According to US officials, following the arrival of F-35 stealth multirole fighters to the Middle East Russian pilots appear to have become less aggressive toward US forces after a series of incidents in the skies over Syria.
The F-35s have added capacity and capability throughout the region.
Although the Lightning IIs were originally tasked to deter Iranian attacks on commercial vessels in the Arabian Gulf, a senior US defense official told Air & Space Forces Magazine that “we’re flying them in a number of different areas. We are flying them on missions up in Syria” and around the Arabian Gulf.
At least for now those missions seem to be having an effect on Russian behavior.
For instance, after having dropped flares in front of US MQ-9 drones multiple times in recent months—damaging the US aircraft twice last month and interfering with an anti-ISIS strike Russian pilots have stopped doing so.
The official said: “We have seen a decrease in the level of aggressiveness of the Russian activities against our MQ-9s.”
The senior US defense added that most importantly the US has not changed where it flies MQ-9s on defeat-ISIS missions. Those flights often occur in northwest Syria, an area where ISIS militants have sought refuge but which the Russians consider airspace they share with the regime of Bashar Al Assad.
It is premature to say if the calmer skies are here to stay.
The US official said of Russian operations: “It’s too early for us to tell if that’s a major change of behavior or just an aberration. Some of that may be in response to kind of our increasing presence as we brought the F-35 in.”
However, the US drones have not escaped the Russians’ attention. But according the US senior defense official as recently as last week, Russia was still “intercepting” US drones with one to two aircraft but doing so less often and without trying to directly interfere with US flight operations.
As already reported, in response to a number of recent, alarming events in the Strait of Hormuz, the US dispatched destroyer USS Thomas Hudner, F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters and F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters to supplement forces already in US Central Command to deter Iran from seizing commercial vessels. The US has A-10s patrolling the skies in the area, in addition to P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.
US Air Force (USAF) fighter aircraft are flanked by US Marine Corps (USMC) Harrier jets from the USS Bataan amphibious assault ship.
Iran has attacked or seized about 20 merchant vessels since 2021.
Before the arrival of USS Bataan and since the end of the war in Afghanistan, the US had deemphasized the Middle East as a naval theater with more resources routed to the Pacific and Europe. Big deck amphibious warship USS Essex (LHD-2) was the last US capital ship to operate in US CENTCOM when it departed in early 2022. The last carrier in the region was Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), which departed the Middle East in 2021 after the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Photo credit: Senior Airman Jacob Cabanero / U.S. Air Force
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