This article originally published July 5, 2016.

When U.S. reconnaissance planes, operating in international airspace, venture near Russia’s borders, it scrambles its warplanes to intercept the aircraft. But too often, that has led to Russian pilots executing aggressive maneuvers that are both reckless and dangerous, according to U.S. officials.

Six months into 2016, Russian Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker fighters have buzzed, barrel rolled or skirted by U.S. aircraft at least three times. And the provocative maneuvers are not limited to U.S. aircraft.

Twice in April, Russian Su-24 Fencer attack aircraft flew extremely low and close by the destroyer Donald Cook in the international waters of the Baltic Sea, actions which the U.S. Navy concluded were provocative, but nonthreatening. In recent years, since Russia’s 2014 incursion into Ukraine dramatically escalated tensions across Europe, Russian warplanes have also aggressively intercepted the aircraft of U.S. allies in Europe, and even civilian passenger planes.

These high-velocity encounters involving danger-close and unpredictable maneuvers have greatly increased the chances of a collision — and the risk of an international incident. But these are not the isolated actions of a few rogue pilots. They are calculated, command-directed actions that are intended not only to harass but to send a message: This is our territory. Keep out.

Interaction with Russian pilots is not limited to international airspace over the Baltic, Black or eastern Mediterranean seas, the Arctic or the Far East. U.S. and Russian pilots have been flying close to each other over Syria as both countries wage separate wars there.

Russia recently angered the U.S. by reportedly bombing a New Syrian Army base in Syria, where U.S. trained fighters are battling Islamic State militants. Despite existing agreements designed to avoid disputes between their aircraft — with yet another agreement reportedly on the way — the chance of escalation is always there. Although the two countries have memorandums of understanding  to avoid aircraft from getting into a dispute, the chance of escalation is always there. 

Waiting for clues

In the days leading up to the July 8 NATO summit in Warsaw, leaders across the globe are waiting for clues pointing to what Russian President Vladimir Putin might do next. The Russians have complained bitterly about the NATO troop buildup in Europe, and experts say the ongoing military rotations and exercises, designed to counter Russian aggression in the region, may goad Putin into heedless action — interceptions included. 

"I don’t think we should stop it or slow down," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Ralph Jodice. The former commander of NATO Allied Air Command in Izmir, Turkey, is now a NATO senior military adviser teaching young officers how to plan for NATO combat and humanitarian relief operations.

"It’s clear Mr. Putin understands strength," he said. "If we come from a position of strength, [the Russians] understand that.

RC-135 U

Air Force RC-135s, flying in international airspace near Russia's borders, have been targeted for harassment on multiple occasions this year. Russian pilots have come within 15 to 20 feet, performed barrel rolls over the top and made aggressive turns. The U.S. has condemned the actions.
Photo Credit: Air Force
"What concerns all of us in this area is if there’s any type of miscalculation that causes an incident. We know, alliance and U.S. pilots are highly trained, are extremely professional, and they’re always going to do the right thing," he told Air Force Times. 

Reckless maneuvers

When pilots come nearly face-to-face with potentially hostile aircraft, things can get dicey in a hurry. But these occasional reckless maneuvers are likely to continue.

"We frequently encounter the Russians in and around international airspace," Gen. Frank Gorenc, the U.S. Air Forces Europe-U.S. Air Forces Africa commander, told Air Force Times June 27. "The majority of those intercepts continue to be professional, but every once in a while, there is a discussion in respect to the professionalism of a particular crew ... that causes us to look at it and say, ‘What are they doing?’" he said. 

"Airmen in the U.S. Air Force are trained on what the rules are, and how to safely intercept, and be intercepted. It’s well-established," a senior Air Force official told Air Force Times.

The bottom line: Be as professional and as predictable as possible. The official explained the basics:

  • Do not turn into the intercepting aircraft.
  • Fly the planned route.
  • Do not be provocative.

"These are aircraft flying in international airspace, flying myriad missions out there," the senior official said. "The Russians know where we fly every day, it’s very routine."

The number of flights "we consider to be unsafe intercepts has really not gone up" since the spike in 2014, he continued. For example, just flying "within 50 feet, that is not very close. That, to us, is not unsafe."

Just don’t come any closer.

