Close call in the skies: MQ-9 survives mid-air encounter with Su-35

The U.S. Air Force Central Command has reported an incident involving an American MQ-9 Reaper and a Russian Air Force Su-35 fighter jet over Syrian airspace on July 23. The encounter resulted in substantial damage to the Reaper’s propeller. This happened after the deployment of missiles by the Russian plane. The Command has voiced its disapproval of what it sees. “It is glaring disregard for flight safety on the part of the Russian fighter.”

Close call in the skies: MQ-9 survives mid-air encounter with Su-35
Photo credit: USAF

The Command has released photographs ostensibly showcasing the extent of the damage to the American drone. This incident is not an isolated one, but rather the latest in a series of confrontations where top-tier Russian fighter jets have been deployed against American drones.

A similar incident occurred just 18 days prior on July 5, when a Su-35 conducted aggressive maneuvers near three American Reapers, again over Syria, dropping flares in their paths. At that time, however, no damage was reported. 

March 2023

A precedent for such encounters was set in March when a Russian Su-27 Flanker, a jet with a highly maneuverable airframe design similar to the Su-35, conducted comparable maneuvers near a Reaper near Crimea, resulting in a crash. The ongoing tensions between Russian and NATO forces in Syria have prompted the United States to bolster its presence in the region. 

The U.S. has responded by deploying F-22 fifth-generation fighters, believed to be based in neighboring Jordan, and positioning F-16 and F-35 fighters as well as A-10 attack jets within the operational range of Syrian territory. Pentagon sources indicate that military options against Russian forces in Syria are being actively explored.

Su-35 in Syria

In the early months of 2016, the Su-35s were initially dispatched to Syria as a strategic move to neutralize potential threats posed by NATO aircraft against Russian counterinsurgency operations. This move was a response to the Syrian government’s request for Moscow’s support in their defensive efforts.

Egyptian Su-35 Flanker-E fighters are going to Iran in March
Photo credit: Wikipedia

The remaining insurgents in Syria are confined to enclaves near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, operating under the protection of the Turkish and U.S. military forces. The presence of these forces on Syrian soil, which lacks the sanction of either the United Nations Security Council or Damascus, is deemed illegal.

The United States has drawn considerable international ire for its exploitation and sale of Syrian oil from the northeast to finance its occupation of the oil-rich northeastern regions of the country. Many international law and politics scholars equate this action to pillaging, a grave war crime. 

Su-35 in the sky

The Su-35s, still regarded as Russia’s most formidable fighters at squadron level strength, are believed to have achieved more air-to-air victories than any other class of post-Cold War fighter jets worldwide, including multiple victories against high-performance heavyweight jets over Ukraine.

In Syria, these fighters are backed by an extensive network of ground-based air defense systems such as the S-400 systems, along with other fighters including Su-30SMs and Syrian MiG-29s. Despite this, they are vastly outnumbered by NATO aerial warfare assets deployed across the Middle East, which has curtailed Russia’s ability to leverage its aviation to exert pressure on Western and Turkish occupying forces within Syrian territory.


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