The Reason U.S. F-22 Stealth Jets and Russian Su-35S Flankers Are Shadow Boxing Over Syria May Have Nothing to Do with Syria

Dec 15 2017 - 73 Comments
By Tom Demerly

Are U.S. And Russia in Last-Minute Intelligence Grab Over Syria?

International news media has been crackling with reports of intercept incidents between U.S. and Russian combat aircraft along the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) de-confliction line over Syria since late November. Two incidents, one on November 23 and another two days ago on December 13, made headlines in Russia and the U.S. with differing accounts of the incidents and the reasons they happened. We reported on the first one of these incidents here.

With the war on ISIS in Syria reportedly reaching its final phase according to many analysts, especially Russian, are these last few months of Russian/U.S. close proximity operations a rare opportunity for both parties to gather a significant amount of intelligence about each other’s’ capabilities? The answer is likely “yes”.

There are reportedly about 3,000 ISIS insurgents left in the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) area according to intelligence reports, and it is possible those remaining insurgents may be purposely seeking refuge in this region because of the complex de-confliction requirements between U.S. and Russian air forces. These de-confliction requirements could compromise the response times of both sides to conduct effective air strikes against ISIS due to the risks of potentially unintentional conflict.

The encounters between Russian and U.S. aircraft over Syria are not new. “We saw anywhere from six to eight incidents daily in late November, where Russian or Syrian aircraft crossed into our airspace on the east side of the Euphrates River,” Lt. Col. Damien Pickart of the U.S. Air Forces Central Command told U.S. news outlet CNN on Saturday. “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.”

Lt. Col. Pickart went on to tell news media, “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.”

As the complex, multi-party proxy war over Syria appears to be winding down these final weeks provide what may be a last, great opportunity for a rich “intelligence grab” for both the U.S. and Russia about their newest aircraft’ capabilities when flying in controlled opposition to one another. Picture a “Red Flag” exercise where the “red air” element is actually “red”, albeit with live weapons and higher stakes.

ntelligence gathered by using the U.S. F-22 against the latest Russian SU-35s will likely be invaluable in assessing future tactics and understanding Russian capabilities. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)

USAF Lt. Col. Pickart’s remarks about the Russians “deliberately testing or baiting us” are indicative of a force managing interactions to collect sensor, intelligence and capability “order of battle”. This intelligence is especially relevant from the current Syrian conflict as it affords both the Russians and the U.S. with the opportunity to operate their latest combat aircraft in close proximity to gauge their real-world sensor capabilities and tactical vulnerabilities, as well as learn doctrine. It is likely the incidents occurring now over Syria, and the intelligence gleaned from them, will be poured over in detail for years to come.

For instance, we have often explained how Raptors act as “electronic warfare enabled sensor-rich multi-role aircraft” over Syria, providing escort to strike packages into and out of the target area while gathering details about the enemy systems and spreading intelligence to other “networked” assets supporting the mission to improve the overall situational awareness. In fact, the F-22 pilot leverage advanced onboard sensors, as the AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar, to collect valuable details about the enemy, performing ELINT-like missions and then sharing the “picture” with attack planes, command and control assets, as well as Airborne Early Warning aircraft.

Moreover, as we have reported, it is well known that the U.S. has operated relatively current Russian aircraft photographed in air combat simulation training in the remote desert over Nevada. But those aircraft are at least an entire generation behind the current Russian aircraft flying over Syria in the final phase of the vigorous anti-ISIS Russian air operations.

Russian built Sukhoi SU-27 aircraft were photographed last year over the Nevada test ranges near where Lt. Col. Eric Schultz’s accident may have occurred. (Credit: Phil Drake)

The danger of these close-quarter Russian/U.S. shadow boxing matches is that one of them could accidentally “turn hot”. Since both sides are carrying live weapons the reliance on maintaining adherence to current Rules of Engagement (ROE) on both parties is critical.

Another risk is air-to-air collision.

New York Times reporter Eric Schmidt wrote about an incident in November when, “In one instance, two Air Force A-10 attack planes flying east of the Euphrates River nearly collided head-on with a Russian Su-24 Fencer just 300 feet away — a knife’s edge when all the planes were streaking at more than 350 miles per hour. The A-10s swerved to avoid the Russian aircraft, which was supposed to fly only west of the Euphrates.”

The risks of this new-age cold war over Syria going hot are likely worth it in terms of the intelligence being collected on both sides though. It is reasonable to suggest that, with the recent media attention to the incidents, the pressure to keep this cold war from getting hot are greater than ever.

