US fighter jets down manned aircraft for first time since 1999

(CNN) CNN has learned new details of Sunday's rare air-to-air encounter between a Syrian Su-22 fighter and two US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornets in the skies over Syria, the first time a US warplane has downed a manned aircraft since 1999.

The incident took place after a series of clashes between pro-regime troops and the US-backed anti-ISIS group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, near the SDF-held town of Ja'Din, just south of Tabqah, Syria.

According to the Pentagon, the regime soldiers, equipped with tanks, artillery and technical vehicles, were advancing on the SDF position, forcing the coalition to use the de-confliction hotline with the Russians in attempt to turn the regime troops back.

When that proved unsuccessful, coalition aircraft performed "strafing runs" near the regime positions, which halted their advance.

Following that incident, coalition aircraft observed the Cold War-era Su-22 fighter fly over the SDF positions.

"They saw the Su-22 approaching," Navy Capt. Jeff Davis,a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Tuesday. "It again had dirty wings; it was carrying ordinance. They did everything they could to try to warn it away. They did a head-butt maneuver, they launched flares, but ultimately the Su-22 went into a dive and it was observed dropping munitions and was subsequently shot down,"

"Dirty wings" is a military term used to describe a plane carrying armaments. In "a head-butt maneuver, the planes fly just in advance of another to create heavy wake and get its attention," Davis explained.

Immediately after the Syrian Su-22 fighter jet dropped its bombs, two American F/A-18E Super Hornets, flying from the George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier, engaged, firing a AIM-9 Sidewinder -- a short-range air-to-air missile -- at the Syrian plane from about half a mile away, two US officials told CNN.

But the Syrian jet deployed defensive flares, causing the US missile to miss its target. The US pilot proceeded to fire off a second missile, an AIM 120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, which hit its intended target, downing the Syrian warplane and forcing its pilot to eject, the officials added.

The official said the US pilot saw the Syrian pilot eject and saw a parachute deploy, but the US believes the pilot would have landed in ISIS-controlled territory in Syria. The Syrian Armed Forces said in a statement that the pilot was missing.

The downing of a Syrian plane does not appear to have prevented Syria from attempting a similar bombing Tuesday according to US military officials.

A US official told CNN that another Syrian Su-22 fighter made an approach in what the military assessed as a possible bombing run on US backed-Syrian Democratic Forces near Tabqa, Syria, on Tuesday. The official said that coalition aircraft made a show of force and conducted a warning maneuver, and the Syrian fighter jet then aborted its trajectory and left the area.

US Air Forces Central Command, which oversees air operations in the region, did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday's incident.

Sunday's downing of a regime jet prompted the Russian ministry of defense to announce that it would suspend the de-confliction hotline with the coalition, which is designed to prevent any accidents in the skies over Syria. The Russian defense ministry's statement added that any coalition aircraft flying west of the Euphrates River would be tracked and "considered air targets."

The row prompted the Australian government to announce that it would "temporarily" halt its airstrikes in Syria.

The chief of staff of the Air Force, Gen. David Goldfein, told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that the de-confliction line "remains open."

"There's actually a line we have with the Russians that's a de-confliction line, and that line remains open and we remain in conversation with them," Goldfein said.

"So our hope of course is that we return to a little bit sense of normalcy and we continue to keep the dialogue open." he added.

The last time the US downed a manned aircraft was in 1999, during the NATO intervention in Serbia, when a US Air Force F-16 shot down a MiG-29.

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