This incident is being described in somewhat vague, evasive language in the U.S. media. But if the particulars of the story are true, there’s no putting a good face on it. The U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft – an unarmed RC-135 signals intelligence collector called “Rivet Joint” – was challenged in international air space by Russian fighters, while being targeted with a Russian air defense system, and fled into Swedish air space.
The description given today by CNN comports with a narrative posted 31 July at a Swedish news site, DN.se. The event occurred on 18 July, the day after the MH17 shootdown. The RC-135, based in the UK, was flying a mission over the Baltic Sea. Although the location isn’t reported by CNN, a map posted at DN.se (and copied at The Aviationist) shows the aircraft’s track in the Baltic when it entered Swedish air space on an emergency basis, in order to get away from the Russian fighters. (See inset map with Swedish annotations below.)
Citing a U.S. official, CNN provides the following narrative:
The U.S. plane had been flying in international airspace, conducting an electronic eavesdropping mission on the Russian military, when the Russians took the unusual action of beginning to track it with land-based radar.
The Russians then sent at least one fighter jet into the sky to intercept the aircraft, the U.S. official said Saturday.
The spy plane crew felt so concerned about the radar tracking that it wanted to get out of the area as quickly as possible, the official said. The quickest route away from the Russians took them into Swedish airspace. The U.S. official acknowledged that was done without Swedish military approval.
Actually, the use of air tracking radar by regional air authorities is constant, in the advanced countries, and is not considered by aviators to be a special threat. What this passage suggests is that a Russian air defense site was painting the RC-135 with a targeting/fire control radar. Given the location, the RC-135 was probably being tracked by the target-tracking radar of Russia’s most advanced air defense system, the S-400 Triumf (NATO name: SA-21 Growler), which was installed in Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad in 2012.
That said, however, it isn’t unusual for target countries to turn on targeting radars when foreign military aircraft fly near their air space. If the mission commander on the RC-135 felt alarm on 18 July, it may have been in part because the S-400’s targeting radar (the 92N6E, NATO name GRAVESTONE) showed evidence of obtaining a firing solution – probably at the same time the Russian fighters appeared. (The report speaks of “at least one fighter,” but they fly such intercept missions in pairs.) The RC-135 may also have had other indications that the targeting episode in this case was particularly serious and determined.
As the DN.se story observes, the fighter reaction from the Russians is as normal as the use of the radars. DN.se’s narrative reveals that Swedish air controllers have watched the same U.S. reconnaissance route and Russian fighter reaction play out as many as 50 times in recent months (especially since the U.S. beefed up our presence in northeastern Europe after the invasion of Ukraine).
But never before has the USAF RC-135 reacted by fleeing into Swedish air space. According to DN.se, which interviewed a military air control official in Sweden, the RC-135 requested permission to enter Swedish air space, but was denied permission. (Sweden is not a member of NATO.) The U.S. aircraft then entered Swedish air space anyway, flying over the island of Gotland.
The reason for exercising force majeure that way would be to take refuge in air space the Russian fighters were unlikely to penetrate. Another purpose would be to ensure that if the Russians used a surface-to-air missile from the S-400 system against the RC-135, they would have to fire it into Swedish air space. The map shows the RC-135’s track in and out of Swedish air space.
This is another too-close-for-comfort incident like the dangerous intercept executed in April by a Russian fighter in the Far East against another RC-135 – that one a special-purpose aircraft called an RC-135U on a “Combat Sent” mission. During the intercept, on 23 April over the Sea of Okhotsk, the Russian fighter cut across the RC-135U’s flight path, coming with 100 feet of the aircraft’s nose.
The Sea of Okhotsk is not a place where it would be easy for U.S. fighters to escort our big, slow-moving reconnaissance aircraft, like the RC-135 or the Navy’s P-3/EP-3E or P-8 airframes, none of which is armed for aerial combat.
But we have a constant, augmented presence of U.S. and/or NATO fighters in Poland and the Baltic Republics, which we have maintained since March 2014. And there are no geographic obstacles to using those fighters for protecting our reconnaissance aircraft. From the Baltic Republic airfields, the fighters would be in position almost as soon as they took off. Assuming the U.S. RC-135 was indeed in international air space when the Russian fighter(s) approached it – and we have the Swedish reporting to confirm that, as well as the statement of the U.S. official – we are left with the question whether the RC-135 was on its own on 18 July, and if so, why.
Who’s running this show? The natural concern about this incident is sharpened by its revelation in U.S. media coincident with the 50th anniversary of the “Gulf of Tonkin incident” of August 1964. In the Gulf of Tonkin, the USS Maddox (DD-731) was on a signals-intelligence collection patrol, in a situation with key similarities to that of the eastern Baltic Sea in July 2014: no official hostilities between the U.S. and any local party, but extreme sensitivity on the part of the intelligence-collection target, and a provocative, but underarmed – and frankly ill-prepared and ill-thought-out – U.S. force posture.
The “DESOTO” intelligence patrols in 1964 were classic Robert S. McNamara. They were a bad idea then, and anything like them remains a bad idea today. There’s a limit to what we can do about Russia’s behavior – but we have full control of ours, and we shouldn’t ever have to see an RC-135 fleeing into another nation’s air space again. Nor should we leave an unstable situation to fester, and potentially back us – as the Gulf of Tonkin incident was long thought to have done – into a level of confrontation we didn’t intend.
Congress has a lot to grapple with right now, but this must take precedence. The 18 July event needs investigation. It’s just more bad news on the national defense front, but if we get these things wrong, none of the rest will matter.