There Are Way Too Many Warplanes Flying Over Syria
The United States and Moscow are trying to head off a clash, but the airspace is dangerously overcrowded
Syria’s skies are filled with a mess of armed warplanes, and a new “understanding” between the United States and Russia might not help.
The Pentagon announced Oct. 20 that it had established new protocols with Russian forces operating in Syria. In theory, the rules should help prevent conflicts between U.S. aircraft and their Russian counterparts.
“These protocols include maintaining professional airmanship at all times, the use of specific communication frequencies and the establishment of a communication line on the ground,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters the same day after confirming the Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU. “The MOU does not establish zones of cooperation, intelligence sharing or any sharing of target information in Syria.”
Since September 2014, the United States and its allies have been pounding Islamic State in Syria. Despite obvious concerns about Moscow’s entrance in the war, the Pentagon and other coalition members insisted that the risks of accidents – or worse – were low.
While Cook did not go into specifics, the basic points he outlined reinforce those earlier statements. Both Washington and Moscow generally call upon each others’ pilots to act professionally whenever they might inadvertently come into contact.
The United States has dozens of warplanes bombing Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Allies including the United Kingdom, France and Australia have sent dozens more fighter jets, tankers and other aircraft.
On Oct. 20, the Air Force added 12 A-10 Warthog ground attackers to the fray. The snub-nosed planes replaced six F-16 fighter jets that had been at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey since August.
If Canada’s incoming prime minister Justin Trudeau follows through with plans to cut his country’s contribution, the Pentagon may have to send even more planes to fill any gaps. At the moment, the Royal Canadian Air Force has six CF-18 Hornet fighter jets, one CC-150T Polaris tanker and two CP-140M Aurora patrol planes supporting the coalition’s air offensive.
To be sure, the new protocols are important. By agreeing to use specific radio frequencies, Russian and U.S.-led coalition aircraft are less likely to block each other from sending important messages. In case a problem does come up, the pilots will know how to hail their counterparts.
The ground link is only a fail safe. This hotline “would be open between the Russians and the coalition in the event that there was an inability to communicate effectively in the air,” Cook explained, refusing to give any more details on the arrangement.
“Surely, the Russian side was seeking agreement that is more substantial,” the Russian Ministry of Defense noted a press release. According to the Kremlin, Washington rejected a proposal to crosscheck targets and a search-and-rescue partnership that would scoop up downed pilots regardless of nationality.
That Russian and coalition pilots can at least talk to each other is a good thing, but the deal still has problems. Most importantly, these provisions don’t do anything to overcome the fact that Syria’s airspace is really congested.
Before Cook spoke to reporters, the Russian Defense Ministry posted a surprising video – seen above – to its official YouTube channel. In the footage, the co-pilot of what appears to be a Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jet filmed an American MQ-9 Reaper as his plane passed leisurely underneath.
“Sometimes there are over 30 aircraft in one area,” the Kremlin’s Defense Ministry said on Twitter. “That creates risks for air safety.”
While the distance between the two aircraft was closer than had previously been reported, the relatively close quarters have been an issue since Moscow’s aerial armada first arrived over Syria. On Oct. 5, a CBS News report included a shot of a coalition radar screen chock full of green and yellow silhouettes representing American and Russian aircraft, respectively.
“The closest has been within a handful of miles of our remotely piloted aircraft,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Brown, in charge of the coalition’s air war against Islamic State, told CBS News. “But to our manned aircraft they’ve not been closer than about 20 miles.”
In the absence of the current MOU, that 20-mile buffer was Pentagon policy, CNN explained in its own report on Oct. 8. “Without that agreement, … U.S. pilots cannot count on the Russians to fly under standard safety procedures.”
And yet time and time again, Russian pilots have shown themselves to be willing to intercept, shadow and sometimes fly dangerous maneuvers near American combat aircraft … even in international airspace. On April 7, a Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jets nearly hit a U.S. Air Force RC-135U Combat Sent spy plane over international waters in the Baltic Sea.
The Pentagon’s top headquarters in Europe said that incident was “unprofessional” and Pentagon spokesperson called the Russian pilot’s flying “sloppy.” This latest intercept appears to be a similar violation of the MOU’s most basic requirements.
On top of simple accidents, this sort of behavior could easily look like a threat — especially in a war zone. Since Washington and its friends are unlikely to cede their rights to self-defense, even a brief communications breakdown – necessitating a phone call between commanders on the ground – risks turning into a disaster.
Since the agreement is between Washington and Moscow, Russian officials say they have no obligation to work with any U.S. allies also flying over Syria. “[The] American party committed to notifying their partners,” the Russian Ministry of Defense posted on Twitter regarding the MOU.
This could make the situation more complicated, depending on how the coalition communicates internally. Turkey has already shot down Syrian fighter jets and helicopters that strayed close to its frontier. On Oct. 16, Turkish F-16s shot down what appeared to be a Russian-made Orlan-10 drone that strayed across the border.
It remains unclear who was flying the unmanned plane. Moscow quickly denied any of their aircraft had gone missing.
None of this helps ease any skepticism surrounding the protocols. Moscow’s position remains that Washington and its allies are flouting international law by flying missions over Syria.
“We do not agree with the Russians on their strategy in Syria,” Cook added in his own remarks. “At a minimum, we can agree with them on the safe operations of flights over Syria between our air crews and theirs.”
But right now, the definition of what constitutes safe flight over Syria is still up for debate.