U.S. and coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State group will continue despite Russia's decision to send advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles to Syria, said the commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command.
"Yes, it does complicate things a little bit, and we'll put some thought to it, but we still have a job to do here, and we're going to continue to do that job – to defeat Daesh [the Islamic State group]," Lt. Gen. Charles Brown Jr. told Air Force Times on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian SU-24 that allegedly violated Turkish airspace. One of the SU-24's pilots and a Russian marine who was part of the search-and-rescue mission were reportedly killed. Russian and Syrian special operations forces reportedly rescued the second Russian SU-24 pilot on Wednesday.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said on Wednesday that Russia would send S-400 missiles to its air base in Latakia, Syria, according to RT – official Russian media.
"Khmeimim airbase in Latakia, Syria, accommodates Russian Air Force squadrons of Su-27SM and Su-30 fighter jets, Su-34 and Su-24 tactical bombers, which are all taking part in airstrikes on Islamic State positions," RT reported on Wednesday. "The airbase is protected by state-of-the-art air defense systems and radars. Khmeimim also has a fully operational unit for maintaining fixed- and rotor-wing aircraft and providing logistical assistance to pilots."
Brown said that the U.S.-led coalition and Russia have a memorandum of understanding that spells out how aircraft from both sides should interact.
"We have pretty good connectivity with the Russians," Brown said. "With our MOU, there are things that are in there that talk about … how we're not going to show hostile acts or hostile intent from the coalition toward the Russians or from the Russians toward the coalition."
While the U.S.-led coalition and Russia are both operating in Syrian airspace, they are not coordinating or cooperating, Brown said.
"Our mission is to defeat Daesh," Brown said. "The Russians have said they're going to go after Daesh, but that's not what we're actually seeing as far as their strikes. The majority of their strikes are not against Daesh. Their [airstrikes] are more anti-regime-type. Our communication with the Russians is more for safety of flight."
Syrian rebels reportedly downed a Russian Mi-8 helicopter that was taking part in search-and-rescue efforts for the two downed SU-24 pilots. Video posted on YouTube purportedly shows the rebels using a U.S.-made TOW missile to destroy the helicopter on the ground.
The U.S. has deployed about 300 airmen in Diyarbakir Air Base, Turkey, to rescue recuse any U.S. or coalition pilots who have to eject over Iraq or Syria. Those airmen include the Guardian Angel Weapons System, which includes pararescue airmen, combat rescue officers and survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialists, who are experts at retrieving pilots or other isolated troops.
"Any time we’re doing combat search and rescue in a combat zone, there is risk involved," Brown said. "We don’t take that lightly. We are very well trained … and our coordination between our personnel-recovery assets and some of our strike assets that would be in support —– we work through those in some level of detail. I can’t speak to the quality of the training of the Russians when they do search and rescue."