The United States military accuses a Venezuelan SU-30 Flanker fighter jet of following a U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries “at an unsafe distance […] for a prolonged period of time” in international airspace. Venezuela claims that the U.S. aircraft has violated its airspace.
The incident took place on July 19, 2019. “The Russian-made fighter aggressively shadowed the EP-3 at an unsafe distance in international airspace for a prolonged period of time, endangering the safety of the crew and jeopardizing the EP-3 mission”, says the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) Public Affairs in a statement. It also claims that “the EP-3 aircraft was adhering to international standards and rules” and remained in international airspace. On Twitter, SOUTHCOM adds that “this action demonstrates Russia’s irresponsible military support to Maduro’s illegitimate regime”. A video of the event was released.
Vladimir Padrino López of the Venezuelan defense ministry contradicted the version of SOUTHCOM and stated instead that the U.S. aircraft did violate its airspace, entering the flight information region (FIR) of Maiquetía. After the EP-3 failed to identify itself, constituting a “risk to the safety of air traffic”, two fighter jets were scrambled to intercept it. Communications attempts remained infructuous, and the SU-30s had to perform “persuasive maneuvers” for the reconnaissance aircraft to leave the FIR, about an hour after it had allegedly entered it. The ministry adds that 76 similar incidents were recorded in 2019.
It is not the first time that the U.S. authorities condemn Russia’s military support to Venezuela. On December 11, 2018, two Russian Tu-160 “Blackjack” strategic bombers and several other transport aircraft with military advisors and personnel on board landed in Venezuela to conduct joint exercises between the two countries. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reacted by stating that it was the sign of “two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer”.
Citing “increasing political instability and tensions in Venezuela”, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a NOTAM on May 1, 2019, banning U.S. airlines from flying under 26,000 feet (7.9 km) in the country’s airspace. With regular armed forces involved in protests, the FAA may fear the use of anti-aircraft weapons that could compromise the security of commercial flights.