On Jan. 25, a Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jet flew within 15 feet of an Air Force RC-135 electronic intelligence gathering aircraft, then turned aggressively, which affected the stability of the U.S. aircraft. The Pentagon quickly raised concerns about the cowboy move, which occurred over the Black Sea, 30 miles from the coast.

"The Russian pilot acted in an unprofessional manner that put both the American flight crew and himself at risk," Defense Department spokeswoman Army Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza said at the time.

"When [a risky interception] does happen, we make sure we register our disapproval," Gorenc said.

In April, RC-135 spy planes were harassed two more times by Su-27 Flankers, which are comparable to the U.S. F-15 Eagle.

On April 14, a Russian Su-27 barrel-rolled over a spy plane in international airspace over the Baltic Sea. The Pentagon condemned the maneuver as "erratic and aggressive." The maneuver was repeated on April 29.

The incidents, including the Donald Cook flybys, were condemned by the White House to be "Russian actions of harassment."

"This unsafe and unprofessional air intercept has the potential to cause serious harm and injury to all aircrews involved," the Pentagon said following the April 29 incident. "More importantly, the unsafe and unprofessional actions of a single pilot have the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions between countries."

Russia’s behavior has also angered U.S. lawmakers. Citing the 1972 bilateral agreement "Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas," signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, a group of senators is looking to hold Russia accountable.

Russian Su-24 buzzes U.S. Navy destroyer Donald Cook in Baltic Sea

Footage of a Russian Su-24 flying extremely close to the U.S. Navy destroyer Donald Cook in Baltic Sea on Tuesday.

"Moscow’s provocative actions now endanger U.S. and allied service members, and this is unacceptable," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, in a statement.

She and five other senators announced June 22they are pushing a resolution through Congress that aims to curtail reckless interceptions of U.S. and allied aircraft and ships.

"We strongly condemn Russia’s reckless actions, and we must not tolerate interference with the right of the United States and our allies to operate freely in international airspace and waters," she said. "The United States and the international community must stand strong against Russian aggression and the Kremlin’s ongoing efforts to undermine the sovereignty of its neighbors."

Risk takers

Barrel rolls, flying in front of an aircraft (essentially, cutting the pilot off), and flying upside down to show the aircraft is packed with air-to-air missiles are characteristics especially troubling for pilots, the senior Air Force official said.

"Everything is situationally dependent," said Dave Deptula, the dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Power Studies. "You may in fact want to take action to maneuver away from the aggressive aircraft, get out of the area as soon as possible."

Deptula, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and former F-15 pilot, said pilots adhere to the regulations of the International Civil Aviation Organization, established by the United Nations. But, ultimately, it comes down to training and judgment.

"About the only thing you can do if you’re an unarmed aircraft is to report the conditions that you encounter," he said. "If you have cameras on board, you can record it to have further proof."

These are the real-world events their training has prepared them for. "The best thing to do is to go back to the basics, to go back to your training ... re-establish yourself with the tactics and techniques that got us here," Gorenc said.

"I’m very proud of the discipline that our crews and our pilots and our aviators demonstrate," he continued, "when they’re there with somebody who may not be as professional as we are. What we do is make sure we are steady."

Training to be ready

Thousands of airmen and multiple aircraft theater security packages — varying from A-10s to F-15 Eagles — have rotated through Europe in the past three years. During the Russia-Crimea crisis in 2014, the U.S. led the Baltic Air Policing mission to guard the air spaces of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from Russian bombers and fighters. The Air Force’s most sophisticated aircraft, the F-22 Raptor, made its debut on the European continent in August, and redeployed again in April in a show of force to deter Russian aggression.

"We were a force obviously focused on the counterinsurgency-counterterrorism fight," Gorenc said. "And there was a recognition that we were going to have to begin the focus on full-spectrum, high velocity combat operations.

"I call it a change in focus to war fighting beyond counterterrorism-counterinsurgency, and we had to regain those skill sets again, particularly with respect to suppression of enemy air defenses ... with respect to the rising threat of the Russians," he said.

The shorter-term rotational forces like the F-22 and some remotely piloted aircraft, Gorenc said, have supplemented permanent and six-month tour forces in Europe by building greater partnership capacity and deterrence.

Through Operation Atlantic Resolve and the White House-driven European Reassurance Initiative, countries like Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland have been conducting exercises geared toward air assault, air defense, outmaneuvering emerging technologies, and operations aimed to improve communication between U.S. and regional allies.

