On July 19th, a Su-30MK2 “Flanker-G” from the Aviacion Militar de la Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela (AMBV) intercepted a U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance aircraft over the Caribbean Sea. According to the U.S. South Command’s statement this Sunday, the intercept took place over “approved international airspace” and in an “unprofessional manner” but the Venezuelan government claims that the ELINT/SIGINT aircraft was trespassing the FIR Maiquetia, Venezuelan controlled airspace.
Some might remember the Hainan Islands incident when in April 2001, also a U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries II ELINT/SIGINT aircraft was crashed by a Chinese J-8 who intercepted it while gathering intelligence over disputed airspace. In this case, EP-3E Aries II callsign “SWORD15” was performing an ELINT mission with no clear detail if related to counter drug smuggling or to assess Venezuelan response times and electronic ORBAT of their military aircraft and air defense systems.
According to Venezuelan armed forces, SWORD15 was detected at 09:52 AM local Venezuela time, cruising at their regular route as has been going on for months, specifically since the Venezuelan civil conflict escalated. 33 minutes later, AMBV Su-30MK2 took off from Tte Luis del Valle Garcia AFB, 200 km east of Caracas. By 10:46AM local time, SWORD15 had penetrated the FIR MAIQUETIA airspace and 47 minutes later was effectively intercepted by the Su-30MK2 at 11:33 am. For 10 minutes escorted SWORD15 until it left Venezuelan airspace. 12:20 the AMBV aircraft landed on Capt. Manuel Rios AB.
So far, the first actual encounter of U.S. and Venezuelan military has not been conflictive but actual U.S. statements tend to demonstrate “aggressiveness” by the Venezuelans. The Maduro “regime continues to undermine internationally recognized laws and demonstrate its contempt for international agreements” and its “unprovoked and unjustified acts” are undermining the ability of “the U.S. and other nations to safely conduct flights in international airspace," Southern Command stated.
“This latest action also demonstrates Russia’s irresponsible military support to the illegitimate Maduro regime and adds to Maduro’s growing legacy of reckless and negligent behavior, which undermines international rule of law and efforts to counter illicit trafficking." Southern Command’s release said.
AMBV’s Flanker-G’s apparently were unarmed so they limited themselves to “harassing” the EP-3E Aries II. Venezuela purchased 24 Su-30MK2 from Russia over a decade ago to replace the Dassault Mirage 50DV/EV, lost one in 2015 and is having a hard time both to support them and to provide its pilots with quality flight hours so their availability and response times are questionable.
The main Venezuelan intercepting asset is still the F-16A/B but according to the recent Russian support, probably the Flankers have received spares and support necessary to increase their availability. Although with outdated avionics, the Su-30MK2, remains a credible deterrent and the best performing aircraft in Latin America.