by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On April 7, a Russian fighter jet nearly collided with a U.S. Air Force spy plane over the Baltic Sea. The actions of the Russian aviator—which the Pentagon later called “sloppy”—underscore increasing tensions in Europe between the two countries.
When the incident occurred, the RC-135U Combat Sent was flying over the Baltic near—and possibly snooping on—the Russian-controlled enclave of Kaliningrad.
“On the morning of April 7th, a U.S. RC-135U … was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 Flanker in an unsafe and unprofessional manner,” the Pentagon’s top headquarters in Europe wrote on its official Facebook page four days later.
“You can be assured that the United States is raising this incident with Russia in the appropriate diplomatic and official channels.”
The flying branch only has two RC-135Us, which are top-secret and heavily modified derivatives of the Boeing 707 airliner. The Combat Sents can pick up all sorts of signals, but the Air Force generally uses the aircraft to analyze enemy radars.
During the intercept, the Russian pilot flew dangerously close to the four-engined jet, according to Pentagon spokespersons. The Flanker made at least two passes during the incident.
No one is “certain why this … pilot was such a sloppy aviator,” Army Col. Steve Warren said, according to a report from Voice of America. Regardless, there was no excuse for the fighter to “flagrantly disregard international standards of safety and professionalism,” he added.
Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman with the Russian Ministry of Defense, denied that the Su-27 caused any “emergency situations” with the American plane. “I want to emphasize that the RC-135U was moving towards the Russian border with its transponder switched off,” Konashenkov said.
“U.S. reconnaissance planes are supposed to fly along U.S. borders only and nowhere else,” he added. “As to the professional qualities of our pilots, this is something for the Russian military command to assess.”
But in spite of Konashenkov’s assertions, the Pentagon does fly warplanes, including airborne spies, in international waters around the globe. U.S. European Command insisted that this most recent flight was both “routine” and in international airspace.
Nor is this the first worrisome incident between Russian fighters and American spy planes in recent years. After Moscow forcefully annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, Washington and its NATO allies dramatically stepped up military activities along the alliance’s eastern border.
Last August, Moscow’s jets chased an RC-135V/W Rivet Joint—designed to pick up radio chatter—flying over the Baltic into Swedish airspace. In April 2013, another Su-27 had a near collision with a Combat Sent—quite possibly the same aircraft given the size of the fleet—over the Pacific Ocean.
“Senior department leaders … communicated our concerns directly to the Russian military,” Warren also told the Washington Free Beacon more than a year after that incident.
These events are apparently common enough that the Air Force requires every crew flying RC-135s on “strategic reconnaissance operations” to take a “US/Russia Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities” course, according to an official, unclassified training manual.
We don’t know what the Combat Sent’s latest mission in the Baltic was all about. But between 2007 and 2012, the aerial spooks did fly regular missions in Europe under the codename Creek Sent, according to Air Force histories we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The National Security Agency helped pick some of the targets, the official histories added.
There’s plenty of targets for the spy planes. Russia reportedly keeps deadly S-400 surface-to-air missiles in Kaliningrad — which rests between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic.
The Kremlin has also threatened to send nuclear-capable Iskander rockets to the enclave — in response to both NATO missile defense programs and the alliance’s war games in Eastern Europe.
The U.S. spy plane could also have been en route to another location to spy on Russia proper.
“EUCOM must be able to assure, deter, and defend against Russian aggression,” Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the top American officer in Europe, told the House Armed Services Committee on March 25.
At the moment, the U.S. isn’t the only country flying warplanes in the area — or flying aircraft with their locator beacons turned off. Russia’s own spy planes and bombers commonly operate in the Baltic without their transponders switched on.
Between April 6 and 12, “NATO fighter jets conducting the Baltic Air Policing Mission were scrambled three times,” according to a news release the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense. “Out of the three Russian aircraft that had been intercepted, the Il-20 electronic reconnaissance aircraft was not on the pre-filed flight plan and not using its on-board transponder.”
NATO members in the region, as well as non-NATO countries such as Sweden and Finland have long complained about the Russian flights.
“This has happened now on a number of occasions and in a very challenging way,” Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom told reporters on March 24.
Wallstrom’s comments came after two Russian Tu-22 bombers flew at supersonic speeds over the Baltic toward Denmark. “We are tired of always having to protest against this kind of … breach of rules.”
Unfortunately, it might just be a matter of time before there’s a serious accident.