Investigating the downing of a Russian Su-25 aircraft in Syria
Editor’s Note: This article includes graphic or violent imagery not suitable to all audiences.
On February 3, images surfaced online of a Russian Su-25 attack aircraft plunging down in smoke somewhere over Syria. Soon these images were followed by video footage of the flaming wreckage and ecstatic Syrian rebels gathered around it. The pilot managed to eject successfully before crashing, but died in battle shortly after.
@DFRLab investigated the event to better understand the capabilities employed by the Syrian rebel forces, Russian military activity in the area, discrepancies in official descriptions of the pilot’s death, and what it means for the conflict going forward.
Su-25 (NATO reporting name: Frogfoot) planes are often used in the Syrian conflict by Russian forces. Most of the time, due to limited Syrian rebel weaponry, Russian aircraft operate uncontested in the Syrian skies. This time, rebels managed to effectively take the aircraft out of the sky.
To better understand what happened, @DFRLab pin-pointed locations on the map.
No solid proof of what weapon was used to take down the plane was available at the time of this report. Russian sources argued that U.S.-supplied FIM-92 Stinger MANPADS (Man-Portable Air-Defense System) were used to take down the Su-25, but other online sources argued that the 9K38 Igla (NATO reporting name — Grouse) portable air defense system was used. Due to the lack of imagery from the scene, this information remains unconfirmed.
The aircraft was reportedly flying at 4000 meters altitude when hit, therefore both weapon systems could effectively take the plane down. A video of the missile launch appeared on the internet, but no significant geolocation details were found in the video.
The aircraft was also fired at with anti-aircraft guns, but only the MANPADS was successful in hitting its target. According to Russian military expert Konstantin Sivkov, the radar warning receiver of the aircraft was not able to register this type of warhead.
The plane’s radar is unable to register an attack by handheld anti-aircraft missiles like Stinger or Igla because their missiles are armed with passive self-homing warheads.
The exact location where the aircraft crashed was debated, but it landed in close vicinity of the town of Ma’saran. Limited geolocation data in the video suggested the possible crash area was west of Ma’saran.
A few photos of the wreckage contained the individual number of the Su-25 on the plane’s tail. The downed aircraft had the identification number Blue 06 and the serial number RF-95486. For comparison, a photo of the same plane was found flying in formation with other Russian Su-25s.
Video footage from the scene confirmed the plane went down in an uncontrolled tumble and was scattered around an urban area in Syria.
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) February 3, 2018
Soon after the plane was hit, the pilot ejected from the damaged aircraft and parachuted down into rebel-held territory.
Despite media’s claims that the pilot was captured and killed by the Syrian rebels, this was not the case. A Syrian rebel video that started circulating on social media the day following the crash showed the last battle of the Russian pilot.
The approximate location where the pilot landed was east from the town of Khan Assubul.
In the video, a group of Syrian rebels were seen approaching the pilot, gun shots were heard in the background. Amongst the rebel yells, Russian pilot yelled, “This is for the guys!” (“Это вам за пацанов!”) He then took his own life with a grenade. A small smoke plume in the video confirmed this claim. The pilot reportedly managed to shoot two rebels closing in on him with a pistol before pulling the grenade pin.
Videos and photos of the fallen soldier were posted on the rebel social media channels. This video confirmed the location and the identity of the dead soldier.
The soldier killed in action was a Russian 33-year-old Major Roman Nikolaevich Filipov. On February 6, he posthumously received the highest award in Russia — Hero of Russia.
The Syrian rebels also posted images of a few items found next to the pilot. One of the photos showed his personal defense weapon — a Stechkin automatic pistol (Автоматический Пистолет Стечкина) with a few half-empty magazines. He defended himself against the rebels with this pistol before taking his own life with a grenade. Also, a report by the pilot’s superior recommending him for a reward and a page with coordinates of nearby airports were found.
The Russian military’s response to the downed plane was kinetic retaliation. On the same day, the Russian MoD released a video showing two Russian Kalibr precision missile strikes on the presumed location where the MANPADS missile was launched from.
@DFRLab found this location to be to the East of Saraqib, in the rebel controlled area. Due to the fact that there was no video footage where the launch location could be seen, it remains unclear if the Russian military targeted the right location. However, judging by the distance from the wreckage, this is a possible launch location.
On the night of February 3, the town of Ma’saran was also allegedly bombed by Russian forces as a retaliation. Ma’saran is close to the crash site of the aircraft.
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) February 3, 2018
This incident was not the first loss the Russian military incurred in Syria, even though aircraft losses are very rare. The Russian Military of Defense did not try to hide this story most likely due to wide coverage by the media and due to the pilot’s death. Judging from the comments and social media, this heroic death might raise the public support of the military intervention in Syria.
The effect of the retaliation strikes that were inflicted in the area remain questionable. It is not yet known what military effects these strikes had besides outside of the communications effect of the video release.
@DFRLab will continue monitoring Russia’s military actions and developments in Syria.
Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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