Earlier this week, Russian authorities claimed that a pair of American F-35 Lightning II fighters jets were “buzzing dangerously close” to Su-35s in the airspace over Syria.
A top Russian military officer added that Su-34 and Su-35 fighters had their defense systems activated after detecting radar tracking from the American stealth fighters.
These incidents follow a string of Russian provocations in the skies over Syria.
What’s Driving Russia’s Provocations in the Middle East?
Since the onset of the Ukraine invasion, U.S. military officials have observed an uptick in aggressive Russian flights over Syrian airspace. Two Russian Su-27 jets disabled an American unmanned aerial vehicle over the Black Sea in March, a blatant provocation denounced by the Pentagon. The U.S. Air Force had to bring down the MQ-9 Reaper drone after a pair of Russian fighters intentionally dumped fuel on it.
This “significant spike” in hostile and reckless behavior was labeled “buffoonery in the air” by the combined forces air component commander for CENTCOM, Lt. Gen Alexus Grynkewich. Also in March, a Russian Su-35 jet reportedly carried out an unsafe and unprofessional intercept of an American F-16 Fighting Falcon over Syria.
An Overview of the Russian-Iranian Partnership
Some U.S. analysts believe Moscow’s growing relationship with Tehran could be catalyzing its provocations over Syria. The Iranian regime has provided the Kremlin with a fleet of lethal UAVs over the last year. While Tehran initially denied delivering these weapons, U.S. officials now have evidence that many of the combat drones used to strike critical infrastructure, military assets, and civilian residences in Ukraine come from Iran.
In July, the U.S. deployed its F-35 and F-22 fifth-generation fighters to deter Iran and Russia from carrying out hostile acts. Iranian ships have been targeting oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz in recent months, a significant provocation that the U.S. and its allies must respond to. According to Grynkewich, Iran and Russia want to push the U.S. out of Syria as soon as possible and are likely coordinating to make this happen. For years, Tehran and Moscow have accused Washington of supporting al Qaeda-affiliated groups against the Syrian regime. In May, the chief of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency even accused America of training ISIS fighters at its Al-Tanf base on the Jordanian-Iraqi border.
If the F-22 and F-35 Can’t Deter, Nothing Will
Washington’s deployment of advanced stealth fighters to Syria is intended to thwart Russia and Iran’s aggression in the region. The F-22 Raptor was the first fifth-generation fighter platform to ever take to the skies. Equipped with a tiny radar cross section and thrust vectoring engines, this jet can outfly and outperform any near-peer.
Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II is the second fifth-generation fighter designed by the U.S. aerospace industry. Featuring all the hallmarks of an advanced jet, the Lightning will be the mainstay of tactical aviation among the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and U.S. partner nations for decades to come. The F-35’s three variants all incorporate stealth technology, with elements from radar absorbent materials to carefully shaped surfaces and specially designed engine intakes. They also boast advanced electronics and avionics, including a highly sensitive AESA radar and a state-of-the-art electro-optical targeting system that gives pilots an unprecedented amount of information.
Both the Raptor and the Lightning II are considerably more sophisticated than their Russian counterparts.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.
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