Hopefully those pressures on both the Russian and the U.S. air forces will keep this new version of the cold war from boiling over.

Deployment of Russia’s latest SU-35 to Syria will give the Russians a wealth of information about how the aircraft performs against the U.S F-22 Raptor in the ongoing shadow-boxing between the two aircraft over the Middle Euphrates River Valley. (Photo: Sputnik)

  • Raptor1

    Send in the F-35 – Let’s have a few little challenges for our billion dollar wonder plane.
    We’ll keep big brother on standby, no worries.

  • Daniel Martin

    “We saw anywhere from six to eight incidents daily in late November, where Russian or Syrian aircraft crossed into our airspace on the east side of the Euphrates River,” Lt. Col. Damien Pickart of the U.S. Air Forces Central Command told U.S. news outlet CNN on Saturday

    This so called General obviously doesn’t have a clue about neither geography nor international law, the USAF and USN are committing an blatant aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic violating it’s airspace and conducting military operations on it’s soil and their armed forces on a routine basis.

    So this so called general should take a lesson or to in geography to understand that what he calls “our airspace” is in fact Syrian airspace and that the Russians are there legally on the invitation of the Syrian government, whilst the Americans are there illegally committing aggression against the same.

    cheers.

  • Gus Coronado

    The majority of the time the Russians don’t even know their there lol. Look at the intercept beween the Su-35 and the F-22 when they were supposedly trying to stop the Su-25’s from bombing coalition forces. The Russian MoD clearly said ONE F-22 but all know that most sorties are never ever flown by a single plane in an active combat zone. The Russian’s S400 and Advance Radar of Su-35 couldn’t pickup the other F-22. Now I’m sure there will Russian fanboys coming up with excuses BUT if F-22 is shit and stealth is not important or needed, then why is their russian MoD investing so heavily in the Pak FA? Why does that plane very much resemble the F-22? I doubt there will be any decent answers to this question only shit talking…

    • Mark Jhorr

      Maybe the Russians want the Americans to THINK they could not pick up the other F-22, they have spent decades studying American tactics. Also possible the F-22 was flying with some F-15s for top cover.

  • Gus Coronado

    Using chemical weapons against civilians is a violation of international law and basic human rights as well sir. Also Russia’s use of bunker busting bombs to blow up underground hospitals is a violation of international law as well….

  • enricodiba

    F22 hasn’t IRST system comparated to Su35s and today hasn’t upgrade for missiles aim 120 and AIM-9X in anycase these missiles are lower that the last russian missiles.

  • Uniform223

    >No AESA radars.
    >No engines comparable to F-119, F-135, or EJ200 (power and efficiency)
    >Unstealthy
    >No hmd/cs
    >No modern networking/communications (link-16, MADL, IFDL),

    Those aircraft are only modern in a sense that they are new. In terms of tech, they are a generation or more behind.

  • rotary_rasp

    Russians and other active radars can track F-22s when it is carrying its spherical ball under the fuselage during peace mission. The ball is enough to indicate the F-22s presence in the air and to return a false signature.

    I suppose when those balls are removed and active systems are on, it would be a different story for the Russians. F-22s could possibly blend with the background noise.

  • Joe

    Come on US has no business to be in Syria and allowed to fly there because Russia allowed it.

    So even if Russian planes go into US allocated zone, so what . It is not attacking US forces. Russian planes have the right to fly to all parts of Syria.

    So a nice rebuke will do. Why talk about shooting down Russian planes as though US is legally in Syria. Gosh really no shame

    Assad can officially tell US to leave

  • Simon Gunson

    The most valuable experience Russia gained was learning to calibrate the long range L-band radar used by the S-400 system watching F-22 activity over Syria. It is a myth that the F-22A and the F-35 are invisible to radar. The Su-35 was trialing the new N036L 1-10 L-band radar now being installed on the Su-57.

    It will come as a rude awakening to US military planners when they finally understand that STEALTH is like the Emperor’s New Clothes and everybody can see except Washington.

  • Jeffrey Plants

    This guy’s website is very good, very good His intel is good on aircraft ops and the pictures are the best. Still probably not as good as the NRO but who can really say? I was highly impressed with his depiction and photos of Ivan operating in Syria and the frontal aviation group photos. Outstanding work for amateur’s. This site offers much better analysis often, than Aviation Week and they have to be getting paid better than him. The F-22 is clearly the King of the Jungle, talk is cheap in the aircraft business. Unfortunately, we only bought half of what we really needed.