Air Collisions Are Unavoidable in Overcrowded Syrian Airspace
With dozens of Russian fighter jets, bombers, surveillance planes and drones swarming over Syria and more arriving each day, it is only a matter of time before an air collision occurs with America, French, British, Israeli, Turkish or Jordanian users of this small patch of airspace, say DEBKA Weekly’s military sources.
On Sept. 29, just one day after the summit between US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, which the White House decided had shed “clarity” on Russia’s intentions in Syria, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ordered the Pentagon to set up a communication channel between US and Russian forces in Syria to prevent any accidental clashes. He sought to “avoid conflict in the air.”
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said. “The safety of coalition pilots [is] critically important to us. We do not want misjudgment and miscalculation. We do not want an accident to take place.” He did not rule out the channel’s second use as a mechanism for cooperation between the two powers in the fight against the Islamic State as well.
No Russian coordination with Israel
Similar comments came from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu when he came home from a long talk with Putin in Moscow on Sept. 22 Israeli military sources predicted that a hotline would start humming between the Israeli and Russian general staffs and the two armies and the two air forces would starting coordinating their operations.
debkafile’s military sources were skeptical about these claims from the outset. And on Sept. 29, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon denied any coordination had been agreed between the IDF and Russian forces in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean (see the attached map).
He noted that Russia’s military actions were focused in areas of Syria far from Israel’s borders, but he stressed, all the same, that Israel would not tolerate the passage of advanced weaponry via Syria to Hizballah, whose troops are fighting alongside the Syrian army.
”We’ve clarified to the Russians in this instance, particularly in the framework of the meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Russian President Putin, that we have no intention of renouncing our ability to defend our interests,” Yaalon said.
He was in fact responding to Putin’s comment after meeting Obama the day before that he was worried about Israel’s periodic attacks in Syria, although he agreed that Israel’s interests should be taken into account.
The Russians hide their warplanes by switching off transponders
This remark was taken seriously in Jerusalem as the first public warning Putin had ever issued against the military operations Israel conducts from time to time to keep state-of-the-art weaponry from reaching Hizballah, or in retaliation for fire spilling over from the Syrian war into its territory.
Not surprisingly, the Russian leader made no mention of any mechanism for preventing misunderstandings or mishaps between the IDF and the Russian military in Syria.
DEBKA Weekly’s military experts explain why US hopes of using conventional coordination and identification methods among air and ground forces for the purpose of coordinating operations in Syria with the Russians are unrealistic.
This is how it is supposed to work.
All manned aircraft, and even many types of unmanned aircraft, emit regular internationally-recognized signals identifying the type of plane, its direction, destination and speed, which are transmitted over a constantly open and known frequency.
Under international regulations, all aircraft must broadcast these signals while airborne. A transponder is used that can pick up and confirm receipt of these signals.
However, the Russian planes over Syria switch of their transponders to conceal their identity and location.
Moscow not eager to coordinate with Washington either
Even with good will, it is much harder to coordinate and differentiate among ground forces on the move for the purpose of averting friendly fire during an operation. The larger and more diverse the force, which may include infantry, armor, artillery, engineering, logistics, air force and navy, the harder this may be.
Coordination between, say, US and Russian ground troops, would necessitate devising agreed mechanisms among the units on the ground and the clear definition of their areas of operation and targets.
At the moment, however, Moscow shows no eagerness for synchronizing its military moves with Washington. Indeed, on Sept. 30, Day One of their air strikes in Syria, the Defense Ministry in Moscow tried to exploit America’s willingness for some sort of an arrangement to force the US to place its aerial operations in Syria under the control of the war room Russia, Iran and Syria and established jointly in Baghdad
There is no way Washington will accept such an arrangement, so as of now it is unclear how the two sides will bridge their differences.