A Russian surveillance aircraft flew above a US base in Syria for an “extended period of time” on Friday morning in what officials deemed an intelligence collecting mission, a senior defense official said.
The aircraft, an Antonov An-30, flew over the At-Tanf garrison, the official said, flying back and forth several times over the base and the surrounding area.
“They continue to undertake activities that are very concerning to us,” the official said.
No US assets were able to intercept Russia’s manned surveillance aircraft in time because of where US aircraft were positioned at the time. The official said that the US has daily flight patterns determined by how many fighters are available, and tankers to refuel the fighters, as well as activity in Syria and Iraq and where they’re needed.
These flight schedules are routinely changed so that military patterns are not predictable, the official said, so the Russians would not have known in advance about the lack of US military airspace coverage.
While the US and Russia often collect intelligence on one another, this incident was significant in that it was directly over a US base. The official said there was a “lot of protest over the deconfliction line” established with Russia in Syria, which Russia brushed off.
“You can never cover everywhere it is you want to cover all at once, so we intentionally pattern that activity a little bit differently every day so that we’re not predictable … This just happened to be one of the periods where we had a small gap in our coverage over Al-Tanf garrison, nothing that could respond rapidly enough to get in position and intercept,” the official said, adding that they did not believe Russia knew US aircraft would be unable to respond.
“They probably would not have any advanced awareness that would’ve led them to do this, so it ended up just being a fortunate alignment,” they said.
In recent weeks there have been a number of incidents that have drawn the attention of US forces in Syria.
“We’re supposed to stay about three nautical miles away from each other’s aircraft all the time, and they were well inside of that,” the official said. “So I judge that as unprofessional because they’re not following the established rules that we have for aviation operations. But it was not reckless, like some of the previous intercepts.”
Deconfliction line ‘has stayed open’
The US speaks regularly with Russia over the deconfliction line related to military operations in Syria. The Russians have always answered when the US reaches out and vice versa, the official said. Much of the dialogue over the deconfliction line is “routine,” the official said, though occasionally it gets heated over what the US views as Russia’s overly aggressive flights.
Still, “the line has stayed open,” the official said.
The official also acknowledged that the US has used drones from Task Force 99, a small, innovative group established to use new emerging technologies on the battlefield and carry out surveillance missions in the region.
Despite the increased aggression from Russian aircraft, the official said there is no apparent willingness to get into an escalation with American forces, nor is there an American desire to engage Russian forces.
“We don’t assess the Russians are going to drop bombs on our troops or shoot at our manned aircraft,” the official said.
There has, though, been a “qualitative difference” in Russian military flights in Syria and how they interact with US aircraft, the official said. The difference may be an indication of growing Iranian influence in the relationship with the Kremlin and a desire to remove American forces from Syria. The growing stability of the Syrian regime may also contribute to the willingness to interact with American aircraft.
It could also be a result of failed military leaders attempting to regain praise or trust. Many of the Russian generals in Syria “are often generals who were sent from Ukraine after they failed in one of the pushes to Kyiv or the Donbass or wherever it is,” the official said, adding they may have “something to prove.”
The aircrew who knocked the US MQ-9 drone out of the sky over the Black Sea, for example, “got medals for it” according to the official.
“So a tactical aircrew, you know, when you see your brothers and sisters get a medal, you go ‘Oh well if I do that, maybe I’ll get a medal, too.’ So there’s a lot of things that kind of compound based on that situation,” the official said.
In addition to Russian activity, the US has also maintained watch over the maritime domain in the Middle East to deter any Iranian aggression. Just last week, the US Navy intervened in two separate instances of Iranian Navy efforts to seize two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
The US military’s air and maritime components in the Middle East are working together closely to ensure there is enough coverage to deter Iran “from going after oil tankers, which they have done four or five of them over the last several weeks,” the official said.
They added that the US recently began flying the A-10 attack aircraft over the Strait of Hormuz, which are equipped with weapons capable of targeting Iranian fast attack boats and other maritime targets. A-10s were deployed to the region in late March following a series of attacks on US positions by Iranian-affiliated militias.
This week, F-16 fighter jets will join that mission, flying maritime patrols over the critical waterway.