"The nations have agreed in the alliance they would share this in the Baltics, because they don’t have an air force with those types of capabilities, and we don’t expect them to," Jodice said. "When I say, ‘We don’t expect them to’ I mean their defense budgets are not large enough to support a modern day air force."

The U.S. is now working to increase missions with NATO partners by using alternative "pop-up" bases or runways in Eastern Europe.

"All of the activities that you would associate with a major theater war focus had to be resurrected," Gorenc said. Which includes, Gorenc added, protecting airfields, and being cognizant of the "emerging threat of theater ballistic missiles. We never deleted the requirement to be able [to be ready for this], but we certainly have to develop a training regime and an exercise schedule that reinforces the capability to do those tasks, and we’ve done a very good job on incorporating that in almost every competency that we do."

Ranging global threats such as the South China Sea conflict, the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq and re-engagement exercises with African partners have held Air Force ops tempo to be some of the busiest in recent history. But, Gorenc said, USAFE’s eye stays fixed on Russia.

What remains to be seen, is how Russian air superiority advances.

Rising capabilities

Since the fall of Soviet Union, Russian airpower has declined dramatically, said Doug Barrie, senior air analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. Russian spending on its military fell sharply and the forces, including pilots, were hollowed out, he told Air Force Times.

"In 1998, for example, their air force did not receive a new aircraft all year, whereas in the 1980s they were receiving upward of 400 aircraft a year, a huge change," he said.

A 2005 growth spurt reversed the trend, as once-halted weapons programs started coming back online, but "on a Russian scale, not a Soviet scale," Barrie said.

"Their air force is nowhere, size-wise, what it was, nor the production rate as it was when it was in the Soviet era," he said. Still, money started coming in, flight hours started going up.

"They start fielding the Su-35S, a deep modernization of the Su-27 Flanker ... now escorted into service" after decades, Barrie said of the multi-role fighter jet. Significant work went into the MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor aircraft; at about the same time the production of the Su-34 strike fighter began. In 2007, it was announced the Tu-95 "Bear" strategic bomber patrols would resume after 15 years.

New fighters

Most aircraft still date back to the Soviet era. But, like the U.S. Defense Department’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Russians too have a shiny, new aircraft coming on board.

The capability of the Sukhoi T-50 lies somewhere between the F-22 and F-35, Barrie said. The Russians had hoped to get between 50 or 60 of the new fighters into service by 2020. That’s now been pushed back significantly. The ninth T-50 is set to join the test flight program in September, according to Russian media. The first delivery will likely be in 2017.

These are some of the Russian aircraft that U.S. pilots are most likely to encounter now or in the near future. The Sukhoi Su-35S Flanker-E and T-50 PAK-FA upgrade the fleet:

The T-50 likely will not be as capable as the most capable U.S. platforms, Barrie said. On a one-to-one basis, the F-22 Raptor will remain the premiere air dominance aircraft.

Meanwhile, the Su-35 represents a significant upgrade from the Su-27. "It’s a lot like comparing the F/A-18 to the F/A-18E-F, the Hornet and the Super Hornet," Barrie said. "And in terms of air combat, you wouldn’t treat an Su-35 lightly. It’s a well-flown capable platform."

For the foreseeable future, the U.S. will have the lead in air dominance, Barrie said. But that lead continues to be narrowed and whittled down.

"When you kind of look at it from their perspective, they don’t see this as aggression, they see it as assertion," Barrie said. "The Russian nation, during the 1990s, lost their national pride and prestige. This is about the Russian people reasserting that."

In their Senate resolution, lawmakers noted that "Russia’s military build-up and increasing Anti-Access/Area Denial capabilities in Kaliningrad and its expanded operations in the Arctic, the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and in Syria aim to deny United States access to key areas of Eurasia and often pose direct challenges to stated United States interests."

While Russia decries what it perceives as meddling by the U.S. and its allies, the U.S. military, as Jodice noted, is determined to counter Russian threats to its neighbors with strength, convinced that shows of force are something Russian leaders understand.

Despite attempts to lessen tensions with Russia in Europe and across the globe, confrontations, including provocative intercepts of U.S. aircraft, are likely to continue for years to come. And so, too, will the risks that accompany them.

Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East and Europe for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at opawlyk@airforcetimes.com.

Map created by Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory.