There has been an uptick in the ‘aerial encounters’ between Russian and Western fighter jets not just over the Black Sea near Ukraine but also over Syria, where both US and Russia have been trying to assert dominance.
In an alarming development, US officials have claimed Russian jets and drones are increasingly harassing the US troops deployed in Syria, raising the possibility of a fatal miscalculation or “escalation” between the two military superpowers.
US officials stated on April 24 that armed Russian jets have regularly broken long-standing agreements with the United States over the past two months by flying dangerously close to American jet fighters over Syria and over US personnel operating there, The Wall Street Journal reported.
The head of the US Air Forces Central Command, Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, who is responsible for directing American military activities over Syria and 20 other countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, said, “It’s a ripe situation for us to see some sort of miscalculation. It signals a breakdown in professionalism that I have never seen out of the Russian Air Force.”
The assertion made by the US officials comes days after the US Central Command (CENTCOM) published videos of two different interactions between American aircraft and fully-armed Russian Su-35 Flanker-E fighter jets over Syria, as previously reported by EurAsian Times.
In one video, which was reportedly shot on April 18, a Russian Su-35 aircraft came within 2,000 meters of an unknown US aircraft while carrying out an interception mission. The other video, shot by an F-16 Viper fighter jet in early April, shows a Russian Su-35 conducting an unsafe and unprofessional intercept while operating in airspace that US-Russian protocols recognize as Coalition-controlled airspace over Syria.
According to Gen. Grynkewich, Russian forces have broken the agreement more than 60 times since March 1. He highlighted that the Russian aircraft, which are supposed to fly at least three nautical miles away from American aircraft, has flown within 500 feet of American pilots on at least two occasions in recent weeks.
The fact that armed Russian aircraft have flown over American forces in southern Syria more than twenty times since early March, according to Gen. Grynkewich, is particularly alarming. He claimed that Russian drones, bombers, and jet fighters have also flown over the Al Tanf facility this week.
Russia has also, on its part, accused the United States military of provocations in the northeastern part of Syria. However, the aggressive maneuvers undertaken by Russian pilots in recent times, be it Syria or near Ukraine, have given more leverage to the accusations made by the US CENTCOM.
When Russian Fighter Pilots Almost Triggered ‘Escalation’
Besides the dangerous interception carried out by the Russian Su-35 fighters of US jets over Syria, there is another incident that merits a mention while highlighting the aggression recently shown by Russian fighter pilots.
In March this year, a Su-27 reportedly sprayed jet fuel over the US MQ-9 Reaper drone, crossed it multiple times, and ultimately forced it to crash into the Black Sea.
At the time, the US European Command stated that a Russian Su-27 aircraft allegedly struck the drone’s propeller during an “unsafe and unprofessional intercept” over the Black Sea, leading to a complete loss of the drone and its descent into the Black Sea.
Before the collision, two Russian jets made 19 close passes over the drone in no less than 30 minutes, spraying some of their jet fuel on it during the last three or four of those flights. The downing of the Reaper drone triggered concerns of military escalation between Washington and Moscow.
However, in the aftermath of the incident, media reports indicated that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had nominated pilots of the Su-27 fighters for state awards who “prevented” a border violation by a US MQ-9 Reaper drone.
In a similar incident that became known much later, it was revealed that a Su-27 aircraft also allegedly tried to shoot down a Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone over the Black Sea. The Su-27 reportedly used jet wash on the Turkish drone to disrupt the thrust of the drone; however, the TB2 drone survived.
While these incidents have been restricted to drones, the recent Pentagon leaks have disclosed an incident in which a Russian fighter jet almost shot down a British aircraft.
According to information provided by Pentagon’s leaked documents, a Su-27 of the Russian Aerospace Forces almost shot down a British RC-135W aircraft flying a surveillance sortie last year.
The Russian radar controller on the ground and the pilot of one of the Russian Su-27s sent to intercept the spy plane, which was in international airspace off the coast of Russian-occupied Crimea, were having conversations that were being overheard by the British RC-135 at the time of the incident.
Despite having beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (AAMs), the Su-27s were out of the RC-135’s line of sight. However, a command from a radar operator on the ground was misunderstood by one of the Su-27 pilots, who then believed he had the authority to fire on the RC-135 aircraft. The Russian pilot locked onto the British aircraft with a missile and fired an AAM.
However, the missile malfunctioned, and the British aircraft escaped unscathed. Military experts have since warned that if the missile had not malfunctioned, there could have been gross escalation between the two sides.