When U.S. reconnaissance planes, operating in international airspace, venture near Russia’s borders, it scrambles its warplanes to intercept the aircraft. But too often, that has led to Russian pilots executing aggressive maneuvers that are both reckless and dangerous, according to U.S. officials.
Six months into 2016, Russian Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker fighters have buzzed, barrel rolled or skirted by U.S. aircraft at least three times. And the provocative maneuvers are not limited to U.S. aircraft.
Twice in April, Russian Su-24 Fencer attack aircraft flew extremely low and close by the destroyer Donald Cook in the international waters of the Baltic Sea, actions which the U.S. Navy concluded were provocative, but nonthreatening. In recent years, since Russia’s 2014 incursion into Ukraine dramatically escalated tensions across Europe, Russian warplanes have also aggressively intercepted the aircraft of U.S. allies in Europe, and even civilian passenger planes.
These high-velocity encounters involving danger-close and unpredictable maneuvers have greatly increased the chances of a collision — and the risk of an international incident. But these are not the isolated actions of a few rogue pilots. They are calculated, command-directed actions that are intended not only to harass but to send a message: This is our territory. Keep out.
Interaction with Russian pilots is not limited to international airspace over the Baltic, Black or eastern Mediterranean seas, the Arctic or the Far East. U.S. and Russian pilots have been flying close to each other over Syria as both countries wage separate wars there.
Russia recently angered the U.S. by reportedly bombing a New Syrian Army base in Syria, where U.S. trained fighters are battling Islamic State militants. Despite existing agreements designed to avoid disputes between their aircraft — with yet another agreement reportedly on the way — the chance of escalation is always there.
Waiting for clues
In the days leading up to the July 8 NATO summit in Warsaw, leaders across the globe are waiting for clues pointing to what Russian President Vladimir Putin might do next. The Russians have complained bitterly about the NATO troop buildup in Europe, and experts say the ongoing military rotations and exercises, designed to counter Russian aggression in the region, may goad Putin into heedless action — interceptions included.
“I don’t think we should stop it or slow down,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Ralph Jodice. The former commander of NATO Allied Air Command in Izmir, Turkey, is now a NATO senior military adviser teaching young officers how to plan for NATO combat and humanitarian relief operations.
“It’s clear Mr. Putin understands strength,” he said. “If we come from a position of strength, [the Russians] understand that.
“What concerns all of us in this area is if there’s any type of miscalculation that causes an incident. We know, alliance and U.S. pilots are highly trained, are extremely professional, and they’re always going to do the right thing,” he told Air Force Times.