A recent report from the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier stationed in the Persian Gulf and supporting the US-led fight against ISIS contained a startling realization — US pilots are fighting in an insanely complicated space that puts them in danger.
"When it first started, ISIS was just steamrolling across Iraq and Syria and there wasn't really much resistance going on … There weren't a whole lot of places you could go where there was no ISIS presence about three years ago," Lt. Joe Anderson, an F/A-18F pilot aboard the Roosevelt, told the US Naval Institute.
But in 2018, the US-led coalition against ISIS has all but crushed the terror army. Now, the US troops in Syria, and their backups aboard the Roosevelt, have moved on to other objectives.
"Now where we're at, there's not as much going on … Mostly they've been whittled down to just isolated pockets within Iraq and Syria," Anderson said.
ISIS patrol the streets of Raqqa, Syria.
As the fight against ISIS dwindles down, the US has turned its attention to denying Iran influence within Syria and a land bridge to arm Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, as well as denying Syrian President Bashar Assad access to the country's rich eastern oilfields.
US Navy pilots now spend much of their time "doing on-call [close-air support] and doing more defending the US and coalition forces on the ground in the area, and specifically Syrian Defense Forces who are in the mix doing their thing," Anderson said.
That means the US is defending a group of Syrian rebels with embedded US ground troops in one of the most complex fights in history. The US supports the SDF and Kurdish forces in Syria's north, but Turkey, a NATO ally, launched a military campaign against the Kurds. The US's SDF allies oppose Syria's government, but Russia and Iran back them.
US pilots fly the same skies as Iranian, Turkish, Syrian, and Russian aircraft, and they're only allies with the Turks.
Crazy-complicated skies put the US at risk
An F/A-18 Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) as the ship conducts flight operations in the US 5th Fleet area of operations supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Alex King)
Anderson's commander, Rear Adm. Steve Koehler, told USNI that "the threat picture in Syria is just crazy."
"How many different countries can you cram in one different place, where they all have a different little bit of an agenda? And you put a tactical pilot up there and he or she has to employ ordnance or make defensive counter-air decisions with multiple people - Russians, Syrians, Turks, ISIS, United States," Koehler said.
As a result of the multi-faceted geopolitical complexity, US pilots are now in much more danger than a regular combat mission, according to retired US Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Berke.
"Now the pilots in the airplanes are under stress and using ordnance now have to do interpretations of human behavior and derive the intention of a potential adversary, or at least someone who's not there for the same reasons," Berke told Business Insider.
In normal situations, like over Iraq or Afghanistan, US pilots fly with coalition partners and against enemy aircraft, but the divergent agendas in Syria mean aircraft with potentially bad aircraft can square right up to the US without tripping any alarms.
Berke emphasized that the difference in each country's agenda made the coordination and combat fraught with difficulty.
If an armed Turkish jet was speeding towards Kurdish forces with US troops embedded, how should a US pilot respond? US pilots and air controllers train endlessly on how to fight, but drawing the line between what constitutes aggression or self-defense is a different matter.
This could start a war
(Russian Defense Ministry)
"If you misinterpret what someone does, you can create a massive problem, you can start a war," Berke said. "I can't think of a more complex place for there to be or a greater level of risk."
As a result, US pilots are somewhat bound to deescalation, and may be tolerating higher levels of aggression from adversaries or non-allies in the skies above Syria. No US pilot wants to make headlines for kicking off an international incident by downing a Russian jet, or failing to defend US forces in a very murky situation.
"The less you know what's going on, the more likely you're going to make a bad decision that you're not aware," Berke said. "The fact that it hasn't escalated beyond what it is now is a testament to the professionalism of the US military, it could have gone sideways any number of times."