An American MQ-9 Reaper has taken damage in an encounter with a Russian Air Force Su-35 fighter plane over Syria, with the U.S. Air Force Central Command reporting that on July 23 the drone had been intercepted and its propeller severely damaged after the fighter deployed flares in its path. The command subsequently posted photos which purportedly showed the damage the aircraft had taken, criticising “the Russian fighter’s blatant disregard for flight safety.” This is the latest of multiple indictments which has seen high end Russian fighter jets deployed against American drones, with a Su-35 18 days prior on July 5 conducting aggressive manoeuvres near three Reapers also over Syria. The incident also saw the fighter drop flares in the drones’ paths, although no damage was reported at the time. Preceding this in March a Russian Su-27 Flanker, which uses the same basic highly manoeuvrable airframe design as the Su-35, conducted similar manoeuvres near a Reaper near Crimea causing it to crash. Tensions between Russian and NATO forces have remained high in Syria, leading the United States to expand its forces in the region including with the deployment of F-22 fifth generation fighters, which are thought to be based in neighbouring Jordan, as well as deployments of F-16 and F-35 fighters and A-10 attack jets within operating range of Syrian territory. Pentagon sources have reported that military options against Russian forces in Syria are being actively considered.
Su-35s were first deployed to Syria in early 2016 specifically to counter potential threats from NATO aircraft to Russian counterinsurgency operations, after the Syrian government requested Moscow provide support to its forces. Insurgents in Syria continue to operate only in enclaves near the Turkish and Iraqi borders under the protection of the Turkish and U.S. militaries respectively, with the presences of both considered illegal since they lack authorisation either from the United Nations Security Council or from Damascus to be on Syrian soil. The United States has faced significant international criticism for its extraction and sale of Syrian oil in the northeast to fund its occupation of the country’s oil rich northeastern regions, which has been widely likened by scholars of international politics and international law with pillaging – a serious war crime.
The Su-35s are still Russia’s most capable fighters fielded at squadron level strength, and are estimated to have more air to air kills than any other post Cold War fighter class in the world including multiple kills against high performance heavyweight jets over Ukraine. In Syria the fighters are supported by a significant network of ground based air defences such as S-400 systems as well as by other fighters such as Su-30SMs and Syrian MiG-29s. Nevertheless they remain overwhelmingly outnumbered by NATO aerial warfare assets deployed across the Middle East which has limited Russia’s ability to use its aviation to place pressure on Western and Turkish occupation forces within Syrian territory.