Russian fighters dropped flares in front of U.S. MQ-9s over Syria on two consecutive days in escalating tactics intended to disrupt U.S. operations in “a new level” of aggressive behavior by Russian forces, according to U.S. officials.
On July 5 at around 10:40 am local time, three U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drones on a mission against ISIS targets were intercepted by three Russian Su-35 fighter jets, which began “harassing” maneuvers, according to U.S. military officials. Then at 9:30 am local time on July 6, Russian Su-34 and Su-35 fighters again intercepted two MQ-9s conducting another anti-ISIS mission.
“These events represent another example of unprofessional and unsafe actions by Russian air forces operating in Syria, which threaten the safety of both Coalition and Russian forces,” Air Forces Central commander Lt. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich said in July 6 statement. Grynkweich condemned Russia’s “dangerous behaviors.”
In the first incident, the Russian fighters dropped parachute flares in front of the MQ-9s, U.S. officials said. The actions forced drone operators to conduct “evasive maneuvers,” according to Grynkewich. A Russian fighter also flew in front of a U.S. MQ-9 and engaged his engine’s afterburner, “increasing speed and air pressure, [the maneuver] reduced the MQ-9 operator’s ability to safely operate the aircraft,” AFCENT said.
The incident was the latest in a series of Russian maneuvers intended to disrupt U.S. drone operations. The Reapers can carry weapons in addition to their native intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. On-board cameras captured the encounter in detail. The U.S. Department of Defense swiftly declassified and released a compilation video late July 5.
The next morning, a Su-34 and a Su-35 dropped flares in front of an MQ-9s while another MQ-9 recorded the incident. The Russian fighters “flew dangerously close, endangering the safety of all aircraft involved,” Grynkewich said in a July 6 statement. The Pentagon also released video of the second incident.
In March, a Russian Su-27 collided with an American MQ-9 over the Black Sea while two Su-27s were trying to harass the American drone. The U.S. declassified drone footage at that time as well. Separately, Chinese fighters harassed a U.S. RC-135 over the South China Sea in May. Such incidents increase the risk of accidents.
Grynkewich and other U.S. military officials have raised alarm over Russian behavior in Syria in recent months, which one U.S. official previously told Air & Space Forces Magazine might be an attempt to “engender an international incident.” After a pause in Russian air activity near U.S. positions over the winter, Russian warplanes resumed regularly overflying U.S. positions in Syria in March. The U.S. positions in Syria also came under deadly attack from Iranian-backed militias the same month.
The U.S. first bolstered its air presence with A-10s, which arrived in late March and have been modified from regular Warthogs to carry small-diameter bombs and other precision munitions. U.S. actions also included a recent training mission in which B-1 bombers fired a long-range JASSM cruise missile and were escorted by allied air forces. Most pointedly, the U.S. rushed F-22s Raptors to the region in mid-June in direct response to recent Russian actions, which does not seem to have made a lasting impact on Moscow’s pilots.
“Russian forces continue to display unsafe and unprofessional behavior in the air,” Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the head of U.S. Central Command, said July 5. “Their regular violation of agreed upon airspace deconfliction measures increases the risk of escalation or miscalculation.”
F-22s were sometimes used in the past to escort the U.S. strike missions on ISIS militants in northeast Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the anti-ISIS campaign, because of the threat from Russian planes, but the U.S. has diminished airpower presence in the region to focus more on the Pacific and Europe since the ISIS self-declared caliphate was defeated. AFCENT currently has around two and a half squadrons of fourth-generation F-16s and F-15Es fighters, as well as A-10s and MQ-9s based in the region.
The U.S. has around 900 troops in Syria to assist its Kurdish allies in fighting the remnants of ISIS. Russia is supporting the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. In a recent conference call with reporters, Grynkewich said that Russians have continued to violate mutually agreed upon deconfliction protocols designed to reduce the risk of inadvertent conflict in Syria and keep the two sides’ air forces separate in eastern Syria. Since the spring, Air Forces Central has noted that Russia has gotten as close to 500 feet from manned U.S. aircraft and regularly overflown U.S. troops dozens of times.
A Russian Ministry of Defense official, Oleg Gurinov, said U.S. coalition drones were spotted flying over an area where Russian and Assad regime forces were conducting drills.
“We remind that the Russian side bears no responsibility for the safety of flight of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which were not agreed with the Russian side,” Gurinov said according to the state-owned TASS news agency.
Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder dismissed Russian accounts in a July 6 briefing, which was conducted before the second incident was announced.
“We have been in Syria for many years now fighting ISIS as part of an international coalition,” Ryder said. “That is no surprise to anyone.”
“To suggest that somehow, you know, this is our fault, it’s ridiculous,” Ryder added.
Russian actions are not just limited to U.S. aircraft. A Russian Su-35 also maneuvered July 6 close to two French Rafale aircraft as they flew near the Iraqi-Syrian border. “The pilots maneuvered in order to control the risk of an accident before continuing their patrol,” the French military said in a tweet.
Grynkewich has repeatedly questioned Russia’s motives, saying they undermine American efforts to defeat the remnants of ISIS—a goal Russia ostensibly supports.
“We urge Russian forces in Syria to cease this reckless behavior and adhere to the standards of behavior expected of a professional air force so we can resume our focus on the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Grynkewich said. “The safety of military personnel and the success of the mission against ISIS depend on the professional and responsible conduct of all forces operating in the region.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated with details of a second incident between U.S. and Russian aircraft.