A Russian Tactical Air Strike in Al-Bab, Syria Kills Three Turkish Soldiers: What May Have Gone Wrong?
Wire services report that a Russian tactical air strike in Al-Bab, Syria, 40 kilometers northeast of Aleppo, has resulted in a “fratricide” (“friendly fire”) incident that took the lives of three Turkish ground troops and wounded another eleven personnel on the ground.
It is inherently dangerous for ground troops to operate in close proximity to airstrike targets. Minor miscalculations in aircraft weapon release point, malfunction of weapon release equipment on the aircraft, weather conditions such as wind and poor visibility, guidance malfunctions on precision guided weapons and problems with communications and coordination between ground troops and attack aircraft can all contribute to incidents of fratricide from air strikes.
Google Earth screengrab of the target area.
During the intense ground battles that have characterized much of the insurgent war in Syria troops have often been in close contact in urban areas. The overhead cover of buildings, the narrow streets and nearly identical appearance of many buildings in urban areas make accurate targeting of air strikes increasingly difficult on the urban battlefield.
Russia has most frequently employed non-precision guided weapons in tactical strikes in Syria. If this is the case in today’s Al-Bab incident it may have been a contributing factor.
While technical details of the strike were not released media photos from Khmeimim Air Base (also called Hmeimim Air Base) frequently show the Russian Su-25 Frogfoot used in a similar role as the U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt II for ground attack and close air support. Although unconfirmed, it may have been an Su-25 that launched today’s mistaken strike.
Su-25 pilot at Latakia airbase (Ru MoD via RT)
One factor that may have contributed to the incident is possible communication problems between Turkish ground forces and Russian close air support assets. U.S. forces traditionally employ specially trained and equipped personnel called “Forward Air Controllers” or “Tactical Air Control Parties” (TACPs) to coordinate air strikes in support of ground troops. It is possible the Russians may have assigned their own personnel, in some cases attack pilots with airstrike experience in the region, to help with targeting and coordination. But if there were no Russian air strike coordinators on the ground with Turkish troops, this could have been a contributing factor.
Russia’s precision-guided weapons have traditionally been larger munitions, while smaller bombs such as the 100kg and 250kg have not been guided. This is contrary to the U.S. development of small precision-guided weapons like the recent GBU-53/B small diameter bomb, a GPS/INS guided 250lb (approx. 113kg) bomb that has been employed by the F-22 in strikes in Syria. Russian precision guided munitions appear to be larger than 500kg including the FAB-500 high-explosive bomb and the “bunker busting” AB-500 bomb used on reinforced concrete targets.
Russian guided weapons relying on satellite targeting may be inherently less accurate than their U.S. counterparts since they update targeting and guidance data from the GLONASS GPS satellite constellation. According to Russia Insider the GLONASS satellite constellation “is fractionally less accurate in low latitudes than [western] GPS”. This suggests the Russian systems may be optimized for striking targets in northern areas.
Analyst for the Japan Times, Robert Burns, wrote, “The skies over Syria are increasingly crowded — and increasingly dangerous. The air forces of multiple countries are on the attack, often at cross-purposes in Syria’s civil war, sometimes without coordination. And now, it seems, they are at risk of unintended conflict.”
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter expressed early concern over a year ago about the possibility of “inadvertent incidents and lack of communication” with Russian aircrews. Part of then-Secretary Ash’s concern stemmed from a relative lack of sophistication with Russian communications systems and their use of non-precision, unguided air delivered weapons.
USMC Harriers aboard USS Wasp launch “frequent” airstrikes against ISIS in Libya.
Operation Odyssey Lightning kicked off on Aug. 1, when the U.S. launched a new round of air strikes against Islamic State positions in northern Libya following a request by the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) to support GNA-affiliated forces seeking to defeat Daesh in Sirte.
Although the first raids were conducted by U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drones as well as by AH-1W helicopters operating from the U.S. amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, since then, the majority of the attacks were launched by the AV-8B and AV-8B+ Harriers with the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 264 (Reinforced) – VMM-264, the composite squadron that constitute the Aviation Combat Element of the 22nd MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit).
From the beginning of Operation Odyssey Lightning to Aug. 29, the U.S. aircraft have completed 92 airstrikes.
The STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) aircraft have carried out Precision Guided Munition attacks on a wide variety of targets, including Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device, trucks with mounted heavy artillery, supply trucks and many “enemy fighting positions.”
Based on the images released by AFRICOM so far, the Jump Jets (both AV-8B and AV-8B+ variants) have almost always carried 500-pound GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) along with two drop tanks (with the AV-8B+ carrying also the Litening targeting pod) during day and night missions.
The following videos show some interesting footage filmed on the flight deck of USS Wasp during the Libya air campaign.
