As planes share crowded airspace fighting parallel wars, militaries struggle to minimize threat of an accident
(WSJ) – One night this past fall, a U.S. radar plane flying a routine pattern over Syria picked up a signal from an incoming Russian fighter jet.
The American crew radioed repeated warnings on a frequency universally used for distress signals. The Russian pilot didn’t respond.
Instead, as the U.S. plane began a wide sweep to the south, the Russian fighter, an advanced Su-35 Flanker, turned north and east across the American plane’s nose, churned up a wave of turbulent air in its path and briefly disrupted its sensitive electronics.
“We assessed that guy to be within one-eighth of a mile—a few hundred feet away—and unaware of it,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Paul Birch, commander of the 380th Expeditionary Operations Group, a unit based in the Persian Gulf.
The skies above Syria are an international incident waiting to happen, according to American pilots. It is an unprecedented situation in which for months U.S. and Russian jets have crowded the same airspace fighting parallel wars, with American pilots bombing Islamic State worried about colliding with Russian pilots bombing rebels trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Russian warplanes, which also attack Islamic State targets, are still flying daily over Syria despite the recent cease-fire in Moscow’s campaign against the anti-Assad forces, according to the U.S. Air Force.
The U.S. and Russian militaries have a year-old air safety agreement, but American pilots still find themselves having close calls with Russian aviators either unaware of the rules of the road, or unable or unwilling to follow them consistently.
“Rarely, if ever, do they respond verbally,” said Brig. Gen. Charles Corcoran, commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, who flies combat missions in a stealth fighter. “Rarely, if ever, do they move. We get out of the way. We don’t know what they can see or not see, and we don’t want them running into one of us.”
Complicating the aerial traffic jam, the Russian planes don’t emit identifying signals, flouting international protocols.
The Russian Ministry of Defense didn’t respond to written requests for comment on the actions of Russian pilots over Syria.
The aerial anxiety adds to bilateral tensions between the U.S. and Russia, already rising over Moscow’s increasingly assertive role in propping up Mr. Assad, its alleged interference in the U.S. presidential campaign and its earlier seizure of Crimea. In this environment, American commanders worry that a collision could become a flash-point.
“If an aircraft crashes, it is statistically more likely that it’s some type of mechanical problem that caused that crash, rather than someone shooting down an airplane,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Daniel Manning. “But in the fog and friction of war, people will be predisposed to conclude there’s some type of malign activity that took down that aircraft.”
In 2015, U.S. and Russian commanders signed a four-page memorandum of understanding intended to keep their warplanes from crashing into each other or shooting each other down.
Now senior military officials at the Pentagon are pushing to boost the communications and coordination between the two militaries. Under the proposal, three-star generals at the Pentagon would routinely discuss Mideast operations with their counterparts in Moscow. One impetus for the Pentagon effort is the belief that President-elect Donald Trump may want to increase cooperation with Moscow in the region, senior military officials say.
For the moment, day-to-day efforts to avoid a midair catastrophe go through Col. Manning, a Russian speaker who works out of Al Udeid air base in Qatar. Col. Manning has three scheduled calls a week with his Russian counterpart, a colonel based in Syria, to clear airspace for both militaries’ operations. Most weeks they have impromptu talks daily. When combat operations are especially intense, the two colonels might talk 10 times a day, as they did last month, when U.S. aircraft destroyed 168 tanker trucks delivering oil for Islamic State.
In addition, a senior Pentagon civilian leads a video teleconference on Syria every six to eight weeks with her Russian counterpart.
One of the most serious mishaps so far was caused by the U.S. In September, an American airstrike intended to hit Islamic State militants in Deir Ezzour, Syria, killed dozens of Syrian government troops instead.
The incident highlighted vulnerabilities in the colonel-to-colonel hotline. The day of the strikes, Col. Manning was away from the Qatari base that houses the American air operations center. After the strikes began, a Russian officer called on the hotline and asked to speak to another U.S. colonel he knew. That American wasn’t available. The Russian hung up, and 27 minutes passed before the Russians called back to warn the Americans they were bombing the wrong target, according to U.S. defense officials.
At the time, the Russian military issued a statement saying: “If the airstrike was caused by erroneous coordinates of targets, it is a direct consequence of the stubborn unwillingness of the American side to coordinate with Russia [on] its actions against terrorist groups in Syria.”
Col. Manning said the current coordination efforts are making the war safer.
“We continue to assess that the Russian have no intent to harm coalition forces in the air or on the ground,” he said. “Because we believe there is no malign intent towards the coalition forces, we’re able to de-conflict.”
But things look different from the cockpit, and U.S. pilots say the Russians sometimes seem to be pushing the limits just to see if they can get away with it.
It’s a situation further complicated by the soup of aircraft conducting combat missions, including Americans, Russians, Syrians, Australians, Britons, Danes, Turks, Emiratis, Saudis and Jordanians. On any given day, there are usually 50 to 75 manned and unmanned coalition aircraft over Raqqa, the Islamic State stronghold in Syria, and another 150 or so over heavily contested Mosul, Iraq, according to one U.S. radar officer. The 64-member coalition—Russia is not a member—had conducted more than 51,500 sorties against Islamic State, two-thirds of them by U.S. aircraft, as of mid-December.
The 2015 agreement between the U.S. and Russia led to negotiation of what Americans call the “rule of threes.” Pilots should keep at least three nautical miles of separation horizontally, or 3,000 feet vertically. Should they get closer, they’ll remain for no more than three minutes.
“We’ve agreed to coexist peacefully,” said Gen. Corcoran.
But the Russians are prone to ignoring the conventions of air safety, according to the American pilots. Planes world-wide carry transponders that emit a four-digit code allowing air-traffic controllers to identify them, a practice called squawking. Russian planes over Syria don’t squawk, and they appear as an unidentified bleep to allied radar installations.
Nor do the Russians usually answer “guard calls,” urgent summons on a common emergency radio frequency. In one eight-hour shift on Dec. 11, for instance, the crew of a U.S. radar plane, called an AWACS, made 22 such calls to some 10 Russian planes and received not a single response. A few of the Russians approached within five miles of allied aircraft.
The controller aboard the AWACS scattered U.S. planes to keep them clear of the Russians. “We’ve had several co-altitude incidents,” the officer said, referring to planes flying too close together.
Russian pilots have sometimes broken their silence when contacted by a female air-traffic controller.
In early September, a female U.S. air-surveillance officer spotted an unidentified plane approaching allied aircraft over Syria. “You’re operating in the vicinity of coalition aircraft,” she warned the pilot.
A heavy Russian accent emerged through the static: “You have a nice voice, lady. Good evening.”
“Some of the closest calls I’m convinced they don’t know we’re there,” said Gen. Corcoran.
That’s not always the case. In September, an Su-35 shadowed an American F-15 fighter as it ended a bombing run over Syria and pulled up to a tanker plane to refuel. The U.S. pilot filmed the Russian running alongside the American planes, about a mile-and-a-half away, said Col. Birch.
At times, Russian planes plow through tightly controlled groupings of allied aircraft over Raqqa. Russian bombers, flying to Syria via Iran, have crossed Iraq and disrupted allied flight patterns over the battlefields of Mosul.
Lt. Col. August “Pfoto” Pfluger, a stealth-fighter pilot, witnessed such an incident over Iraq in August. He compared the Russians’ behavior to jumping out of the stands at a professional football game and bolting onto the field.
“You just don’t do that,” he said.