Close call: Russia-U.S. ‘near-miss’ problem moves to Syrian air space

Close call: Russia-U.S. ‘near-miss’ problem moves to Syrian air space
Russian Su-30SM, not nearly as blind as the "innocent act" would lead us to believe. (Image: Wikimedia Commons, Alex Beltyukov, russianplanes.net)

It looks like the vaunted air space coordination between the U.S. and Russia in Syria isn’t producing a safe flying environment.

U.S. officials said Friday that a Russian fighter “flew dangerously close” to a U.S. warplane in eastern Syria on 17 October – something that can’t possibly be unavoidable, in light of the prior agreement by Russia and the U.S., in 2015, to deconflict air operations there.

The AFP report provides this description:

The near miss occurred late on October 17, when a Russian jet that was escorting a larger spy plane manoeuvred in the vicinity of an American warplane, Air Force Lieutenant General Jeff Harrigan said.

The Russian jet came to “inside of half a mile”, he added.

Another US military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the American pilot could feel the turbulence produced by the Russian jet’s engines.

“It was close enough you could feel the jet wash of the plane passing by,” the official said.

It appeared the Russian pilot had simply not seen the US jet, as it was dark and the planes were flying without lights.

“I would attribute it to not having the necessary situational awareness given all those platforms operating together,” Harrigan said.

One is tempted to go heavy on the sarcasm, in response to that.

But OK.  AFP offers a bit of analysis:

The incident raises serious questions about the extent to which pilots are able to track the complex airspace they operate in.

Well, sort of.  Basically, there are two separate networks exercising command and control over the same air space – and that’s your problem, right there.  Add to it the likelihood that the Russians are not squawking IFF in a way that U.S. systems can interpret, and you have the potential for a nice fecal focaccia.

Looking at the air command/control assets that seem to be available for operations, there shouldn’t have to be a safety or awareness issue, at least not during planned air strike and air support operations.  When they have aircraft operating, both coalitions, Russian and U.S., have the technical means to maintain good, fine-grain air pictures in the area in question.  (The general area the encounter occurred in can be inferred from where the U.S. coalition conducted air strikes on 17 October.  See map.)

Locations of coalition air strikes in Syria on 17 Oct 2016.  The locations at Ayn Isa, Abu Kamal, Al Shaddadi and possibly Palmyra could qualify as "eastern" Syria, the region reported for the close air encounter. If the Russian fighter was escorting the Tu-214R, the night Russian commanders expected to see ISIS fighters making their way into Syria, the easternmost area where Al-Shaddadi and Abu Kamal -- or Al-Bukamal -- are located would be the most likely. (Google map; author annotation)
Locations of coalition air strikes in Syria on 17 Oct 2016. The locations at Ayn Isa, Abu Kamal, Al Shaddadi and possibly Palmyra could qualify as “eastern” Syria, the region reported for the close air encounter. If the Russian fighter was escorting the Tu-214R, the night Russian commanders expected to see ISIS fighters making their way into Syria, the easternmost area where Al-Shaddadi and Abu Kamal — or Al-Bukamal — are located would be the most likely. (Google map; author annotation)

The Russians have their S-300 and S-400 radars and command vehicles, along with the radars and command center of the Syrian national system.  Russia has also operated the A-50 Mainstay AWACS over Syria since December 2015, although there’s no way to know if it was operating on 17 October.  The A-50 isn’t forward-based in Syria, but rather operates out of Mozdok in southern Russia.  (It may well have been operating that night, given the other things going on.)

The U.S. coalition has E-2C Hawkeyes from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) airwing, which come up from the Persian Gulf to support operations in both northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

The U.S. coalition can also interoperate right now with E-2Cs from FS Charles de Gaulle, which has been in the Eastern Mediterranean, and flying its airwing over Syria, since September.  It’s not clear where Charles de Gaulle’s E-2Cs are flying, but they are capable of providing interlocking air space coverage with Ike’s E-2Cs, when both are airborne.

