While much of the nation was focused on Ben Carson’s West Point kerfuffle–or the weekend round of college and pro football games–our military involvement in Syria took a rather unusual turn.
With little media fanfare (save a few blogs), the U.S. deployed at least six F-15C Eagles to Incirlik AB, to help protect Turkish airspace from possible intruders. At first blush, the move hardly seems significant. In recent months, the Air Force has dispatched a number of fighters to bases near the Syrian border, attempting to show American support for a key NATO ally and deter potential violations by Russian and Syrian pilots supporting the regime of dictator Bashir al-Assad.
To date, most of the NATO and U.S. aircraft operating from southern Turkey have been multi-role jets like the F-16C/D and the F-15E Strike Eagle, capable of striking ground targets or patrolling the skies along the Syrian border.
But the F-15s that landed in Turkey today have a single mission: ensure air superiority by challenging adversary fighters. And, since ISIS doesn’t have an Air Force, it seems abundantly clear that the F-15Cs have been dispatched to deal with Russian and Syrian MiGs and Sukhoi fighters that stray into Turkish territory. Unlike U.S. and Turkish F-16s–which can transition from air-to-ground to air-to-air at the flick of the switch–the F-15Cs are designed solely for blasting enemy fighters out of the sky.
So why is the Obama Administration, which famously avoids confrontation with its adversaries, suddenly upping the ante along the Turkish border? Did the Commander-in-Chief acquire that “spine of steel” that Joe Biden talked about back in 2008? Is he actually trying to send a message to Vladimir Putin and Bashir Assad?
A closer review suggests the answers to those questions is a resounding “no.” First, consider the size of the deployment: a total of six F-15s, plus support personnel. In today’s undersized Air Force, that’s less than half a squadron, a force that is incapable of round-the-clock operations over southern Turkey or northern Syria. F-15s typically operate in a four-ship “Eagle wall,” so sending a half-dozen gives you the ability to generate two-four sorties a day, assuming the squadron (normally based at RAF Lakenheath in Great Britain) sent along enough pilots, mechanics and support specialists to sustain that modest operations tempo. By comparison, the 1st Fighter Wing sent 48 F-15s to Saudi Arabia in the early days of Operation Desert Shield and other Eagle units sent similar, squadron-sized packages. Round-the-clock operations commenced almost immediately and continued through Desert Storm. Flash forward 25 years and six F-15s isn’t a token force, but it’s pretty darn close.
There’s also the matter of the ROE imposed on the Eagle detachment by Mr. Obama and NATO. Aircrews operating along the Turkey-Syria border have the inherent right of self defense, or at least that’s the policy being employed by the Turkish Air Force. A few weeks ago, a TAF F-16 shot down a MiG-29 Fulcrum that violated its airspace, after a series of provocations by Russian and Syrian aircraft. We can only hope that our pilots have the similar latitude.
It’s also worth noting that F-15s are most effective on the offensive, running fighter sweeps ahead of the strike package. By some indications, the F-15Cs will escort strike aircraft on missions against ISIS targets, but it’s difficult to envision them being employed in an aggressive manner. In fact, it’s more likely the Eagles will be employed in barrier combat air patrols (BARCAPs) along the border; their first mission will be defending Turkish airspace, with the escort mission representing a secondary tasking.
Actually, that operational scheme would make sense if USAF F-22s are fully engaged over Syria. The Air Force has hinted that Raptors are flying missions as long as 12 hours in hostile airspace, escorting strike packages, providing electronic combat support and collecting intelligence information. The F-22s could dominate the skies over Syria and Iraq, and quickly dispatch any adversary fighters that mount a challenge. But there is little information about the rules of engagement the Raptors are operating under; it would not be surprising to learn they are restrictive in nature.
To be fair, no one wants a shooting war with Russia. But the feckless policies of the Obama Administration gave Mr. Putin an entry point, and the Kremlin leader is fully exploiting that opportunity. Lest anyone forget, Russia’s announcement that it was commencing air operations was accompanied by a directive that U.S. and NATO aircraft leave Syrian airspace. So far, Washington and its European allies have ignored that order. But they’ve also been careful to set up coordination lines with Moscow and it was reported last month that American aircraft were directed away from Russian fighters, to avoid a potential showdown.
With Russia’s air campaign now into its second month, Putin is still calling the shots, and our air offensive is more about symbolism and staying out of the Russians’ way. That strategy may take on added significance in the days and weeks ahead. Many expect Putin will sharply increase his air offensive in retaliation for ISIS downing that Russian jetliner with a bomb. Some analysts believe that Moscow will deploy more tactical airframes to the region and even send TU-95 Bear strategic bombers on round-robin missions between Russia and Syria. As the pace and intensity of Russian operations increase, the potential for straying into Turkish airspace will increase, as will prospects for an inadvertent confrontation between Russia’s aircraft and our own.
At that point, perhaps Mr. Obama will declare a safety stand-down or something very similar. Or maybe he’ll send the F-15s back to Lakenheath, as a gesture of our goodwill.