A trio of recent, related events that speak volumes about the conflict in Syria; our lack of leadership and (perhaps) an inevitable showdown between the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East.

First comes this disturbing report from Eli Lake and Josh Rogin at Bloomberg: the U.S. has reportedly stopped flying manned air support missions for rebels in a key portion of northern Syria, after Russia deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system to the region:

“Russia’s military operations inside Syria have been expanding in recent weeks, and the latest Russian deployments, made without any advance notice to the U.S., have disrupted the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts to support Syrian rebel forces fighting against the Islamic State near the Turkey-Syria border, just west of the Euphrates River, several Obama administration and U.S. defense officials told us. This crucial part of the battlefield, known inside the military as Box 4, is where a number of groups have been fighting the Islamic State for control, until recently with overhead support from U.S. fighter jets. 

But earlier this month, Moscow deployed an SA-17 advanced air defense system near the area and began “painting” U.S. planes, targeting them with radar in what U.S. officials said was a direct and dangerous provocation. The Pentagon halted all manned flights, although U.S. drones are still flying in the area. Russia then began bombing the rebels the U.S. had been supporting. (U.S. manned airstrikes continue elsewhere in Syria.)”


The increasing number of Russian air defense systems further complicate an already difficult situation over the skies in Syria, and do nothing to advance the fight against the Islamic State, which has no air force, [CENTCOM spokesman Major Tim] Smith said. He added that Russia could instead be using its influence with the regime to press President Bashar al-Assad to cease attacking civilians. “Unhelpful actions by Russia and the Syrian regime will not stop coalition counter-Daesh operations in Syria, nor will such actions push the coalition away from specific regions in Syria where Daesh is operating,” said Smith.  Smith did not deny the administration officials’ characterization of the situation in Box 4. 

Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told us that the U.S. continues to fly manned and unmanned strike missions in the areas of Syria where the Islamic State is active, including strikes Wednesday in the northeastern towns of Manjib and Mara. He also acknowledged that Russia’s recent deployment of air defense systems have complicated U.S. air missions there. 

Use of the term “painted” is interesting.  It’s a reference to pilots/aircrews receiving indications that their plane is being tracked by enemy radar.  What’s unclear is the type of signals U.S. crews received.  Were enemy radars in the search mode, or (more likely) did they “lock on” American aircraft, the last step before missile launch?  Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) gear on modern jets can distinguish between different modes on virtually all types of threat radars–although other emitters can produce spurious emissions that appear as threat radars on detection gear.  That’s one reason an accurate electronic order of battle (EOB) is so important–and difficult–to generate, and the fact that most air missions are supported by various types of electronic support measures and/or SIGINT aircraft that can better distinguish between actual threats and similar signals that are non-hostile.  

If our planes were “locked up” by Russian radars, that is an act of war, and our crews (supposedly) have an inherent right-of-self-defense, which (typically) involves jamming a High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) down the throat of the offending SAM radar.  So far, we’ve refrained from doing that (assuming our planes have been locked on by Russian radars).  When the SAMs and HARMs start flying, we’re on the threshold of a major conflict, perhaps World War III.

But strangely enough, arrival of the SA-17 was quickly followed a second major event, departure of USAF F-15s from Incirlik AB in southern Turkey.  On Wednesday, six F-15Cs and six F-15E Strike Eagles returned to RAF Lakenheath, their home base in England.  The jets were deployed last month with great fanfare, to protect NATO aircraft operating over Syria and Turkish airspace against possible Russian incursions.  The dual-role Strike Eagles also struck ground targets in Syria.  Withdrawal of the F-15s occurred only one day after Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited the region; he made no mention of the jets’ pending departure during his time at Incirlik.  With the Eagles’ departure, the U.S. contingent at the base now consists of 12 A-10 attack jets, but with deployment of the SA-17, those aircraft will not be operating in or around Box 4, which lies west of the Euphrates River, along the Turkish border.  

