Russian Su-25 Almost Hits US F-22 During Intercept Over Syria, But Is There More Going On?

Reports of two separate incidents, weeks apart, sound almost too similar to just be a coincidence.

USAF

The United States and Russia are disputing the circumstances of an engagement between combat aircraft from both countries over Syria that almost resulted in a collision, the latest in what the U.S. military says are becoming a steady stream of unprofessional and dangerous aerial incidents. But what makes this new report almost bizarre is the Kremlin’s version of the story is nearly identical to one from weeks earlier that American officials say never occurred, raising the question of whether some portion of these reports may be deliberate misinformation.

The basic facts of the new intercept, as much as both sides agree on them, are that a U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jammed itself in front of a pair of Russian Air Force Su-25 Frogfoots near the Syrian city of Al Mayadin. The American jet, cutting across the path of the Russian aircraft, dropped decoy flares and possibly chaff in an attempt to get the Russians to change course, a tactic commonly known as “head-butting,” according to Fox News. Similar tactics, also referred to as "thumping" have been used in the past by American fighters during similar incidents over Syria. Beyond that, the United States and Russia have significantly different accounts of what happened and where.

The Pentagon says the Russian jets crossed over to the eastern side of the Euphrates River in Syria and either could not or would not respond to radio calls on an emergency channel to leave the area. At present, the United States and Russia officially acknowledge the waterway as a deconfliction boundary between their respective activities in the country. They have agreed that the Russians will stay to the west of the river, while the U.S. military and its partners will stay on the eastern side.

“We’re trying to kill ISIS,” Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesperson, told The Washington Post. “But we’re also trying to contend with unsafe interaction with Russian jets.”

Vitaly Kuzmin

A Russian Air Force Su-25 Frogfoot. 

Pahon told multiple outlets that the encounter lasted approximately 40 minutes and that at one point, one of the Frogfoots maneuvered dangerously close to the Raptor almost causing a collision. He added that Russian aircraft violate the deconfliction line between six and eight times a day on average, amounting to approximately 10 percent of their total sorties in Syria. Underscoring the issue, a Russian Su-35S Flanker E fighter jet reportedly crossed the boundary during the other intercept, while a second F-22 shadowed that aircraft's movement.

The Russians deny this version of events. In its own statement, the Russian Ministry of Defense said that the Frogfoots had been escorting a humanitarian convoy on the western side of the Eurphrates. The Kremlin says it was actually the F-22 that crossed the deconfliction line to harass its jets.

Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Sputnik via AP

A Russian Air Force Su-35S Flanker E.

"A Russian Su-35 fighter jet, performing an air cover mission at an altitude of 10,000 meters, swiftly approached the F-22 from the rear," their statement added. The pilot reportedly succeeded in "forcing the American aircraft to leave the area."

It seems difficult to believe that the pilots in the F-22s did not have an accurate understanding of their position or would have crossed the deconfliction line without any provocation. A weekly intelligence summary from the U.S. Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT) Combined Intelligence Fusion Center (CIFC), situated at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which we obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, does include a section on GPS jamming. 

USAF via FOIA

A portion of the table of contents for the CIFC Weekly Intelligence Summary for Dec. 1 to 7, 2016.

Unfortunately, censored redacted the entire content of those passages, so we have no idea whether or not there have been any actual reported incidents. The United States has not publicly alleged that the Russians, or anyone else in the region, are interfering with coalition operations in Iraq and Syria in this way. There are separate reports of the Kremlin blocking or confusing the satellite navigation system in Europe, though. 

Also the F-22's navigation suite is very capable, and like most all modern combat aircraft, it doesn't rely on GPS alone. Its ring-laser-gyro inertial navigation system can work effectively without GPS. Other sensors, including the aircraft's AN/APG-77 AESA radar and ALR-94 electronic support measures suite can can help in geolocating targets and to figure out the place in space and time the F-22 occupies in relation to its surrounding environment.  

