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

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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About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


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

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

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

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

            • 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?

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

    • 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?

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

  2. 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”.

    • 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 ….

    • 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.

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

    • 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.

  3. 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!

    • 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.

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

      Su-27 Su-30? what a joke

    • 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.

  4. 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.

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