What’s in a Deconfliction? The Practical Challenges of US-Russian Military Cooperation in Syria

October 2, 2015

By Michael Purcell

While it is hard enough to get past the most obvious and fundamental challenge to US-Russian military cooperation in Syria—the failure of the two sides to agree on a desired end goal—there are also a handful of serious practical obstacles to potential effective military cooperation. The current focus on “deconfliction,” the restriction or adjustment in time and/or space of the flightpath of aircraft and weapon systems to avoid an accidental collision between friendly forces, is indicative of the poor state of affairs. In military operations, deconfliction is the lowest common denominator of cooperation.

In modern military doctrine, deconfliction is considered a negative control that serves as a pre-condition to achieve the desired positive goals of coordination and synchronization. If done effectively, coordination can lead to a combined multinational military operation in which, as Aristotle discussed in his Metaphysica, “the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something beside the parts.” Put simply, effective coordination leads to a synergy wherein the addition of partner forces amplifies strengths, shores up weaknesses, and leads to increased unity of effort that cannot be achieved by one nation alone. Deconfliction by itself guarantees the opposite in that restrictions inhibit initiative and limit operational responsiveness. Not only does deconfliction limit operations, it also reinforces the idea that no further coordination is necessary. It is the equivalent of two roommates taping off respective living spaces or agreeing to only inhabit a shared apartment during different times of day.

Unfortunately, despite public promises of mil-to-mil coordination issued after the meeting of Presidents Obama and Putin on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, cooperation just prior to the Russian airstrikes was limited to a last-minute Russian demand delivered to the US embassy in Baghdad for US air forces to “stay out of the way.”

It is difficult to digest the many negative and not unlikely outcomes of the US and Russian interaction in Syria, many horrific by historic standards. It is increasingly clear that, Russian equivocation over the definition of “who is a terrorist” aside, the United States and Russia are chasing different and mutually exclusive goals in Syria. We may have become desensitized to the potential for a “hot war” between Russia and the United States/NATO, due mainly to the West’s failure to provide actual forces in support of Georgia or Ukraine. Nonetheless, it is imperative to recognize that this situation could lead to the first direct military confrontation since the Americans clashed with the nascent Red Army in Archangelsk in 1918-1919 under similarly ambiguous circumstances.

Even if we could envision a scenario in which Washington and Moscow agreed on operational objectives, or at least on targets, their lack of direct military cooperation over the last 25 years would still limit the potential for effective battlefield cooperation. While combined operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have allowed NATO and participating partner-nation militaries to restore the coordination mechanisms that atrophied since the end of the Cold War, Russia finds itself with little to no experience in this regard. Russia’s small neighbor Georgia, in a somewhat ironic contrast, has provided extended and outsized contributions to the most demanding missions in Iraq and Afghanistan that make them relative experts in coalition operations.

Besides the obvious technical requirements for operational coordination, such as interoperable means of communications, there are also extensive human capital requirements such as translators and officers conversant in Eurasian political-military affairs to serve as liaisons. Since these capabilities are only developed over years of investment in response to projected requirements, both sides will come up lacking after years of limited mutual exposure.

To find the last instance of sustained US-Russian military-to-military operational cooperation, it is necessary to look back at the potentially explosive standoff that occurred after Russian troops beat NATO to Pristina airfield in Kosovo. This took place more than 15 years ago and is certainly not a comforting precedent.


Michael Purcell is Director of Operations at CGI. He previously served over 20 years with the US Marines as an armor officer, foreign area officer, and strategic planner. His assignments included Deputy Director of Strategy, Policy, and Plans for Marine Forces Europe, serving as the Marines lead for conducting security cooperation with allied and partner countries in the Black Sea and Caucasus in support of NATO operations in Afghanistan. He has also served in Iraq as a tank battalion operations officer and as a senior liaison officer for the United Nations Mission in Georgia. 

Comments Off