U.S. pilots on a mission in Syria are faced with a new reality. For the first time since battling insurgents in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have to share the skies with advanced Russian or Syrian jets or are presented with ground-based air defenses, which are all of the last decade technology available, meaning that they can’t outrun or outfox their enemy if needed to. And of course, accidents can happen quickly.
Reuters reports today an interview with 40-year old U.S. Air Force pilot Lieutenant Colonel Jeremy Renken that armed aircraft from Syria, Russia, the United States and its coalition allies are all flying within a “no escape” range of each other’s weapons should anything happen.
He stated that: “We can all engage each other. So it takes a lot of discipline and studying the nuance of a circumstance to (determine): ’Was that an escalation?”
As ground forces backed by the U.S. and Russia scramble to capture whatever is left of Islamic State’s caliphate, the risk of accidental contacts between the two sides who stood against each other in the past is ever growing, raising the stakes both on the ground and certainly in the air.
However, whilst the U.S. military on the ground had years to learn how and exactly when to engage Islamic State fighters, the American pilots in the skies above Syria are still gaining experience deciphering any possible hostile intent by other aircraft.
Renken flies an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet in Syria.
As a squadron commander, he developed his Air Force career right in the shadow of Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al Qaeda. As suicide hijackers flew into the World Trade Center, he was training as a pilot. Ever since he’s been deployed over and over again to the Middle East.
But Lieutenant Colonel Renken acknowledges that the Syrian air war is, in his view, unique.