The U.S. Air Force said Russian jets systemically harassed U.S. surveillance drones in Syria on Wednesday in one of the most provocative moves so far by Russian air forces against U.S. military assets.
In footage of the encounter U.S. Air Forces Central (AFCENT) released Wednesday night eastern time, Russian Su-35 fighter aircraft can be seen bearing down on the three MQ-9 Reaper drones, which were conducting a mission against the Islamic State (IS). One of the three Russian pilots maneuvered in front of one of the Reapers and fired the afterburner, boosting its speed and air pressure and making it difficult for the drone’s remote operator to safely handle the unmanned craft, according to the accompanying statement.
“Against established norms and protocols, this forced U.S. aircraft to conduct evasive maneuvers,” the statement read. “These events represent a new level of unprofessional and unsafe action by Russian air forces operating in Syria.”
Russian planes also deployed flares equipped with parachutes in the drones’ flight path, visible in the unclassified footage AFCENT shared.
Lt. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, 9th Air Force Commander, in a statement did not describe the anti-IS mission further but said the Reapers were operating over Syria at 10:40 a.m. local time when the Russian fighters “began harassing the drones.”
“Russian military aircraft engaged in unsafe and unprofessional behavior while interacting with U.S. aircraft in Syria,” he said, warning that such behavior could threaten the safety of Russian and U.S. forces operating in Syria. “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 did not specify where in Syria the encounter took place. Roughly 900 U.S. troops are stationed in Syria to assist Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the ongoing fight against IS insurgents.
But Russia blamed the incident on the U.S., saying the drones flew over an area in northern Syria sequestered off for joint Russian and Syrian military exercises at least five times on Wednesday, Russian state news agency TASS reported.
“The Russian side bears no responsibility for the safety of flight of unmanned aerial vehicles, which were not agreed with the Russian side,” Rear Adm. Oleg Gurinov, deputy chief of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Opposing Parties in Syria, said, according to TASS.
U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors deployed to CENTCOM’s area of responsibility as part of a multifaceted show of U.S. support and capability in the wake of increasingly unsafe and unprofessional behavior by Russian aircraft in the region. #AirPower @USAFCENT https://t.co/WVDwU8xtjd pic.twitter.com/ieOgRCfopc
— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) June 14, 2023
Russia’s late pattern of bold, intentional confrontations with U.S. military assets in Syria “increases the risk of escalation or miscalculation,” U.S. Central Command Gen. Eric Kurilla also said of the incident, according to the AP.
In March, two Russian Su-27 aircraft intercepted an MQ-9 Reaper flying through international airspace over the Black Sea, striking the drone’s propeller and forcing the U.S. to terminate it over international waters.
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