The U.S. military has released high resolution video of an encounter between an MQ-9 Reaper and a Russian fighter jet over Syria, during which the U.S. drone was severely damaged. The encounter is the most recent example of the Russian air force’s escalating pattern of harassing U.S. forces in Syria.
On July 23, the Russian fighter flew “dangerously close” to the Reaper and then dropped flares into the drone’s path while just a few meters away from the U.S. aircraft, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, head of U.S. Air Forces Central Command.
One of the flare’s severely damaged the Reaper’s propeller, but the drone’s crew was able to fly it back to its home base, Grynkewich said in a Tuesday news release.
Video of the incident released by U.S. officials shows that the Russian fighter came so close to the Reaper that a “Z” painted on the aircraft was clearly visible. “Z” is a symbol adopted by Russian forces during their invasion of Ukraine.
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“The Russian fighter’s blatant disregard for flight safety detracts from our mission to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Grynkewich said in the news release. “We call upon the Russian forces in Syria to put an immediate end to this reckless, unprovoked, and unprofessional behavior.”
The July 23 incident is just the latest example of Russian pilots harassing U.S. aircraft and ground forces in Syria. Russian planes have flown aggressively around other MQ-9 Reapers this month – including one drone that later launched a missile that killed ISIS leader Usamah al-Muhajir. Another Russian jet fighter put the crew of an MC-12 surveillance plane in danger by forcing it to fly through the jet’s turbulence.
Retired Army Maj. Ray Finch, an expert on Russia, told Task & Purpose the day before the incident that Russian pilots are trying to strike back at the U.S. military in Syria for the United States’ military support to Ukraine.
“It’s a game of poker, and the ante is going up,” Finch said. “I would not be surprised if there would be a direct engagement.”
This type of aerial buffoonery is not limited to Syria, where the U.S. has about 900 troops. In March, two Russian fighters harassed an MQ-9 flying over the Black Sea. One of the Russian jets ran into the Reaper while trying to dump fuel into its flight path, causing its crew to crash the drone into the water.
The Russian pilot who bumped into the Reaper later received a military award for allegedly stopping the drone from violating international airspace restrictions.
The most recent encounter between a Reaper and Russian fighter over Syria underscores that the U.S. military responds differently to aerial incidents differently depending on whether they involve manned or unmanned aircraft, said retired Navy Cmdr. Guy Snodgrass, a former F/A-18 Hornet pilot.
“If a Russian plane had gotten so close to a manned fighter aircraft that the flares had damaged it or put that pilot’s life at risk, you’d probably hear a large uproar about it,” Snodgrass said. “At the end of the day, there’s really no difference. It’s still a sovereign aircraft. I think that’s the challenge that’s really facing us: What stance are we going to take? Are they going to take more liberties with unmanned aircraft, or are we going to hold the line that it’s still part of our nation’s equipment, and so when you do an unsafe action like this, it’s going to require some sort of response.”
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