Malfunctioning Russian Missile May Have Saved RC-135 Spy Plane

The latest revelations to emerge from the leak of classified materials from the Department of Defense appear to provide a very different picture of the encounter between a U.K. Royal Air Force RC-135W Rivet Joint electronic surveillance aircraft and a Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jet over the Black Sea last September 29.

While you can read our original reporting of that incident here, the new account suggests that, following a misunderstood order, a Flanker deliberately fired an air-to-air missile at the spy plane, but that the weapon malfunctioned. If that’s true, then it seems that a massive international incident and escalation may have been avoided thanks to nothing more than a faulty weapon.

RAF RC-135W Rivet Joint
A U.K. Royal Air Force RC-135W Rivet Joint. Crown Copyright Crown Copyright

At this point, it’s worth noting that the reliability of at least portions of the hundreds of classified Pentagon documents that were leaked last month has been questioned.

Earlier this week, the U.K. Ministry of Defense issued a warning about what it says is a “serious level of inaccuracy” in regard to allegations about the leaked information. Although not providing any specific information, the defense ministry tweeted that:

“Readers should be cautious about taking at face value allegations that have the potential to spread disinformation.”

The U.K. Ministry of Defense didn’t provide any other details, or examples of specific inaccuracies that it has found, but it’s a possibility, at least, that the new claims about the RC-135 incident might not be entirely reliable.

On the other hand, an article published yesterday by the New York Times not only refers to one of the leaked documents but also to two unnamed U.S. defense officials, who apparently support the same account.

The New York Times article provides the following new information, from the aforementioned defense officials, presented here in a summarized form:

  • At the time of the incident, the British RC-135 was listening to intercepted communications between a Russian radar controller on the ground and the pilot of one of the Russian Su-27s that were sent to intercept the spy plane, which was in international airspace off the coast of Russian-occupied Crimea.
  • The Su-27s were not within visual range of the RC-135 but were equipped with beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (AAMs).
  • One of the Su-27 pilots misinterpreted an instruction from a radar operator on the ground and thought he had permission to fire on the RC-135. The Russian pilot achieved a missile lock on the British aircraft, then fired an AAM. However, the “missile did not launch properly.”

The incident was judged by one of the U.S. defense officials as “really, really scary.”

In response, a U.K. defense official told the New York Times: “A significant proportion of the content of these reports is untrue, manipulated, or both. We strongly caution against anybody taking the veracity of these claims at face value and would also advise them to take time to question the source and purpose of such leaks.”

Interestingly, that rebuttal, while strongly worded, doesn’t specifically call into question the veracity of the account of the RC-135 incident as presented by the newspaper.

At this point, it’s also worth recalling how the United Kingdom described the September 29 incident over the Black Sea.

Announcing the incident during a speech in the House of Commons in October, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said that the “unarmed RAF RC-135 Rivet Joint,” flying from its base at RAF Waddington in the United Kingdom, was “interacted with” by two Russian Su-27s, which shadowed it for a total of around 90 minutes. One of the Russian fighters “released a missile in the vicinity of the RAF Rivet Joint [from] beyond visual range.”

The U.K. defense secretary branded it a “potentially dangerous engagement.” At the same time, he appeared to make efforts to downplay its wider significance, stating that it was not considered a “deliberate escalation.”

As to the missile “release,” the British defense secretary said: “Our analysis would concur it was a malfunction.” The same explanation was provided by Russian officials, too, Wallace said.

Wallace’s use of the term “released” meant it was not immediately obvious if the missile in question was fired cleanly from the Su-27’s rail, or if it somehow broke loose and fell away unguided and/or unpowered.

A Russian Su-27 pilot flies a combat air patrol in a missile-armed jet. Note that the pilot is not equipped with a helmet-mounted sight. Zvezda TV screencap

But if the account as presented in the New York Times is correct, then that last point is somewhat irrelevant. The key issue is that a pilot of one of the Russian Su-27s misunderstood an order and attempted to shoot down the RC-135.

