“U.S. Navy aircraft and ships routinely interact with Russian units in the area and most interactions are safe and professional,” Davis said. “However, we have concerns when there is an unsafe maneuver like this. These actions have the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions, and could result in a miscalculation or accident.”
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov told Interfax that the U.S. P-8 was operating without a transponder signal, causing the Russians to launch their Su-27s from Belbek, an air base in Crimea. Konashenkov said the Russian jet approached the P-8 twice before it “abruptly changed course” and flew away from the Russian border.
“The Russian pilots acted in strict conformity with air traffic international rules,” Konashenkov said. “This is not the first attempt by the NATO aviation to approach the Russian state border to conduct reconnaissance in the areas where the Caucasus 2016 strategic command-and-staff exercise is held.”
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense website, the Caucasus 2016 exercise runs from Sept. 5 to 10 and involves more than 12,000 troops. The exercise also involves using new equipment, mobilizing region-based units and the “wide usage of aviation and maritime forces of the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian flotilla.”
It is unclear what the P-8 was doing over the Black Sea, though the near-landlocked body of water is an operating area for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, a contingent of surface ships and submarines that spends time in both the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Ships from the fleet have debuted some of Russia’s newest weaponry, including Kalibr-type cruise missiles fired into Syria earlier this month from the Mediterranean. In October, ships from Russia’s Caspian Flotilla launched cruise missiles into Syria from the Caspian Sea.
The P-8 is a relatively new aircraft. It entered service in the past few years after being designed as a replacement to the P-3 Orion, a prop-driven maritime surveillance aircraft that spent the better part of its service life chasing Soviet subs during the Cold War. While one of P-8’s missions is detecting and attacking enemy submarines through sonar and torpedoes, the aircraft also carries an advanced radar to detect surface targets.
Wednesday’s incident is just one in a series of interactions this year between Russian and U.S. forces that are reminiscent of the Cold War, when unsafe flybys and aerial shows of force were a common occurrence. Since Russia’s incursions into Ukraine in 2014, Russian military activity along its borders and around NATO airspace has spiked. On Tuesday, Estonia accused Russia of violating its airspace for the fourth time this year and in November a Russian jet was shot down by a Turkish F-16 after it crossed into Turkish airspace while flying a bombing run over Syria.
In April, there were encounters over the Baltic Sea involving Russian aircraft buzzing the USS Donald Cook and an RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft in two separate incidents. The Cook encountered a flight of two Russian swing-wing Su-24 bombers that came within 30 feet of the destroyer’s rear deck and the U.S. aircraft was on a “routine” mission when a Su-27 barrel rolled over it from wingtip to wingtip.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.
Related on Checkpoint:
Inside the Ukrainian special forces fight against separatists — and their own government