U.S. RC-135U spyplane and Russian Su-27 in one of the most dangerous aerial encounters since the Cold War.

Jun 03 2014 - 51 Comments

According to U.S. Defense officials, the one between a U.S. RC-135U and a Russian Air Force Su-27 Flanker was something more than a routine intercept.

The RC-135U is one of the most secretive U.S. surveillance planes. It provides strategic electronic reconnaissance information, performing signal analysis by means of a wide variety of commercial off-the-shelf and proprietary hardware and software, including the Automatic Electronic Emitter Locating System.

In short, the Combat Sent can simultaneously locate, identify, and analyze multiple electronic signals.

Only two such kind of RC-135 are operated by the 55th Wing from Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska but they are usually deployed abroad to keep an eye where needed.

On Apr. 23, a U.S. Air Force RC-135U Combat Sent performing a routine surveillance mission in international airspace over the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan, some 60 miles off eastern Russia was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 Flanker.

Unlike almost all similar episodes, occurring quite often during and after the Cold War across the world, the one conducted by the Russian Air Force Su-27 at the end of April was a “reckless intercept”, “one of the most dangerous aerial encounters for a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft since the Cold War,” according to Defense Officials who talked to Washington Free Beacon’s Bill Gertz, who first unveiled the near collision.

According to the Pentagon, the first part of the interception was as standard: the Su-27 (most probably the leader of a flight of at least two Flankers) approached the RC-135U and positioned more or less abeam the “intruder”. Then, instead of breaking away after positive identification of the “zombie” without  crossing the line of flight of the intercepted aircraft, the Su-27 crossed the route of the U.S. spyplane putting itself within 100 feet of the Combat Sent.

A dangerous maneuver (not compliant with the international standards) that momentarily put the two aircraft in collision course.

An episode that reminds the far more dangerous close encouter of another U.S. spyplane with the Chinese Navy back in 2001.

On Apr. 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3E with the VQ-1, flying an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) mission in international airspace 64 miles southeast of the island of Hainan was intercepted by two PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) J-8 fighters.

One of the J-8s piloted by Lt. Cdr. Wang Wei, made two close passes to the EP-3 before colliding with the spyplane on the third pass. As a consequence, the J-8 broke into two pieces and crashed into the sea causing the death of the pilot, whereas the EP-3, severely damaged, performed an unauthorized landing at China’s Lingshui airfield.

The 24 crew members (21 men and three women), that destroyed all (or at least most of ) the sensitive items and data on board the aircraft, were detained by Chinese authorities until Apr. 11.

Anyway, Russian pilots have been involved in similar incidents during intercept missions during the years. Just two examples.

On Sept. 13, 1987, a RNoAF P-3B had a mid air collision in similar circumstances with a Soviet Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker over the Barents Sea.

In Apr. 2012, whilst flying over the Barents Sea on a routine mission, a Norwegian P-3 Orion came across a Russian Air Force Mig-31 Foxhound.

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

H/T to Giuseppe Stilo for the heads-up.



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  • kusanagi no tsurugi

    According to american defense officials….of course…the truth is always on that side..

    • Ed

      The Americans call it “a reckless intercept”; the Russians may call it “tactical discouragement”.

      • nodummyheads

        When travelling at speeds in excess of 400 knots, 100 feet is freaking reckless.

        • Данила Володарский

          Sending ELINT planes to skirt the borders half a world away from you is not reckless, then, I take it?

          • Mr. Denali

            Do you know where Alaska is?

            • dinosaurJR

              He doesn’t even know where the major cities are in his own country (assuming he is Russian, that is) so how on earth would he know where a member state of another country is?

          • David Malone

            60 miles is not “skirting the border.”

    • Pooter Bilbo

      ..Well I seriously doubt the RC-135 was making abrupt maneuvers to dart into the flanker’s flight path.

    • Gruia

      It’s hard to imagine the larger plane doing hard-to-predict maneuvers…

    • sferrin

      Oh yeah, and Putiny is a pillar of honesty right? Or do you actually believe the RC-135 out maneuvered the Flanker and caused the near-collision?

    • DJMA

      You’re right. I bet the subsonic RC-135U sought out and intercepted the Su-27.

  • anonymous

    maybe if we stopped poking our nose into other peoples business in the other side of the world things like this wouldnt happen,but its all for the cause of “democracy”.

