Russia fired at a US Reaper drone that was flying over eastern Syria late last year, although they didn’t manage to down it, according to new reports based on the leaked US military and intelligence documents that have been circulating online for the last month.
According to news outlet The Drive, US Central Command has confirmed the incident. It comes as reports also indicate that Iran has carried out almost 80 attacks on US forces since 2021.
Another article in the Air and Space Forces Magazine noted on April 20 that “Russia has stepped up its harassment of US forces in Syria, overflying American positions with armed fighters and closing within a few hundred feet of US fighters. Perhaps most alarmingly, a Russian surface-to-air missile system fired at a US drone back in November.”
According to the report, Lt.-Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich said the incidents include a “risk of miscalculation.” Grynkewich is commander of the Ninth Air Force (Air Forces Central) at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, and the Combined Forces Air Component Commander for US Central Command, Southwest Asia.
In these roles, the general is responsible for developing contingency plans and conducting air operations across a 21-nation area of responsibility covering Central and Southwest Asia, the US Air Force says.
According to The Drive article, last November, Russian forces operating a Pantsir-S1 air defense system fired on a US MQ-9 Reaper drone flying over eastern Syria but did not succeed in shooting it down. The report added that US Central Command has confirmed the incident, although the fact that it even happened only emerged recently in one of a number of leaked US military documents.”
The Washington Post also reported that the leaked documents show that a Pantsir air defense system engaged the MW-9 Reaper drone, firing a missile in its direction. The Pantsir is a mobile air defense system that is equipped with missiles and radar capabilities and it has been used in Syria and Libya in recent years.
However, while the Pantsir has been used against Turkish-made drones in Syria and Libya, the system has also suffered losses and it’s not clear how effective it would be against a Reaper. While it can detect threats at a range of some 30km, its missiles are likely only effective at a range of 7km, making it a short-range air defense system.
However, with guns that can be used against aerial targets, the Pantsir t is ostensibly effective against aircraft, helicopters and other flying objects.
“We can confirm that a Russian-controlled SA-22 fired a missile at a US MQ-9 on November 27th, 2022,” US Army Col. Joe Buccino, a spokesperson for US Central Command (CENTCOM), told The Drive’s The War Zone report in a statement.
The US apparently contacted Russian officials after the incident.
A free-for-all for Syria forces
The targeting of the US drone is unique. While it’s not clear if it’s the first time this has happened, Russian forces in Syria do not generally fire on US forces. The Russians operate in regime-controlled areas while after Turkey invaded parts of northern Syria in late 2019, US forces withdrew from the border areas.
The Syrian regime and Russian forces then ended up in areas between US forces and the Turkish border. The Syrian Democratic Forces, the main anti-ISIS group the US works with within Syria, also operate in this zone. This means that in areas along the border, air space is a bit chaotic. Turkish drones are often flown by Turkey into northern Syria where they are used to target the SDF, who Turkey claims are terrorists. Meanwhile, the US backs the SDF.
This means that Ankara uses drones to carry out strikes that sometimes end up close to US forces. In addition, Russia operates in these areas near Qamishli, and other Kurdish towns near the border. Russian helicopters have sometimes been seen near US forces and Iranian-backed militias near Deir Ezzor on the Euphrates frequently targeting US forces with rockets and drones near bases at Conoco and Omar field.
This means that Syria is a kind of free-for-all area where different air forces and groups operate in different areas and those areas often overlap. That means that pro-Iran militias operate near Homs, Hama, Damascus, Aleppo and even near the Golan. The US operates at Tanf garrison near the Jordan-Syria-Iraq border, while the US also operates in eastern Syria.
Along the Turkish border in the north, the Russians and Turks both operate. The US, for instance, recently carried out a helicopter raid near a Turkish-occupied area near Manbij, according to reports last week. Ostensibly Turkey and the US, both members of NATO, coordinate.
However, Turkey’s drones have fired on areas close to US forces apparently without warning them. Russia and the US are supposed to deescalate conflict in Syria as well although the reports of the drone being targeted imply this doesn’t happen perfectly and recent reports indicate there have been some 63 incidents where Russia did not abide deconfliction protocols.
In addition, Russian SU-35 aircraft have increased their presence in Syria near US forces. This has happened two dozen times in recent months. When added to the Iranian threats, it’s clear US forces, which official sources put at just some 600 personnel, are facing multiple pressures.
The head of CENTCOM has called Russia’s behavior unprofessional and noted there is a “spike” in this behavior. With the US sending arms to Ukraine it may not be a surprise that in Syria there is tensions where Russia an the US operate in close proximity.
Could the US Reaper be more vulnerable than was previously thought?
US Reaper drones are vulnerable to both air defense missiles and air defense systems.
US drones, such the Reaper and the larger surveillance drone known as the Global Hawk, were developed when the US had air superiority over most areas it operated. These drones came into maturity during the global war on terror where they operated in what is called “uncontested” airspace.
That means that there were rarely air defenses in the spaces they were used in – Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia – that could target the drones, and even when they operated in rural Pakistan, the Pakistan air defenses did not target them.
In recent years the developments of drone warfare have changed. Now the US is no longer fighting terrorists but rather it is engaged in operations where serious military powers like Russia or Iran may be present. Iran downed a US Global Hawk in June 2020 off the coast of Iran.
In Ukraine, both sides use drones and Ukrainian air defenders have become proficient in downing Iranian drones that are used by Russia. It’s not clear if the Reapers now have more technology that might enable them to avoid air defense systems but one thing is sure – the downing of a sophisticated expensive drone like a Reaper would be considered a major incident.
Source : The Jerusalem Post