Spike, my former KC-135 Aircraft Commander, had a good friend who was an instructor pilot in the RC-135W Rivet Joint intelligence, Surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft. The Rivet Joint is commonly seen throughout the world off the borders of countries, Gathering intelligence information on our potential adversaries. It was a very common during the Cold War for the Rivet Joint, and it’s sisters the Cobra Ball and the Combat Sent, to be intercepted by adversary fighters. This Rivet Joint pilot commonly took his 8mm video camera with him and recorded all of these intercepts. He shared with me one day a VHS tape from the late 1980s which had numerous Russian aircraft intercepting his Rivet Joint during their missions. The video showed all kinds of Russian aircraft… Mig-23 Floggers, Mig 25 Foxbats, even the brand new Mig-31 Foxhounds and the Su-27 Flankers. In every case, the Russian planes carry live air-to-air weapons.
These intercepts were so frequent the Rivet Joint aircrews expected to have visitors every mission. Spike’s buddy, we will call him Rob, even said so on videotape. He began a new 8mm tape by saying “We’re up here at 28,000 feet, waiting for our first visitor.” They did not have long to wait. There was a never-ending flow of Russian fighter jets that would appear outside their cockpit windows. During one intercept a Mig-31 Foxhound got real close. Rob’s Copilot zoomed in on the aircraft, and you could see the pilot looking down from his wingtip perch position at the Rivet Joint crew. You could hear the Mig-31 engines spool up as it passed close to the window, the engine nozzles open up, and giant tongues of flame protrude from the big two-man ski engines. The Foxhound flew directly in front of the Rivet Joint, disrupting the flow of air over the wings and through the engines, and causing the airplane to roll. Although these types of incidences were uncommon, they did happen. It was like two big Whitetail bucks in the forest, defending their harem and territory during the rut. They both bump heads and lock horns in the rut to see who is the Alpha Male.
These intercept events have become more common in recent years. An RC-135 Combat Sent flying in the Baltic Sea was intercepted by a very spunky Su-27 Flankers pilot. His wingman must have stayed out of eyesight but following the intercept on radar. As the Flankers pilot pulled up on the wing, he decided to do a barrel roll over the Combat Sent. This and probably a host of other things the Combat Sent crew was listening to caused them to turn back into Swedish airspace. In a recent show of force, Russian Bear bombers escorted by Foxhounds passed along the western Alaska border and the Bering Sea. F-22s on alert at Elmendorf Air Force Base launch and intercepted the Russian package as they flew along the border.
But there have been two recent intercepts over Syria causing concern. One was denied by the US government, only to have the real thing happened a couple days later. The demarcation line between the Russian area of responsibility and US Coalition is the Euphrates River. Near the town of Abu Kamal Syria, two f-22s intercepted two Su-25 Frogfoot attack airplanes, performing the same mission our A-10 Warthogs do. The F-22 intercepted the Frogfoot aircraft, keeping them from accomplishing their task. One Su-25 flew so close to a Raptor it had to take evasive action. This event got a little dicier when to Su-30 Flankers showed up to protect the Su-25s. In a maneuver we call a “headbutt,” the F-22 Raptor dispensed chaff and flare decoys, hopefully causing the Su- 30s to take there Frogfoot comrades home back to Latakia Airfield near Syria’s Mediterranean border.
Latakia Airfield is the Russian Air Force’s primary operating base in their fight against ISIS. It went from a bear base to a full up working airfield in the space of 10 months in 2015. Here is a picture of the airport taken from Google Earth on the 21 January 2015. You can see the lily pads where Russian helicopters land on the west side of the runway. There are no significant buildings for maintenance support, command and control facilities, or even housing aircrews.
1 January 2015 photo of Latakia Air Base illustrating the bareness of the base just two years ago.
Fast forward to November of 2015, and the base looks completely different. There are modern facilities for housing maintenance and air Crews, hangers for doing any Support, and a considerable ramp space for parking Su-22 fitters, and you can see in the picture below Su-30 Flankers and Su-35 Fullback attack aircraft. The difference between the two images is stark. This base went from what we would call barebones to a fully functional military airfield in the space of 10 months.
Latakia Air Base just ten months later, November 18 2015, showing the fighter ramp with Su-24 Fencer and Su-25 Frogfoot attack aircraft and Su-30 fighter planes on the ramp. The S-400 SAM site is directly north of the main fighter ramp area.
December 28, 2017 Google Earth photo of Latakia Air Base Syria. Su-24 Fencer and Su-30 Flankers can be seen on the fighter ramp. The S-400 facility remains north of the fighter ramp, the missle launchers now covered in camouflage netting in two revetments.
The S-400 system was delivered to Syria after Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 Fencer violating their airspace. S-400 missiles have a range of 250 km or about 160 nautical miles. Its footprint covers almost all of Syria and Incirlik Air Base outside Adana Turkey to the north, home of the 447th Fighter Group flying missions against ISIS.
By looking at the second picture, you can see the Russians have sent their most sophisticated Fighters and air defense equipment to Syria protecting their interests. Their primary interest is keeping the Bashar al-Assad regime in place. But these head-butting events are going to continue as long as the Russians and the American coalition remain in the area. Isis is almost without form, but no one seems willing to leave the area just yet. Latakia and the unclear roles and responsibilities are why you will More intercept reports in the news because the Cold War rut has returned as the Russians and Americans fly in the same airspace over Syria and Iraq.