During the war in Syria, the U.S. Air Force participated in operations it rarely trained for. Russian fighter aircraft regularly flew sorties across the Euphrates River toward U.S. positions, even though the two countries were not direct antagonists in the conflict. In response, U.S. fighters would — during times of tension — intercept the incoming jets and engage in maneuvers to prevent them from dropping bombs near American and partner positions on the ground. Despite a deconfliction mechanism between Moscow and Washington to manage air operations, this type of incident has been a fairly common occurrence in Syrian airspace from 2016 to the present.
While the risk of uncontrolled escalation between the two powers remained low throughout most of the conflict, this was the first time that Western and Russian pilots have routinely flown so close to one another in combat since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war in Sinai. The air war in Syria is a great example of what great-power competition may actually look like in scenarios short of officially declared combat: urbanized and chaotic. Russian aerial operations, including how Moscow sought to shape broader opinion about the conflict, highlight how great powers may choose to use force in peripheral conflicts that challenge American interests, but not the U.S. conventional military directly.
As the U.S. Air Force prepares for conflict with Russia and China, its interactions with Russian forces in Syria offer valuable lessons about the “urbanization” of aerial combat and its operational and tactical nuances. First, great-power conflict may not result in direct combat, but instead involve each country fighting for strategic leverage in third countries using a mixture of airpower and elite ground forces. Second, powers hostile to the United States may try to complicate U.S. action in ways that fall below the threshold of officially declared war, but which skirt the line of hostile action and complicate how U.S. forces may use force in dense and complicated combat environments. Third, U.S. Air Force training scenarios do not fully account for the complexity of an air war resembling the American experience in Syria. As a result, assumptions about how adversaries may challenge U.S. interests with airpower should be updated beyond linear notions of Joint Forcible Entry, even while training for a high-end fight continues to ensure that U.S. pilots retain critical advantages over adversary nations.
The Challenge in Syria: Non-Hostile Adversaries
Syria was often downplayed as a “permissive” environment for air operations because friendly forces were not kinetically engaged by enemy air defenses. Nevertheless, the Air Force faced an almost impossibly complex situation operating in Syrian airspace. U.S. aircraft were flying in proximity to Russian jets, often in support of different ground actors, but with rules of engagement that did not classify the Russian Aerospace Forces as a hostile adversary. These interactions were also taking place within the “no escape zone” of both Russian air-to-air weapons and the relatively intact Syrian integrated air defenses. In short, the delineation between permissive and non-permissive was purely academic.
The United States and its coalition partners also chose not to degrade or disable the Syrian regime’s integrated air defense system, which remained potent throughout the war and used to fire at Israeli aircraft, but was rarely used to target American or coalition pilots. To make matters even more complicated, the Russians improved Syrian air defenses with the deployment of the S-300 and S-400, raising concerns that Russian technicians and operators may be present at these sites to help operate them. The Soviet Union used this tactic during the Cold War to deter the targeting of air defense sites in third countries mired in conflict.
To manage this air environment, the United States and Russia relied upon a deconfliction mechanism to prevent midair collisions and inadvertent escalation. The ostensible barrier in Syria’s northeast separating the two forces was the Euphrates River, which at its widest point is around 1,000 feet wide. The aircraft the United States and Russia deployed to Syria can cover 1 mile in about seven seconds at normal cruising altitude and airspeed, and air-to-ground weapon release zones were often several miles from a target. A large, easy to identify object makes sense to deconflict two air forces because a river never moves and can be seen from miles away, so pilots should have little trouble adhering to territorial boundaries to help minimize risk of unintended escalation and a midair collision. However, the deconfliction mechanism did not preclude either side from crossing the river. Instead, it asked each air force to provide pre-notification for planned flights that would cross the body of water. At times, Russia would simply choose not to provide that information, or cross the river during times of inclement weather to strike targets firing across at allied forces.
Russian forces could overfly U.S. positions — and drop weapons nearby — without eliciting a response from the Air Force because it was near impossible to discern Russian intent. Without having perfect clarity about what individual Russian pilots were doing, U.S. Air Force pilots were left to guess about whether Russians were fully briefed on U.S. ground positions. The Russians were also giving air support to the Syrian Arab Army, which would come under attack from the Islamic State operating on the eastern side of the Euphrates River. Thus, there was puzzlement among U.S. pilots about whether Russian jets were intentionally dropping munitions uncomfortably close to U.S. and partner positions, or striking obvious Islamic State targets shooting across the river at the Syrian Arab Army as it advanced on the “right side” of the deconfliction line. During times of diplomatic tension, particularly in 2017, Russian actions became more aggressive, and required U.S. action to prevent Russian fighters and attack aircraft from overflying U.S. positions. This dynamic meant that U.S. ground forces were occasionally more vulnerable to ground attack than is captured in the U.S. military’s doctrinal definition of control of the air.
