THE ANATOMY OF A RESCUE OPERATION

On 24 November 2015, A Russian Su-24 fighter aircraft, on a strike mission against the Islamic State (IS) and other rebel groups, was shot down by an air to air missile launched by a Turkish F-16 jet. The Turks claimed that the Russian fighter had violated Turkish air space – a charge hotly denied by the Russians. As per the monitoring group, ‘Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’, the warplane crashed in a mountainous area in the northern countryside of Syria’s Latakia province. The area of the crash – about four kms from the Turkish border, was under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel group that is waging a bloody battle against the forces of the Syrian government in its bid to effect a regime change. The two member crew of the Su-24 ejected, but the pilot, Lt Col Oleg Peshkov was killed by ground fire. The parachute of the co-pilot, Captain Konstantin fortunately drifted and he landed safely, thereafter quickly moving towards a forested area and taking cover there. The rebels were soon swarming the area, in a bid to hunt him down and it was imperative that he be rescued quickly by friendly forces. Thereafter, in a brilliantly planned and executed mission involving three countries, the rescue was successfully carried out by a special task force, less than 24 hours after Konstantin ejected from the plane.

In the ongoing civil war in Syria, Russia was a late entrant, intervening directly in support of President Assad of Syria, only on 30 September 2015. The Russians chose to use air air power to target the IS fighters and installations, and it was during one such mission, that the Su24 was shot down. Paradoxically, while both Russia and the West are fighting the IS, they have divergent political aims. Russia has come out firmly in support of President Assad, whereas the US and its Western allies are supporting the FSA and other rebel groups. The FSA is a group of officers and men who defected from the Syrian army in the ongoing civil war in Syria, with an avowed aim to bring about regime change through the use of military force. It was formed in 2011 and consists mainly of Sunni Muslims (90 percent); the remaining ten percent consists of Shia Alawites and some Druze fighters. It is supported by the West in the three cornered Syrian civil war, the third party being the Islamic State, which is now in control of a large part of Syria.

Soon after the downing of the aircraft, two Russian helicopters took off immediately to the crash site to search for survivors, but came under rebel fire from the FSA and the Turkey backed Turkmen, a rebel group operating in the area. One helicopter was hit resulting in a soldier being killed and the mission was aborted. In the meantime, the Russians received credible intelligence that a number of special Turkish units had been sent to the scene to capture the Russian pilot alive, ostensibly with a view to pressurising Russia at a later stage. At this moment, General Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards, contacted the Russians and proposed the formation of a special task force to rescue the pilot. The ground force was to be composed of Hezbollah’s special forces and Syrian commandos trained by Iran, all of whom had good knowledge of the local terrain. The Russians were to provide air cover and satellite intelligence. This was agreed to by the Russians.

The location of the ejected pilot was determined through the signals emitted by a Personal Locator Beacon – a handheld radio that also contains a beacon transmitter, which was part of the pilot’s equipment. His location was identified six km deep inside territory held by the FSA. The ground element of the rescue operation consisted of 24 commandos, six of whom were from Hezbollah’s special operation unit and 18 were Syrian commandos. Russian Army air-assault and attack helicopters could not directly fly in close to the area of operations because the FSA and the Turkmen were holding FN-6 MANPADS (a third generation passive infrared homing (IR) man portable air defence system) of Chinese origin (they are reengineered MISTRALs), that were procured by Saudi Arabia from Sudan’s military stocks and then supplied to the FSA. It was hence necessary to go in for a ground based operation. To assist the ground force, the Russians electronically sanitised the area, stretching to several kilometres from the target area, to blind all hostile satellites and communication equipment in the area of operations. The EW effort from the air was provided by a Russian marine EW detachment, which primarily resorted to GPS and communication jamming, to prevent western satellites from picking up details of the rescue mission and leaking it to the FSA/ rebels.

The movement of the rescue team was monitored by Russian satellites. The commandos were constantly provided real time information of hostile movement, for the entire duration of the operation, each moment of which was also reported to a very high ranking official in the Kremlin, who some believe was the Russian President himself. While reaching the forest area, the commandos came in contact with Turkmen rebels operating in the area, some of whom were also searching for the surviving pilot. All such elements were eliminated. The Support to the ground forces also came from the Russian Air Force, which targeted rebel groupings, forcing most of them to flee the area. This paved the way for the ground forces to close in quickly and reach the site where the co-pilot had taken refuge.

After infiltrating 6 kms deep inside rebel held territory, the 24 member commando team, finally closed in with the objective, eliminating all opposition enroute and made contact with the copilot, Captain Konstantin Murahtin. In the operations carried out both on ground and by air, a large number of Turkmen rebels were killed and their hitech equipment was destroyed. The entire operation was conducted over a period of 12 hours. At its conclusion, at 0040 hours GMT, on 25 November, all the 24 members of the special force returned safely to their base, along with the rescued pilot and the body of Lt Col Oleg Peshkov, without a single casualty. Once out of the area, the commandos along with the pilot were airlifted to Hemeimeem, the Russian air base in Latakia province. A dangerous mission had been successfully accomplished by 26 November, within 24 hours of the jet being downed. A remarkable achievement indeed.

While the downing of the jet has raised fresh concerns in the region, certain aspects of the operation have significance for the Indian military. The speed at which the operation was launched took the FSA and the Turkmen rebels by surprise. Given the complicated nature of the operation, the rebels never imagined that such a rapid planning and action by the rescue squads could be possible. Speed in the execution of operations will however depend on having well trained and equipped forces operationally ready for such tasks. It would also require political decision making of a high order.

The importance of EW once again came to the fore. The area of operation was electronically sanitised by the Russians, preventing the Western powers from getting an inkling from what was happening on the ground. Such capabilities too, need to be developed.

The terrorists present in the region possessed very modern and advanced military equipment for ground-toground and ground-to-air warfare which are not even supplied to a large number of countries which are Washington’s NATO allies. India has not faced such opposition, but could do so in the future. This too must be catered for.

Above all, the successful conduct of operations showed a very high degree of coordination between the three wings of the military and the political leadership. This aspect remains India’s Achilles heel. The lessons before the country are clear. We need to integrate the three services, to achieve the desired synergy levels in operations. Their will be resistance from the three service headquarters and from the bureaucracy, but this will have to be overcome by the political authority on the lines the Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, signed into law by President Reagan. The Ministry of Defence, staffed as it is by a large body of civilian officials with limited if any knowledge of military matters, will also need a large infusion of military personnel, to perhaps also include the post of defence secretary. That is what must be aimed at now.

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