelligence, probably including encoded data transmissions and unencrypted voice communications. Most likely there were foreign language specialists on board to monitor conversations in Arabic, Urdu, Hebrew, English and maybe other languages. That would be similar to what I did back when Hungary was considered an adversary in the late 1960s. Our aircraft were specially equipped C-130 turboprop cargo planes very like the IL-20, and we typically flew with a crew of 15 men.

If the Russians were on a spy mission, their routes and maneuvers would have been routine and altogether familiar to other military intelligence-gatherers operating on behalf of any of the half-dozen nations involved in the Syrian conflict. Such missions typically involve repeated passes through air space that’s within radio range of the transmissions being intercepted. Day after day, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth for eight to ten hours, listening and recording, sometimes passing information on to forces on the ground within minutes of an intercept. According to one published report, this airplane was the only one conducting such surveillance, and so the aircraft and its crew would have been key intelligence assets for the Russians.

We considered ourselves key intelligence assets for the USA, especially those who were trained in the Russian language, as my unit’s aircraft tested the adversary’s air defenses and kept tabs on their radiotelephone traffic and telemetry. It was top secret work, and we were forbidden to talk about it, but our airplanes were clearly visible to radar and other aircraft, and our targets knew perfectly well what we were doing, just as American, Israeli and other forces knew what the IL-20 was doing, and roughly when each mission began and ended.

For the last 40-some years, my Air Force comrades and I have got together every Labor Day weekend. There’s a group of about a dozen of us who stay in touch. Labor Day weekend comes around the same time as an anniversary many of us have been observing for over 50 years. Most of us served with the 6916th Security Squadron, based then in Frankfurt, Germany. Some years before most of us got there, our outfit had an airborne detachment in Turkey that flew missions over the Black Sea, where some of the Soviet Union’s critical air defenses were located. On September 2, 1958, nine years before I arrived in Germany and one year after my unit got its first C-130s, one of our airplanes, tail number 60528, disappeared while on a Black Sea mission. There was a plaque in our briefing room commemorating the event, and the subject usually comes up when we get together every year. Most authorities agree that a Russian missile brought down the airplane. The remains of the flight crew were returned to the USA some time after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but the intelligence guys were never repatriated.

The Russian airplane, destroyed 60 years and two weeks following the disappearance of my unit’s C-130, was not brought down by hostile forces, but by a Syrian missile, according to sources that ought to know. The Syrians were firing at Israeli jet fighters, which were bombing or had bombed a Syrian base a few kilometers from the Russians’ airfield. At least one missile mistook the IL-20 for an Israeli F-16. All three F-16s got away safely. In the hours immediately following the incident, a spokesman for the Russian military said the bombing was a deliberate provocation, intended to elicit a response that would endanger the Russian plane. Israel denied that.

Vladimir Putin characterized the eventĀ  as “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.” He may actually believe that, or he may simply be taking a diplomatic position for strategic advantage. If the military spokesman is right, and Israel intended to expose the Russian plane to Syrian missiles, the ultimate goal could have been to provoke an armed response from Russia, drawing the USA into direct conflict and possibly resulting in the destruction of Syria and Iran, with Iraq and Libya serving as models. Putin defeats that plan by deferring to the Israeli claim that the shootdown was unintended.

We’re not likely to find out whether Putin or the Russian officer is closer to what really happened, but we can be fairly certain that Israeli and US intelligence were tracking the Russian airplane throughout its mission and at all times knew exactly where it was and what it was doing. It’s also clear that the loss of this aircraft and crew is a serious impediment to Syrian efforts to retake territory now occupied by armed opponents of the government. This may have been the only plane conducting airborne intercepts of the occupiers’ conversations, and the occupiers gain from its loss. As enemies of the Syrian government, anti-government forces operate to the advantage of the USA and Israel, and so the destruction of this particular function would be welcome. The juxtaposition of this event to the 60th anniversary of the loss of the American crew has to be coincidental.