Based on an analysis of satellite photos from Planet Labs, several F-16s have been identified on the runway apron of Azerbaijan’s Ganja International Airport.
Armenia has claimed that one of its aircraft, an Su-25, was shot down by a Turkish F-16 over Armenia territory on September 29. According to Russian news reports, the F-16 fired its missiles at the Su-25 from 60 kilometers inside Azerbaijani territory.
If it was indeed an F-16 that fired a missile at the Su-25, the only US-made missile with such a capability is the AIM-120 AMRAAM, a radar homing projectile which is the only beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air intercept missile in the US inventory.
The Turkish Air Force is an AMRAAM customer.
A Sukhoi-25 would have no chance against an F-16 launching an AMRAAM BVR missile. It would be entirely blind against a far-off aggressor such as an F-16, and if the missile came from behind the Su-25, its radar warning receiver probably would never “see” the incoming missile.
The Su-25 radar warning receiver is called the Beriosa SPO-15. It is obsolete and can provide warning only when an enemy aircraft is quite close to the fighter jet.
It has no capability at all against a BVR missile, and probably very little even against shorter-range air-to-air missiles such as the AIM-9X, which is an infrared homing missile typically carried on US-designed fighter aircraft.
The Russian Air Force knows very well that the Su-25 has reached nearly the end of its useful life. Originally designed as Russia’s answer to America’s formidable and useful A-10 Warthog close air support (CAS) fighter, the Su-25 is by all accounts inferior in comparison.
It lacks the firepower of the A-10 and many of the features that make the A-10 survivable against missiles and ground fire, such as self-sealing fuel tanks. The A-10 has been used very effectively by the US in both Iraq wars and in Afghanistan.
In Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the A-10 destroyed more than 900 Iraqi tanks – 23 tanks in one day alone – and 2,000 other military vehicles plus 1,200 artillery pieces. In Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, only three A-10s were lost in combat despite many being shot up in combat.
The Armenian Air Force had only 13 Su-25s at the start of the recent outbreak of fighting. These planes typically are used for bombing runs and sometimes for close support of fighting units on the ground.
Because of the F-16 and its excellent long-range radar, Armenia can no longer safely operate its Su-25s. Armenia also has Mi-24 attack helicopters, but these are even more vulnerable to both air and ground fire. So far there are no reports on their use in the current conflict.
Both Turkey and Israel have supplied Azerbaijan with remotely piloted vehicles. The Turks are supplying the effective Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat drone, which carries a Rokestan MAM-L micro-munition that has a 22-kilogram warhead and is laser-guided.
There are four different types of warheads available for MAM-L. The one reported in use in Nagorno-Karabakh features anti-personnel submunitions. Israel has supplied a number of different types of drones and loitering munitions including the Harop.
The Harop can loiter over a battle area for some six hours and has a range of about 1,000 kilometers, or 620 miles. It has a 23-kilogram warhead built into the body of the vehicle. One advantage for the Harop system is that when a radar is turned on, as a loitering system it can autonomously react and attack the source of the radar emissions.
The Harop could effectively neutralize Armenian battlefield radars and gun aiming systems. It is stealthy and can evade radar detection.
Armenia has only one aircraft capable of challenging the F-16. In 2019, well ahead of schedule, Armenia received four Su-30SM air superiority fighters from Russia. Another eight Su-30s are said to be on order.
The Su-30SM is a very maneuverable aircraft that features thrust vector control (TVC) for its twin jet engines. TVC makes it possible to rapidly control the altitude or angular velocity of an aircraft, providing an edge in close combat.
US aircraft do not use TVC, but rely on BVR weapons to kill any threat. In US Air Force doctrine, close combat is to be avoided. There are claims that the Su-30SM is capable against the F-16, but that’s not yet proven.
In any case, with so few Su-30s in Armenia and an inability to patrol full time, the Su-30 would have problems finding and challenging Turkish F-16s.
There are no reports that Armenia has used the Su-30 in the current conflict and the actual operational status of the planes is not known. Quite possibly, Armenian pilots are not yet proficient in flying the Su-30 since these planes have been in-country for only about a year.
It is also possible that the Armenians are holding back the Su-30s as a strategic reserve should the fighting expand beyond the Nagorno-Karabakh area. Based on video evidence supplied by Azerbaijan, it is likely that Armenian radars and command posts in Nagorno-Karabakh have been badly damaged by Azerbaijani drones and loitering munitions.
Turkey co-produces the US F-16 and is upgrading older model F-16s in its inventory to the latest standard, known as Block 50+. These F-16s are known to be quite modern and capable.
Turkey has used them against the PKK and others in Iraq and Syria and previously showed its support for Azerbaijan before the recent fighting by joining in military exercises at Ganja last July using their F-16s.
Turkey also has supplied other equipment, with the Bayraktar TB-2 drone showing itself quite successful against Armenian armor including tanks. Turkey also is using its medium transport aircraft to resupply Azerbaijan and is reported to have flown in Syrian mercenaries financed by Qatar.
Turkish participation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict raises a serious problem for NATO, which has so far tried to stay neutral. The US, EU and Russia are now trying to mediate between the parties and end the fighting.
This is not the only divisive issue between Turkey and other NATO countries. Most notably, Germany and Greece have been at odds with Turkey: Germany over the widespread use of Turkish operatives on German territory, and Greece (and Cyprus) over oil exploration and leasing issues.
Turkey’s alignment with the Libyan government in setting maritime boundaries to claim oil drilling rights is a point of major friction for Greece, Italy and Europe. So far the Turkey-Libyan Maritime Agreement has no international support.
The Turkish-Libyan deal undermines NATO, which is seeking to diversify its energy supplies and reduce dependence on Russia for oil and natural gas, although the German-promoted Nordstream 2 pipeline deal increases Europe’s Russian dependence.
A future pipeline from Israel and Cyprus would provide a clear alternative for southern Europe.
A recent aggressive Turkish military drill has heated up the situation in the eastern Mediterranean and caused significant anxiety in Europe and in the US. Harsh words from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan aimed at Greece and Cyprus have also badly stirred the pot.
In broader terms, taking into account Turkish actions in Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Azerbaijan, Ankara’s pursuit of regional hegemony is a growing problem for NATO. Because NATO is a collective security system that requires unanimity to function, Turkey may once again be the odd man out in Europe.