Turkish F-16C vs. Syrian MiG-29SMT: Which Would Prevail in an Air War Over Idlib?

Relations between Turkey and Syria have since the early years of the Cold War frequently seen periods of high tensions, with the former being one of the earliest members of the NATO alliance while the latter consistently aligned itself against Western interests and with the Soviet Union. The two came close to a full scale war when Turkey made preparations for an invasion of Syria with support from the United States in 1957, before Soviet intervention forced Ankara and Washington to back down. The history of centuries of Turkish colonial rule in Syria has only served to exacerbate ill feeling in the Arab country towards its neighbour and sensitivity on the issue of Turkish interventionism in Syrian affairs. The outbreak of a large scale Islamist insurgency in Syria in 2011 saw Turkey play the role of the insurgents' leading foreign sponsor. While Syria Arab Army, with support from Russia, North Korea and Iran among others, managed to turn the tide against the insurgency in 2016 the country’s northeastern Idlib governate emerged as a safe haven for jihadist elements under the protection of the Turkish Military. Idlib has been referred to by U.S. officials as the largest Al Qaeda stronghold the world has seen since 2001, and in February 2022 was found to be hosting the leader of the Islamic State terror group Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi who was killed in a U.S. raid on February 3rd. The terror group has maintained a presence in Syria only in areas protected by Turkish forces.

A Syrian government effort to expel jihadist militias from Idlib with a push into the governate in early 2020 was met with a massive Turkish intervention in support of Islamist militants based there, which included artillery and air support, provision of surface to air missiles and training to militants, and embedding of Turkish officers in their units. The clashes notably saw Syrian forces refrain from sending in their own air superiority aircraft or long range air defence systems, which Turkish forces took advantage of not only to violate Syrian airspace but also to shoot down Syrian aircraft deep within their own country. As tensions over Idlib remain high, with the Syrian Arab Army having gained some territory but stopped short of a deep push into the governate, the possibility of a further escalation remains significant. 

Shortly after the Idlib campaign that concluded in March 2020, Syria received its first new fighter aircraft from Russia in well over a decade with the delivery of MiG-29SMT fighters. Syria had previously tried to purchase more capable MiG-29M fighters and MiG-31 heavyweight interceptors before 2011, although these sales had been blocked by Russia under Western and Israeli pressure. The MiG-29SMT was a modified MiG-29A airframe that attempted to bridge the performance gap with the MiG-29M, integrating almost identical avionics and weaponry, the same modernised engines, and expanding on the MiG-29A’s fuel capacity with a dorsal spines for extra fuel. The Syrian Air Force’s fleet of older MiG-29A fighters, which saw little use in counterinsurgency operations and have been reserved for possible engagements with a state adversary, has also received funding for modernisation including improvements to avionics, access to R-77 active radar guided missiles, and integration of Belarusian electronic warfare systems. Syria’s MiG-29 units from January 2022 began to conduct joint patrols with the Russian Air Force and mock combat engagements, in which the MiGs notably focused on air to air combat while Russian jets primarily engaged simulated ground targets. While Russian fighters have frequently intercepted Turkish and Israeli fighters violating Syrian airspace, there have been multiple indications the Russia is seeking to support Syria to be able to better defend its own airspace for which the MiG-29 will prove a key asset. 

Should conflict in the Idlib governate escalate, there is a growing possibility that Syria will deploy fighters to protect its forces from Turkish attacks and engage Turkish aircraft that try to operate offensively in Syrian airspace. Should this occur it is likely that its MiG-29s will see combat. The Turkish Air Force fields a squadron each of Vietnam War era F-5 and F-4 fighters, the former which are used for training and the latter which are unlikely to be deployed. The remaining ten squadrons are formed of F-16C/D Fighting Falcons, of which Turkey is the largest foreign operator with 250 jets in service. The F-16 is a lightweight single engine fighter that entered service four years before the MiG-29, and which the MiG-29 was designed specifically to be able to neutralise in air to air combat. The two are from similar weight ranges, and the party which would have an advantage in a clash between them depends heavily on both training levels and on the variant of each fighter which is being deployed, as both have been modernised extensively over four decades. 

The MiG-29SMT is expected to have considerable advantages over Turkish F-16s due to multiple factors. The fighter has access to R-77 air to air missiles with 110km ranges and relatively modern electronic warfare countermeasures, while Turkish F-16s have no post-1990s standoff air to air missiles and rely on the increasingly obsolete AIM-120A and B variants. These have engagement ranges of just 70km. The MiG-29SMT also has access to an electronically scanned array Zhuk-ME radar which provides a considerable advantage over the F-16’s similarly sized mechanically scanned radars which are far more susceptible to jamming. In terms of flight performance the MiG-29’s advantages are significantly greater, with its high manoeuvrability, climb rate, operational altitude and speed all considerably exceeding those of the F-16. Flying higher and faster also allows the MiG impart more energy onto its missiles, which will further increase their range advantage. In close range engagements all Syrian MiG-29s use R-73 missiles with helmet mounted sights to be able to engage targets at extreme angles. This feature is included on newer Turkish F-16 units with AIM-9X missiles - but not on older ones. 

In terms of personnel training both Syria and Turkey have serious deficiencies. The former has few resources to expend on long flying hours even for its elite units, while the latter through political purges has jailed much of its air force officer corps after they proved far from loyal to the government during a 2016 coup attempt. Turkey does have the advantage, however, of a greater fleet of support assets in particular its E-7A airborne early warning aircraft which can provide targeting data and other advantageous information to its F-16 units. The Syrian Air Force fields no support aircraft, although in training with the Russian Air Force force its fighters have operated with support from Russian A-50 AEW jets deployed in Syria. These and other Russian assets, such as Russian S-400 and S-300V4 air defence systems deployed near Turkey's borders, could potentially support Syrian MiG-29 operations by providing data from their sensors and thus compensate for the lack of such assets in Syria’s own arsenal.

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