    • anonymous

      Read, “International space” and don’t pretend to believe they aren’t “poking into people’s business” on this side, but it’s all for the cause ….

    • Pooter Bilbo

      From what I hear, Russia has poked its nose pretty significantly into Crimea’s business and the US is simply monitoring what’s going on. But I guess that’s still too much if you’re the kind of person who wants to live in an early 1900’s era fantasy of isolationism.

    • timothyhood

      Yes, because if we bury our heads in the sand and pretend nothing’s happening, well, then, nothing’s happening.

    • Ser Arthur Dayne

      I totally agree with the first part of your post: “stopped poking our nose into other peoples business in the other side of the world”
      That’s the point.

  • topolcats

    In case you did not know the sea of Okhotsk is Russian territory since about march 15 2014
    A UN maritime commission has confirmed that 52,000 square kilometres
    in the middle of the Sea of Okhotsk in the Far East is now Russian seas.
    The enclave in the middle of the Okhotsk Sea has been recognized as part of Russia’s continental shelf in accordance with the UN Maritime Convention of 1982.

    Before March 15 2014 the zone lay outside Russian jurisdiction because a part of the sea was not covered by the 200 nautical mile zone internationally recognized as area of
    exclusive economic interest..Today it is Russian territory and the US was intentionality spying and entering Russian airspace. It is not likely America did not know this in April.

    If America does this intrusion again all you planes will be shot down and it is perfectly legal to do so!

    • TJ

      Not correct. The Sea of Okhotsk covers an area of 1.6 million square kilometres. The Russian enclave is a 52,000 square kilometre area of fishing waters. So that means the Sea of Okhotsk still remains international airspace up to the Russian Federation national limit. The US can still operate in the Sea of Okhotsk and still remain in international airspace. The sea will still remain international waters and airspace and countries can exercise freedom of navigation through it. No different to any other nation exercising an exclusive economic zone. Freedom of navigation is still exercised through it as it is still classed as international waters.

      See map of enclave in the Sea of Okhotsk at following link.


      ‘He said the Ministry had received a formal certificate from the UN Commission, which gives it exclusive rights to subsoil resources and the seabed, although the Sea technically still remains part of international waters.’


      So the USAF can still fly RC-135s into the Sea of Okhotsk and fly right up to the Russian Federation national limit just like they have always done.

      • OG_Locc

        Well yeah, but why let reality get in the way?

    • CO

      The USAF and US navy can take out the russian air force and navy in 24 hours.

      Su-27 Su-30? what a joke

    • karl1948

      You must be a shill for Putin. The Sea of Okhotsk is international water and so is the airspace above it. One must simply be careful when entering or exiting not to overfly Russian controlled islands and Kamchatka when doing so.

  • WTH

    Everyone knows what a US plane is doing 60 miles off eastern Russia

    • Roland Lawrence

      Searching for MH390?

  • Pooter Bilbo

    When did I ever claim there’s a double standard? Russia gets pissed at the US when we fly spyplanes near them and we get pissed when russia does the same. Flying spy aircraft near other sovereign countries always raises tensions.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo

      Unless it’s an Open Skies treaty flight…..

  • Pooter Bilbo

    It would be a very different story.. primarily because flying a non weaponized recon plane off the eastern coast of Russia far from any major cities is not analogous to flying a heavy bomber near a major US population center or its capitol.

    • Данила Володарский

      So Vladivostok is not a major city any more?

      • kusanagi no tsurugi

        He probably doesn’t even know where Vladivostok is…it is well known geography is not very important to them

        • Pooter Bilbo

          Apparently you don’t. Because Vladivostok over 1,000 miles from the sea of Okhotsk (where the incident happened) and I said “far from any major city.”

          For future reference, your generalizations about Americans will hold a lot more water if you don’t make a fool of yourself.

      • dinosaurJR

        Not really a valid argument – since this is an RC-135U and not a B-1B.

        The Tu-160 is a supersonic strategic heavy bomber with nuclear stand off capability – it poses a very real and material threat. The RC-135 is a SIGINT / ELINT platform.

        One can tell you what kind of porn the Mayor of Vladivostok has on his PC, the other can turn Manhattan into a pile of molten radioactive slag…

        Oh, and Vladivostok sits on the coast of the Sea of Japan, not the Okhotsk.

