How close have Russian fighters gotten to American aircraft flying over Syria? Very close, by the looks of a video released today by the Russian Defense Ministry that shows a Russian fighter’s close intercept of an American MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle flying over Syria.
The Russian video was released on the same day that the U.S. and Russia agreed to a memo of understanding providing for the safety of their pilots over the skies of Syria. It was included in a statement from the Russian Defense Ministry titled "Presence of different aircraft in the air space of Syria has increased recently" that highlighted the need for a flight safety agreement between the U.S. and Russia.
Both countries had been negotiating an agreement to minimize risky aerial encounters over Syria in the weeks since Russia began airstrikes in Syria that it claims have been targeting ISIS.
The video shows the view from inside the cockpit of a Russian aircraft fast approaching the Reaper drone from underneath its right wing. In a smooth pass, the Russian fighter passes along its left wing before backing away. The Russian pilot’s helmet is reflected on the cockpit canopy during the encounter.
While the agreement was being negotiated, the U.S. told its pilots to maintain a 20-mile distance from Russian aircraft over Syria. U.S. officials acknowledged several incidents where American fighters and drones flying over Syria had been intercepted by Russian aircraft at close distances, including two recent incidents in which Russian aircraft came within 1,500 feet and 500 feet of manned American aircraft.
There have also been an unspecified number of close encounters involving American drones that had been intercepted by Russian aircraft at close distances, U.S. officials said.
“Russian pilots often have a visual contact of flights not only of the US jets but also of UAVs, including strike ones in the sky over Syria,” said a statement released last week by the Russian Defense Ministry.
Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters that those kinds of encounters were the reason why the memo of understanding was necessary.
“Our air crews continue to fly in a professional fashion, and this agreement, now -- this understanding -- obligates the Russians to do the same, and we again, call on them to abide by the protocols that they have now agreed to," Cook said.
Stephen Ganyard, ABC News’ aviation consultant, described the encounter shown on the Russian video as “a controlled intercept, very routine.”
"These are the kinds of intercepts that all fighter pilots practice," he added.
A U.S. official said the agreement was signed on behalf of the United States by Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. Central Command. Per a Russian request, the text of the document is not being made public, U.S. officials said.
“The MOU includes specific safety protocols for air crews to follow," Cook said, referring to a memorandum of understanding. “These protocols include maintaining professional airmanship at all times, the use of specific communication frequencies and the establishment of a communication line on the ground. The U.S. and Russia will form a working group to discuss any implementation issues that follow.”
A U.S. official told ABC News that the agreement does not specify a numerical distance, but only refers in the text to a “safe distance” between coalition and Russian aircraft over Syria.
The agreement also calls for an unspecified “line of communication” between the U.S. and Russia that Cook said would be used as a real-time backup that would become available “should communication in the air break down for some reason.”
Cook made it clear that the agreement does not mean that the U.S. is cooperating or supporting Russia’s military action in Syria. “In fact, far from it. We continue to believe that Russia's strategy in Syria is counterproductive and their support for the Assad regime will only make Syria's civil war worse," Cook said.
Surely, the Russian side was seeking agreement that is more substantial, the Russian Defense Ministry said, noting that is why a number of specific proposals aimed at deepening military cooperation between Russian and U.S. militaries in countering international terrorism was put forward.