The last time American soldiers were killed by an enemy aircraft was April 15, 1953, in the waning days of the Korean War. This now decades-long streak is due to American air superiority wherever a hostile air threat existed. This umbrella over our men and women on the ground has been a primary guarantor of their safety from aerial attack. In an extraordinary series of events in the skies over Syria last week, the sanctity of that guarantee was seriously tested. The US response to these events may well presage an important shift in the involvement of American and allied air forces in this extended and horrific war.
How did we get here? Beginning last year, the White House announced the deployment of U.S. special operations troops into Syria proper. First into the breach was a contingent of 50 last October who were then followed by another tranche of 250 in April of this year. They were sent to train and advise fighters, including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria. It has been widely reported that other countries in the anti-ISIL coalition, named Operation Inherent Resolve, (most notably France and the United Kingdom) also have special operations boots on the ground inside Syria. It appears now that the vulnerability of these forces to Syrian aircraft was not fully appreciated. This despite Russian aircraft having reportedly bombed a camp near the Jordanian border in June 2016 which U.S. and U.K. special forces had just vacated.
Details officially released remain somewhat murky, but what is reliably known now is that on August 18 two Syrian Air Force Su-24 fighter-bombers attacked YPG fighters near the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah. Although U.S. troops were not in the immediate area, they were close enough that concerns for their safety were immediately raised. Attempts by U.S. tactical controllers on the ground to contact the Syrian aircraft involved on an international radio emergency frequency proved futile. In response to this strike, U.S. fighters were scrambled but arrived only after the Syrian aircraft were departing the area. Despite public statements from the Pentagon warning the Syrians to halt further air attacks in that area, on August 19 a pair of Su-24s attempted again to bomb in the same vicinity but were this time intercepted by American F-22 Raptor fighters on combat air patrol (CAP) that “encouraged” the Syrians to depart the area without dropping ordnance.
Although it may seem nuanced, the change in the coalition’s air defense posture from scrambling fighters to establishing an active CAP to provide top cover for friendly forces could represent a major change in the U.S.-led coalition’s concept of air operations. This would have serious ramifications if actual air-to-air engagements ensued, a risk briefly realized late last year when a Syria-based Russian Air Force Su-24 was shot down by a Turkish F-16 after the former very briefly violated Turkish airspace.
Operation Inherent Resolve, Syrian, and Russian aircraft are maneuvering and attacking targets inside Syria, which is about 1.5 times the size of Pennsylvania. Add the occasional cruise missile attack from Russian Navy ships and long-range strikes by Russian Air Force bombers into the mix, and there are numerous opportunities for unintended lethal encounters every day. Just to illustrate, between August 13 and 19 there were a total of 83 coalition air strikes against targets in northern and eastern Syria, dozens of attacks by Syrian and Russian aircraft (mainly in western and central Syria), the much-publicized Russian bomber sorties from an air base in Iran, and Russian Navy cruise missile strikes near the besieged city of Aleppo. De-confliction under such circumstances is challenging to say the least, especially when some parties refuse to communicate by established international procedures and norms.
If this aerial drama were not already complicated enough, after it lost the Su-24 last November, Russia deployed its most advanced surface-to-air missile system, the S-400, to Syria. From its current location protecting Russia’s main base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, the S-400 is capable of engaging most aircraft over the western half of the country, including areas where U.S. and allied aircraft are frequently in action. Any CAP covering U.S. and coalition troops where they are presently located within Syria would certainly be well to the east of this threat ring. But as long as much of the country, and parts of Turkey (to include Incirlik Air Base where U.S. aircraft are based) is within the S-400’s engagement zone, the coalition must rely on the Russians to exercise extreme caution in the employment of that weapons system. However, should an air-to-air engagement result in the downing of another Russian aircraft (they also fly the Su-24 in Syria), whether intended or not, the situation could rapidly spiral out of control with consequences that might extend beyond the immediate conflict. Meanwhile, on the OIR side of the military balance in the Iraq-Syria conflict zone, the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 Raptor has emerged as very significant asset which, among other things, has the potential of dealing with the S-400 threat if it came to that. In its traditional air-to-air role, the Raptor is superior to any aircraft in either the Russian or the Syrian inventory; if used for the CAP mission, the F-22 would be the ultimate defender of friendly ground forces.
In a briefing to reporters about the August 18 incident, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis underscored the seriousness of the matter and said that the United States had expressed its concerns to the Russian Ministry of Defense, making it “clear that U.S. aircraft would defend troops on the ground if threatened.” Further, the United States has stated that it relies on the Russians to use their good offices with the Syrians to prevent any possibility of Syrian attacks on coalition forces. But this indirect approach to the other combatant in the conflict, Syria, assumes that the Russians know what the Syrians are planning and have the ability to stop them from launching strikes that might imperil U.S. or coalition troops. Given that the introduction of U.S. and allied special operators into Syria has been extensively reported, can one not assume that both the Syrians and the Russians are aware of their presence? If so, then the fact that the Syrians undertook these air attacks means that either the Russians did not know about the Syrians’ plan, knew about it and could not dissuade the Syrians, or knew about it and endorsed it. None of these options are good.
The incoming commander of U.S. and coalition forces, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, told the Washington Post that he intends to increase the tempo of air and ground operations against ISIL both in Iraq and Syria. A higher operational tempo will inevitably compound the de-confliction challenge in this dynamic and confusing battlespace. Further, the already complicated rules of engagement will need to be reviewed as they apply to air-to-air encounters with potentially hostile aircraft, encounters that—given the limited confines of the airspace and the speed and maneuverability of fighter aircraft—may become critical within minutes. In a briefing to reporters on August 22, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook refused to label any effort to provide top cover for coalition troops in Syria as a no-fly zone nor would he reveal whether CAPs would be continuous. But as the Syrians have already twice put U.S. and coalition troops at peril, the persistent presence of a CAP would certainly seem advisable, whatever one calls it.
Ralph S. Clem is Emeritus Professor of Geography at Florida International University, and is a retired Air Force Reserve intelligence officer.