This, however, does raise some serious questions that may also challenge the veracity of the latest account.

If the pilot was aware that the missile had malfunctioned, why did he not attempt to launch another, or even move in closer for a gun kill? If the malfunction somehow affected the entire weapons system on the jet, then his wingman could also have stepped in and launched a missile of his own.

One possible explanation is that, soon after the abortive missile launch, the ground control intercept (GCI) operator on the ground alerted the pilot to the misunderstanding, or perhaps his wingman told him that there had been no order to fire.

An official Russian Ministry of Defense video (in the lower tweet) showing operations by the Su-27 Flanker-B jets based at Belbek in Russian-occupied Crimea:

With the limited information available, it’s currently not possible to get a clear picture of exactly what happened.

On the one hand, then, we have the new disclosures from the leaked documents and the two anonymous U.S. officials, which suggest that a Russian miscommunication almost resulted in a British spy plane being shot down.

On the other, British side, there is an acknowledgment of a “potentially dangerous” incident but not of a “near-shoot down.”

Whatever version is more accurate, or if the truth of the events lies somewhere in between, there’s no doubt that British officials responded promptly and deliberately after the incident.

At first, U.K. surveillance flights over the Black Sea of the kind flown regularly by RC-135s were suspended. They only resumed once the U.K. defense secretary spoke with his Russian counterpart, after which surveillance aircraft were provided with fighter escorts. This situation appears to have continued, with reports now that British Rivet Joints conduct their patrols over the Black Sea with at least one Typhoon fighter jet alongside.

Whether directly related or not, U.S. military aircraft are apparently now operating 46 miles off the coast of Crimea, rather than the internationally permitted 12 miles, according to another disclosure from the leaked Pentagon documents that describe the “SECDEF Directed Standoff.”

As well as manned surveillance aircraft, there have also been close encounters between Russian fighter jets and NATO drones that are intercepted in the same region.

Last month, an encounter between a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper surveillance drone and two Russian Su-27 fighter jets over the Black Sea resulted in the drone being lost. A video released by the Pentagon soon after seems to confirm that one of the Su-27s struck the drone’s propeller, although it remains unclear to what degree that action was deliberate or a misjudgment.

U.S. Department of Defense video showing part of the encounter between a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 and two Russian Su-27 fighter jets over the Black Sea on March 14 that resulted in the drone being lost:

At the very least, the Su-27’s collision with the drone was the result of a highly risky maneuver that, if conducted with a manned surveillance aircraft, could have very likely led to a loss of life. You can read our initial reporting of that incident here as well as our analysis of a video that was purportedly shot from the cockpit of one of the two Su-27s here.

For now, we can’t be entirely sure just how close to disaster the encounter between the British RC-135 and the Russian Su-27 was, although the new details, if correct, certainly suggest the incident was more serious than we had been led to believe.

A U.S. Air Force refueling boom operator prepares to make contact with a Royal Air Force RC-135W Rivet Joint off the coast of England in 2014. U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Light/Released

The same article also mentions other “air-to-air incidents” involving NATO and Russian aircraft, following the September 29 encounter. Between October 1 and February 22, British, French, and U.S. aircraft “reacted to six different events in which Russian aircraft approached their patrols.” Although no more details were provided, the distances between the Russian and NATO aircraft varied from six nautical miles to within a few hundred feet. One incident, last December 30, apparently involved another British Rivet Joint, accompanied by two Typhoons, with the spy plane being intercepted by Russian jets that came within 100 feet.

Bearing in mind the shadowy nature of aerial espionage and the sensitivities of NATO-Russia relations around the ongoing war in Ukraine, it may well be a long time — if at all — before more official information about the incident is released. In the meantime, the skies over the Black Sea are likely to remain just as tense, as NATO manned aircraft and drones — and their fighter escorts — continue to keep a close watch on activities in the waters below as well as in Russian-occupied Crimea. In turn, they’ll be shadowed by Russian fighter jets.

For everyone’s benefit, it must be hoped that any similar miscommunications are avoided in the future.

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