This image released by the US Department of Defense (DoD), shows a Russian fighter plane flying close to a US MQ-9 Reaper drone before deploying flares from a position directly over the drone on July 23, 2023, damaging its propeller, according to a DoD statement. Image Credit: AFP

WASHINGTON: A Russian fighter jet fired flares and struck another US drone over Syrian airspace on Wednesday, the White House said, in a continued string of harassing maneuvers that have ratcheted up tensions between the global powers.

It’s the sixth reported incident this month, and the second in the past 24 hours, in which the United States has said Russian warplanes have flown dangerously close to American manned and unmanned aircraft, putting crews and the planes at risk and raising questions as to what the US may need to do in response.

Two US officials confirmed that the strike damaged the MQ-9 Reaper drone. The officials were not authorised to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We’ve seen the reports, the early reports, of a second Russian fighter aircraft this week flying dangerously close to our drone” on a mission to counter Daesh (Islamic State) militants in Syria, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. She did not provide other details, but said Russia’s “close approach to and deployment of flares over US drones during a routine mission” violates international norms.

In the incidents over the past two days, Russian warplanes have fired flares that struck US MQ-9 Reaper drones. On Tuesday, the flares damaged a drone’s propeller; on Wednesday, Russian-dropped flares hit a drone. In previous incidents, Russian jets have intercepted the US planes at dangerously close distances, including one instance with a manned aircraft that the US said put the lives of the four American crewmembers at risk.

A senior Russian military leader blamed the US for the latest incident, and charged that aircraft from the US-led coalition in Syria violated deconfliction protocols with Russia 10 times in the past 24 hours.

Dangerous manoeuvring

Rear Adm. Oleg Gurinov, the head of the Russian military’s Reconciliation Center in Syria, said that the US drone flew dangerously close to a pair of Russian warplanes in the skies over Syria early Wednesday. Gurinov said that onboard systems of the Russian Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft spotted the aircraft being targeted and triggered the automatic release of flares.

“The United States are continuing to disinform the public about unlawful flights of its drones in the Syrian air space that have failed to undergo deconflicting procedure while accusing the Russian side of dangerous manoeuvring,” Gurinov said in a statement carried by the Interfax news agency.

He also said the US drone involved in the Tuesday encounter was not cleared through deconfliction procedures and was “entirely provocative.” He said Russian pilots “showed a high degree of professionalism and took timely steps to avoid a collision with the drone.”

US and Russian military commanders routinely communicate over a deconfliction phone line that has been in place for several years to avoid unintended clashes in Syria. There are often many calls a day, and at times result in angry threats as commanders argue over an ongoing operation, according to a senior US official.

In previous incidents over Syria, according to US Air Forces Central:

—on Sunday, a Russian fighter aircraft flew “dangerously close” to a U.S. MQ-9 drone conducting a mission against IS militants and deployed flares from directly overhead. The aircraft were only a few meters apart. One of the flares struck the MQ-9, “severely damaging its propeller.”

—on July 16, a Russian Su-35 fighter jet forced an American twin-engine surveillance plane routinely used by special operations forces to fly through the Su-35’s wake turbulence, which “reduced the crew’s ability to safely operate the aircraft and put the four crewmembers’ lives at risk.” The intercept of the manned MC-12 represented “a new level of unsafe and unprofessional actions by Russian aircraft operating in Syria.”

—on July 7, Russian aircraft flew what were 18 unprofessional close passes that caused three MQ-9s to react to avoid unsafe situations.

—on July 6, Russian aircraft dropped flares in front of MQ-9 drones conducting a counterterrorism mission and flew dangerously close.

—on July 5, Russian fighter jets harassed three MQ-9 drones by dropping multiple parachute flares in front of the drones, forcing the aircraft to conduct evasive maneuvers. Additionally, “one Russian pilot positioned their aircraft in front of an MQ-9 and engaged afterburner, thereby reducing the operator’s ability to safely operate the aircraft.”