French carrier FS Charles de Gaulle. (Image via Le Parisien)
French carrier FS Charles de Gaulle. (File image via Le Parisien)

Working with de Gaulle on 17 October were also two destroyers, USS Ross (DDG-71) and FS Chevalier Paul, one or both of which would have been able to track Russian aircraft to some distance inland over Syria.  (Their more-constant but less extensive air picture(s) would complement and enhance that of the airborne Hawkeyes.)

These operational-level assets keeping up an area air picture supplement the on-scene information an individual aircraft has from its own radar system, as well as enabling the air defense command/control platform to keep each aircraft under combat direction.

At the time of the encounter, U.S. and French systems had the ability to know where Russian aircraft were, even if the Russians had to be identified by default, rather than by positive confirmation from Identification Friend or Foe (IFF).  (The Russians, recall, up in the Baltic, have been going out of their way to not “squawk” IFF in good faith where NATO systems can detect it.  They presumably reserve the right to behave the same way over Syria.  From what U.S. officials have sometimes been careful not to say, it sounds to me like that’s what they’re doing.  That said, there aren’t so darn many unidentified aircraft zorching around over Syria at 500 knots that it would have to take very long to know you’ve got either a Russian or a Syrian jet fighter.)

Russian systems also had the ability to know where U.S. coalition aircraft were on 17 October.  It’s not credible to claim that they had no awareness.  And they probably had the IFF codes of those aircraft, and knew whose they were, since the coalition is presumably squawking as per normal.

The “incredibility” of the claim that the Russian aircraft “couldn’t see” the U.S. warplane is compounded by the fact that the Russian fighter was said to be escorting a “large spy plane.”  This was probably the Tu-214R, Russia’s newest, uniquely capable airborne ISR platform, with a sensor suite somewhat similar to the U.S. E-8 JSTARS.  If the Russian fighter escort really didn’t know that a U.S. fighter was within weapons range of the “spy plane,” the fighter pilot’s head should have been delivered on a platter 15 minutes after he got back on the ground.  (The search sector of his radar isn’t an issue.  He’s getting paid to make it comprehensive, maneuvering as necessary, while he’s up their escorting a high-value asset.  The fighter plane was probably an Su-30SM using a Bars N011M series radar system, incidentally.)

So it would take a lot of convincing for me to believe that the close encounter the night of 17 October occurred because of any inadequacy in system capability.  The dangerously inadequate coordination arrangements the U.S. is tolerating are the real issue, I suspect.

A couple of points about those arrangements.  One, let’s review the assessment from earlier again:

Basically, there are two separate networks exercising command and control over the same air space – and that’s your problem, right there.  Add to it the likelihood that the Russians are not squawking IFF in a way that U.S. systems can interpret, and you have the potential for a nice fecal focaccia.

This is the situation when two hostile forces are operating in the same air space.  Another word for that is “combat.”  There’s no political will for combat between the two forces in question, of course.  But the mechanical arrangements of military operations in the battle space don’t reflect that.  It’s an incredibly stupid situation.

Two, the close encounter occurred at an interesting time; i.e., the second night of the ground assault on Mosul, which started on Sunday, 16 October.  The U.S. had been striking targets around Mosul for about three days at that point, and had started pounding ISIS positions on the outskirts of Mosul with artillery late Saturday or early Sunday, according to local sources.  Russia, at the time, was playing up a non-credible report that the U.S. planned to let thousands of ISIS fighters leave Mosul and move into Syria – implicitly to fight Syrian regime forces and thwart the intentions of the Russian coalition.  (Trying to track such a stream of guerrilla evacuees, if the Russians really believed their own hype, would have been an ideal mission for the Tu-214R “spy plane.”)

One more significant thing was happening at exactly the same time.  A NATO AWACS contingent was deploying to Turkey to support the U.S. coalition in Syria and Iraq.  Russia opposes that move.  Although the NATO AWACS hadn’t flown a mission yet, its first mission was three days later, on 20 October.  The Russians knew it was there, in Turkey, setting up for operations.

In other theaters, Russia has been signaling dissatisfaction through dangerous, unsafe military encounters for many months now.  We can conclude with strong confidence that that’s what has happened in Syria.  We can expect it to happen again.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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