On Sunday, Oct. 18, Russian and Israeli air force headquarters near Latakia in Syria and Tel Aviv began practicing procedures for using the hot line they established last week to coordinate their operations in Syrian skies. They were putting into effect the agreement reached between Vladimir Putin and Binyamin Netanyahu in Moscow on Sept. 22, which was worked out in detail on Oct. 6 by Russian Dept. Chief of Staff Gen. Nikolay Bogdanovsky and his Israeli counterpart Gen. Yair Golan..
On Oct 15, the defense ministry in Moscow confirmed that “mutual information-sharing on the actions of aircraft has been established” to avoid clashes in the skies of Syria “between the Russian aviation command center at the Hmeimim air base and a command post of the Israeli air force.” He added that the two sides were holding practice sessions on the new line.
The next day, Turkish fighters downed a Russian Orlan 10 UAV that intruded 3 km into their space. The Turks complained they had shot down the drone after repeated warnings to the Russian pilots. Sine the drone has no pilots, the complaint must have been relayed to the Russian airbase in Syria. But in the absence of coordination, there was no answer.
Neither did Ankara have the option of resorting to a Washington line to the Kremlin, since the Obama administration had spurned Moscow’s proposal to send a military delegation to Washington for setting up a military coordination mechanism for their aerial operations over Syria.
The White House spokesman Josh Earnest dismissed the offer as “a sign of desperation for Mr. Putin’s air campaign.”
It just so happens that, this Sunday, the US and Israel launched their bi-annual Blue Flag air exercise from Israel’s southern air base at Ovda, their combat squadrons joined by Greek and Italian air units. They will spend two weeks “simulating a high-intensity confrontation against a political entity with a strong army,” according to the official statement.
The question hanging over this exercise is this: How will this drill pan out in the absence of US-Russian coordination on their air movements over the Middle East and Syria?
Unlike the airspace of the world’s countries, Syria’s skies are in fact ungoverned by any fully-functioning sovereign government, and so the normal rules of air conduct and international safety procedures have gone by the board.
Syrian air space is frequented by the fighters, heavy bombers, transports and UAVs of a dozen air forces: Syria, Russia the US, Israel, Turkey and Iran as well as the US-led coalition planes of Canada, France, Australia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The miracle is that no major air disasters have so far occurred in skies crowded by this swarm of uncontrolled, unmonitored air traffic – all bent on their separate missions.
Most may be identified by radio signals or external markings and emblems. Some carry transponders which broadcast their location, identity, speed and direction.
But what about the few who don’t? One such case was the Russian drone that violated Turkish air space Friday with no identifying markings.
As soon as Russia embarked on its large-scale military buildup in Syria, Moscow and Jerusalem made haste to set up a hot line to avert disastrous collisions over Syria.
debkafile’s military and intelligence sources say it is safe to assume that the Russian end of the hot line with Israel at the Al-Hmeineem air base near Latakia, will be manned by Arab-speaking flight controllers.
And at the Tel Aviv end, along with Israeli officers, there will also be a presence of air controllers from western allies, including the US Air Force, who will use the facility to coordinate their flights with the Russian command.
The US-Israeli Blue Flag exercise provides an excellent opportunity for testing the Israeli-Russian hot line in combat conditions. Far from being a fantastic scenario, it offers a dose of reality on the current military conditions prevailing in the region.