Su-34 and Su-35 are damn good in Syria, F-16s can’t really match

The escalating tussle between Russian and American forces in Syria is raising eyebrows across the globe, with fears of a potential escalation of this conflict into a full-fledged face-off between the two superpowers. 

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Recent events have seen a flurry of accusations from both parties, alleging breaches of deconfliction protocols. The frequency of these dangerous encounters, with reports emerging almost daily, is a stark indicator of the simmering military tensions in the Syrian landscape. 

Rear Admiral Oleg Gurinov, the Deputy Chief of the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria, narrates an incident from July 26. A US-made MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle, part of the US-led international coalition, reportedly flew alarmingly close to a duo of Russian Aerospace Forces’ Su-35 and Su-34 aircraft in the Al-Bab region, at an altitude of 6,200 meters. 

According to Gurinov, the Russian aircraft promptly released decoy flares, a response triggered by their radars to the MQ-9 Reaper locking its weapons onto them. Adding to the tension, the Russian military claimed on July 25 that the US-led coalition’s unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs] had violated the deconfliction rules over Syria as many as 12 times in a single day. 

July 27 added another incident to the list when a Russian Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicle reportedly fell victim to a radio-electronic attack over Syrian airspace. Despite the attack, the drone operators managed to navigate it back to base safely, as reported by TASS News Agency.

Oleg Gurinov provided an in-depth account of the incident, stating, “At exactly 10:20 a.m. on the 27th of July, a Russian Orlan-10 drone experienced a radio-electronic interference with its control circuits near the Al-Enkawi settlement in Hama province. Subsequently, an attempt was made to manipulate its navigation field.” This report detailed a significant breach of Russia’s declared boundaries in Syria, which was cause for immediate concern. 

Less than 24 hours later, on July 28, another incident of escalation was reported. Rear Admiral Oleg Gurinov released another statement detailing the event, “At 07:55, at a height of 5,000 meters near the Nafla settlement in Raqqa province, a dangerous encounter was recorded between an MQ-9 drone of the coalition and a Su-34 aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces.” 

Gurinov also highlighted the serious implications of the drone flight not being deconflicted. He expressed, “Russian pilots, in a display of high professionalism, promptly took the necessary actions to avert a collision with an unmanned aerial vehicle from the coalition.” 

The US Central Command, on the other hand, has leveled accusations against the Russian Su-35 Flanker-E fighter jets. They are alleged to have conducted dangerous interceptions, maneuvers, and sorties over US military bases in north-western Syria since the start of the year. These allegations are typically accompanied by the lingering fear of a potential “miscalculation.”

Rising tensions

Accusations have been made by the US against Russia, alleging that Russian actions are jeopardizing the safety of its unmanned aerial vehicles. Evidence of these allegations was presented earlier this month in the form of videos released by the US Air Force, depicting alleged perilous maneuvers by Russian aircraft near US military drones over Syria. 

Further incidents have been reported by US Air Force Central [AFCENT] Commander Lieutenant General Alex Grynkewich, who claimed that a Su-35 Russian fighter aircraft was intentionally positioned in front of an MQ-9 drone, with the afterburner activated, disrupting the drone operator’s ability to control the aircraft safely. 

Additionally, the US Central Command [CENTCOM] has released two previously classified videos showing Russian Su-35 fighter jets executing what they deem to be unsafe maneuvers. According to EurAsian Times, both videos appear to have been recorded using aircraft targeting pods or similar sensor systems, with one featuring an F-16V and the other an unidentified aircraft. Each video depicts a Su-35 executing a risky maneuver against a USAF fighter. 

In another event reported in May, a US official disclosed an incident from November 2022, where a Russian surface-to-air missile narrowly missed an American MQ-9 Reaper drone over Syria. Despite detonating only 40 feet from the Reaper and causing some damage, the drone was able to return safely to base. 

In response to these incidents, the US has been gradually increasing its deterrence efforts. A dozen US F-35 stealth fighters were dispatched to the Middle East this week to strengthen US Central Command’s airpower in the region. Although primarily targeted at Iran’s growing military power, this deployment is also seen in light of the alleged harassment by Russian jets. 

Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary, Sabrina Singh, confirmed on July 17 that the secretary of defense had ordered the deployment of the USS Thomas Hudner destroyer, F-35 fighters, and F-16 fighters to the US Central Command [CENTCOM] area of responsibility. 

The recent arrival of stealth F-22s to Jordan from Europe as part of a temporary rotation, aimed at deterring Russian activities in the region, has also been noticed by military observers. This development has sparked concerns about the possibility of an aerial confrontation. 

The landing of USAF jets in Jordan is perceived as a direct show of force in response to recent Russian military activity in the region, particularly in Syria. This move is considered significant, given several earlier warnings from CENTCOM about frequent dangerous encounters with Russian warplanes, including sorties over important US bases and intelligence gathering. 

The dispatch of F-35 stealth fighters to the region has led to speculations that they may come into contact with Su-35s and Su-34s of the Russian Aerospace Forces [VKS]. Given the recent interactions between the two forces, experts believe that an escalation might be on the horizon. 

Russia will unveil the export Sukhoi Su-57E fighter in India - Su-35 fighter jet
Photo credit: Rosoboronexport

An anonymous Middle East-based expert quoted by EurAsian Times suggested that the increasing engagements between the US and Russia might be an unnecessary escalation, given the ongoing situation in Ukraine. The expert further opined that both countries are aware that diverting resources from the Ukrainian battlefield is not the most prudent strategy at this critical juncture. 

“The US is deploying F-22 or perhaps F-35 jets less for emergency response and more for deterrence. Both sides are likely aware of this. The USAF needs its best fighters because the Su-34 and Su-35 are formidable, and the F-16 Viper may not be a match,” the expert added. 

The deployment of another stealth fighter jet to the Middle East, following the earlier deployment of one, has raised questions. While the move seems to be aimed at countering the threat from Iran, its role in deterring Russian forces in Syria is also highlighted. 

In a stern warning from the head of the US Air Forces Central Command, Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, who oversees US military operations over Syria and 20 other countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, said, “The situation is ripe for miscalculation. There’s a breakdown in professionalism that I’ve never seen from the Russian Air Force.”


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