Iran’s use of armed drones in Syria posed similar challenges for the Air Force. The United States created a second 34-mile zone in southern Syria around al-Tanf, an American- and coalition-controlled garrison near the shared border of Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. On June 8, 2017, an Iranian-made Shahed-129 drone was shot down while attacking a small coalition special operations outpost. While Iranian drones are often dismissed because they are rudimentary compared to U.S. platforms, the uncomfortable fact is that a relatively inexpensive drone the size of an MQ-9 Reaper operated unmolested in airspace the United States was patrolling, and where U.S. ground forces were present. The Air Force did ultimately use force to shoot down the drone, but only after the Iranians had fired on a U.S. ground position. This incident highlights how challenging air and ground operations can be in a war zone, even in relatively low-risk conditions.
In an environment with multiple non-hostile adversaries, true “control” over anything the opponent does in the air is aspirational, especially if unmanned and autonomous systems are present and engaged as well. In the case of the Shahed-129, the U.S. outpost was outside of a previously agreed upon deconfliction zone, and, due to the rules of engagement, the Iranian aircraft was not declared hostile prior to the engagement.
The incident represented some of the same fog and friction present during encounters with the Russian Aerospace Forces. Although the Shahed was successfully found and tracked by nearby F-15Es, its slow speed and small size made it challenging to target in a vast, open desert. This also marked the first time in almost 20 years that a U.S. aircraft engaged an enemy aircraft that was capable of attacking ground troops, although because of the rules of engagement, the drone had already fired a missile at its target, which was a small U.S. Special Forces base, and very nearly resulted in the first air-to-ground killing of U.S. forces since the Korean War.
Options to Consider
Future combat scenarios are more likely to resemble the messy, congested airspace that the U.S. Air Force faced in Syria than direct, large-scale combat between the United States and a hostile, nuclear-capable actor like Russia or China. The Russian intervention in Syria underscores how great powers can forward deploy air assets and sustain a rigorous and intense air campaign for years. The United States has, for close to three decades, demonstrated the efficacy of airpower and small numbers of ground forces to achieve a narrow set of military goals. The Russian example in Syria would suggest a greater willingness for others to adopt elements of U.S. military strategy and use expeditionary assets to secure political goals. These “urbanized” scenarios may play out in space, the South China Sea, or even future Afghanistan if another great power moves in. The U.S. military will need to resist the urge to conflate direct, head-to-head conflict with great-power competition. Napoleonic, linear conceptions of war may be less relevant between large, nuclear-armed states in the 21st century. To account for this change, the Air Force may have to update some critical assumptions and update training and planning, including down at the tactical level.
Currently, the Air Force is exclusively dependent on considerable intelligence resources and enabling assets to sustain flight operations. This reality is at odds with the push to distribute U.S. forces to better protect against advances in accurate fires by adversaries and proxies. The Air Force’s dependency on a rigid process to vet and assign targets for tactical aviation to strike also ensures that U.S. interventions in third-party conflicts are, almost by design, large and require resource-intensive enablers to sustain. In Syria, strikes against the Islamic State required thousands of hours of surveillance to accurately map enemy positions, a string of tankers to sustain Air Force operations, and a plethora of space-based assets to ensure real-time communication with a centralized planning cell in Qatar or back in the United States.
This model binds the Air Force, making it less agile and less capable of operating from austere locations, where centralized decision-making is often asynchronous to the speed of combat or lines of communication are missing or disrupted. The service, however, has identified the need to be more agile to complicate adversary targeting with long-range fires or small-scale attacks that are difficult to attribute. Tactical and operational training should include realistic challenges associated with a failed state that draws in two or more large powers in addition to key strategic audiences swaying international opinion. To some extent, this is already happening, although it is disparate and not widespread.
Planning for the Right Wars
The Air Force may be too wrapped up in its own assumptions, planning for a linear war that may never come, and investing long term in platforms that may quickly become obsolete, or require expensive upgrading to remain relevant. Therefore, it should consider expanding the range of scenarios that inform its mission planning and training, and ultimately procurement. The United States is more likely to face a Syria-like scenario in the near future, where large powers seek to shape narratives and garner leverage, than to fight a repeat of the Gulf War in the Baltic, or in a Taiwan-type event. These scenarios, of course, are not mutually exclusive, and preparation for a high-end fight is important to train for. However, lessons from messy, indirect conflicts should not be dismissed because they do not neatly ascribe to certain assumptions about where conflict is headed.
There is little doubt that in the skies over Syria, there were two great powers flying very capable jets in proximity to one another with mutually unknown intentions. A third power, Iran, was also present, as was a near failed state, Syria. This scenario does not fit the image of two superpowers fighting a large, neatly defined conventional war. However, it is the most recent example of how competition between two countries may actually take place in congested skies in a country where both actors are trying to project power. American airmen were unprepared to face the range of scenarios that they confronted in Syria. Looking ahead, the Air Force should learn those lessons and incorporate them into future training.