USAFE Eyeing NATO-Russia Hotline to Deconflict Air Tensions

US Air Forces in Europe boss Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian speaks on a panel at AFA's 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., near Washington, D.C. Staff photo by Mike Tsukamoto.

A direct line of communication between NATO air commanders and their Russian counterparts could be helpful in de-escalating tensions, especially when Russians fly too close to NATO aircraft and ships, US Air Forces in Europe Commander Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian said at AFA’s 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference.

A “deconfliction” hotline similar to the one between US Central Command and Russian forces operating out of Syria is “something we ought to consider,” Harrigian said. He has raised the idea with Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Tod Wolters, adding that Wolters, who also heads US European Command, is considering it.

In an interview with Air Force Magazine, Harrigian noted that when a Russian jet harasses a NATO aircraft or ship, a complaint has to be relayed through EUCOM. The command decides on the appropriate way to proceed, possibly via NATO and the US Embassy in Moscow, although there are “other avenues,” Harrigian said. Wolters or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff could handle a complaint, depending on how egregious the incident is.

There are “few opportunities to personally talk to someone to de-escalate a situation,” Harrigian said. “Oftentimes that’s what we used our safety deconfliction lines for when I was in [Air Forces Central Command]. I think there’s some lessons that we can learn from that.”

He acknowledged that the Syrian hotline partially handles airspace coordination with the Russians, which a European version would not do.

“This is, no kidding, to ensure that in those situations that we need to, we can deconflict or at least communicate our concern with respect to a specific situation that happened in the air,” Harrigian said.

When USAFE complains about a Russian Flanker fighter jet harassing another military airplane or a NATO air-policing mission in the Baltics, Harrigian said the standard answer from Russia is, “‘Oh, he was a new guy, he didn’t know any better,’ which to me demonstrates that they’re not going to come out and say they made a mistake.”

As recently as Sept. 23, a Russian military aircraft violated the airspace of NATO member Estonia, according to the Associated Press. The Su-34 fighter’s “transponder was switched off, no flight plan had been filed and the pilot failed to keep radio contact with Estonian air navigation officials,” the AP reported.

NATO’s air units are professional during such intercepts and don’t engage in dangerously close passes or flybys, Harrigian said. But he questions whether the Russians are a disciplined force.

“That clearly is not what a professional aviator would do,” he said.