Officially, the United States and its allies aren’t too concerned by the appearance of Russian warplanes over Syria. On Sept. 30, the Kremin’s air force pounded targets in Syria for the first time. Despite serious concerns about a potential air-to-air confrontation, the Pentagon insisted it had no plans to change course.
“The coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned … in support of our international mission,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told reporters soon after the Kremlin’s first strikes in the region. “The United States and the coalition will continue our ongoing air operations, as we have from the very beginning,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook reiterated a day later.
While American officials can speak for the coalition broadly, each member has its own policies and chain of command. So what do other nations flying over Syria think about all this?
Well, we asked. Since September 2014, Washington and nearly a dozen allies have launched or are still flying air strikes in northern Syria. Of those, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom all provided official statements. The messages reiterated that nothing has changed.
We should be skeptical. In the past, Turkey has shot down Syrian planes that strayed over its border, but refrained from shooting down one warplane that violated its airspace after learning the jet was Russian.
The French Ministry of Defense and Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C. did not respond to our requests for comment. Arab allies — such as Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — have generally refused to discuss the extent of their involvement in the air campaign.
“The U.S.-led coalition has measures in place that will prevent confliction with other aircraft in Syrian airspace and so the U.K. will continue to fly missions to help degrade and destroy ISIL,” a U.K. Ministry of Defense spokesperson wrote in an email. Much like the Pentagon, it is the ministry’s policy not to discuss actual operational details.
Canadian authorities also insisted that there were protocols already in place to help prevent incidents. “As per standard operating procedure and in consideration for the safety of deployed personnel and security of operations, the Combined Air Operations Center … continues to take active measures to deconflict air operations,” a Canadian Armed Forces public affairs officer wrote.
The Australian Department of Defense offered an even more forceful statement.
“Australia’s Air Task Group aircrew are well briefed on all potential threats,” Australia’s defense media office explained in an email. “Aircrew and planners incorporate this information into their mission preparations, which are designed to minimize these threats.”
The Australian contingent “is equipped with highly sophisticated and modern aircraft, and aircrew are well trained to respond to any contingency,” the public relations office added as an aside at the end of the message.
But these “measures” would have to predate Moscow’s recent buildup in the region. So far, the Pentagon has made it clear that there is no agreement — or regular communication — with the Russian or Syrian governments on the subject.
“We made crystal clear that at a minimum, the priority here should be the safe operation for the air crews over Syria,” Cook told reporters the day after Russia began bombing in Syria. “That, at a bare minimum needs to be discussed in the immediate future.”
Since America’s first strikes in Syria, it needed a plan in case Syrian planes or troops decided to shoot at coalition pilots. Despite repeated calls for a no-fly zone since the country descended into civil war in 2011, the Syrian air force has continued to attack the opposition from the air — despite heavy losses.
With no coordination between the coalition and Damascus, the U.S. Air Force’s airliner-sized E-3 Sentry radar planes and similar aircraft have kept their eyes on the Syrians. F-22 stealth fighters have flown aerial cover and used their advanced sensors to monitor Syrian air defenses. Focused on bombing Islamic State and Jabhat Al Nusra, U.S. and other coalition members have probably done their best to actively avoid the Syrian military.
Still, the United States came prepared. American jets have carried specialized missiles that would only be useful for targeting surface-to-air missiles on the ground. Given this fact, we can safely assume that coalition pilots would have shot back … had the Syrians attacked.
The consequences of an aerial clash with Russia, however, are far greater. In addition to Su-24 and Su-25 ground-attack planes, the Kremlin sent Su-30SM Flanker and Su-34 Fullback fighters and Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft vehicles to Syria.
These high-tech jets are among the most advanced planes in the Russian air force. The Pantsir-S1s are armed with up to a dozen 57E6 missiles and two 30-millimeter cannons. While these warplanes and missiles in combination do not cover all of Syria’s territory, they do cover the bulk of the country’s population and the cities of Aleppo, Hama and Homs.
The Flankers especially are not very useful for ground attacks. The Pantsir-S1 is strictly an anti-aircraft weapon. Instead, they have a different purpose … deterring the United States and its allies from going after Assad. Officials in Washington aren’t blind to this fact, either.
“Well, last time I looked ISIL is not flying any aircraft,” State Department spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Sept. 24, using a common acronym for Islamic State. “The need to have surface-to-air missile capability is a little bit quizzical.”
These weapons have already deterred one U.S. ally. On Oct. 4, Russian aircraft bombed targets near the Turkish border and violated Turkish airspace in the process. Despite having shot down a number of Syrian jets and helicopters in the past, Turkish F-16 fighter jets instead intercepted the Russian Flanker, identified it and escorted it out of the country.
“The Turkish air forces initially worked to understand if the aircraft was Russian Su-29 [sic] or Su-24, which are also included in the Syrian air forces, until they determined that the plane was Su-30 model used only by Russia,” unnamed official sources told Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News. The author likely meant Mig-29 rather than “Su-29” fighter jets.
All of this may turn out to be moot. In trying to downplay Moscow’s appearance on the scene, the Pentagon let slip that it might be running out of targets to bomb in Syria. In the preceding 24 hours, coalition warplanes only launched one strike, U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the American task force in the region, explained to reporters on Oct. 1.
“Our average has only been eight strikes per day,” Warren added. “So it’s lower than our average, but it’s only because these are dynamic targeting processes and there simply were no targets.”
Since January, the Pentagon alone lobbed almost 20,000 missiles and bombs at Islamic State during more than 16,000 individual missions in both Syria and Iraq, according to an official Air Force summary from the end of September. While that sounds like a lot, American pilots flew nearly 10,000 of those flights without dropping a single bomb or launching a missile.
Still, regardless of how many strikes there have been since the Russian aircraft arrived, one has to wonder whether the Pentagon’s established protocols to avoid incidents are still useful. During the Vietnam War, the Pentagon put strict rules of engagement in place due to concerns about Soviet and Chinese advisers on the ground.
Unwilling to risk a shooting war with Moscow, it’s highly unlikely Washington’s calculus — or that of its allies — is much different today over Syria than it was over Vietnam. But that also means it’s hard to believe that nothing has changed, despite the official statements to the contrary.