Even after the U.S. and Russia have supposedly worked out deconfliction procedures should their combat aircraft come in proximity of one another, the U.S. has deployed to Turkey F-15C/D Eagles, an aircraft that has only one mission: air-to-air combat.
A half dozen F-15C/Ds belonged to the 493rd “Grim Reapers” Fighter Squadron, based at Royal Air Force Base Lakenheath in England, have already arrived in Turkey. According to the USAF, these jets will be used for defending Turkish airspace alone, and they won’t be used over Syria.
Taking the USAF at its word, the decision to deploy these jets to Turkey is a curious one as it is not fully clear who or what Turkish airspace has to be defended against. Sure, stray Russian aircraft have crossed over Turkey’s border, and even a small drone was shot down in Turkish airspace last month, but Turkey has a top-rate air force that has been dealing with Syria’s border incursions for years. Additionally, Russia has apologized for their cross-border incursions and even has tried to explain them, although that is a whole other story in itself. Recently, there have been no additional publicly known aerial border incidents. So what is really going on here?
It could be that Turkey has demanded the USAF help defer the operational demands of defending its southern border with Syria since Russia has greatly increased Syrian-based flights along it. Turkey’s action of finally opening up its air bases to anti-ISIS air operations and joining the coalition itself was seen as a huge relief by American war planners. Maybe the F-15C deployment exists to thank Turkey for doing so and to reassure them that their air arm will get some relief from constant border patrols and alert flights for making that decision. Still, having American F-15s patrol Turkey’s airspace, a country with one of the most powerful air forces in the world, is an odd move, regardless of Turkey’s NATO membership.
Then there is the possibility that the USAF has deployed their strictly air superiority fighters to Turkey to counter a more defined threat. Yet there is no credible air combat capability in the region that could pose such a threat to allied forces operating in Syria or in Turkey aside from that of Russian origin. Does the U.S. and Turkey see Russia’s air combat capability in Syria, which is largely ground-attack focused, as an actual threat to Turkish air sovereignty? This is highly doubtful. Eight Rissian aircraft in Syria today are capable of shooting down other aircraft. Turkey has hundreds of F-16s.
Another possibly could be that Russia’s jets remain a threat to American aircraft flying over Syria, even after strides have been made to deescalate potential aerial encounters and misunderstandings. If this is true, than it could indicate that intelligence exists showing that Russia has much more sinister goals in Syria than what is already widely theorized.
The truth is that the vast majority of American combat aircraft flying over Syria can defend themselves quite well, with B-1s bombers, AC-130 gunships, and to some degree, A-10 Warthogs being the only combat aircraft types that really cannot. All these assets are operating over Syria today. It could be that the F-15s will be used to provide combat air patrols around these aircraft while operating over Syrian airspace., although the need to do so remains puzzling. It would also mean the Eagles would not be contained to Turkish airspace alone.
Another possibility is that the U.S. may be planning to setup a no fly zone over a portion of northeast Syria, an area where a relatively tiny number of American special forces are going to be deployed imminently. A no fly zone, even a small one, could ensure that Russian aircraft do not target these American forces and the militia they are supporting and training, even if only by accident. Still, seeing that Russia is mainly focused on attacking anti-Assad forces in the western part of the country, such a countermeasure seems unnecessary. A large no fly zone is almost totally out of the question as it would provoke a direct confrontation with Russia.
Beyond providing persistent protection for American forces operating in Syria over the long-term, these F-15s could be used to provide counter-air coverage for American special forces raids in that country. These are precisely the operations that the Pentagon said we would see more of in the future. Even combat search and rescue helicopters could benefit from the F-15C’s counter-air umbrella. Yet once again, this would place these F-15s over Syria, not just defending Turkish airspace against a threat that doesn’t seem to exist. It would also mean that Russian aircraft represent a clear and present threat to our aircrews operating over Syria.
There is also the possibility of a rapid escalation in Russian strikes on ISIS-controlled areas of Syria. Considering the recent downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai, which seems more and more likely due to an ISIS bomb plot, there is a chance that Russia may turn its gaze instantly east in Syria, to areas rife with ISIS, including their defacto capital in Raqqa. Pushing Russia’s airpower east would crowd the skies in an area where the U.S. has been operating for months with impunity.
If Russia were to lash-out at ISIS based on their claim of taking 224 innocent lives aboard Metrojet Flight 9268, the aerial dynamic of Syria could rapidly change. And judging by Russia’s recent actions, they will give little warning of such an assault. Having Eagles on alert for such an event may be an insurance policy worth enacting under the current circumstances.
In the end, maybe the F-15C/D Eagles in question will be kept within Turkish airspace to begin with, but their presence seems to be more as a contingency force than working as Turkey’s aerial policemen. We will just have to wait and see how things pan out as the deployment gets underway.
Contact the author Tyler@Jalopnik.com