In the fall, a radar plane from the U.S. Air Force nearly collided with a Russian fighter jet that apparently had no idea how close they came to a mid-air accident. Despite radio warnings on an emergency, general-use frequency, the pilot in the Russian jet mever responded.
When the plan moved off, according to a Wall Street Journal report, it “churned up a wave of turbulent air in its path and briefly disrupted [the radar plane’s] sensitive electronics,” coming “a few hundred feet” away from the U.S. aircraft. much closer than the standard safety limit of three miles. Russian jets also break with international protocol in choosing not to equip their planes with signal emitters.
The skies above Syria are an international incident waiting to happen, according to American pilots. It is an unprecedented situation in which for months U.S. and Russian jets have crowded the same airspace fighting parallel wars, with American pilots bombing Islamic State worried about colliding with Russian pilots bombing rebels trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Russian warplanes, which also attack Islamic State targets, are still flying daily over Syria despite the recent cease-fire in Moscow’s campaign against the anti-Assad forces, according to the U.S. Air Force.
The U.S. and Russian militaries have a year-old air safety agreement, but American pilots still find themselves having close calls with Russian aviators either unaware of the rules of the road, or unable or unwilling to follow them consistently.
Brigadier General Charles Corcoran told the newspaper that the Russian pilots almost never communicate with them nor will they adjust their flight paths. “We get out of the way. We don’t know what they can see or not see, and we don’t want them running into one of us,” he said.
The officials involved warn that despite these efforts, accidents happen. While a downed plane is more likely to be taken down by mechanical failure than enemy fire, U.S. leaders worry that in “the fog of war” a Russian accident with an American aircraft in the same airspace could lead to disaster.
For now, the fate of the United States and Russia depend on a U.S. officer identified as Col. Manning, who talks at least three times per week with his “Russian counterpart” to clear airspace for the nations’ separate military operations. When fighting is at its most intense, they can speak as many as 10 times per day.
When the U.S. accidentally bombed Syrian government forces in September, it happened on a day when Col. Manning was out of the office. Yet, the peace between the two forces is fragile and based on perception. Manning says that since there is no “intent to harm coalition forces” they can de-escalate when tensions run high. In the case of a mid-air collision, that perception might change.
Russia has announced a “draw down” of its forces in Syria, similar to a statement from last year that never came to fruition.
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