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. 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.

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

        • 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.

      • 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.

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

      • 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.

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

  2. 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

    • 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.

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

  4. 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.

    • 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.””


      • 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.

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