Opinion: How The U.S. Can Prepare for Air Ops Near Ukraine

Russian Su-27 fighter
U.S. and Russian aircraft—like this Russian Su-27 that intercepted a U.S. Navy EP-3 over the Black Sea in 2018—are likely to see more such incidents in the Baltic, Black and Mediterranean seas, given tensions in Ukraine.
Credit: U.S. Navy

As the world has watched events unfold in Ukraine, the likelihood of close military contact between the U.S. and the Russian Federation has increased. Moscow’s buildup of forces, combined with the U.S. deployment of forces in Romania and Poland, has all but ensured that elements of the U.S. Air Force and the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) will operate in close proximity. Although the Biden administration has stressed that the U.S. will not send personnel into Ukraine to fight Russia, the airspace over the Black and Baltic seas could soon become congested with aircraft of both militaries.

The force-on-force friction may share certain characteristics with recent American experiences in Syria. The Biden administration has determined that Russia is prepared to invade Ukraine, intending to march to Kyiv and install a loyalist government. The risk to NATO members bordering Ukraine has grown, given the likelihood of spillover from the conflict, and the U.S. has pledged to reinforce NATO positions to guard against further Russian invasion beyond Ukraine’s western border.

The Air Force and VKS have flown in close proximity for well over half a decade in Syria. The two sides have managed to deconflict operations, but during times of tension the interactions were not friendly and nearly resulted in the use of force. The VKS in Syria used ambiguity to its advantage, exploiting the stringent rules of engagement that govern how U.S. airmen fly, and chose to use force to challenge U.S. operations.

In a series of interviews for my book, The U.S. War against ISIS: How America and Its Allies Defeated the Caliphate, American pilots described how during times of tension with Moscow about developments in Syria, the VKS would act more aggressively. The intent was to reinforce Russian diplomatic efforts, particularly over how to delineate territory in northern and eastern Syria. The VKS during these tense times would often “hard spike,” or radar-lock, U.S. aircraft, prompting aerial engagements between the two air forces. The two sides appeared ready to use force at various points, and only at the last minute did they break radar lock and retreat.

From the outset of Russia’s aerial operations in Syria in 2015, the two sides had a basic deconfliction agreement. However, the first iteration was built around an altitude-block system, similar to what the Air Force uses during training events like Red Flag, which proved inadequate when the two air forces began to operate around the contested town of Der Ezour. The Russian side was intent on establishing regime presence on the eastern side of the river, where U.S. forces were simultaneously taking territory from the Islamic State group. The challenge for U.S. pilots was that the VKS would not just engage with U.S. pilots but would also overfly American positions on the ground and drop bombs in close proximity to U.S. partner forces, which often had U.S. embeds with them.

U.S. pilots therefore had to determine how to interpret rigid rules in a fluid environment. In a number of instances, a Russian Su-34 would fly over U.S. forces on the ground while its Su-35 escort hard-spiked U.S. fighters flying in support of U.S. partner forces. Was the Russian action hostile? Did the Russians know that U.S. forces were only hundreds of meters from the aim points of Russian bombers? What should the U.S. do to try and hinder Russian action?

These encounters mellowed after the two sides agreed to a more robust deconfliction mechanism, designed to increase transparency about planned air operations. The two sides agreed to this in 2017, but there were no territorial “no-go zones” for either air force. The VKS would often fly east of the Euphrates River, while the Air Force would patrol specific areas west of the river. In more recent years, the situation has stabilized because the war has mostly died down. However, the dynamics governing force-on-force interaction have changed. The Russians now regularly deploy to Khmeimim air base the Tu-22 “Backfire” and MiG-31K “Foxhound” bombers, which can be used for the long-range anti-maritime role, and openly brandish missiles built to strike U.S. aircraft carriers, thereby signaling that the American presence in the region will no longer go unchallenged. The bomber deployments closely tie Russian aerial operations in the Eastern Mediterranean to potential operations in the Black Sea —a posture that mirrors Moscow’s arrangement of naval forces in both areas. The U.S. has a robust presence in the Mediterranean. The VKS can be used to keep tabs on U.S. deployments and hedge against U.S. Navy involvement in Ukraine—no matter how unlikely—by holding U.S. Navy targets at risk.

In the coming months, the U.S. should be prepared for congested air operations in the Baltic, Black and Mediterranean seas. The American experience in Syria suggests that the VKS could be used to challenge Air Force pilots in ways that skirt the line between hostile action and aggressive flying and in ways that resemble the congested airspace in Syria. These challenges are certain to come amid increased Russian military action in Ukraine, increasing the risk of accidental spillover from the Ukraine conflict in three geographic areas. The risks to the U.S. from the war in Ukraine are considerable, and the task of managing the American response will be carried out by the airmen flying in different parts of the world where Russia is now deployed. The U.S. should be prepared to operate in congested airspace, underscoring the need to incorporate lessons learned from the force-on-force friction in Syria to discern how Moscow will act in the future.

Aaron Stein is the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.