The complexity of air war in Syria
The U.S. pilot who shot down a Syrian regime attack jet earlier in June apparently attempted a series of aerial maneuvers to warn the Syrian pilot away from attacking a U.S.-backed ground force.
It was only after the Syrian ignored the warnings, which also included dropping flares and efforts to talk over an open radio frequency, that the U.S. pilot decided to fire upon him said in an interview from his headquarters in Qatar.
“He even watched him deliver weapons in that area before he made the decision,” Harrigian said. It was the first time a U.S. plane downed a Syrian jet and the first air-to-air kill by an American plane since 1999 during the Kosovo campaign.
The downing of the SU-22 by a Navy F/A-18 was one of a series of clashes in recent weeks as U.S. aircraft attempt to defend U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces from attacks by forces aligned with Bashar Assad’s regime.
The incidents have added to the complexity of the fight in Syria and placed new demands on coalition pilots flying in the skies over the country.
In recent weeks, U.S. warplanes have also shot down two Iranian-built drones operated by forces aligned with Assad. The Pentagon has said the aircraft were shot down as defensive measures to protect allies on the ground and their coalition advisers.
The recent series of clashes with Syrian-linked forces started June 8 when an Iranian-built drone was shot down by an American warplane after it attacked a U.S.-backed ground force that was patrolling with coalition advisers in southern Syria.
After that incident Harrigian met with pilots to discuss the shifting threat. The attack by the drone “changed the environment that we were operating in,” Harrigian said. “We had not seen that type of unprovoked attack previously.”
Harrigian said pilots generally are required to make critical decisions in the cockpit, since events move too quickly to seek guidance from headquarters thousands of miles away. They are also deeply aware of the strategic consequences of those decisions.
“When you’re doing 400 knots and the adversary is coming at you at 400 knots there is no time for someone from the (operations center in Qatar) to tell you what to do,” Harrigian said. “They were going to be the ones that needed to make that self-defense decision.”
The attacks from forces aligned with Assad have raised concerns that the United States could get drawn into a broader conflict in Syria.
The Russians and Iranians are backing Assad. The U.S. says it is not at war with Russia or Syria and wants to focus on defeating the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, which established a presence in Iraq and Syria.
U.S. officials have said the communications hotline between the U.S.-led coalition and Russian forces has remained open despite the heightened tensions.
The “deconfliction” hotline is designed to avoid mishaps between Russian, Syrian and coalition aircraft operating in Syrian airspace.
“It is working quite effectively,” Harrigian said.
“We’re not here to fight the Syrians or the Iranians,” he said. “The intent is to try and de-escalate the situation and work towards ensuring we prosecute the defeat ISIS campaign.”
The communications are particularly critical as ISIS is pushed out of its territory and an array of forces are increasingly converging in a shrinking battlespace in Syria. Recently Russia fired cruise missiles on ISIS positions from ships and a submarine in the Mediterranean Sea.
After the shootdown of the Syrian plane, the Russian Defense Ministry said it would suspend the communications hotline and would begin tracking coalition aircraft on its ground-based radar system.
It is not clear if the Russians did begin actively tracking coalition aircraft, but the U.S. military in the past has repositioned aircraft to strengthen defenses against surface or air-to-air threats.
“We took it quite seriously and postured our forces appropriately,” Harrigian said. “It’s contested airspace out there and our job is to maintain air superiority over our folks to protect them.”