A U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane, flying over international waters, was harassed by a Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jet yesterday. The Russian fighter jet flew within five feet of the American aircraft, in what Navy officials told CNN was an “unsafe intercept.”
Intercepts of military aircraft in international airspace aren’t that unusual, and they usually happen without incident. Flying this close, however, is definitely out of the ordinary.
The U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet released video of the incident taken from the EP-3, with the much more maneuverable fighter jet crossing directly in front of the path of the surveillance plane:
The incident occurred over the Black Sea, which isn’t the least restive place in the world. Bordered by the Russian-occupied Ukrainian Crimean peninsula, Turkey, Georgia and its own associated Russian-occupied territories, it very well could be yet another flashpoint for war, which is why the U.S Navy conducts extensive air and sea patrols of its international and allied waters. It’s also home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which is a major strategic component of the Russian Navy.
Accordingly, this isn’t the first time the U.S. Navy has had to deal with Russian planes buzzing its craft in the Black Sea. Back in 2015, Russian Su-24 attack jets made multiple low passes aimed at the USS Ross, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
The American and Russian governments provided dueling statements about the incident to CNN:
US Naval Forces Europe, which oversees US operations in the region, provided more detail about the intercept, which it said lasted a total of two hours and 40 minutes.
“This interaction was determined to be unsafe due to the SU-27 closing to within five feet and crossing directly through the EP-3's flight path, causing the EP-3 to fly through the SU-27's jet wash,” US Naval Forces Europe spokesman, Capt. Pamela Kunze told CNN.
“Unsafe actions increase the risk of miscalculation and midair collisions,” Kunze said, adding, “The US aircraft was operating in accordance with international law and did not provoke this Russian activity.”
The Russian Defense Ministry said its fighter jet flew “strictly in accordance with international rules” when it intercepted the US surveillance plane.
In a statement, the Defense Ministry said that an “unidentified air target” was detected approaching Russian airspace at about midday over the neutral waters of the Black Sea.
“A Su-27 fighter was sent to intercept the target and approached the aircraft at a safe distance and identified it as an ER-3E (Aries II) US reconnaissance aircraft,” the statement said. “The crew of the fighter jet reported the identification of the American reconnaissance aircraft and accompanied it, preventing it from violating Russian airspace, observing all necessary security measures.”
“The entire flight of the Russian Su-27 was strictly in accordance with international rules for the use of airspace and there were no extraordinary events,” the statement added.
The American State Department went on to issue a strongly-worded press release accusing the Russian government of “flagrantly violating” international law.
By contrast, Russian propaganda outfit RT quoted the Russian defense ministry saying that “the jet shepherded it ‘at a safe distance’ before the spy plane changed course away from Russian airspace.”
The EP-3 Aries II is a four-engine surveillance plane, mostly aimed at signals reconnaissance, or the gathering of electronic communications such as radio and data traffic. U.S. Navy EP-3s regularly ply international airspace near American rivals, and these sorts of incidents aren’t a joke at all. In 2001, an aggressive Chinese J-8 fighter jet collided with an American EP-3 in what’s become known as the Hainan Island incident. The J-8 crashed and its pilot was killed, while the heavily damaged EP-3 was forced to land on China’s Hainan Island, home to a major Chinese naval base.
The American EP-3 was eventually dismantled by the Chinese government, and returned in pieces. The EP-3, stuffed with classified material and sensitive listening devices, provided an intelligence boon to the Chinese military, according to a U.S. Navy-NSA report released as part of the Edward Snowden documents and first reported by the Intercept:
The crew managed to jettison some cryptographic keying material, as well as codebooks and two laptops out the emergency hatch. But 16 cryptographic keys, other codebooks and laptops, and a large computer for processing signals intelligence remained on board. As for the signals collection equipment, they destroyed the display terminals and controls but not the tuners and signals-processors, the most critical parts of the systems. The plane also had a number of cryptographic voice and data devices onboard — for securing communication and data transmissions between the plane and home base — that didn’t get destroyed, although the crew managed to zero-out the memory on them.
The Russian Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, on the other hand, is a highly agile fighter jet capable of impressive post-stall maneuvers, such as the Pugachev’s Cobra:
In August of 2014, a Chinese fighter jet did a barrel roll over another American Navy reconnaissance plane. In 2015, another Russian fighter jet came within 10 feet of an American reconnaissance plane.