SOUTHWEST ASIA -- A U.S. Air Force general confirmed American pilots made the call to shoot down Syrian aircraft on three separate missions this month and defended their actions as self-defense.
On June 18, an F/A-18E Super Hornet conducted the U.S. military's first air-to-air kill involving a manned aircraft in nearly two decades when it downed a hostile Su-22 Fitter south of Taqbah.
Meanwhile, on June 8 and again on June 20, F-15E Strike Eagles shot down Iranian-made Shaheed drones over At Tanf as the unmanned aerial vehicles approached or dropped munitions near U.S.-backed forces on the ground.
"We're trying to de-escalate," Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles Corcoran, commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, told Military.com. "We're here to fight ISIS, but we're going to protect our forces from Syrian pro-regime entities."
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Military.com sat down with the commander at a base in an undisclosed location in the Middle East as part of a reporting trip to observe air operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
In each of the shoot-downs, which involved aircraft from other locations, the U.S. pilots made the call to shoot within the parameters of the rules of engagement, Corcoran said. In all three cases, "defenseless aircraft" such as tankers and airlift planes left the airspace because of the uncertainty of what the Syrians or Russians would do next, he said.
Corcoran oversees the wing, which flies the KC-10 Extender tanker, RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude drone, U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane and F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet to carry out missions such as air refueling; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; air battle management, control and reporting center; ground attack; air support and others.
'ISIS Is a Sideshow'
To abide by the rules of engagement, the unit works with the Combined Air Operations Center, which from another location would direct a pilot to shoot, but that process "didn't have to happen -- in all three cases, it was self-defense," Corcoran said.
"If you're shooting at U.S. forces, we'll self-defend," he said.
Such calls may happen with more frequency as ISIS continues to lose ground in Syria, where a civil war has raged since 2011, and the U.S. finds itself operating in airspace increasingly congested by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and backed by Russia.
During an interview in his office, Corcoran underscored, "We're here to fight ISIS," but he also pointed to a map of Syria and Iraq to outline areas as "red," or controlled by the Islamic State.
"It's pretty clear that at some point the 'red' is going to go away," he said, "and we're going to have state-on-state" forces fighting. "ISIS is a sideshow ... but what happens when the [other] two meet? Strategically, when ISIS goes away, that's the real issue."
As aircraft fly any given approach as part of the 24-7 mission, personnel monitor the moves from a number of fronts -- the CAOC; the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS); and the battle-management command and control center known as "The Kingpin," Corcoran said.
Like moving chess pieces, "Kingpin has the [air tasking order] -- they're talking to people on the ground, they're making sure these airplanes are provisionally controlled, getting them back and forth to tankers ... they're talking to the CAOC, they minimize the fog and friction for the entire [area of responsibility]" in U.S. Central Command, he said.
Sometimes, the communication is as simple as a "heads-up" call on the radio, Corcoran said.
"We got agreements that when [a] Syrian airplane or the unidentified airplane gets within 'X number' of miles of our guys on the ground," a call is made on "the international emergency, the guard frequency, that all airplanes monitor," including Russian craft, he said.
"Like an airplane flying around talking to air traffic control -- talking on different [radio] frequencies," he said. "We have an agreement with the Russians, if we're getting close to something up there, we'll make a call on guard" and vice versa.
"Plenty of calls were made" over the hostilities in recent weeks, Corcoran said. "Back at the CAOC, they're probably [also] on the hotline with the Russians -- all this connectivity is hugely important to prevent a miscalculation."
'SAMS Turn On'
After the U.S. downing of the Syrian Su-22, the Russian Ministry of Defense said it would target with surface-to-air missiles any U.S. aircraft in the area.
Corcoran acknowledged that SAM batteries track U.S. warplanes.
"SAMs turn on, but as far as feeling threatened -- I don't think our forces have felt threatened by Russians or Syrians in the surface-to-air missile perspective," he said. The military-to-military relationship "has been maintained, and it's in good shape -- it's very cordial, professional. We haven't seen or heard any of that from them."
Even so, the deconfliction zone -- the area in which U.S. and Russian forces have agreed not to operate -- is "constantly in flux" due to the complex nature of the fight and moving ground forces, Corcoran said.
Unlike Iraq, a sovereign state where leaders "asked us to come help them ... we don't have exclusive control of the skies above the ground" in Syria, he said. "We have it above the ground where our guys are, but not an inch beyond -- it's surreal."
Corcoran said, "We're fighting an enemy -- ISIS -- in another country -- Syria -- where there's also an insurgency going on, but we're not really invited to be" a part of that, he said. "But we can't leave it to the Syrians to get rid of ISIS, because that wasn't working, right? So it's really an odd place to be."
He added, "We know ... we're going to defeat ISIS. Their days are numbered. What next?"