Russian Pilot’s Misfire Sparks Near-Collision with RAF Plane Over Black Sea

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Last year in September, under the impression that he had been granted permission to open fire, a Russian pilot attempted to launch an attack on an RAF surveillance plane. Contrary to the previous understanding that the pilot’s initial missile malfunctioned, it has been clarified that the weapon simply missed its target. Russia had painted the episode as an unfortunate incident due to a “technical malfunction”. However, recent information from three senior Western defence sources, who are privy to the occurrence directly contradicts this claim.

The RAF plane was on a surveillance mission over the Black Sea in international airspace on September 29, with an onboard crew of up to 30 personnel. It was during this mission that they crossed paths with two Russian SU-27 fighter jets. According to intercepted Russian communications, one of the Russian pilots surmised that he had been given the authorization to take down the British aircraft due to a vague command originating from a Russian ground station.

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His partner, however, disagreed. The second Russian pilot reproached his colleague after the first missile was fired. The RAF crew, thanks to the Rivet Joint’s impressive capabilities for intercepting communications, would have been able to overhear the exchange that nearly led to their demise. The exact content of these communications has not been disclosed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Addressing these revelations, an MoD spokesperson said, “Our intent has always been to protect the safety of our operations, avoid unnecessary escalation and inform the public and international community.”

The confusion underlying the incident seems to have arisen from the controller at the ground station. When the two Russian SU-27s closed in on the RAF spy plane, they received an ambiguous message which read, “you have the target”. One of the Russian pilots misconstrued this as permission to engage; a mistake that highlights a striking level of unprofessional behavior. This is in stark contrast to Nato pilots who practice extreme precision in their language when seeking and receiving authorization to fire.

A squabble broke out between the two Russian pilots following the first unsuccessful missile launch. The second pilot was at odds with his partner’s actions, believing that they hadn’t been given a signal to engage. Despite the internal disagreement, a second missile was released.

The events following the incident are shrouded in ambiguity and contradiction. Initially, the UK government accepted Russia’s claim of a ‘technical malfunction’. However, confidential U.S. intelligence documents leaked online referred to the incident as “a near shoot-down” and “an act of war” that was downplayed. The UK’s MoD dismissed these reports as untrue or manipulated.

The secrecy surrounding the incident can be explained by the UK’s reluctance to reveal the extent of its intelligence gathering and to avoid an escalation of the situation. Neither side seemed keen on inciting a military confrontation between Nato and Russia.

Yet, the event underlines how one wily act or slip-up could lead to wider conflict. The MoD commented, “this incident is a stark reminder of the potential consequences of Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine.”

Tensions in the international airspace involving Russian pilots aren’t novel. Earlier this year, a Russian jet took down a US unmanned surveillance drone over the Black Sea, for which the Russian pilot was decorated.

Despite the close-call, RAF personnel have continued non-stop with their surveillance operations over the Black Sea, undeterred by the danger. Since then, Typhoon fighter jets equipped with air-to-air missiles have provided company to RAF surveillance flights. As it stands, the UK is the only Nato nation to carry out manned missions over the Black Sea.