Noteworthy, six British handlers from Culdrose, UK, are serving aboard the amphibious assault ship to get real life experience of safely operating fast jets and helicopters on a flight deck and prepare to what they’ll be doing on HMS Queen Elizabeth in a couple of time.
The stealth bombers, from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, are due to be involved in what the U.S. Pacific Command defined a “short-term deployment” during which they will conduct “local and regional training sorties, and will integrate capabilities with key regional partners, ensuring bomber crews maintain a high state of readiness and crew proficiency.”
Interestingly, the B-2s have joined the “several” B-1B Lancers (“Bones” in accordance with the nickname used by their aircrews) that arrived in Guam on Aug. 6, marking the first B-1 deployment there in a decade.
The aircraft, belonging to the 28th Bomb Wing from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, have replaced the B-52s in supporting the U.S. Pacific Command’s (USPACOM) Continuous Bomber Presence mission.
“Andersen welcomes the B-1 squadron, and we look forward to working together to provide safety and security to the region, our partners and our allies,” said Brig. Gen. Douglas Cox, 36th Wing commander in an Air Force release. “The B-52s did an amazing job the past few years, and we know the B-1s will continue CBP excellence going forward.”
The B-1 units bring years of repeated combat and operational experience from the Central Command theater to the Pacific. The aircraft should have just received some additional cockpit upgrades during works conducted after the Bones returned stateside in January 2016, after a 6-month deployment worth 3,800 munitions on 3,700 targets in 490 sorties in support of Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS, during which the B-1s carried out Close Air Support and Air Interdiction missions delivering a wide variety of PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions), including JDAMs on Daesh positions.
Still, Pyongyang accused Washington of planning a pre-emptive nuclear strike, after the US announced it was deploying B-1 bombers in the Pacific for the first time in a decade.
Will the B-1s also deploy to Australia, even closer to Beijing or Pyongyang than Guam?
Back in March, Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a spokesman for the U.S. Air Force, told to Reuters that the U.S. could deploy long-range bombers to Australia as concerns over China’s military expansion in the Asia-Pacific area continue to grow.
At that time, high-level discussions were in progress to deploy B-1 bombers in northern Australia and to expand B-52 bomber missions in the region a move that was aimed to add more pressure on China. Now that the Stratofortress bombers have been replaced by the Lancers it’s unclear whether the U.S. Air Force has achieved an agreement with the local government and plans to fly any B-1s from there.
Once there, the aircraft will replace the U.S. Air Force Raptors already there for a 6-month rotational deployment that will see the aircraft take part in Operation Inherent Resolve in the airspaces of Iraq and Syria: although they can attack their own targets using Precision Guided Munitions (two 1,000-lb GBU-32 JDAMs or 8 GBU-39 small diameter bombs) while covering other aircraft in a typical swing role mission, the F-22 have proved to be useful in the air war against ISIS by making other aircraft more survivable, acting as electronic warfare enabled sensor-rich multi-role aircraft that provide “kinetic situational awareness” to other aircraft involved in the air strikes.
For the 199th Fighter Squadron this is the first combat tour of duty since the deployed to Saudi Arabia in 2000, to patrol the southern NFZ (No Fly Zone) of Iraq. At that time the squadron flew the F-15 Eagle; it transitioned to the F-22 Raptor in 2010, flying the 5th Generation stealth planes in partnership with the 19th Fighter Squadron.
On their way to the Middle East, the aircraft made a stopover in Moron, Spain, and Sigonella, Italy.
The Raptor deployment had already been announced in June, when Air Force Secretary, at Le Bourget airshow in Paris, said that Russia was the “biggest threat” her mind, but it now appears to be few days away.
So far the U.S. has responded to the proxy war in Ukraine and to the spike in Russia Air Force activity in the Baltic region with two 6-month TSPs (Theater Security Packages), made up of F-15s and A-10s, and stepping up its presence at regional exercises with NATO allies and partners, attended also by B-52 strategic bombers and A-10 attack planes.
Raptors have often taken part in rotational deployments in the Asia-Pacific region since 2009, but have never been deployed to Europe. It would be interesting to know which airbases are being considered for such deployment that should include 12 aircraft and 200-300 support personnel even though the aircraft will probably not be stationed at a single base but will perform short rotations to a few airports in eastern Europe as already done by the F-15s and A-10s of the previous TSPs (that have visited Germany, UK, Poland, Estonia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, etc.).
However, according to the U.S. Air Force, during the air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the once troubled stealth plane has emerged as F-22 is pivotal to ensure the safety of the other aircraft involved in the air campaign: the Raptors act as “electronic warfare enabled sensor-rich multi-role aircraft” that provide key kinetic situational awareness to other aircraft: they escort strike packages into and out of the target area while gathering details about the enemy systems and spreading intelligence to other “networked” assets supporting the mission to improve the overall situational awareness.