Russian flyby of US spy plane: Is its military spoiling for a fight?

The Russian pilot maneuvered the jet to flash its weapons, US military officials speculated this week. But defense analysts doubt that Russia is readying for a confrontation.

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters/File
In this June 2003 file photo, a Russian Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighter releases a flare during a show in St. Petersburg, Russia.

It seemed like a “Top Gun” encounter from a bygone cold-war era, when the Pentagon revealed this week that a US reconnaissance aircraft had been the target of a “reckless intercept” by a Russian fighter jet.

In one of the Russian jet’s more-provocative moves, the pilot maneuvered to flash the aircraft's underbelly to the US pilot – possibly in an effort, US military officials speculated, to show its weapons and signal that the jet was armed.

So does this mean Russia is spoiling for a fight with the United States? Probably not, defense analysts say – but the move was unusual, even in cold-war days.

The US military has long maintained an active electronic intelligence-gathering presence over the Sea of Okhotsk, which is between the eastern Russian mainland and the Kamchatka Peninsula. The April 23 encounter took place in international airspace above the sea, when the highly agile Su-27 “flanker” fourth-generation Russian fighter jet flew “across the nose of the US aircraft, within approximately 100 feet,” says Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.

The US aircraft in question was the RC-135U, one of two such surveillance aircraft in the Air Force inventory.

It was in the region because it is a rich fishing ground for electronic intelligence. The Russian Navy splits its assets between two primary bases: at Vladivostok, just east of Russia’s border with China and North Korea, and Petropavlovsk, on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

“The Russian Navy is always running exercises up there, and we’re always trying to figure out what’s going on,” says Christopher Harmer, senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

The RC-135U could have been watching a Russian Navy exercise or scanning for other chatter, since Russia tends to concentrate its covert military research and development projects in its far eastern reaches, toward the peninsula. “That’s why we run out of there,” adds Mr. Harmer, who formerly served as deputy director of future operations for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

It is normal for the Russians to send a jet to let reconnaissance planes know they are keeping an eye on US military activities. US military fighter jets do the same thing when the Russians send their own reconnaissance aircraft to international waters off Alaska. “It lets them know, ‘We’re keeping an eye on you. We’re tracking your every move,’ ” Harmer says.

“During the cold war, it was routine anytime our reconnaissance aircraft was looking at them, or them at us, that we would be flying in formation in a very predictable way,” he adds.

That tight formation flying helped keep miscalculations to a minimum, Harmer says. But the sort of “reckless” flying demonstrated by the Russian fighter jet represents a considerable potential for miscalculation and escalation.

“When you start flying inverted and showing weapons, it’s like a tiger showing its teeth,” he says.

There is little chance it was the reckless act of a showoff pilot, he adds: “Russian pilots don’t do rogue.” While US military pilots have a great deal of autonomy in how they choose to carry out the mission they are given, Russian pilots are “always being controlled,” he says. “It’s a holdover from their communist days when they didn’t want a lot of initiative. Their military is a top-down pyramid: They don’t do anything unless they are told to do it.”

The Russian military was probably interested in sending a message for President Vladimir Putin, who has recently been stressing that Russia, too, is a Pacific power, particularly as its economic options with Europe have been affected by the sanctions surrounding the Crimea crisis.

Indeed, Russia’s long-range aviation patrols “have increased dramatically” since the invasion of Crimea, US Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of Pacific Air Forces, said in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in early May.

Russian military aircraft have been seen frequently off the coast of California, as well as circumnavigating Guam, Carlisle said.

“It’s a combination of things – to demonstrate their ability to do it, to gather intelligence in [US military] exercises with Japan and the Republic of Korea,” he said. “We relate a lot of that to what’s going on in Ukraine.”

“Part of it is just sort of pressing the envelope with us,” says Andrew Kuchins, director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS.

This includes “lots of concrete, substantive things as well as symbolic things that Russians are doing in response to what’s happened in Ukraine," including some "showing off,” he adds.

“Another part of it is, ‘Ha-ha, we don’t think you’re the power you used to be – and we’re back.’ ”

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