‘Sloppy’ Russian Fighter Pilot Nearly Collides With U.S. Spy Plane

Joseph Trevithick
Apr 15, 2015 · 5 min read

American RC-135U snooped near Kaliningrad

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.

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.”

Above — a Russian air force Su-27 intercepts a simulated hijacked aircraft on Aug. 27, 2013. Department of Defense photo. At top — one of the U.S. Air Force’s two RC-135U Combat Sents. Toshi Aoki photo via Wikimedia

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.

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.

War Is Boring

From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store