        You fail on aircraft recognition, geography and common sense. Sorry.

      • Roland Lawrence

        According to Wikipedia it has 592,000 residents, is home to the Russian Pacific Fleet and is also an administration centre.

      • Pooter Bilbo

        I never said Vladivostok isn’t a major city (although half a million people isn’t exactly enormous.)

        I said “far from any major city.” The sea of Okhotsk (where this incident happened) is over 1,000 miles away from Vladivostok. You need to work on your geography.

      • karl1948

        Vladivostok is on the Sea Japan at the southern end of the Primorski Pri, a long way from the Sea of Okhotsk

  • steve2014

    The law of physics are different if you’re Russian?

    • Pooter Bilbo

      Well no, but the laws of common sense might be.

  • Mongee Phase

    RC-135U Spy plane in Sea of Okhotsk….That’s right next to Russia. Why do we provoke so much? Do we really want nuclear annihilation

    • Andrew Tubbiolo

      Grow up. This kind of spying is how one sides does not get the ability to launch a lightening strike against the other. If you want to live in a world of no military secrets ie, everyone knows how many tanks, aircraft, ships, subs, infantry, ICBM’s, SLBM’s, the state of chemical stocks and nuclear arsenals, air defense etc, then you have to have this kind of spying. Giving privacy to the armed forces of the world is a temptation for events like Pearl Harbor. If everyone know’s what everyone else has everyone stays cool.

    • Jim

      My thoughts exactly….

  • OG_Locc

    Get a clue. Nobody is complaining about the intercept. They’re complaining about the reckless maneuver.

  • Jose Roberto Rik do Val

    I’d like to ask to all brilliant minds in superior U.S militar instances, what would they do in a Sunday morning while a russian spy aircraft detected is flying 60 miles away from San Francisco bay. Its time to U.S. policies to show more serious respect to other countries and cut off once and for all the old idea of being the big brother of the world.

    • TJ

      Nothing apart from intercept and shadow it in a professional manner. At 60 miles it would be in international airspace and has a perfect right to be there. No different to the Russian intelligence collection ships recently off the Florida Coast.

      “A Russian intelligence-gathering ship has been operating off the U.S. East Coast and near the Gulf of Mexico for the past month, the Pentagon said Thursday.

      “We are aware that the Russian ships Viktor Leonov and Nikolay Chiker are currently operating in waters that are beyond U.S. territorial seas but near Cuba,” said Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a Pentagon spokesman. “We respect the freedom of all nations, as reflected in international law, to operate military vessels beyond the territorial seas of other nations.””


      • Jose Roberto Rik do Val

        TJ, Both attitudes just to inflate the spirit of conflict, barely hiden under the rug since the end of cold war. U.S. should give the example and make a positive step to avoid unnecessary diplomatic issues.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Oh come now the Russians complain all the time. They complain when NATO aircraft intercept them when they fly over their former airspace in the Baltics. They complain when we intercept their bombers when they approach our CV groups, Alaska, East Coast and other NATO Baltic nations. They complain when the Fins intercept them, and the Swedes too. Then they complain when the world complains when they shoot down wayward airliners from Sweden and S Korea. They complain when Cessna’s have to make short field landings in parking lots off Red Square.

  • Su27 should shot down that blob

  • Obc

    Good point, kusanagi no tsurugi. It’s because of American double standards.

  • kusanagi no tsurugi

    Dude…100ft according americans…it could well be a lie…how can you be so sure about that? Either you’re gullible or braindead…

  • John Stone

    If anyone here has SIPR access, cockpit video exists

  • AlenLemone

    Oh, man up already!
    So the Ruskie pilot got a little balsy…and decided to troll a US jet NEAR RUSSIA’s border.
    Big effin’ deal! Stop whining.

  • Ho Li Fuk

    So chinese can’t drive, or pilot. Good to know.

  • Mr. Denali

    Oh look, more scrap metal for the furnace. Shitty music, by the way.

  • John Eadie

    Like that Russian said, what would America do if it was constantly harassed by spyplanes 30 miles from Texas? Damn silly of them to complain. It is USA that keeps bringing on wars and more wars, getting millions killed or turned into refugees.