The US military has destroyed an uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) belonging to its NATO ally Turkey, in what the Pentagon is describing as a “regrettable incident” that took place over Syria.
Washington says a Lockheed Martin F-16 operated by the US Air Force (USAF) dispatched the UAV near the northeastern city of Hasakah on 5 October, after the Turkish craft approached within close distance of American ground troops.
“US commanders assessed that the UAV, which was now less than a half a kilometre from US forces, to be a potential threat, and US F-16 fighters subsequently shot down the UAV in self-defence,” Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder said in Washington DC on 5 October.
Ryder notes US troops had earlier observed the Turkish UAV conducting air strikes nearby before it approached the Americans’ position.
“It’s a regrettable incident, but US commanders on the ground did assess that there was a potential threat and so they took prudent action in this scenario,” Ryder says.
American military officials say multiple unsuccessful attempts to contact Turkish forces were made before the UAV was destroyed. Neither country has revealed which UAV type was involved.
The Pentagon says none of its personnel were injured in the incident and it has “no indication that Turkey had intentionally been targeting US forces”.
Unwanted engagements between military aircraft are occurring with increasing frequency in the crowded airspace over Syria. The country has been the site of a brutal civil war since 2011, including proxy conflicts involving the USA, Russia, Turkey and non-state terrorist groups.
In July, Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighters repeatedly intercepted USAF General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper combat UAVs over Syria. In one incident, a Russian jet discharged flares in the path of the American MQ-9, impacting and damaging the UAV in the process.
Lieutenant General Alexus Grynkewich, the USAF’s top officer in the Middle East, said in April that Russian pilots were acting “increasingly bellicose” in their approach to crewed and uncrewed US aircraft. He described the Russians as “aggressively manoeuvring, almost like they’re trying to dogfight”.
In response to the provocations, Washington in July dispatched Lockheed F-35 stealth fighters to the region – a move the Pentagon says produced a moderating shift in Russian behaviour.
Turkey has also been involved in past incidents. In 2015, a Turkish air force F-16 downed a Russian Su-24 ground attack jet along the Turkey-Syria border. Ankara claimed the Russian fighter had violated its sovereign airspace.
While that confrontation sparked a diplomatic row, fallout from the recent incident between the USA and Turkey appears to be contained.
Ankara downplayed the incident, with the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs saying the loss of the UAV was the result of “different technical assessments” by the parties involved.
“Necessary measures are being taken to ensure a more effective operation of the de-confliction mechanism with the relevant parties,” Ankara says.
Washington operates several so-called “de-confliction channels” with other forces operating in Syria in an attempt to avoid the unintentional and potentially deadly encounters.
US secretary of defense Lloyd Austin says he spoke with his counterpart in Ankara shortly after the Turkish drone was downed.
“I called Turkish minister of national defence Yasar Guler today to discuss national security and defence-related matters of mutual interest,” Austin said on 5 October.
Both the USA and Turkey are operating inside the war-torn Middle Eastern country.
Washington is spearheading an international coalition to combat the Islamic State terrorist group, while Ankara engaged in hostilities against militants tied to the Kurdistan Workers Party – a group both the USA and European Union have designated as a terrorist organisation.
Turkey claims that group, which operates along its border, has killed more than 40,000 people.
“The secretary also acknowledged Turkey’s legitimate security concerns and underscored the importance of close coordination between the United States and Turkey to prevent any risk to US forces,” Ryder says of the two countries’ operations in Syria.
Turkey says the recent incident will “in no way” affect its ongoing kinetic operations in Syria.