It’s official, Russia has deployed tactical fixed-wing jets, supposedly Su-27s Flanker derivatives, along with attack helicopters, to Syria as part of its rapidly expanding outpost there. Meanwhile the chief of the U.S. Air Force in Europe wants a permanent F-22 presence in the region.
Today, Russian and U.S. military officials have been in contact at the highest levels via a phone call between Secretary of Defense Carter and Russian Minister of Defense Shoigu. The discussion was specifically about Russia’s deployment of fighter aircraft and other military capabilities to western Syria. Both sides are seemingly open to work on ways to deconflict each-others military, particularly aerial combat operations in that war-torn country.
The discussion, which was said to have been initiated by Russia, was the first time the military chiefs of Russia and the U.S. had spoken since over a year.
Russia maintains that its military deployment to Syria is to fulfill assurances it has given to protect the Assad regime and that their growing arsenal in that country is defensive in nature. Russia’s military buildup is centered around an airfield about a dozen miles south of the port city of Latakia. As to how much firepower Russia plans on deploying to the expanding base, and to Syria in general, remains unclear.
The fact that this call came from Russia may signal that military operations in Syria are imminent. As such, chances that aircraft and even ground forces backed by either side could come head-to-head are high. This is especially troublesome when it comes to combat aircraft, of which Syrian, Russian and an array of allied planes will now all be flying in the area, potentially at the same time. If both sides can come to terms with the fact that this is the new reality, expect Syria’s airspace to be divided up with specific flight corridors assigned for use by both sides.
Even though ISIS’s seat of power and many of their forces are located in Eastern and Central Syria, and the Assad regime largely controls parts of Western Syria, ISIS is operating on Assad’s eastern flank. Additionally, UK combat aircraft transit over Western Syria during missions from Cyprus, with the route overlying territory that may be patrolled by Russian fighters and even defended by Russian SAMs in the immediate future.
Even with airspace management procedures in place, the chances for mistakes to be made are palpable. This is especially troubling considering how tense U.S.-Russian relations already are.
While high-ranking military-to-military discussions between old foes were occurring, the commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe, General Frank Gorenc, was calling for a permanent presence of F-22 Raptors to be established in the region.
Just recently, the F-22 deployed to the first time to Europe. Just four aircraft stayed for a couple of weeks and visited bases in Eastern Europe and Germany before returning back to Tyndall AFB in Florida. The deployment, although small and relatively short, proved that infrastructure exists to support F-22 operations in Europe, even at non U.S. controlled NATO member airfields.
With this in mind, a permanent rotation of F-22s may be in the works. According to the General, the F-22’s presence in Europe worked wonders at alleviating allies anxieties about potential Russian aggression:
“The move to begin introducing the F-22 to the European theater, that decision was made a long time ago in our effort to try and send the message, assures our allies... I don’t know how well it deterred President Putin, however, it’s done a lot to assure our partners.”
With only about 130 combat coded F-22s in the USAF, and with standing commitments in the Middle East, as well as regular rotations to the Western Pacific, it will be interesting to see if the USAF can carve out another standing rotation for Europe.
Contact the author Tyler@jalopnik.com