An armed Russian Su-27 fighter jet reportedly came to within five feet of an unarmed US Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft on Monday over the Baltic Sea. The encounter is being classified as “unsafe and unprofessional” by Pentagon officials.
The Su-27 was reportedly armed with air-to-air missiles, and carried out what one defense official categorized as a “provocative flight path” in its intercept of the reconnaissance plane. Another official called the Russian pilot’s maneuvers “erratic.” That same official even went so far as to claim that the Russian pilot demonstrated “poor control” of the aircraft.
The U.S. RC-135 bears a resemblance to a commercial aircraft and is used to collect electronic transmissions for analysis.
“Due to the high rate of closure speed and poor control of the (Russian) aircraft during the intercept, this interaction was determined to be unsafe,” a spokesperson for European Command (EUCOM) said.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said the U.S. aircraft “did nothing to provoke this behavior.”
The Su-27 is said to have come to within five feet of the RC-135 reconnaissance plane’s wingtip before passing beneath it and coming back up alongside its other wing. The intercept reportedly took place about 25 miles northwest of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which is located between Lithuania and Poland in northern Europe.
It is important to note that the United States is currently participating in a large-scale NATO training exercise along the Suwalki Gap, intended to ensure a Russian incursion would not be able to separate Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from NATO allies in the West. The Suwalki Gap is inland from the Baltic Sea and makes up about 65 miles of the border between Poland and Lithuania.
Russian and U.S. aircraft intercepting one another in international air space is not entirely uncommon, though the Pentagon usually refrains from being critical of Russian pilot’s ability to control their jets – which seems indicative of both how dangerously close the Russian Su-27 came to the American aircraft, as well as the heightened tensions between Russia and the United States.
The U.S. has shot down two Iranian drones and a Syrian Su-22 over Syria in recent weeks, prompting the Russian government to issue a statement declaring all U.S Aircraft flying West of the Euphrates River in Syria targets for Russian anti-aircraft defenses. While Russian and American jets have not been forced to face off in Syria, the potential for such an incident is certainly present – and would undoubtedly result in a significant deterioration of what are already bleak U.S.-Russian relations.
Despite the threat of Russian and American jets doing battle over Syria, airborne interactions between the two nations remain tense but restrained elsewhere in the world.
In May, Russia scrambled a more advanced Su-30 fighter jet to intercept U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft over the Black Sea. The Su-30 came to within twenty feet of the U.S. aircraft, but the intercept was categorized as safe and professional by Pentagon officials and the crew of the Poseidon.
“For aviation interactions, distance, speed, altitude, rate of closure, visibility and other factors impact whether an event is characterized as safe or unsafe, professional or not professional,” Captain Pamela Kunze, spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy in Europe, said. “Every event is unique and any single variable does not define an event.”
This video, captured in 2015, shows a Russian Su-27 intercepting an American RC-135 reconnaissance place.
Image courtesy of the Aviationist, Airforce Technology