Since September of 2015 the skies over Syria have been crowded with combat aircraft from multiple nations. Russia, Syria, and the nations of the US-led coalition fly sorties on a daily basis, often in close proximity to each other. The threat of an accident or inadvertent incident has been a serious possibility since then. The Turkish shootdown of a Russian Su-24 Fencer in November, 2015 highlighted the dangers present in and around Syrian airspace. Deconfliction measures were taken between the US and Russia to minimize the possibility of a chance encounter between US and Russian warplanes, including a hotline that officials can use to inform the other side of air operations taking place in specific areas at certain times. Although there have been a handful of close calls, the deconfliction measures have largely been successful.
Unfortunately, the Syrian Air Force has been operating in willful ignorance of the rules. Yesterday, it paid the price when a US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 Fitter after it dropped ordnance on Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the vicinity of Tabqa, Syria. The US fighter acted within the active rules of engagement which include self-defense, and the defense of forces belonging to coalition partners. SDF fighters are considered coalition-partnered forces.
Russia has reacted angrily to the shootdown, considering it to be an act of aggression. Sergei Shoygu, the Russian Defense Minister stated today that his country will now consider US planes to be threats when flying over certain regions of Syria. All US and coalition aircraft east of the Euphrates river will be actively targeted, according to Shoygu’s statement. In addition, all deconfliction efforts will be suspended.
If the Russians hold firm on these promises, the skies over Syria are about to become even more dangerous and the Syrian conflict is now on the doorstep of a major escalation. There is a very real danger of clashes between US and Russian warplanes happening in the coming days if things remain as they are right now.
It all boils down to how far Russia is willing to go in backing its Syrian allies. If Moscow concludes that Syria is worth a confrontation and potential war with the US, expect Russia to push the US even farther as the week unfolds.
With the large scale Russian military exercise Zapad 17 scheduled to begin this September in Belarus, the level of tension associated with this year’s maneuvers is significantly higher than it was during the previous Zapad exercise. To be frank, Russian exercises of this magnitude have always caused a certain degree of concern in NATO, largely because of the close similarities between preparations for a large exercise, and preparations for war. This year, the concerns of NATO members transcend the possibility that Zapad could be a cover for the start of hostilities and focus on whether or not Zapad 17 will mark the beginning of a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus.
The joint Russian-Belarus exercise will include over 100,000 troops, hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles, air defense assets, elements of the Russian Navy, and a large number of combat aircraft. Plans for the use of 4,000 railway cars and carriages to move Russian troops and equipment into Belarus has raised eyebrows among many Western observers. The scenario for Zapad 17, according to sources in the Defense Ministry of Belarus, will center on a situation that will mirror NATO’s eastward expansion into the traditional Russian sphere of influence.
Thus far, Russia has revealed no specific details about September’s exercise. Moscow’s preference appears to be publicly regarding Zapad 17 as a limited exercise. The same was done when the last Zapad was held in 2013 although the number of troops involved was far greater than what Moscow initially announced. Also, expect lessons learned by Russian forces fighting in Syria to be incorporated into the new tactics that will be evaluated. This refers in large part to air defenses. There has been considerable suspicion in Western military circles that the Russian SAM sites in Syria had difficulty detecting the US Tomahawk cruise missiles that were launched during the April strike on a Syrian airfield. High level sources in the Pentagon have pointed to credible post-strike intelligence obtained by a friendly nation in the region (Israel most likely) as the basis for this notion.
As preparations for Zapad ramp up in the east, the United States is weighing whether or not to deploy Patriot missiles to the Baltics as part of an air defense exercise set for July, 2017. The Patriots would be gone by the scheduled start of the Russian-Belarussian war game, but their appearance will undoubtedly serve as a message to Moscow that the US and NATO will be monitoring Zapad-17, and subsequent Russian military moves in the region carefully.
This afternoon’s test of a Ground Based Interceptor (GBI) missile against an ICBM-type target was successful. The Pentagon has confirmed that the mock warhead was destroyed. GBI is a land based missile, and the backbone of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system that has been developed to defend the United States against a limited ICBM attack. The GBI was launched from a silo at Vandenberg AFB in California and intercepted its target over the Pacific Ocean. The system has had limited amounts of success in the past. Roughly half of the intercept tests held up until now have failed. Today’s test, which had been planned for a year, is the first time a GBI has gone up against a close simulation of the type of target missile it is designed to kill.