Regardless of what details are right or wrong in this case, it does seem clear that these incidents are becoming increasingly common. However, that doesn’t mean that we should expect them to play out the same way every time. So, it seems particularly noteworthy that the Russian government alleges that American pilots were responsible for another incident on Nov. 23, 2017 that was functionally identical to the one on Dec. 13, 2017.

USAF

An F-22 Raptor.

It is hard to stress just how similar the Kremlin’s versions of events are in both cases.

Major-General Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry's spokesperson, said that in the November intercept, an F-22 had head-butted a pair of Su-25s west of the Euphrates as they attempted to attack an ISIS position near Al Mayadin. Again, a Su-35S reportedly drove off the American stealth fighter.

To make matters even more curious, in a statement to the Aviationist’s David Cenciotti, a public affairs officer for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the top U.S.-led command in charge of the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, stated categorically that this earlier incident never even happened.

“There is no truth to this allegation,” they said. “According to our flight logs for Nov 23, 2017, this alleged incident did not take place, nor has there been any instance where a Coalition aircraft crossed the river without first deconflicting with the Russians via the deconfliction phone line set up for this purpose.”

At the time, it seemed that Major-General Konashenkov’s remarks, which he made on Dec. 12, 2017, were just a response to a story from The New York Times highlighting Russia’s increasing violations of the deconfliction arrangement in Syria. Now, one has to wonder if he was somehow attempting to set the stage to challenge the veracity of American claims in future incidents.

The only significant difference between the two Russian allegations is what the Su-25s were doing during the incidents. Konashenkov comments implied that the United States has actually been working with ISIS, a long-standing and completely unfounded conspiracy theory.

Vadim Grishankin/Russian Federation Press Service via AP

Russian personnel prep an Su-25 in Syria.

The new report would seem to assert that the U.S. military is seeking to interfere with the delivery of humanitarian relief. The basic underlying accusation is functionally the same though, painting the United States and its partners as actors that do not care for the Syrian people and that are actively working to destroy their livelihoods.

These elements by themselves are typical of the kind of information warfare that has become a hallmark of the modern Russian way of war. This includes a concept known as maskirovka, which translates variously to “masking” or “camouflaging,” which refers to a more complex set of tactics to obscure the situation both on and off the battlefield to help achieve a certain policy objective. You can read a more detailed breakdown of Russian “hybrid” or “new generation” here.

"It’s become increasingly tough for our pilots to discern whether Russian pilots are deliberately testing or baiting us into reacting, or if these are just honest mistakes," U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Damien Pickart, a spokesperson, told The Times for their December 2017 article. “The greatest concern is that we could shoot down a Russian aircraft because its actions are seen as a threat to our air or ground forces.”

Of course, it could just as easily be that these incidents are routine enough that the details Konashenkov gave, whether real or fabricated, are just that likely to repeat themselves. We at The War Zone have written extensively in the past on the steadily increasingly potential for a dangerous skirmish between American and Russian forces in Syria, or among their respective local partners.

This has hardly been idle speculation. In June 2017, a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Arab Air Force Su-22 Fitter ground attack jet after it attacked U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces. It's also not the first time F-22s have come to the rescue to drive potentially hostile jets away from friendly positions. The hard to detect aircraft have played the role somewhat akin to an invisible referee over Syria's convoluted skies. The Russians probably find their ability to evade detection frustrating if not a bit unnerving. 

The precariousness of the situation has only become more pronounced as ISIS has suffered increasing defeats, leaving a power vacuum, particularly in Syria, filled with a number of desperate factions, each with their own agendas. Confusing and conflicting reports about the U.S. government’s intentions in the Syria and the region as a whole have only exacerbated these issues.

And despite declaring total victory against its enemies in Syria and withdrawing some of its forces, Russia remains an active participant in the ongoing conflict. Emboldened by its recent successes, Moscow has been increasingly active in pushing its own agendas and continually seeking to challenge and undermine America’s position in the Middle East as a whole.

It will be interesting to see if reports of more nearly identical aerial incidents begin to emerge as American and Russian forces find themselves in increasingly close contact amid the steadily evolving character of the fighting in Syria.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com