A Russian fighter jet threatened an American reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the Sea of Okhotsk, which lies off Russia’s east coast, north of Japan.
“On the afternoon of April 23, a U.S. Air Force RC-135U flying in international airspace on a routine mission over the sea of Okhotsk was intercepted by a single Russian Su-27 Flanker,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said. “The Su-27 approached the RC-135 across the nose of the U.S. aircraft within approximately 100 feet.”
While the U.S. aircraft did not take evasive measures, the Russian pilot exposed its belly to the American crew as a way of showing that it was armed. It is the latest source of concern for U.S. officials since a heightening of U.S.-Russian tensions following Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.
The RC-135U is a highly specialized reconnaissance plane equipped with communications gear designed to find and identify foreign military radar signals on land, at sea and in the air. Their crews, composed of two pilots, one navigator, two airborne systems engineers, at least 10 electronic warfare officers and six or more technical and other specialists.
The showdown was video-recorded by the aircrew.
Disclosure of the U.S.-Russian aerial faceoff comes as the Obama administration approved Russia’s use of upgraded sensors on planes used to fly over sensitive U.S. and allied military installations in Europe under the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, last week. The treaty permits flights using four types of sensors: optical panoramic and framing cameras, video cameras with real-time display, infrared line-scanning devices, and sideways-looking synthetic aperture radar.
The fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill has a provision that would prohibit using any funds to certify the upgraded Russian aircraft sensors. The provision blocks certification unless the Pentagon and intelligence leaders certify to Congress that the digital equipment “will not enhance the capability or potential of the Russian Federation to gather intelligence that poses an unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States.”
It also would link new equipment approval under Open Skies to a requirement that Russia is no longer illegally occupying Ukrainian territory and is no longer violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
“The committee is committed to effective and complete compliance with the Treaty on Open Skies, provided such compliance is not allowed to become a threat to the national security of the United States,” the bill says.
Four members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — two Republicans and two Democrats — also expressed opposition to the sensor upgrade. The senators wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year urging him to “carefully evaluate the ramifications of certification on future Open Skies observation flights.”
The State Department, the agency leading the Obama administration’s arm control-centered agenda, pushed for the aircraft certification in a bid to protect the treaty, even though Russia has violated several of its provisions. The agency’s own 2013 report on arms compliance said the Russians are violating the treaty by restricting spy flights over parts of Moscow, Chechnya, and near the Russian border with Georgia, closing airfields and failing to provide proper film in violation of the treaty.
The Russian violation of international airspace contrasts sharply with the Obama administration’s insistence on pursuing legal international arms agreements with Russia as a way to win Moscow’s favor. Officials call the treaty a confidence-building measure that allows legal spying on military sites.
“It contributes to European security by providing images and information on Russian forces, and by permitting observation flights to verify compliance with arms control agreements,” a White House statement said.
In mid-April a Russian Su-24 flew as close as 1,000 yards from USS Donald Cook at an altitude of only 500 feet. The fighter made up to 12 passes near the destroyer and failed to respond to radio contact made by the ship.
A second Su-24 in the region did not engage the destroyer.
The Su-24 fly by follows accusations from Russia that the U.S. violated the so-called 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits. Those rules call for warships from countries with out a coast on the Black Sea to leave after 21 days.
The Cook entered the Black Sea on a presence mission to reassure U.S. allies following the Russian invasion of Crimea. The ship is armed with a ballistic missile defense variant of the Aegis combat system and is designed to intercept and destroy rogue ballistic missiles as well as aircraft.
The Cook did not go to battle stations during the incident which lasted about 90 minutes.