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The Delicate Dance Between Russia And The U.S. Over Syria


With Russia entering the battle for Aleppo and the U.S. attacking ISIS targets, there's a lot of attention being paid by both militaries to preventing some sort of confrontation. It's sort of known as deconfliction. Joining us for more is retired Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula. Gen. Deptula was the deputy chief of staff for intelligence for the Air Force, and he's a frequent commentator on military power. Good morning.

DAVID DEPTULA: Hey, good morning. How are you doing today?

MONTAGNE: Pretty good. You know, with such different agendas in Syria, how do Moscow and Washington keep from accidentally shooting at each other?

DEPTULA: Well, in actuality, there are a number of different ways that deconfliction can occur. But quite frankly, U.S. aircraft and coalition aircraft that are operating in Syria have a great degree of situational awareness and understand where the Russian aircraft are operating and can deconflict. Now, clearly, the probability of some kind of unintentional encounter occurring is greater than zero, but a lot of that is actually overhyped.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about some of Russia's weaponry. Its airstrikes in Syria have showcased some aircraft never before tested in combat, also a ship-based cruise missile that some media reports suggest may surpass U.S. cruise missile technology. What's your assessment?

DEPTULA: Well, the Russians clearly are taking advantage of what has been less than robust U.S. military effort regarding the Islamic State to dramatically increase our presence in the Middle East. They're using Syria as an operational testing ground for much of the equipment that, you know, they haven't used in the past. A lot of it is for propaganda purposes for their own nation...

MONTAGNE: Right, sort of showing it off.

DEPTULA: Well, sure, the shooting of those cruise missiles really was not necessary from a military perspective. It's not anything they couldn't have done with their aircraft. And with respect to their performance, you know, they lost four of the missiles that they launched, you know, about 15 percent. So, you know, I wouldn't chalk that up to an indicator of their weaponry being any better than the United States. In fact, you know, it indicates a weapons system that's not very mature.

Now, one of the other things that the Russians have done, though, is they have introduced advanced surface-to-air missile systems into the region on board some of their ships that are operating off the coast. And clearly, there are - the Islamic State does not have an Air Force. So the introduction of those missile systems are designed to complicate U.S. actions, which gets back to one of your original points in terms of the importance of deconfliction.

MONTAGNE: Well, you mention U.S. airstrikes just now. Expand upon that a bit. You've called the - that campaign something like a drizzle when it should've been a thunderstorm. The U.S. has conducted thousands of airstrikes. So why the criticism?

DEPTULA: But that's over a period of greater than a year. The average is less than eight strike sorties a day in Syria, which consists of over 90,000 square miles. So eight strike sorties a day is really a drizzle, particularly if you're trying to take apart an organization like the Islamic State.

MONTAGNE: David Deptula is a retired Air Force lieutenant general and now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Thank you very much.

DEPTULA: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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