- Research Programs
- Regions & Topics
- All Publications
A nation must think before it acts.
As the world has watched the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the likelihood of close military contact between the United States and the Russian Federation has increased. Moscow’s invasion and presence in Belarus, combined with the United States’ deployment of forces in Romania and Poland, has all but ensured that elements of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) will operate in close proximity to one another. The Biden administration has determined that Russia is prepared to topple the Kyiv government and install a loyalist government. The risk to NATO members bordering Ukraine has increased, given the likelihood of spillover from the conflict, and the longer-term impact of a Russian occupation.
The USAF and the VKS have flown in close proximity for well over half a decade in Syria. The two sides have managed to deconflict operations, but during times of tension the interactions were not friendly and nearly resulted in the use of force. The risk to U.S. pilots now operating over the Black and Baltic Seas has increased. My book, The U.S. War against ISIS: How America and Its Allies Defeated the Caliphate, is the first to document these aerial interactions. The excerpt below documents one instance in which the use of force was averted at the last minute, underscoring how tense aerial interactions can be—even in less-crowded airspace. The congested airspace over Eastern Europe must be delicately managed, and the capabilities of the Russian Aerospace Forces should not be underestimated.
− Aaron Stein
The following is an excerpt from The U.S. War against ISIS: How America and Its Allies Defeated the Caliphate
In early September, a pair of F-15E were responding to a troop in contact, or TIC, where a small group of US soldiers were receiving fire from an Islamic State position south of the river, when the Russians decided to mix it up with the USAF. As the F-15Es were responding to the coordinates to strike the Islamic State position, a Russian strike package made up of the the Su-34 bomber and a mixture of Su-35 and Su-30 escorts had taken off and were approaching the river to support
Syrian regime forces also present in the area. “We figured we were deconflicted,” a US pilot recalled, in a nod to the frequency with which the two countries’ air forces would come into contact. The weather that night had a broken cloud layer and Islamic State was firing 57-millimeter anti-aircraft at the Russian’s aircraft. “The Russians would do this one attack run in max afterburner. You could see their afterburner and ISIS would shoot at it. It was amusing to watch,” a pilot recalled of that night. However, during this bombing run, the Su-34 pointed the nose of his aircraft at the US pilots and dropped his ordnance within 1000 feet of Task Force members operating on the ground, who were working with a U-28 surveillance aircraft and the AC-130 gunship, flying beneath the fracas above. “The Russians are in the pattern and another Su-34 comes in and it looks like he is going to drop again in the same spot,” a person familiar with the incident recalls.
“The pilots told the AWACS that they would head butt the Russians because they were hitting a U.S. position.” A head butt refers to flying in front of a jet to destabilize it with the violent wake to deter the pilot from flying along the same route. “We were convinced that the Russians were making a mistake, but the U.S. jets were being jammed, had an older mechanical radar, and were having trouble talking with the Russian jets because of the electronic attack.” As the United States flew into position, Islamic State began to fire the 57-millimeter anti-aircraft guns at the jets as they got closer to the Russian Su-34. The head butt maneuver worked and the Su-34 broke off his attack, but the fighter escort “spiked a F-15E and used his target illumination radar,” which is an indication that he was preparing to fire. In return, the US F-15E locked up the Russian Su-30 and the two aircraft merged, meaning that they passed each other nose on nose at high speed. “We were holding each other’s lock and we end up merging into head aspect merge, beak to beak at night, and he passed within 200 feet. I felt his afterburner rattle the canopy,” the pilot involved in the incident explained. “The Su-30 is super maneuverable,” the pilot continued, “but it looked like the Flanker lost sight of us because he gimbaled his radar, and our wingman happened to lock him at the same time.” A second Su-30, during this exchange, crossed the Euphrates River and, in response, “AWACS told us that we were cleared to engage the Russians.” A third Su-35 had placed the AC-130 gunship under missile lock, leaving two F-15Es with one Su-30 under missile lock, a second Su-30 flying over the river, and the Su-35 holding the AC-130 under missile lock, as each side determined whether force was required. During this entire interaction, two F-22s were flying over Tanf, protecting the base after the incidents in May and June. “The F-22 was doing bullshit defensive counter air patrol over Tanf and they heard this going on on the radio, and they were requesting to role to our area,” a pilot described. “They could have been there in 5 minutes, but they were told no and to stay put.” A second two-ship of F-15Es ended up being pulled from Raqqa, and each side decided to stand down, with each aircraft breaking off.
The incident prompted a series of calls between the United States and Russia and heightened the need to reach conclusion on a more robust deconfliction mechanism.