US-Russian Air Meetings: “Biggest Risk Is Miscalculation”

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He underlines. There, off the left wing, a blue and white twin-engine fighter jet is briefly visible before diving out of sight. The Russian Air Force has just hummed the plane, a warning that the US military must tread carefully here on the edge of the Crimea.

It is a heavily militarized area, and although US military reconnaissance missions like this regularly occur in international airspace over the Black Sea, tensions between Russia and the United States, as well as its allies in the region, have intensified.

This meeting took place without danger. Most are, although 90% of US reconnaissance flights over the Black Sea like this one from Sigonella Naval Air Base in Sicily, are intercepted by Russian jets, according to the US military. But the crew of the US Navy cannot be complacent.

“The biggest risk is a miscalculation. The Russians frequently intercept these planes, ”said Captain Tim Thompson, Commodore of US Navy Task Force 67. . “

This flight is one of several times a week as the US military demonstrates force for Russia and gives visible assurance to NATO allies in the region that it is committed to their protection.

In the cockpit of the US Navy P-8A Poseidon, its pilot, Lieutenant Daniel Loudon, explains why these aerial encounters can get the adrenaline pumping.

“We don’t really know what the other planes are doing. They could be an unpredictable pilot, maybe a new pilot or something so… it can always be a challenge, ”Loudon says.

Russian fighters are fast and agile, able to change direction or altitude in an instant.

The P-8A is based on the Boeing 737 airliner, one of the most popular aircraft models on the planet. Loudon says the P-8 is a responsive and fun aircraft to fly.

But it’s designed for straight-level flight, not for close encounters with howling fighter jets.

This is exactly what the crew of a US Air Force B-52 bomber faced on August 28, when two Russian Su-27s crossed the nose of the huge US bomber overhead. the black Sea. Video recorded by the US military shows one of the planes flying nearby and the turbulence it caused inside the bomber.

Sevastopol, on the Crimean Peninsula, seen from the window of the P-8A.  Crimea, occupied and annexed by Russia in 2014, is home to Moscow's Black Sea Fleet, and the US Navy keeps an eye on Russian military assets stationed here.

Three months earlier, on May 26, two Russian Su-35 fighters simultaneously flew on either side of a US Navy P-8A aircraft, limiting its movement capability, for 64 minutes. The Russian Defense Ministry has repeatedly denied the US charges.

Russia’s allegedly aggressive behavior adds risk to a complicated geopolitical environment over the Black Sea, an important shipping route for several NATO allies such as Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. It is also vital for Ukraine and Georgia, two NATO partners whose disputes with Moscow are far from resolved.

Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and remains closely behind separatist forces in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2014, he occupied and then annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

A US Navy service member uses the P-8A's camera to track a Russian Kilo-class submarine as it sails through the Black Sea.

Rear Admiral Anthony Carullo, director of operations for the US naval forces in Europe, says these missions are becoming increasingly important as Russia increases its activities not only in the Black Sea, but also in the Mediterranean, in the Baltic, in the Barents Sea and in the Arctic Seas.

In recent years, as relations between Russia and the West deteriorated, Moscow has increased the number of military exercises, overflights and patrols it conducts in these areas across Europe, probing mainland defenses, Carullo says.

Russia has often denied these accusations, saying it only responds to NATO provocations.

US military accuses Russian jets again of 'dangerous' aerial encounter

“We’re here constantly to watch them and see what activities they’re doing,” Carullo says, adding that it sends a message. “This is a message to all potential adversaries and a message to our partners and allies that we are here to support them. ”

What the CNN crew saw on this flight seems to underscore the Admiral’s point of view. The P-8A’s cameras captured a dozen Russian warships, including a Kilo-class submarine and seven military planes.

There were also US B-52 bombers flying in the immediate vicinity and three NATO warships sailing below.

Inside the P-8A, all of this activity is monitored by some of the most advanced surveillance technology on the planet, including advanced radar and infrared cameras, which operate from five workstations on the port side. from the plane. .

“We’re looking for a variety of things,” says Lt. Hollis Kennedy, the mission commander. “The Russian fighters would not report in the civilian Automatic Identification System (AIS), and as you have seen, we were able to spot them, then get much closer, observe them, identify them and send this information. ”

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