Although the US and Russia established a “deconfliction” agreement in 2015, the coexistence between Western air forces participating in Operation Inherent Resolve and Russian forces has become increasingly tense since the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict.
French Rafale planes taking part in Operation Chammal, France’s contribution to Operation Inherent Resolve, were harassed by a Russian Su-35 “Flanker-E” on July 6. The French Armed Forces General Staff denounced this behaviour in a statement released that day.
According to tweets from the authorities, two French Rafale aircraft were responding to an unprofessional encounter with a Russian Su-35. The planes were sent on a mission to guard the Syrian-Iraqi border.
The authorities provided a picture of the Russian combat aircraft to bolster their claim, claiming that the Russian plane had come perilously close to the two Rafale aircraft. The French Ministry of Defence has yet to release a comment on this subject.
This incident in the Levant took place less than twenty-four hours after three Russian Su-35 planes allegedly “harassed” three American MQ-9 Reaper Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drones that were engaged in an anti-Daesh operation in Syria.
Recent weeks have seen increased incidents involving Russian forces, such as aggressive overflights of American positions in eastern Syria and dangerous interceptions, according to US Central Command (US Centcom), which oversees Operation Inherent Resolve in the Middle East and Central Asia. The US Department of Defence (DOD) responded in June by stationing F-22A Raptor air superiority aircraft in Jordan, most likely at the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base. It would appear that this action has yet to yield the desired outcomes.
A US MALE drone has been targeted in Syria before. In April, a US military source confirmed to Air & Space Forces Magazine that during a surveillance mission in eastern Syria in November 2022, a missile fired by a Russian Pantsir S1 air defence system (also known as SA-22 Greyhound) narrowly missed this sort of drone.
The behaviour of the Russian pilots is reminiscent of the March incident over the Black Sea that led to the loss of a US MQ-9 Reaper drone. Before being impacted by one of the Su-27 Flanker aircraft, the aircraft was “harassed” by two. While the US European Command condemned such conduct at the time, it also mentioned the prospect of an “accidental” collision.
French were more respected
Before the Ukraine conflict, the US and the United Kingdom frequently criticised the “unprofessional” conduct of Russian combat aircraft and ships towards their forces. In contrast, France has maintained a relatively low profile on this issue, with “hazardous” interactions mentioned primarily during parliamentary hearings of the relevant chiefs of staff.
In 2018, as Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Christophe Prazuck disclosed to members of parliament that Russian combat aircraft had flown over French ships at least eight times in the preceding months.
This was not unexpected considering the prevailing context at the time, including the Russian military engagement in Syria and the French participation in Operation Inherent Resolve and per Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.
He recalled that a French frigate has been perpetually stationed off the coast of Syria since 2015, where Russian aircraft support President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Admiral Prazuck recalled that at the beginning of April, the multi-mission frigate (FREMM) Aquitaine was flown over by an armed Russian fighter plane, which had taken off from the Tartus base (Syria), well below the safety distances generally observed by other aircraft, believing that this act could have been the cause of an accident.
Getting off topic, the Russians weren’t the only ones to bother a French Frigate that year. During a trip to the Spratly archipelago, Admiral Prazuck saw that the French frigate Vendémiaire was marked continuously by a Chinese frigate between Hong Kong and Brunei. Beijing had started building artificial islands for civilian or military use, which is still controversial. China constructed the equivalent of the French Navy in four years, while Russia multiplied the number of its submarines by 1.5. In recent years, these nations’ naval and strategic posture has changed, Admiral Christophe Prazuck noted.
Earlier, in front of the same members of parliament, General André Lanata, then Chief of Staff of the French Air Force, explained that coalition aircraft operated daily in close proximity to Russian Sukhoi and Syrian MiG aircraft, surrounded by surface-to-air defence systems of the Russian and Syrian armed forces. Unlike his American counterparts, at least according to the summary of his closed-door hearing, he did not mention any specific incidents. Even though the Russian and Inherent Resolve headquarters had agreed on so-called “deconfliction” protocols to prevent misunderstandings, this occurred.
While relations with the US and the UK are tense, the Russians remain extremely professional with French mariners, said MP Michel-Kleisbauer, co-author of a report on defence issues in the Mediterranean in February 2022. This regard has significant practical implications, he added. In September 2018, it was alleged that the frigate Auvergne shot down a Russian aircraft. The report stated that the truth was restored thanks to this respect, trust, and direct communication channels, and France was exonerated.
However, the climate has changed as a result of the conflict in Ukraine. In July 2022, during another parliamentary hearing, the current Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Pierre Vandier, disclosed that the Russians routinely operate less than 2,000 metres from French ships with their active weapon systems and routinely illuminate French vessels with their targeting radars. However, this did not result in any official French government response.
And in November 2022, it was NATO that publicly condemned Russian aircraft’s hazardous Baltic Sea overflight of the air defence frigate Chevalier Paul.
With the tweet on July 6, it appears that the French approach to the behaviour of Russian forces will likely change in the future.