Tensions in the area have been high since the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian SU-24 Fencer last month.  Removing American jets from that sector will obviously eliminate any possibility of a shoot-down, but it’s hardly a show of resolve against Putin’s latest move, or in support of rebel forces we’re supporting on the ground.  In fact, it seems to offer a new operational template for the Russian dictator; if you want to greatly reduce the U.S. air presence, just send in advanced SAM systems like the SA-17 or the much more capable S-400, which deployed to the Russian base at Latakia last month.  The long-range S-400 can engage multiple targets in the eastern Mediterranean, across northern Syria and over portions of southern Turkey.  Arrival of the S-400 was also a likely factor in the decision to withdraw the F-15s.  

Needless to say, the USAF is not used to this sort of move.  And, it’s not like the service is completely unfamiliar with the SA-17 or the S-400.  Suffice it to say, the Air Force has detailed knowledge ofdl both systems, their capabilities and has methods for dealing with both.  That’s doesn’t mean the USAF is ready to send a squadron of fourth-generation fighters against the S-400 without an extensive support package, but the idea of redeploying assets–in fact of an advanced threat–does not sit well with pilots flying the line, or their superiors.  

But that doesn’t mean manned aircraft in the advanced SAM belt are a thing of the past.  F-22 Raptor stealth fighters have operated extensively over Syria in recent months, and there is anecdotal reporting that some of those missions took place within the threat envelopes of Syrian-operated SA-17s.  However, the status of those batteries is unknown, and Syrian air defense units have been embarrassed by the Israeli Air Force on numerous occasions.  Still, the F-22 has become an important force multiplier over Syria, conducting bombing raids, escorting other attack aircraft and providing electronic combat support to allied formations.  But, given the excessive rules of engagement employed by the Obama Administration, it’s quite likely the Raptors have been banned from Box 4 as well.  

On the other hand, air commanders clearly recognize they may have to take on the Russians at some point.  That’s one reason a recent trilateral exercise at Langley AFB, VA caught our eye.  RAF Typhoons and French Air Force Rafales deployed to the base to train with F-22s.  Specially-equipped T-38s from Langley and F-15Es from Seymour Johnson AFB, NC served as “red air” during the drill, with the Strike Eagles likely playing the role of Russian SU-30/34 Flankers.  The exercise focused on tactics and procedures that would be used in “highly contested” operational environments, which could be used for areas like Box 4 in Syria.  

It was a prime opportunity for the most advanced British and French jets to work with the F-22 and prepare for future joint operations in the Middle East and elsewhere, with the Raptor in the lead.  British Air Chief Sir Andrew Pulford described the exercise as a “fantastic opportunity to get back into that higher end to concentrate on the contested environment that we have not seen… but is now becoming a far more of a concern and far more of a threat to our air forces.”

One area of focus during the Langley exercise was communications between Allied aircraft in scenarios where extensive jamming might be present.  The Air Force is currently working on upgrades to the Raptor that will allow it to better share information via Link 16, the NATO standard datalink.  While various fourth-generation fighters can send and receive messages via Link 16, the F-22 can only receive them, since commanders feared that transmissions might give away the jet’s position.

But a fix is in the works; in early 2014, Lockheed demonstrated a low probability of intercept Link 16 capability for the Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, using an exotic waveform developed by L-3 Communications, with a low probability of detection/intercept.  Could the Langley exercise indicate that the technical fix might be ready for operational service?  The USAF and its partners won’t say.  But this type of trilateral exercise would be an excellent venue for testing improved Link 16 communications and other measures needed in a high-threat environment.

Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh attended the conclusion of the trilateral exercise, and he emphasized the need to “degrade and dismantle” advanced air defense systems, as a prelude to normal air operations.  Currently, he says, there are 10 nations around the world with air defense networks that pose a serious challenge to U.S./coalition air ops and that number will more than double over the next decade.

The recent drill at Langley underscores the importance of “high-end” operations against state-of-the-art air defense networks, using a variety of assets.  But the decision to pull our assets from Incirlik raises an important question: under what circumstances (if any) would the Obama Administration authorize such operations, particularly against an adversary like Russia?  For now, Vladimir Putin looks at Mr. Obama and sees nothing but weakness.  You can expect more advanced SAM deployments from him in the future, particularly if Putin believes it limit one of our most decisive assets–tactical air power.