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Russia Says Incidents With U.S. Military Jets Over Syria 'Non-Existing Problem'

Igor Konashenkov

Igor Konashenkov

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman

"Apparently, had they used that hot line more often and in the proper way, the commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing would not have to think up non-existing problems in the Wall Street Journal interview."

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...both sides admit a problem exists.

Over the last 15 months both the United States and Russia have operated separate military campaigns over Syrian airspace. Almost immediately, Washington began to complain about “close calls” between Russian and U.S. jets.The United States and Russia have negotiated direct communication channels between their two air forces in order to “de-conflict” the situation and avoid misunderstandings, mid-air collisions, or other incidents. The United States has repeatedly expressed its discontent, however, with Russia’s compliance with these efforts.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal published reports from the commanders of the U.S. Air Force’s 380th Expeditionary Operations Group, describing how Russian jets, operating with their transponders turned off, often refuse to heed warnings given by U.S. pilots, broadcast on the emergency channel established by the two countries.

But Konashenkov also complained that U.S. pilots don’t use these emergency de-confliction lines enough, and Washington has sought to improve their own efforts in this regard.

"Our U.S. counterparts are not very eager to notify us of their combat sorties. From time to time they may mention some time frames and a likely area. But never the specific types of planes or their affiliation.”

It's not possible to confirm what is communicated through these channels since no transcripts are made public. But even the same U.S. commanders who complain about the dangerous and sometimes aggressive behavior of Russian pilots are pushing for more communication between Russian and U.S. pilots and commanders.

One reason, highlighted by The Wall Street Journal, was an incident in which U.S. jets accidentally bombed Syrian military positions in Deir Ez-Zour, a stronghold for the extremist group Islamic State. Moscow tried to warn Washington that they were bombing the wrong target, but two U.S. commanders whom the Russians were trying to reach were either off their base or were otherwise unavailable.

U.S. pilots and commanders, including General Charles Corcoran, have also described tense encounters with Syrian pilots. In an article in USA Today, another U.S. Air Force officer noted that the use of stealth fighters, including the U.S. F-22 Raptor, makes these lines of communication even more important since those flights may be invisible to the Russian and Syrian militaries.

In other words, not only does the United States dispute that this is a “non-existing problem,” Washington admits that Moscow is not the only party at fault. By the same token, Russia has repeatedly pointed toward the errant September air strike in its criticism of the U.S. mission and intentions in Syria. Both sides very much believe that this is a problem.

However, Russia has also been accused of a very similar incident to the one in September in Deir Ez-Zour, with Russian pilots faulted for ignoring instructions from their U.S. counterparts. In June of 2016, Russian air strikes hit a camp in southeastern Syria that the U.S. military says housed a small local fighting group, “The New Syrian Army,” that had been trained and equipped by Washington to fight Islamic State. U.S. officials reported that after the first air strike hit the camp, U.S. fighter jets contacted the Russian planes and told them to stop bombing, which they did. However, when the U.S. planes had to refuel, the Russian aircraft resumed their bombing runs.

In his statements about de-confliction efforts, Russia’s defense ministry spokesman also claimed that “our pilots act very professionally and observe all safety requirements." Recent history adds credibility to U.S. claims to the contrary, however. The United States has repeatedly accused Russian pilots of acting dangerously in recent years. Russian jets have engaged in risky and aggressive behavior toward U.S. ships and aircraft, and some of these incidents have been caught on video. Washington has complained that this “unprofessional” behavior of Russian pilots has increased tensions between the two countries.