U.S. recon aircraft fled from Russians into Swedish air space in July
This incident is being described in 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 (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 ... [See rest at link]
CDR, USN (Ret.)
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