(W)Archives: Russian Air Force Gets a Free Pass

February 20, 2015

Two days ago the Royal Air Force was obliged to scramble Typhoon fighters to intercept two Russian BEAR bombers near the coast of Cornwall. Yesterday, RT published video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry of what appears to be that intercept, though it could be video from a virtually identical incident on January 30. Russia has also recently violated Finnish, Estonian, and Swedish airspace and in 2013, the Russian Air Force even simulated bombing attacks on Sweden. However, the Russians can conduct these legal though obnoxious flights with impunity, secure in the knowledge that Western nations will not shoot down their aircraft.

Such confidence was not available to American aircrews during the Cold War. This was a period during which both sides in the Cold War not only flew reconnaissance missions against each other routinely, but also flew missions just to show the flag. This was an extraordinarily dangerous business.

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A declassified article from one of the National Security Agency’s in-house journals shows just how dangerous it was. Between 1950 and 1964, the Soviets shoot down thirteen American aircraft on such missions. (Cuba, North Korea, and China also shot down aircraft.) In fairness, some of these aircraft were shot down over, or had overflown, Soviet controlled territory, but others were not. The NSA article describes in detail the “COMINT reflections” of these incidents—the excruciating information available to the NSA as it listened in on the deaths of American flight crews.

Under the Putin regime, Russia has yet to gratuitously attack any Western military forces. However, Russia was also involved (at the least) in the shooting down of a civilian aircraft over Ukraine, an event about which egregious conspiracy theories were subsequently spread in Russia.

It may be galling that Moscow gets to shoot down any non-Russian aircraft that offends them and we do not. However, it is worth remembering that it was Moscow’s disregard for life and law that turned so much of the world against the Soviet regime and that is turning much of the world against Putin, as well. In the court of public opinion, having our hands tied behind our back by our own ethics may be a winning strategy.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: RAF