A Russian fighter jet nearly shot down a British plane after misinterpreting orders, narrowly avoiding perpetrating an act of war against a NATO country, The New York Times reported, citing U.S. defense officials and classified intelligence that recently came into the open.
The U.K. acknowledged the incident back in September but played it down as a “missile release” following a “technical malfunction” that occurred in the vicinity of where the manned U.K. aircraft was conducting a surveillance mission in the Black Sea. However, the recent intelligence leak appears to describe the incident as a “near shoot down” after a Russian pilot, mistakenly believing he had permission to fire on the RC-135 plane, launched a missile that subsequently malfunctioned, the NYT reported.
The situation was “really, really scary,” one official who was briefed on the encounter told the NYT.
Russia dispatched two SU-27 pilots to monitor the British spy plane, a variety known as the RC-135 Rivet Joint, that holds a crew of 30 and is capable of intercepting radar communications, the defense officials told the NYT. The RC-135 was listening to communications between a radar operator on the ground and one of the SU-27 flyers, they said.
Officials said the mission directed the RC-135 through international airspace over the Black Sea, near Russian-occupied Crimea — the same general region where a SU-27 appeared to accidentally damage an unmanned U.S. reconnaissance drone in March and send it crashing into the sea.
While the Russian craft did not have eyes on the target, they were in range to strike it with missiles and able to pick up on signals from the U.K. aircraft, the NYT reported.
New leaked classified documents detail a “near-shoot down of UK RJ” above the Black Sea on September 29, 2022.
Last year, officials described the incident as a ”missile release” at a distance from the RAF RC-135 Rivet Joint as a result of a ”technical malfunction.” pic.twitter.com/0BM77qWwTs
— Aerospace Intelligence (@space_osint) April 9, 2023
The Russian pilot misunderstood a message from the radar controller, locked on the British plane and fired, according to the two defense officials.
U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace called the Sept. 29 event “potentially dangerous” in October, according to the NYT. He later said the Kremlin had characterized the incident as a “technical malfunction” and that he did not consider the event a deliberate attempt to escalate conflict.
British RC-135 Rivet Joints continue to fly surveillance missions over the Black Sea accompanied by an escort of at least one Typhoon fighter jet, according to the NYT.
“A significant proportion of the content of these reports is untrue, manipulated, or both,” an unnamed British defense official told the NYT when asked about the intelligence.
NATO has restricted the geographic scope of surveillance flights over the Black Sea, including those run by the U.S., recently as tensions run high and close encounters between NATO and Russian assets in the region have grown more frequent and dangerous, the NYT reported, citing the leaked documents. The U.S. military is respecting a 46-mile buffer between spy flights and the Crimean coast instead of the 12 miles required by international law, in what is described as a “SECDEF Directed Standoff.”
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