The timing of the test is every bit as relevant as the results. With tension increasing over North Korea’s push to develop its own ICBM capability, today’s test at Vandenberg is a direct message to Kim Jong Un. Not only does the US possess the ability to turn North Korea into the world’s largest sheet of glass in the event of a North Korean launch, there is no guarantee that any future North Korea’s missile design can penetrate the defenses provided by Ground-based Midcourse Defense. The system does not yet guarantee a 100% chance of intercept, however, today’s results make it clear that it is a credible defense against ICBMs. In other words, this system in development is better than no system at all, and there is much room for improvement in the future.
After a nearly three-week long saga which included miscommunication on the part of the White House and the Pentagon, unfulfilled assurances by a US president, and an admiral in the hot seat, the USS Carl Vinson and her escorts have arrived in the Sea of Japan. Better late than never, I suppose. The carrier group’s appearance coincided with North Korea’s latest test-firing of a ballistic missile. The missile malfunctioned shortly after launch, marking the fourth consecutive test failure for North Korea. Despite the failure, the test was still a defiant act by Pyongyang given that North Korean ballistic missile test firings are banned by the UN.
Vinson and her escorts teamed up with South Korean naval units for a series of workups before the strike group heads farther north today or tomorrow morning following an underway replenishment. There is some speculation and concern that another North Korean test will come on Monday, 1 May as it is May Day. The holiday is officially observed by North Korea and its symbolic significance would provide the perfect backdrop for a ballistic missile test launch, or perhaps a nuclear test. Threats and bluster from Kim Jong Un have followed the Carl Vinson on her circuitous journey to the Sea of Japan. Now, having a US aircraft carrier operating in close proximity to its shores holds the potential of being an irresistible temptation for Un.
On the surface, the US show of force in the waters off of Korea is provocative and suggests the arrival of an offensive military option for Washington. Realistically, however, the Carl Vinson strike group is not indispensable to any offensive military action the US might contemplate. Airstrikes against North Korean missiles and nuclear facilities can be launched from US airbases in Japan and on Guam using mainly USAF assets. Having a carrier present in the Sea of Japan certainly provides more avenues for US planners, but it is not essential.
Geopolitically speaking, on the other hand, having Vinson in the Sea of Japan is invaluable for the United States. The ship is a forthright representation of American firepower, as well as a highly visible signature of US resolve and commitment to its allies in the Western Pacific. Kim Jong Un cannot simply ignore it. The hope is that the Carl Vinson’s appearance will force him to rethink his strategy and deter him from taking ill-considered action that could worsen the crisis.
Judging by how Kim Jong Un has behaved over the last two months though, hoping for that could be pointless at this stage of the game.
The People’s Republic of China has launched its second aircraft carrier in the port city of Dalian. This ship will be the first domestically built carrier, however, it will not likely enter service until 2020. At present the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) has one aircraft carrier in service, the Liaoning, an ex-Soviet Kuznetsov class ship. When Liaoning became operational it was suspected that the ship was serving as a testbed of sorts for China’s aircraft carrier program. Judging by the first photos of the new carrier, which show its design has borrowed heavily from the Liaoning, the suspicion is reasonable. The flight deck layout and island structure is nearly identical to the Liaoning and its displacement of 50,000 tons is on par with the earlier carrier.
This is a big step for China. It has been over twenty years since the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis when two US carrier battlegroups were rushed to Taiwan in a traditional show-of-force that deterred Beijing from taking aggressive action against the island nation. The crisis forced China to acknowledge the threat posed to them by US aircraft carriers and accelerate its military buildup, and begin to consider building or purchasing aircraft carriers of its own.
The PLAN has taken on a more prominent role in China’s foreign policy as the South China Sea and Senkaku situations moved to the forefront of national priorities and international scrutiny. Large scale naval exercises and Chinese warships appearing at far-flung locations around the world were common in 2016 and act as the vanguard of China’s growing ability to project power and influence events with its own maritime forces. The ongoing buildup of US naval forces in the Sea of Japan serves both as a mirror of what the PLAN is striving to become, as well as an illustration of the sort of US involvement in regional matters that China wishes to deter.