Turkey’s Forward Deployed F-16s In Azerbaijan Have Moved To A New Base

It seems the Turkish F-16s left their original base of operations in Azerbaijan after the area came under Armenian attack.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Turkey photo


A satellite image reportedly shows six F-16 Viper fighter jets, almost certainly belonging to Turkey, at a dual-use military-commercial airport in north-central Azerbaijan. This, together with other satellite imagery, shows that these jets relocated from another airport further west earlier this month, as the town it was in became the target of Armenian artillery and missiles strikes. These two countries have been embroiled in a major conflict for nearly a month now over the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region

A screenshot of the image of Azerbaijan's Gabala International Airport, as seen through Maxar Technologies' SecureWatch tool, first emerged on social media on Oct. 25, 2020. There are four F-16s visible in the shot, which is said to be dated Oct. 19, but reports say that the full imagery shows two more Vipers at the airport, as well.

A satellite image giving an overall view of Gabala International Airport in Azerbaijan., Google Earth

Though it is not possible to tell with absolute certainty, Turkey is almost certainly the operator of these jets. The Turkish Air Force first sent a contingent of six F-16s to Azerbaijan's Ganja International Airport, ostensibly to take part in an exercise with other Turkish and Azerbaijani forces, on July 31. Ganja is situated just under 75 miles west of Gabala.

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Reports that the Turkish F-16s were still in the country, along with still unconfirmed claims that they were taking part in the fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, had emerged just days after the conflict erupted on Sept. 27. Azerbaijani and Turkish authorities both vehemently denied allegations that a Turkish Viper shot down an Armenian Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft two days later. Fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh has flared up multiple times since the end of a major war in 1994, which left the Armenian-backed Republic of Artsakh in de facto control of the region. However, it remains widely recognized as Azerbaijani territory.

Imagery that The War Zone previously obtained from Planet Labs did show two Vipers, together with what appeared to be a Turkish CN-235 light transport aircraft, still at Ganja as of Oct. 3. However, Planets Labs imagery of Ganja since then that we have reviewed shows no obvious signs of any aircraft of any kind on the part of the ramp that the F-16s and the CN-235 had frequented in the preceding weeks.

A satellite image of Ganja International Airport on Oct. 3., PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION
A closeup of a portion of Ganja International Airport on Oct. 3, showing two F-16s and what appears to be a CN-235 light transport aircraft., PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

Additional imagery that The War Zone obtained from Planet Labs also shows what appears to be the F-16s, as well as the CN-235 associated with the detachment, at Gabala at least as of Oct. 8 and still there as of Oct. 20. All of this further confirms the shift in the Turkish Vipers' base of operations.

A satellite image of Gabala International Airport on Oct. 8, showing what looks to be the six F-16s and the CN-235., PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION
Another satellite image of Gabala, dated Oct. 20, showing what look to be the F-16s in slightly different positions, but still at the airport., PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reportedly acknowledged that the jets had been relocated earlier this month. Armenian authorities had previously said that they had information that the fighters had moved to Gabala, as well. 

It would make sense that the F-16s relocated further east some time after Oct. 3 and that much of the other activity at Ganja has since come to a halt. On Oct. 4, the Republic of Artsakh claimed to have struck Ganja, as well as other targets within Azerbaijan, with artillery. At the same time, Azerbaijani authorities claimed that Armenian forces had fired Tochka-U short-range ballistic missiles at the same general area, which officials in Yerevan denied. There were additional reported Armenian strikes on the Ganja area on Oct. 8, 11, and 17, the latter two of which may have involved Scud short-range ballistic missiles.

It remains unclear what the F-16s may now be doing at Gabala, or what they had been doing in the preceding weeks. One possibility is that the continued presence of this contingent of F-16s in Azerbaijan is meant to be a deterrent against any major intervention against Azerbaijan proper from Armenia's foreign partners, such as Russia or Iran. Having the Vipers in Ganja certainly did not dissuade Armenian and Armenian-backed Republic of Artsakh forces from attacking that area.

For its part, the Kremlin has previously said that it would not intervene directly in the fighting. There are now unconfirmed reports that Russia has used Krasukhaelectronic warfare systems to knock Azerbaijani drones or supplied them to Armenia for this purpose. Armenia itself has claimed to have brought down multiple Azerbaijani drones, but there has been little in the way of evidence to independently verify these claims.

While both sides have are employing ballistic missiles, as well as rocket artillery, howitzers, and anti-tank guided missiles, against each other, Azerbaijan's fleet of drones has far and away dominated the conflict. Azerbaijan's unmanned aircraft include the increasingly popular Turkish-made armed Bayraktar TB2s, as well as various Israeli-made loitering munitions, also known as "suicide drones," such as the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Harop. Often grisly footage from cameras on these drones, as well as clips from the ground featuring the ominous whining of the engines of small unmanned aircraft, have become a hallmark of the fighting. 

Armenia now says it has begun to employ its own loitering munitions, as well.

The fighting, overall, shows little sign of slowing down. A ceasefire, brokered by the United States, together with Russia and France, and publicly endorsed by President Donald Trump, went into effect this morning, but both sides almost immediately began accusing each other of violating it. Two previous efforts to bringing the shooting to a halt had also failed on Oct. 10 and 17.

A television crew from Euronews had gone out to see whether the truce was holding for themselves and almost got hit by an anti-tank guided missile. You can see the missile go flying past one of the team's vehicles at around 2:00 in the runtime in the video below. It's not clear who fired the missile or if it was intended for the journalists or the Azerbaijani troops escorting them, or if it might have just a case of mistaken identity. The reporters thankfully survived the incident without any injuries or even major damage to their vehicles.

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As for the Turkish F-16s, now at Gabala International Airport, while there remains no evidence that they are actively taking part in the conflict, there is also no indication that they're about to leave any time soon.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com